Resources: Science

Towards Decarbonising the Global Economy

Posted in: Science
Resource type: Video and audio

‘Towards Decarbonising the Global Economy: the direction of travel after COP21’ at the International Energy Agency, published 29 January 2016
Sir David King, UK Special Representative for Climate Change

(The full talk can be found on YouTube, between 09.35 and 46.08 minutes, followed by Q&A)

Reflecting on the outcome of COP21, Sir David suggested that 12 December 2015 may have been a ‘critically important turning point’, although, as he warned, everything depends on the delivery. He presented a summary of the outcomes from Paris:

  • Long term goal: The Paris agreement aims to hold the increase in global average temperatures well below 2 degrees C and to pursue efforts to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees C.
  • Emissions: To achieve the temperature goal greenhouse gas emissions should peak as soon as possible and rapidly reduce thereafter to achieve a balance between emissions and ‘sinks’ in the second half of this century. (ie a major programme of reforestation is needed)
  • Review mechanism: Every five years Parties will update their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) informed by a stock-take of global progress. Successive Contributions shall represent a progression beyond the existing Contributions.

The Kyoto process failed in Copenhagen but the Durban meeting was the beginning of a new way forward, delivered in Paris. Kyoto was a top-down process and since then climate change has been seen as a looming catastrophe on which rapid action is needed; Paris is bottom-up process and 190 nations, corresponding to about 96% of global emissions, have now made their NDCs. All have underlined their commitment to decarbonising their economies by the end of this century. Mark Carney of the Bank of England has also said that we are shifting into a new world of decarbonising.

Among aspects of the Paris agreement singled out by Sir David were:

  • Finance 2020-2025: At least $100bn per year after 2020 to assist developing countries to reduce emissions.
  • Differentiation: Developed countries should continue to take the lead in the reduction of emissions with developing countries enhancing their efforts.
  • Loss and damage: Parties recognised the importance of averting, minimising and addressing loss and damage associated with climate change.

There have also been a number of very important agreements that have taken place recently outside the actual United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) process. These include:

  • New York Forests Declaration: with a commitment that after 2030 there will be no further deforestation of natural forests and that before then reforestation of an area equivalent to the size of India will have taken place.
  • Expansion of carbon pricing activities around the world
  • UK-USA agreement to assist African governments to roll out clean energy to off-grid villages across Africa, reaching 620m people by 2030.

There is a new and enormous market in renewable energy, smart grids and energy storage facilities around the world, represented by the sum of the NDCs. It will be the world’s biggest market, amounting to $2-3tn per year by 2020. However, we have a short time in which to decarbonise the global economy so we need to accelerate the process. Adding the NDCs does not get the world to where it needs to be; we need to do much better.

Sir David cautioned that to have a 50% chance of meeting the 1.5 degrees C target we need to have a greenhouse gas-neutral global economy by 2035. And to have a 50% chance of meeting the 2 degrees C target the world needs to have a greenhouse gas-neutral economy by 2050. It is all too clear that the governments of the major greenhouse-gas emitting nations are being too slow to implement the necessary legislation and other changes that will be necessary to bring about this shift within the next 20-35 years and there have been many indications that public opinion and campaigning by interested parties are both extremely important factors in influencing both governments and large corporations.

Sir David King believes that we can do much better than we are at present. As an example, he cited the progress of the UK, where emissions reductions of 29% compared to the benchmark 1990 levels have already been achieved and a course has been set to reach 52% reductions by 2028. He also reported on a Climate Change Risk Assessment Study, which asked of a number of countries what the worst was that climate change could throw at them. The risk of such an event occurring as a result of varying degrees of climate change was then analysed. The resulting report does not make comfortable reading, because a greater than 1.5 degrees warmer world carries forward a lot of the identified risks at a high percentage level.

On a more optimistic note, Sir David went on to talk about the new low-carbon sector that is emerging. More renewable than fossil-fuel energy was installed worldwide during 2014. And in the UK the low-carbon sector had a turnover of about £120bn in 2013, twice that of the auto-manufacturing industry; it is the largest-growing sector in the UK apart from the services sector and this is good for the economy as well as for the planet.

Sir David was among the founders of the Apollo Global Program to Combat Climate Change (now the Mission Initiative), with the objective of focussing on the pillars and foundations of clean energy and taking innovative ideas all the way through to demonstration stage at no risk to the private sector. Persuaded by Sir David Attenborough, President Obama has joined this program, which is committed to doubling clean energy RD&D by 2020, amounting to $20bn per year. Billionaires from around the world, led by Bill Gates, have committed capital to help spin out the emerging technologies into the market place.

Among indicators of the direction of travel are:

  • Huge solar projects in India, China and South Africa
  • Electricity storage possibilities using granite cylinder ‘pumps’
  • VariaLift airship, which uses helium to ascend and solar power to travel, and can carry loads of up to 1500 tonnes and could be loaded and unloaded from the air using a crane

Sir David King summarises these points in an editorial (Science, 8 January 2016, vol 351, issue 6269) entitled ‘Biggest opportunity of our age’.

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