From good in­ten­tions to deep de­car­bon­i­sa­tion

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

In the run-up to the United Na­tions Cli­mate Change Con­fer­ence (COP21) in Paris, more than 150 gov­ern­ments sub­mit­ted plans to re­duce car­bon emis­sions by 2030. Many ob­servers are ask­ing whether th­ese re­duc­tions are deep enough. But there is an even more im­por­tant ques­tion: Will the cho­sen path to 2030 pro­vide the ba­sis for end­ing green­house-gas emis­sions later in the cen­tury?

Ac­cord­ing to the sci­en­tific con­sen­sus, cli­mate sta­bil­i­sa­tion re­quires full de­car­bon­i­sa­tion of our en­ergy sys­tems and zero net green­house-gas emis­sions by around 2070. The G-7 has recog­nised that de­car­bon­i­sa­tion – the only safe haven from dis­as­trous cli­mate change – is the ul­ti­mate goal this cen­tury. And many heads of state from the G-20 and other coun­tries have pub­licly de­clared their in­ten­tion to pursue this path.

Yet the coun­tries at COP21 are not yet ne­go­ti­at­ing de­car­bon­i­sa­tion. They are ne­go­ti­at­ing much more mod­est steps, to 2025 or 2030, called In­tended Na­tion­ally De­ter­mined Con­tri­bu­tions (INDCs). The United States’ INDC, for ex­am­ple, com­mits the US to re­duce CO2 emis­sions by 26-28%, rel­a­tive to a 2005 base­line, by 2025.

Though the fact that more than 150 INDCs have been sub­mit­ted rep­re­sents an im­por­tant achieve­ment of the in­ter­na­tional cli­mate ne­go­ti­a­tions, most pun­dits are ask­ing whether the sum of th­ese com­mit­ments is enough to keep global warm­ing be­low the agreed limit of 2 de­grees Cel­sius. They are de­bat­ing, for ex­am­ple, whether the INDCs add up to a 25% or 30% re­duc­tion by 2030, and whether we need a 25%, 30%, or 40% re­duc­tion by then to be on track.

But the most im­por­tant is­sue is whether coun­tries will achieve their 2030 tar­gets in a way that helps them to get to zero emis­sions by 2070 (full de­car­bon­i­sa­tion). If they merely pursue mea­sures aimed at re­duc­ing emis­sions in the short term, they risk lock­ing their economies into high lev­els of emis­sions af­ter 2030. The crit­i­cal is­sue, in short, is not 2030, but what hap­pens af­ter­ward.

There are rea­sons to worry. There are two paths to 2030. We might call the first path “deep de­car­bon­i­sa­tion,” mean­ing steps to 2030 that pre­pare the way for much deeper steps af­ter that. The sec­ond path could be called the way of “lowhang­ing fruit” – easy ways to re­duce emis­sions mod­estly, quickly, and at rel­a­tively low cost. The first path might of­fer lit­tle low-hang­ing fruit; in­deed, the low-hang­ing be­come a dis­trac­tion or worse.

Here is the rea­son for worry. The sim­plest way to re­duce emis­sions to 2030 is by con­vert­ing coal-fired power plants to gas-fired power plants. The for­mer emit about 1,000 grams of CO2 per kilo­watt-hour; the lat­ter emit around half of that. Dur­ing the com­ing 15 years, it would not be hard to build new gas-fired plants to re­place to­day’s coal plants. An­other low-hang­ing fruit is great gains in the fuel ef­fi­ciency of in­ter­nal com­bus­tion en­gines, tak­ing au­to­mo­bile mileage from, say, 35 miles per gal­lon in the US to 55 miles per gal­lon by 2025. The prob­lem is that gas-fired power plants and more ef­fi­cient in­ter­nal-com­bus­tion ve­hi­cles are not nearly enough to get to zero net emis­sions by 2070. We need to get to around 50 grams per kilo­watt-hour by 2050, not 500 grams per kilo­watt-hour. We need to get to zero-emis­sion ve­hi­cles, not more ef­fi­cient gas-burn­ing ve­hi­cles, es­pe­cially given that the num­ber of ve­hi­cles world­wide could eas­ily dou­ble by mid-cen­tury.

