It is too late to halt global warm­ing with­out huge dis­rup­tion to our way of life, say some ex­perts

Weekend Argus (Sunday Edition) - - LIVING PLANET -

IN THE daunt­ing maths of cli­mate ac­tion, in­di­vid­ual choices and gov­ern­ment poli­cies aren’t ad­ding up.

So­lar pan­els are be­ing nailed to rooftops, colos­sal wind turbines be­stride the plains and oceans, and a mil­lion elec­tric ve­hi­cles are on US roads – and it isn’t enough. Even if the world did an un­likely se­ries of about-faces – halt­ing de­for­esta­tion, go­ing veg­e­tar­ian, pay­ing huge car­bon taxes, boost­ing en­ergy ef­fi­ciency – it would not be enough. As the 24th UN con­fer­ence on cli­mate change started this week, a steady drum­beat of sci­en­tific re­ports have sounded warn­ings about cur­rent cli­mate tra­jec­to­ries. One warned of the need to curb global warm­ing to 1.5°C over prein­dus­trial lev­els in­stead of the widely ac­cepted tar­get of 2°C. An­other warned of the grow­ing gap be­tween the com­mit­ments made at ear­lier UN con­fer­ences and what is needed to steer the planet off its cur­rent path to calami­tous global warm­ing.

The world has waited so long that pre­vent­ing dis­rup­tive cli­mate change re­quires ac­tion “un­prece­dented in scale”, the UN In­ter­gov­ern­men­tal Panel on Cli­mate Change said in an Oc­to­ber re­port.

Wil­liam Nord­haus, the Yale Univer­sity pro­fes­sor who just won the No­bel Prize for his work on the eco­nomics of cli­mate change, re­cently de­scribed his out­look like this: “I never use the word ‘pes­simism’; I al­ways use the word ‘re­al­ism,’ but I’d say it’s a kind of dark re­al­ism to­day.” Cli­mate sci­en­tists and pol­icy ex­perts re­alise that they walk a fine line be­tween jolt­ing con­sumers and pol­i­cy­mak­ers into ac­tion and im­mo­bil­is­ing them with paralysing pes­simism about the world’s abil­ity to hit cli­mate tar­gets.

John Ster­man, a pro­fes­sor of man­age­ment at the Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy’s busi­ness school, said the world had missed the chance to con­tain warm­ing with­out huge dis­rup­tions.

“Now, it’s tech­ni­cally pos­si­ble to do that, but we don’t have the poli­cies in place,” he said. “That’s dis­cour­ag­ing. But that just means we have to re­dou­ble our ef­forts.” It’s not that cor­po­ra­tions and gov­ern­ments haven’t at­tacked the prob­lem or made advances in en­ergy tech­nol­ogy. But ef­fec­tive pol­icy is lack­ing. Nord­haus ad­vo­cates a whop­ping car­bon tax, which the Cli­mate In­ter­ac­tive model shows would kill off most coal, sharply re­duce driv­ing and boost pur­chases of more fuel-ef­fi­cient ve­hi­cles.

He said that hit­ting the 2°C tar­get would re­quire global car­bon diox­ide prices of about $250 (R3 500) a ton in 2020, and ris­ing rapidly af­ter that. “This as­sumes that all ma­jor coun­tries are on board and that economies can han­dle a large fiscal and trade shock in which en­ergy ex­pen­di­tures rise by about $2 tril­lion in a few years.”

Nord­haus has blamed the lack of cli­mate pol­icy progress on the strong in­cen­tive for what economists call “free-rid­ing”. And when it comes to cli­mate change, he said, free-rid­ing was “par­tic­u­larly per­ni­cious”.That’s partly be­cause in­ter­na­tional or­gan­i­sa­tions lack the au­thor­ity to en­force rules on way­ward na­tions. In Poland, sev­eral ma­jor coun­tries are ex­pected to ad­mit to miss­ing the tar­gets they agreed to at the Paris con­fer­ence three years ago. One ex­am­ple is Brazil, whose new pres­i­dent Jair Bol­sonaro, the “trop­i­cal Trump”, has talked about clear­ing part of the Ama­zon for roads and devel­op­ment. That would dam­age the world’s lungs – the trees that ab­sorb car­bon diox­ide and pump out oxy­gen.

