When French photographer, filmmaker and environmental campaigner Yann Arthus-Bertrand was filming Home, his gorgeously shot meditation on the impact of humans on the Earth and its climate, he came across a man driving a tractor uprooting trees in Borneo. Arthus-Bertrand told him about climate change and the destruction of orangutan habitat. The man looked Arthus-Bertrand in the eye as he replied: “You come in a helicopter to tell me how to live? I have to feed my family. I don’t care about trees. I want to buy a 4×4.”
That was back in the late-2000s, yet the anecdote still encapsulates much truth about the problem of climate change. Worldwide greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions increased throughout the 2010s, mostly within developing nations, as they understandably sought to improve the lives of their citizens (and while they manufactured goods to sell to developed nations). Steadily, however, the picture has been changing, with the link between economic growth and GHG emissions decoupling, giving the world some hope as the urgency of addressing the climate change problem heightens.
This will come to a head at the beginning of November this year, as delegates from around the world meet in Glasgow for the 26th Conference of Parties (COP26) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Ten days of negotiations will culminate in the arrival of world leaders for final dealmaking and announcements, and it could reasonably be called the most important summit of the decade. This is because COP26 will see a review and revision of GHG emissions reduction targets first set at the landmark Paris Agreement in 2015, the product of COP21.
Today, just about everyone is aware that rising levels of GHGs in the atmosphere propel climate change, and that GHG emissions brought about by human activity are the problem. The release last month of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report Climate Change: The Physical Science Basis provided some of the most up-to-date gold-standard information on just how much the climate is changing, the human role in it, and the impacts change brings. To draw out just a few of the findings:
- At best estimate, the average global surface temperature has risen by 1.09°C since pre-industrial times, with land temperatures being on average 1.59°C higher, and ocean surface temperatures 0.88°C higher. Of the 1.09°C, 1.07°C is attributed to human activity. (In Paris, it was agreed that the world should limit the global average surface temperature increase to 2.0°C by 2100, with a higher ambition to limit it to 1.5°C.)
- Climate change is already affecting every inhabited region, with heatwaves, extreme precipitation, cyclones and droughts all becoming more common. A series of charts in the report – reproduced below in Figure 1 – drive this message home with force. At the present level of warming, for instance, heatwaves that would have occurred on average once in 50 years in pre-industrial times are now 4.8 times more likely, at the best estimate. Not only that, but the heatwave will be even hotter, by another 1.2°C.
- Further climate change is inevitable, but the extent of it is mostly within human control. It is also extremely consequential. Heating of 1.5°C by 2100 is considered the best-case achievable scenario, but even this will have a range of serious impacts (some of them shown in Figure 1). Effects in terms of human health, ecosystem damage, economic losses, forced migration, encouraging armed conflict and the like will be considerable. At 2.0°C heating and higher these impacts increase. (The IPCC in 2018 released a report comparing the difference in impacts between 1.5°C and 2.0°C, a short summary of which is here.) It is now commonly accepted that taking action to mitigate climate change is economically, even if nothing else, a wise choice as a planet.
Figure 1: Projected changes in extreme weather events (IPCC, The Physical Science Basis Report, August 2021)
This is why COP26 can be considered the most important summit of the decade. So what needs to happen in Glasgow so that the world can be put on a path to meeting the 1.5°C target?
The Physical Science Basis report made it clear that global anthropogenic GHG emissions must begin to fall within a few years to meet that target, and approach zero emissions by 2050, with ‘negative emissions’ afterwards – that is, GHGs must be removed from the atmosphere. Figure 2 shows this, along with other emissions scenarios and their resulting temperature rises.
Figure 2: Emissions scenarios and resulting average global surface temperature rises (IPCC, 2021)
What is also clear from The Physical Science Basis report is that, in one way, the problem is simple. As a planet, we have a GHG budget. Exceed it – emit more GHGs over time than the budget – and average global surface temperatures will be higher by more than 1.5°C. It doesn’t matter which country releases the GHGs, and neither does it matter from which sector the gases are released – power generation, agriculture, transport or any other. This is important, because while fossil fuel burning is the predominant source of GHGs, each sector contributes significantly to GHG emissions, as shown in Figure 3. (The chart is slightly complicated by the fact that land-use change and forestry can either be positive or negative – what is shown is the net figure.)
Figure 3: Contribution to total anthropogenic GHG emissions in 2018 by sector (data from ClimateDataWatch.org)
In most other ways, the problem is complex, as Arthus-Bertrand’s encounter began to suggest. The complexity is due to an array of core reasons:
- Action to mitigate climate change has long been seen as carrying an economic cost, even if it recognised that in the long term it is cheaper to act than not to. In some important ways, this has changed and is changing – at low to medium shares of renewable energies in a grid (at least), it is usually cheaper to install renewable power generation capacity than fossil fuel-powered capacity, for example, and energy-efficiency projects often have a positive cost-benefit. Yet in many cases it remains true that to act costs and costs now. Not to act mostly costs later. Financing huge investment will be a major challenge.
