It’s all about the transition

The ambition embodied within the Paris Agreement argues for the need to reach a state of net zero anthropogenic emissions around the middle of the century, although the text of the Agreement is less stringent and points to the second half of the century for a balance between sinks and sources. Either way, this presents a formidable challenge.

Looking at a modern developed economy today, it is possible to imagine a state of much lower emissions, or even net-zero. The technologies to have a zero emission power sector are readily available and have been for some time; look at the level that nuclear power reached in France as early as the 1980s. Today we also have carbon capture and storage and scalable renewable energy. Vehicle electrification is now coming of age and it is not difficult to imagine a future where this dominates, with heavy transport potentially using hydrogen. Homes can also be electrified and the service sector / secondary industry economy that drives the developed world today is primarily electricity based.

But the manufacture of goods still represents a large part of the global economy. Material goods represent one facet of our economy and certainly one that is critically important in the early stages of development of most economies. For example, between 2004 and 2014 some 350 million refrigerators were produced and went into use in China with a further 250 million exported. Production in 2000 was just 12 million units. China is now the world’s 6th largest exporter (2014 by value) of refrigerators, but this is just one sixth of US refrigerator exports.

The same is true when it comes to the refining and fabrication of the raw materials that developed and developing country secondary industry requires. These products all demand considerable use of fossil fuels for combustion based processes such as smelting, refining, base chemical manufacture and similar. Nevertheless, we could perhaps imagine a world based on 3D printing using various exotic materials (graphene, certain polymers etc.) as the raw material for manufacture. But even in this world considerable chemical plant capacity and therefore process heat would be required to manufacture the printer feedstock, but carbon capture and storage could handle emissions from these sources.

China grew rapidly on the back of large scale manufacturing and at the same time it built vast swathes of infrastructure; from cities such as Shanghai and Chongqing to the high speed rail networks that now connect them. Between 1995 and 2015 cumulative emissions from China amounted to some 130 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, or 100 tonnes per person. For the most part, this wasn’t for personal domestic use (i.e. home electricity and heating), but to make products for consumers in China and for export which in turn finances domestic infrastructure for the future. The process is far from complete, but China is already starting to look to other economies to make its raw materials and supply finished products as it attempts to develop its service sector.

The situation for the least developed economies is not dissimilar to China 30 years ago. Some 3 billion or more people live in circumstances where little or only modest levels of infrastructure exists. While they may now have basic renewable energy for lighting and some other services, their standard of living remains far below other parts of the world. The development pathway in front of them may well be similar to the one that China embarked on in the 1980s. That pathway might even be funded by products made for the Chinese economy as its service sector grows and energy use reaches a plateau or even falls slightly.

The 100 tonnes per person of development emissions is perhaps the hardest to decarbonise. It is from steel mills, cement plants, chemical plants, manufacturing industry and heavy goods transport. These are the backbone industries and services for development, many of which have long gone from developed economies. They may also be quite expensive to decarbonise, which is problematic for economies in the earlier stages of rapid development. This development also leads to a degree of lock-in as once industries are created and jobs are in place there is a strong desire to keep them; the recent concern as the last major UK steel plant shed more jobs is an example. The same industries are also needed to continue making a wide range of products, from cars to iPhones, for consumers in the rest of the world.

One particular challenge for post-Paris implementation of the Agreement is this 100 tonnes per person of development emissions and the lock-in that follows. While the net-zero goal looks feasible and can be imagined as a longer term outcome, the interim emissions bulge as development continues and the supporting industries required for infrastructure are put in place may take us well beyond 2°C rather than the goal of well below. Further to this, the energy demand that will be created just to fuel the energy transition itself could be significant as hundreds of lithium mines open, solar PV factories expand and new vehicle technologies are offered to the public.

Article 6 within the Paris Agreement makes mention of a Sustainable Development Mechanism that results in emissions reductions. Such a mechanism could be an important part of the solution set for this problem. More on that to follow.