There’s lots of car­bon to ab­sorb. The world will need to sus­tain con­sumers’ habits and liv­ing stan­dards while re­plac­ing the en­ergy in­dus­try’s mas­sive in­fra­struc­ture. Ev­ery day, the world burns about 100 mil­lion bar­rels, of oil – up about 2% from the year be­fore.

Most of that goes into the petrol tanks of cars and trucks. Re­plac­ing them with more fuel-ef­fi­cient or elec­tric ve­hi­cles will take a long time. In Novem­ber, the num­ber of elec­tric ve­hi­cles in the US hit the 1 mil­lion mark. But that makes only a small dent in the na­tion’s green­house gas emis­sions.

Global coal con­sump­tion is run­ning at more than 5 bil­lion tons an­nu­ally. A project off the coast of Bel­gium pro­vides a good ex­am­ple of the need to run to stand still. In Novem­ber, MHI Ves­tas, the world’s largest maker of wind turbines, an­nounced it would pro­vide 23 of its new big­gest turbines to a project in the Bel­gian North Sea. The mas­sive turbines can power 137 471 Ger­man homes, the com­pany said. Yet the num­ber of Ger­man dwellings grew by 245 000 last year.

Royal Dutch Shell chief ex­ec­u­tive Ben van Beur­den noted in 2014 that so­lar and wind pro­vide about 1% of the world’s en­ergy. “How on earth do we think that 1% is go­ing to be­come 90% of a sys­tem twice as big as what it is by the mid­dle of the cen­tury?” he asked. “Whether you like it or not, it won’t hap­pen.

“That might be a gloom-and-doom­type pic­ture,” van Beur­den added. “But the real chal­lenge is not so much how do we ac­cel­er­ate re­new­ables but more about how do we de­car­bonise the sys­tem we have.”

Yet tak­ing car­bon out of the sys­tem means com­ing up with tech­nol­ogy – and a car­bon price to cover the costs. Com­pa­nies al­ready know how to take car­bon diox­ide from the air and stuff it be­low the Earth’s sur­face. But it’s ex­pen­sive, and un­less it’s used for en­hanced oil re­cov­ery, it makes no eco­nomic sense with­out a car­bon price.

On Novem­ber 27, the UN En­vi­ron­ment Pro­gramme is­sued a re­port say­ing that the gap be­tween coun­tries’ ac­tion pledges and the mea­sures to limit warm­ing is get­ting larger. The re­port also says that af­ter three years of rel­a­tively sta­ble emis­sions, global green­house emis­sions were up 1.2% in 2017. But all this hasn’t dis­cour­aged peo­ple who say that the world needs – and will in­evitably de­velop – a break­through tech­nol­ogy. Mi­crosoft co-founder Bill Gates is one of them. He has in­vested in Break­through En­ergy Ven­tures, a $1 bil­lion pri­vate in­vest­ment fund, to fund re­searchers.

One of the ear­li­est cli­mate change mod­els was drawn up in 2004 by a pair of Prince­ton Univer­sity pro­fes­sors – Robert So­colow, an en­gi­neer, and Stephen Pa­cala, an ecol­o­gist. In their model, a se­ries of “wedges” could al­ter the trajectory of ris­ing tem­per­a­tures. The wedges in­cluded things such as: in­creas­ing wind ca­pac­ity ten­fold; cov­er­ing huge ar­eas with so­lar pan­els; dou­bling the fuel ef­fi­ciency of all cars; tripling the world’s ca­pac­ity of nu­clear power; halt­ing global de­for­esta­tion; or plant­ing new forests over an area the size of the lower 48 states of the US.

So­colow now prefers to call cli­mate ac­tion a horse race. At the mo­ment, wind and so­lar are run­ning ahead faster than ex­pected, while nu­clear power and car­bon cap­ture are trail­ing be­hind. He says he wor­ries that the 2°C tar­get is set­ting peo­ple up for an in­evitable let­down.

“My worry is that peo­ple will start talk­ing about game over,” So­colow said. “Cli­mate change is not like that.”

| GI­U­LIA MARCHI Bloomberg

PEDES­TRI­ANS and mo­torists cross a road as build­ings stand shrouded in haze in Bei­jing, China.

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