G-7 em­braces de­car­bon­i­sa­tion (at last!)

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Last week’s G-7 meet­ing at Schloss El­mau in the Bavar­ian Alps marked a ma­jor break­through in cli­mate-change pol­icy. The seven largest high-in­come economies (the United States, Ja­pan, Ger­many, the United King­dom, France, Italy, and Canada) made the rev­o­lu­tion­ary de­ci­sion to de­car­bonise their economies dur­ing this cen­tury.

For the first time in history, the ma­jor rich economies have agreed on the need to end their de­pen­dence on fos­sil fu­els. Ger­man Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel, US Pres­i­dent Barack Obama, and the other G-7 lead­ers have risen to the oc­ca­sion and de­serve strong global ap­pro­ba­tion.

The his­toric break­through is recorded in the fi­nal G-7 com­mu­niqué. First, the G-7 coun­tries un­der­scored the im­por­tance of hold­ing global warm­ing to be­low 2 Cel­sius (3.6 Fahren­heit). This means that the Earth’s av­er­age tem­per­a­ture should be kept within 2C of the av­er­age tem­per­a­ture that pre­vailed be­fore the start of the In­dus­trial Revo­lu­tion (roughly be­fore 1800). Yet the global warm­ing to date is al­ready around 0.9C – nearly half way to the up­per limit.

Then, the G-7 lead­ers did some­thing un­prece­dented. They ac­knowl­edged that in or­der to hold global warm­ing be­low the 2C limit, the world’s economies must end their de­pen­dence on fos­sil fu­els (coal, oil, and nat­u­ral gas).

Cur­rently, around 80% of world­wide pri­mary energy comes from fos­sil fu­els, the com­bus­tion of which emits around 34 bil­lion tons of car­bon diox­ide. This level of emis­sions, if con­tin­ued in fu­ture decades, would push tem­per­a­tures far above the 2C up­per limit. In­deed, with ris­ing world­wide energy use, con­tin­ued de­pen­dence on fos­sil fu­els could raise global tem­per­a­tures by 4-6C, lead­ing to po­ten­tially cat­a­strophic con­se­quences for global food pro­duc­tion, higher sea lev­els, mega-droughts, ma­jor floods, dev­as­tat­ing heat waves, and ex­treme storms.

The science is clearer than many politi­cians would like. For hu­man­ity to have a “likely” chance (at least two-thirds) of stay­ing be­low the 2C thresh­old, a small re­duc­tion in CO2 emis­sions will not be enough. In fact, emis­sions will have to fall to zero later this cen­tury to stop any fur­ther rise in the at­mo­spheric con­cen­tra­tion of CO2. Sim­ply put, the world econ­omy must be “de­car­bonised.”

The break­through at the G-7 sum­mit was that the seven gov­ern­ments recog­nised this, declar­ing that the 2°C limit re­quires “de­car­bon­i­sa­tion of the global econ­omy over the course of this cen­tury.” The G-7 fi­nally stated clearly what sci­en­tists have been urg­ing for years: hu­man­ity must not merely re­duce, but must end, CO2 emis­sions from fos­sil fu­els this cen­tury.

De­car­bon­i­sa­tion is fea­si­ble, though by no means easy. It de­pends on tak­ing three key steps.

First, we must be­come more energy ef­fi­cient, for ex­am­ple, through mod­ern build­ing de­signs that re­duce the needs for heat­ing, cool­ing, and energy-in­ten­sive ven­ti­la­tion. Sec­ond, we must pro­duce elec­tric­ity with wind, so­lar, nu­clear, hy­dro­elec­tric, geo­ther­mal, and other non-car­bon energy sources, or by cap­tur­ing and stor­ing the CO2 pro­duced by fos­sil fu­els (a process known as CCS). Third, we must switch from fos­sil fu­els to elec­tric­ity (or hy­dro­gen pro­duced by ze­ro­car­bon elec­tric­ity) or in some cases (such as avi­a­tion) to ad­vanced bio­fu­els.

The hard part is the prac­ti­cal, large-scale im­ple­men­ta­tion of broad con­cepts in a way that does not dis­rupt our en­er­gy­de­pen­dent world econ­omy and does not cost a for­tune to achieve. But as we tally these costs, we need to keep in mind that run­away cli­mate change would im­pose the great­est costs of all.

To suc­ceed, we will need sev­eral decades to con­vert power sta­tions, in­fra­struc­ture, and build­ing stock to low-car­bon tech­nolo­gies, and we will need to up­grade the low-car­bon tech­nolo­gies them­selves, whether PV so­lar cells, or bat­ter­ies for energy stor­age, or CCS for safely stor­ing CO2, or nu­clear power plants that win the public’s con­fi­dence. The G-7, no­tably, com­mit­ted to “de­vel­op­ing and de­ploy­ing in­no­va­tive tech­nolo­gies striv­ing for a trans­for­ma­tion of the energy sec­tors by 2050” and in­vited “all coun­tries to join us in this en­deavor.”

This global process of de­car­bon­i­sa­tion will be long and com­plex, and it will re­quire de­tailed roadmaps with pe­ri­odic re­designs as tech­nolo­gies evolve. Here, too, the G-7 made a his­toric break­through by declar­ing its readi­ness to “de­velop long-term na­tional low-car­bon strate­gies” to get to a de­car­bonised fu­ture. The United Na­tions Sus­tain­able De­vel­op­ment So­lu­tions Net­work (SDSN), which I di­rect on be­half of UN Sec­re­tary-Gen­eral Ban Ki-moon, has been work­ing on such low-car­bon strate­gies for the main emit­ting coun­tries in a pro­ject called the Deep De­car­bon­i­sa­tion Path­ways Pro­ject.

Of course, the G-7 dec­la­ra­tion is only a dec­la­ra­tion, and it does not yet in­clude the com­mit­ments of many of the world’s largest CO2-emit­ting coun­tries, in­clud­ing China, In­dia, and Rus­sia. Yet it is a cru­cial step that will greatly en­cour­age other coun­tries to par­tic­i­pate in deep de­car­bon­i­sa­tion as well, es­pe­cially in view of the G-7’s com­mit­ment to speed the de­vel­op­ment of im­proved low­car­bon tech­nolo­gies.

The out­come of the G-7’s meet­ing au­gurs well for a strong global agree­ment on cli­mate change when all 193 UN mem­ber states meet in Paris in De­cem­ber to ham­mer out a truly global cli­mate agree­ment. The G-7 coun­tries have not yet en­sured a suc­cess­ful out­come at the Paris meet­ing, but they have taken a big step to­ward that goal.

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