We can reach 2°C if we *replace* polluting technology

//We can reach 2°C if we *replace* polluting technology

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change shows that hope is not forsaken: rigorous climate politics locally and nationally has spurred development of new technology sooner than expected. Increased pressure in the pursuit of climate protection is still required to reach the 2°C Target.

Carbon Budget: Trillion tons of CO2

The report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on the climate climate system launched last year has a clear message: emitting more than one trillion tons of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels risks moving us far beyond the target of limiting global warming to 2°C above preindustrial level.  This carbon budget stems from the climate sensitivity – the correlation between the increased concentration of greenhouse gases and the resulting temperature rise.

Following the climate sensitivity, temperature increases as we put more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The level of increase is largely independent of the rate of emissions; it depends on the cumulative amount emitted. A higher emissions rate means the temperature will increase faster. If we want to limit the warming to a certain level, one can read the carbon budget (cumulative emissions we are allowed to produce) off the figure. Credit: IPCC WG1.

Following the climate sensitivity, temperature increases as we put more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The level of increase is largely independent of the rate of emissions; it depends on the cumulative amount emitted. A higher emissions rate means the temperature will increase faster. If we want to limit the warming to a certain level, one can read the carbon budget (cumulative emissions we are allowed to produce) off the figure. Credit: IPCC WG1.

One thousand billion tons sounds tremendous. But think again! In 2050 we will have a nine to ten billion humans on earth; the budget is equivalent one hundred tons per person. If we give ourselves hundred years to learn how to live without a net carbon dioxide emission, that is a ton per year for each of us.

Currently the greenhouse gas emissions in Norway count about ten tons per person, adding the carbon footprint, which includes imported goods and international flights, the average rises to approximately fifteen tons per person. The global average is seven tons. At the current emission rate, we will have consumed the budget in 20 years.

Rapidly increasing emissions

Unfortunately the development is heading in the wrong direction. In the 2000s greenhouse gas emissions increased more rapidly than previous: 2.2 % per anno compared to 1.7% per anno in the period 1970-2000.

Combustion of coal – the dirtiest energy source – rose faster than otherwise energy production. China’s state-run capitalism boosts growth through investments in mines, power plants, infrastructure, buildings and machinery, all financed by savings of relatively poor Chinese. It is easy to feel blue on behalf of the climate!

However, the picture is not entirely devastating. In my work with the IPCC-report on climate change mitigation, I have discovered a series of bright spots. Perhaps we have made more progress with climate protection than the pessimists among us realize? Here are my reasons for optimism.

The atmospheric CO2 concentration has increased at an unprecedented rate in the 2000s due to a rapid rise in population and economic output and a failure to shift to low-carbon energy sources.

The atmospheric CO2 concentration has increased at an unprecedented rate in the 2000s due to a rapid rise in population and economic output and a failure to shift to low-carbon energy sources.

Testing of instruments on a large scale

While the summary report, that is the abstract for policy makers, is rather cautious in its discussion of instruments for climate protection, the chapters of the main report offers more interesting reading. It describes climate policy measures implemented by countries, cities, regions and multinational organizations. The instruments include systems with emission constraints and trade with emission allowances such as the EU emissions trading system (EU ETS) that Norway also is a part of, various kinds of support for renewable energy and energy efficiency improvements in amongst others China and India, regulations and voluntary agreements for more efficient cars, airplanes, washing machines, and much more.

Quite many climate policy measures have been implemented since the publishing of the former climate report in 2007. Not every measure works as good as foreseen; but at least we have the opportunity to harvest important learnings that may become the basis for a more effective policy in the future.

We can live without fossil energy – can we?

If we search to limit global warming we need energy technologies producing little or no greenhouse gas emissions. Energy Scenario models that the IPCC has applied in several reports indicate that renewable energy will be an important element of climate protection. Previously it seemed rather optimistic, given that solar energy only could supply relatively small cabins with light. Back then wind energy only had an important role in little Denmark. Today, however, utilities built wind farms that produce as much power as coal power plants. (For a 6000 MW windfarm in the Gansu province in China, see here.) Engineers have designed solar thermal power plants can supply electricity based on storage of heat. One such plant produces as much electricity as the controversial gas-fired power plant at Mongstad. The IPCC report informs us that the capacity of renewable energy production in 2012 increased by 105 gigawatts – roughly equally distributed between solar, wind and hydropower. Solar power continues its growth in 2013. One gigawatt is the effect of one large atomic power plant, or four times the power rating of Mongstad.  A comparison with the IEA’s 2°C scenario shows that we have already achieved the required rate of expansion renewable energy production. We just have to continue on the same level. The maturation of renewable energy technologies ought to be celebrated as a climate politic success!

