Many countries have recently pledged to reduce their emissions in order to stay within a 1.5°C rise in global warming. Is this target achievable?
The following piece was a highly commended entry to the Warwick Global Sustainable Development Year 12 Essay Competition 2019.
Over past millennia, global temperatures have been cyclical and affected by natural cycles of the Earth’s orbit and axis, as well as seismic activity, and other factors. In the last 100-150 years global temperatures have risen sharply by around one degree centigrade, a mirroring an increase in carbon dioxide emissions to above 400 parts per million (ppm) from around 250 ppm. The 2015 Paris Agreement identified an aspirational goal of limiting average increases in global temperature to 1.5°C by 2100. This was a voluntary target and was agreed by 195 countries, covering 89% of global emissions. The main cause of the rise in emissions has been the burning of fossil fuels; in 2018, global emissions continued to rise by almost 3%, driven by China and the US (Carrington, 2018). A 2018 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found that immediate change was needed to the use of land, how energy is produced, transportation, and how buildings and cities are constructed in order to limit the global temperature rise to 1.5°C. Carbon dioxide gas emissions need to fall by 45% by 2030 and to net zero by 2050 in order to meet this target and limit the impact of global warming on humans and ecosystems. The current rate of warming is leading to destabilisation of societies causing migration, inequality, risks to food and water security and damaging human health in addition to impacting the natural world. I think the target is theoretically possible to achieve with multilateral, coordinated, focussed efforts. However, the lack of political will to make the necessary changes means realistically that it will not be achieved. To have a chance of meeting the target, there are several strategies that need to be immediately implemented by governments.
Most importantly, governments need to commit to policy change to force a rapid decarbonisation of the energy supply. Burning fossil fuels releases around 9 billion tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere each year in the form of carbon dioxide. The IPCC (2018) states that coal accounts for 35% of the global electricity supply and this needs to be cut to 3-10% by 2030 and phased out by 2050 to meet the target of limiting global warming to 1.5°C. However, 1,600 new coal fired power stations are currently planned or under construction in 62 countries raising questions as to the priorities of governments (Tabuchi, 2017). To decarbonise the energy supply there needs to be a massive upscaling of renewables such as wind, solar power and hydroelectric and a diversification of the base load electricity supply to include nuclear and natural gas (which, although still a fossil fuel, emits half of the carbon dioxide of coal and oil). Both wind and solar power have shown significant growth as costs have fallen and public acceptance has risen. The IPCC (2018) states that wind and solar “appear to be well underway to contribute to 1.5°C consistent pathways”. Recent research from the UEA (2019) shows that emissions are falling because of policies supporting renewables and energy efficiency in 18 developed countries (including the UK, US, France, and Germany) which represent 28% of global emissions. However, there was also a fall in GDP which caused energy consumption to fall in this time. At the time of writing, 792 jurisdictions and local governments, representing 141 million citizens, have declared a “climate emergency”. However, the exact definition of “climate emergency” remains contentious, with some using the achievement of net zero emissions by 2050 as a sufficient “emergency” response. From a global perspective, the roll out of renewables is not happening fast enough to stop the growth in fossil fuel use as shown by the continued rise in emissions in 2017 and 2018.
Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is a key technology necessary to meet the 1.5°C target according to the IPCC (2018). CCS could mitigate emissions by enabling 90% of carbon dioxide emissions to be captured directly from fossil fuel power plants and industrial processes, such as the manufacture of building materials, and deposited underground so that it does not enter the atmosphere (IPCC 2018). When combined with the growing of plants for bioenergy, CCS has the potential to generate negative emissions. However, these technologies are expensive – it is estimated that to remove 1% of global emissions would cost $400 billion per year, excluding the cost of permanent carbon dioxide storage. In addition, the growing of plants for bioenergy puts pressure on land use, contributing to issues for a growing population of food and water security, raising questions about the sustainability of the technology. It makes more sense to invest in renewable energy solutions and force decarbonisation rather than focus of removing the damage caused by burning fossil fuels.
The production of natural gas by fracking seems like an intermediate step towards decarbonisation because gas produces half the carbon dioxide emissions of oil and coal. However, investment in this industry slows the investment into renewables. In addition, it risks contamination of the water table and increases seismic activity (BBC, 2015). The IPCC recommends there is a reduction in natural gas use (even if combined with CCS technology) to 8% of the global electricity supply in 2050 from 22% today if the 1.5°C target is to be met. In the USA, President Trump has repealed regulation of the US fracking industry, and freed up additional federal land for the activity, which, when combined with the withdrawal of the USA from the Paris Agreement in 2017, undermines the ability of the world to act in a coordinated way to meet the climate change target. Other solutions, such as biofuels for use in transportation, have all shown growth but growing the volume of fuel crops necessary to meet the 1.5°C goal increases pressure on land use and the risk of food security issues.