Deep de­car­bon­i­sa­tion re­quires not nat­u­ral gas and fu­el­ef­fi­cient ve­hi­cles, but zero-car­bon elec­tric­ity and elec­tric ve­hi­cles charged on the zero-car­bon elec­tric­ity grid. This more pro­found trans­for­ma­tion, un­like the low-hang­ing fruit eyed to­day by many politi­cians, of­fers the only path to cli­mate safety (that is, stay­ing be­low the 2C limit). By pur­su­ing coal to gas, or more ef­fi­cient gas-burn­ing ve­hi­cles, we risk putting our­selves into a high-car­bon trap.

The fig­ure above il­lus­trates the co­nun­drum. The lowhang­ing-fruit path­way (red) achieves a steep re­duc­tion by 2030. It prob­a­bly does so at lower cost than the deep­de­car­bon­i­sa­tion path­way (green), be­cause the con­ver­sion to zero-car­bon elec­tric­ity (for ex­am­ple, wind and so­lar power)

fruit can and to elec­tric ve­hi­cles might be more costly than a sim­ple patch-up of our cur­rent tech­nolo­gies. The prob­lem is that the lowhang­ing-fruit path­way will achieve fewer re­duc­tions af­ter 2030. It will lead into a dead end. Only the deep-de­car­bon­i­sa­tion path­way gets the econ­omy to the nec­es­sary stage of de­car­bon­i­sa­tion by 2050 and to zero net emis­sions by 2070.

The al­lure of the short-term fix is very pow­er­ful, es­pe­cially to politi­cians watch­ing the elec­tion cy­cle. Yet it is a mi­rage. In or­der for pol­i­cy­mak­ers to understand what’s really at stake in de­car­bon­i­sa­tion, and there­fore what they should do to­day to avoid dead-end gim­micks and facile so­lu­tions, all gov­ern­ments should pre­pare com­mit­ments and plans not only to 2030 but also at least to 2050. This is the main mes­sage of the Deep De­car­bon­i­sa­tion Path­ways Project (DDPP), which has mo­bi­lized re­search teams in 16 of the largest green­house-gas emit­ters to pre­pare na­tional Deep De­car­bon­i­sa­tion Path­ways to mid-cen­tury.

The DDPP shows that deep de­car­bon­i­sa­tion is tech­ni­cally fea­si­ble and af­ford­able, and it has iden­ti­fied path­ways to 2050 that avoid the traps and temp­ta­tions of low-hang­ing fruit and put the ma­jor economies on track to full de­car­bon­i­sa­tion by around 2070. The path­ways all rely on three pil­lars: ma­jor ad­vances in en­ergy ef­fi­ciency, us­ing smart ma­te­ri­als and smart (in­for­ma­tion-based) sys­tems; zero-car­bon elec­tric­ity, draw­ing upon each coun­try’s best op­tions, such as wind, so­lar, geo­ther­mal, hy­dro, nu­clear, and car­bon cap­ture and stor­age; and fuel-switch­ing from in­ter­nal com­bus­tion en­gines to elec­tric ve­hi­cles and other shifts to elec­tri­fi­ca­tion or ad­vanced bio­fu­els.

A key ques­tion for Paris, there­fore, is not whether gov­ern­ments achieve 25% or 30% re­duc­tions by 2030, but how they in­tend to do it. For that, the Paris agree­ment should stip­u­late that ev­ery gov­ern­ment will sub­mit not only an INDC for 2030 but also a non-bind­ing Deep De­car­bon­i­sa­tion Path­way to 2050. The US and China have al­ready sig­naled their in­ter­est in this ap­proach. In this way, the world can set a course to­ward de­car­bon­i­sa­tion – and head off the cli­mate catas­tro­phe that awaits us if we don’t.

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