Recent years we have seen the arrival for electric cars that are attractive, comfortable, and with acceptable range. Electric cars are only environmental friendly if supplied with clean electricity; reducing energy consumption in battery production is imperative for climate mitigation. Still, electric cars will become a technology that offers us more opportunities to face the transport demands with fewer emissions than current cars do. In addition to various forms of state support, electrical cars are driven forward through customer interest in sustainable transportation. Meanwhile engineers have learned to build houses that barely consume energy for heating and identified new ways to reduce emissions through recycling of components and materials. I have also learned from the report that nuclear power is not as dangerous as I presumed; actually the human body is able to handle low-intensity radiation from accidents such as the Fukushima accident. The realization of a low carbon society still requires a number of technological innovations, but it appears that we can manage these challenges. It is less certain whether we really are able to apply all the environmentally friendly technology to reduce emissions.

Do we manage to use the technology to reduce emissions?

Coal consumption continues its rapid growth as coal is readily available and inexpensive to produce in regions experiencing high economic growth, such as China, Malaysia, Turkey, India and South Africa (figure). The amount of emissions also grows because industrialized countries fail to reduce their emissions and import steadily more goods from coal dependent economies, mainly in Asia. While technology has presented us the opportunity to replace the use of fossil fuels through a combination of energy efficiency, renewable and nuclear energy – this is not what we use the technology for. We can stop global warming if we cease to use fossil energy without capture and storage of CO2.

Of the many climate political instruments implemented, the reduction in the use of fossil energy has been the least successful. The European emission trading systems is based on the distribution of free emission allowances that has given large revenues to many industry actors. As a result of intensive lobbyism too many emission allowances have been distributed and the price has dropped close to zero. Meanwhile, financial support to fossil energy, good conditions for the fossil industry and other promoting measures that enhance fossil energy, continue.

Gasoline is subsidized amongst in Brazil, India, Nigeria and many other places. The level of security in the coal mines in China and Turkey is so low that hundreds of lethal accidences occur every year. NATO and the United States maintain an extensive and pricey presence in the Middle East that serves to ensuring the continued access to petroleum. In Norway, the petroleum industry opposes the electrification of oil platforms at Utsirahøgda and has seemingly failed implementing CO2 capture at Mongstad. Unless we confront the support for fossil energy and at the same time manage to gain approval for effective measures that restrict the use of fossil fuels, emissions will continue to increase.

We choose the path

Even though the latest report from the International Energy Agency (IEA), Energy Technology Perspectives 2014 is very optimistic regarding renewable energy and predicts a bright future especially for solar power, it is not so that renewable energy simply emerges by itself. The financial crisis has reduced the investment in renewable energy production and has worsened conditions in some pioneering countries such as Spain. In 2013, investments in renewable energy production had dropped by a quarter from the peak in 2011 according to Bloomberg. In Germany, the value of renewable energy is decreasing due to a large fluctuating production that result in energy prices close to or below zero when the production is high.

Essential for renewable energy in the time to come is two things. First, new markets and countries must acquire framework conditions for implementation of renewable energy. For the climate it would be desirable that this would happen through quota markets or emission taxes rather than subsidies. Second, we must increase our effort to develop and implement solutions to address variable energy production from renewables. Part of the solution lies in power plants with more operating hours (wind power at sea rather than on land) and sources that vary independently of sun and wind, such as wave and tidal power. Further, energy systems can be adapted to variable energy supply through flexible demand, more transmission capacity over larger areas, and energy storage.

Maybe some of these alternatives seem somewhat unrealistic? Possibly just as unrealistic as gigawatt-scale solar power plants seemed to be in 2007? Renewable energy is not enough. We must also scrutinize emissions from industry, transport, agriculture and deforestation. The IPCC has examined novel options, such as recycling of building components, spatial planning as a tool to reduce the need for transport, restructuring of nutrition away from the high and unhealthy meat and dairy consumption, reducing food waste, and carbon storage in products. Many of these solutions have different advantages, from better health and more leisure time to the preservation of natural resources. It is hard to see that we could manage foregoing these options if we want to continue economic development for a growing population and limit climate change.

I think we should regain courage by the successful development and the introduction of new energy technologies such as solar power, electric cars, and passive houses. These options provide us great opportunities! We should also learn lessons from how various measures have been more or less effective. It is time to let technology replace fossil energy use.


This article appeared first in Norwegian, initially in Bergens Tidene, Adresseavisen and in the full version in 2/C


By | 2017-11-08T21:16:07+00:00 November 15th, 2014|Reflexions|0 Comments

About the Author:

Edgar Hertwich
I am a professor at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and currently serve as president of the International Society for Industrial Ecology. I grew up in Braunau, Austria, studied physics at Princeton and Energy & Resources at the University of California, Berkeley. From 2003-2015, I directed the Industrial Ecology Programme of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. My research interests cover life cycle assessment, sustainable consumption and production, trade and environment, risk analysis, and climate mitigation. I am interested in understanding how activities in our society require resources and produce environmental pressures. I would like to better understand the dynamics in our development that affect these driving forces and their resulting environmental pressures, and alternative courses of action that can reduce these pressures. What is the connection between human activities on the one hand and emissions and resource use on the other hand? What are the implications of our current development path? What do we need to change, both in terms of individual actions and policy frameworks, to achieve a more sustainable development.

Publications: See full list here (in Google Scholar)

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