The contribution of nuclear energy to decarbonisation is controversial. It is high cost and there are issues with the safety of not only nuclear fission power stations themselves, but also in the disposal of nuclear waste. The IPCC (2018) note that the commissioning of nuclear plants takes 10-19 years. Around 13 countries are building further nuclear capacity but after the Fukushima disaster, 5 countries decided to phase out nuclear power, representing a conflicting picture regarding the future of nuclear power in the global energy mix.
Regardless of your individual position on the merits of natural gas or nuclear as a fuel source, the scale of decarbonisation required to meet the 1.5°C goal means that transformation of energy systems needs to occur quickly, and that future energy generation needs to come from a number of different, ideally renewable, sources.
Around 30% of the global land mass is covered by forests which provide a home for wildlife, act as water and carbon stores, and reduce soil erosion. Afforestation was a key commitment of the 2015 Paris Agreement as planting trees is the easiest and cheapest way of increasing the land-based carbon sink: an acre of forest stores 260 tonnes of carbon (Coolearth, 2018), while trees absorb around 25% of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere (Leahy, 2018). The UN REDD+ programme designates a financial value for trees, providing a financial reward to countries that maintain and grow their tree stocks, and helping to maintain global carbon stores. Along similar lines, dietary changes need to be promoted to facilitate a move away from land intensive, emission producing animal products to plant-based foods. It is estimated that the livestock supply chain produces 14.5% of greenhouse gas emissions. Increasing the number of trees globally and eating a more plant-based diet are two non-technological ways of contributing to reducing emissions.
Climate change is a topic which is becoming more politicised. Extinction Rebellion, an international socio-political movement that uses nonviolent and disruptive strategies in order to gain attention and further their agenda of protesting against climate change and the risk of ecological collapse, has had notable success in gaining publicity for climate action. For example, in mid-July 2019, protests were organised in 5 UK cities as the start of the ‘Summer Uprising’ (Blackall, 2019). 3,000 activists committed to participate in these events demanding the Government focus on reducing biodiversity loss and commit to reducing greenhouse gases to net zero by 2025 (Blackall, 2019). This follows on from the Spring rebellions which caused central London and some other European cities to suffer from serious disruption, with the protests lasting approximately one week (BBC, 2019). In the UK, the increase in publicity for environmental issues that these protests have arguably created, has pushed the Government to legislate that emissions will be net zero by 2050. This action does not seem to be enough for Extinction Rebellion who want much faster action to be taken, but it is an example of the power of protest to increase pressure on Governments for action.
Ultimately, it is clear that action is required at all levels of society from individuals to Government to limit the extent of climate change to 1.5°C. There is not a single solution to limiting the temperature rise and accelerating change simultaneously is required across all sectors. However, short political cycles and ongoing pressure to maintain ever growing GDP, which has been linked to fossil fuel consumption, means that it is likely the 1.5°C target will be missed. Not only do governments need to act quickly, but they also need to work together with the same goal. This is the major challenge of our time, as countries around the globe are at different stages of their economic cycles, have different electoral cycles and priorities and have to win over climate sceptics and deniers. Creating a solution to enable people to maintain their lifestyles without damaging the environment while raising standards of living for the poorest in our societies is an incredible challenge, even more so as in the time since the signing of the Paris Agreement, the world’s two greatest polluters, China and USA have continued to invest in fossil fuels. Until climate change really affects lives in the countries which pollute the most, little will change: by which time, it could already be too late.
BBC (2019) Extinction Rebellion protests: what happened? https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-48051776
BBC (2015) Fracking: The pros and cons of extracting shale gas. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/uk-england-lancashire-33230412/fracking-the-pros-and-cons-of-shale-gas
Blackall, M (2019) Extinction Rebellion protests block traffic in five UK cities. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jul/15/extinction-rebellion-protests-block-traffic-in-five-uk-cities
Cama, T (2017) Trump to repeal Obama fracking rule. https://thehill.com/policy/energy-environment/366704-trump-to-repeal-obama-fracking-rule
Carrington, D (2018) ‘Brutal news’: Carbon emissions jump to all time high in 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/dec/05/brutal-news-global-carbon-emissions-jump-to-all-time-high-in-2018
Coolearth (2018) IPCC Global warming special report 2018 – what does it actually mean? https://www.coolearth.org/2018/10/ipcc-report-2/
IPCC (2018) Global warming of 1.5°C. Summary for Policymakers. https://report.ipcc.ch/sr15/pdf/sr15_spm_final.pdf
Leahy, S (2018)” Climate change impacts worse than expected, global report warns. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2018/10/ipcc-report-climate-change-impacts-forests-emissions/
Tabucchi, H (2017) As Beijing joins climate fight, Chinese companies build coal plants. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/01/climate/china-energy-companies-coal-plants-climate-change.html?smid=tw-share
University of East Anglia (UEA): “CO2 emissions in developed economies fall due to decreasing fossil fuel and energy use” ScienceDaily, 25 February 2019. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/02/190225112234.htm