A recent story in The Guardian expressed some optimism that “humans will rise to the challenge of climate change”. Ten reasons were given to be hopeful, but not one of them mentioned the climate basics such as a carbon price or carbon capture and storage. Rather, the offerings were largely tangential to the reality of rising CO2 emissions, with the hope that because European homes are using less energy and solar prices are dropping, then ipso facto, atmospheric CO2 levels would somehow stabilize (i.e. annual CO2 emissions falling to zero). Without wanting to be pessimistic, but rather realistic, it may not be the case that emissions just fall and here are ten reasons why not. For those who visit this blog more regularly, sorry for the repetition, but hopefully this is a useful summary anyway.
1. There is still no carbon price
Although discussions about carbon pricing are widespread and there are large systems in place in the EU and California, pervasive robust pricing will take decades to implement if the current pace is maintained. Yet carbon pricing is pivotal to resolving the issue, as discussed here. The recent Carbon Pricing Statement from the World Bank also makes this point and calls on governments, amongst others, to work towards the goal of a global approach.
2. Legacy infrastructure almost gets us there
The legacy energy system that currently powers the world is built and will more than likely continue to run, with some parts for decades. This includes everything from domestic appliances to cars to huge chemical plants, coal mines and power stations. I have added up what I think is the minimum realistic impact of this legacy and it takes us to something over 800 billion tonnes carbon emitted to the atmosphere, from the current level of about 580 billion tonnes since 1750. Remember that 2°C is roughly equivalent to one trillion tonnes of carbon.
3. Efficiency drives growth and energy use, not the reverse
The proposition that energy efficiency reduces emissions seems to ignore the cumulative nature of carbon emissions and is apparently based on the notion that energy efficiency is somehow separate to growth and economic activity. What is wrong with this is that the counterfactual, i.e. that the economy would have used more energy but grown by the same amount, probably doesn’t exist. Rather, had efficiency measures not been taken then growth would have been lower and energy consumption would have been less as a result. Because efficiency drives economic growth, you have to account for Jevons Paradox (rebound). After all, economies have been getting more efficient since the start of the industrial revolution and emissions have only risen. Why would we now think that being even more efficient would somehow throw this engine into reverse?
4. We still need a global industrial system
In a modern city such as London, surrounded by towns and idyllic countryside with hardly a factory in sight, it’s easy to forget that an industrial behemoth lurks around the corner producing everything we buy, eat, use and trade. This behemoth runs on fossil fuels, both for the energy it needs and the feedstock it requires.
5. Solar optimism
There’s little doubt that solar PV is here to stay, will be very big and will probably be cheap, even with the necessary storage or backup priced in. But it’s going to take a while, perhaps most of this century for that to happen. During that time a great deal of energy will be needed for the global economy and it will come from fossil fuels. We will need to deal with the emissions from this.
6. Developing countries need coal to industrialize
I talked about this in a very recent post – developing countries are likely to employ coal to industrialize, which then locks the economy into this fuel. One way to avoid this is to see much wider use of instruments such as the Clean Development Mechanism, but at prices that make some sense. This then comes back to point 1 above.
7. We focus on what we can do, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best thing to do
Methane emissions are currently attracting a great deal of attention. But cutting methane today and not making similar reductions in CO2 as well means we could still end up at the same level of peak warming later this century. It’s important to cut methane emissions, but not as a proxy for acting on CO2.
8. It’s about cumulative carbon, not emissions in 2050
Much of the misconception about how to solve the climate issue stems from a lack of knowledge about the issue itself. CO2 emissions are talked about on a local basis as we might talk about city air pollution or sulphur emissions from a power plant. These are flow problems in that the issue is solved by reducing the local flow of the pollutant. By contrast, the release of carbon to the atmosphere is a stock problem and the eventual stock in the atmosphere is linked more to the economics of resource extraction rather than it is to local actions in cities and homes. Thinking about the problem from the stock perspective changes the nature of the solution and the approach. One technology in particular becomes pivotal to the issue, carbon capture and storage (CCS).
9. Don’t mention CCS, we’re talking about climate change
Following on from the point above, it’s proving difficult for CCS to gain traction and acceptance. This is not helped by the UN process itself, where CCS doesn’t get much air time. One example was the Abu Dhabi Ascent, a pre-meeting for the upcoming UN Climate Summit. CCS wasn’t even on the agenda.
10. We just aren’t trying hard enough
A new report out from the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change argues that the expected global agreement on climate change coming from the Paris COP21 in 2015 is unlikely to deliver anything close to a 2°C solution. At best, they see the “contributions” process that is now underway as usefully bending the global trajectory.
The analysis shows that an agreement likely achievable at COP-21 will succeed in a useful bending the curve of global emissions. The likely agreement will not, however, produce global emissions within the window of paths to 2050 that are consistent with frequently proposed climate goals, raising questions about follow-up steps in the development of a climate regime.
Perhaps of even greater concern is the potential that the UNFCCC process has for creating lock-in to a less than adequate policy regime. They note:
Nevertheless, if an agreement is reached in 2015, going into effect by 2020, the earliest review of performance along the way might not be before 2025. In this case, an effort to formulate the next agreement under the Climate Convention, or a tightening of COP-21 agreements, would not start until 2025 or after, with new targets set for a decade or more after that. If this expectation is correct, then global emissions as far out as 2045 or 2050 will be heavily influenced by achievements in the negotiations over the next 18 months.