- The effects of climate change on different countries vary – some countries will get it worse than others and some few countries may even benefit, although there is debate about this. Regardless, there are different incentives at the country level, especially as some countries will need to transform their economies more drastically than others.
- Strained relations and geopolitical rivalries between countries hamper cooperation.
- For private enterprise the effects will also be varied. Companies with large asset bases centred around fossil fuels stand to lose more than others, should they not adapt. While many such companies are in the process of transforming themselves to operate in a low-GHG environment, those that are not are likely to pressure governments not to take ambitious climate actions.
- The effects from emissions lag the emissions themselves. In the past, this has created a psychological problem, in that people could not themselves observe the effects of emissions, and therefore downplayed their importance. Fortunately (and unfortunately), this is becoming less and less of a problem as climate impacts become more observable, yet the problem may transform itself and rise again. Because of the lag between emissions and effects, the impacts of climate change will continue to increase for some time even if the global rate of emissions decreases. To some minds, this might discourage further action.
- The issue of fairness. This can be divided into four:
- Looking at total GHG emissions during the industrial era, some countries have emitted far more GHGs than others, in the process making themselves wealthy. (See
- Figure 4, taken from Our World In Data, for carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions – a proxy for GHG emissions.) Poorer countries reasonably argue that the burden for paying for climate change action should be borne mostly by richer countries.
- On a per capita basis, citizens in developed nations emit far more GHGs on average than those in developing countries. Table 2 gives numerical detail on this.
- GHG emissions can be looked at on a territorial basis (emitted by a country) and on a consumption basis (emitted through a country’s consumption). In general, territorial emissions for developing countries are higher than their consumption emissions, while it is the reverse for developed countries. This is largely because of the deindustrialisation of developed nations, shifting their lower-value manufacturing to developing nations. This may have made financial sense for the manufacturing companies, but it shifted production to less energy-efficient countries and increased the need for international transport, which generates further emissions.
- Within countries, changes must achieve a certain amount of social acceptance to be successful. Changes have regional effects: a reduction in the use of coal, for instance, will impact coal mining areas, not only creating economic hardships for such communities but also bringing with it a social devaluing of their historic contribution to society, even a belittling. Traditions will be broken and senses of meaning lost. This will create a feeling of injustice which will in turn produce political pressure against such change, ripe for exploitation by opportunistic politicians, which could ultimately result in backwards steps. The ‘gilets jaunes’ protests in France beginning in 2018 were another clear example of the need to make changes as well-tempered as possible. While all drivers of diesel vehicles had an environmental levy placed on them, those who relied on driving their vehicles more for their living had more of a burden placed on them. People living in areas well-connected by public transport – usually the more wealthy – could both afford it more and were less affected, and this unevenness led to resentment.
Figure 4: Cumulative CO2 emissions by country/bloc, up to 2017 (note, the UK is included in the EU-28 bloc). From OurWorldInData
- Hundreds of millions of people in the developing world do not yet enjoy access to electricity and provisioning them with electricity is for many countries a priority.
- The girding structure of the world economy – how power is generated, how trade and movement occur, how goods are manufactured, the industrialisation of agriculture – developed largely without thought to what it could do to the climate (although scientists have raised climate concerns for many decades, in growing numbers). There is a great deal of inertia to not just the global economy but to national economies, because technology, the built environment, policies, processes and skills take time to change. Indeed, some technologies that will be required to mitigate climate change are not yet mature and part of the task of the coming years will be to bring them to maturity. This has a carry-on effect on economies. Saudi Arabia, for instance, may see an economic future that does not rely on oil and gas but instead on the production of green hydrogen and ammonia (produced using renewable electricity), but the demand for hydrogen and ammonia must be triggered by technological change and changes in the built environment.
- Aside from technological changes, some behavioural changes are very likely to be necessary. One seen as necessary by the International Energy Agency (IEA) in its Net Zero By 2050 roadmap published this year is to limit building heating to 19-20°C on average, and cooling to 24-25°C on average. Curbing meat-eating and international travel are two others frequently suggested by climate campaigners. Behavioural change, in my opinion, is usually more difficult than technological change, although neither is often easy. The IEA’s 2050 roadmap has 8% of emissions reductions from the energy sector coming from behavioural change. The UK’s Citizen’s Climate Assembly’s final report released in 2020 found “a solution to air travel emissions that allows people to continue to fly”, but higher taxes on frequent flyers and long-distance travellers, were desirable.
- Because the science and effects of climate change are complex, communication regarding them is difficult. The difference between a 1.5°C and a 2.0°C increase seems trivial to most people, and it is tiresome to have to write ‘global average surface temperatures’ when ‘temperatures’ seems like it could do. News reports often conflate ‘carbon emissions’ with ‘GHG emissions’, when there is a significant difference. The detail is often important and allows sense to be made of complexity. It also helps to pre-empt misinformation, the pervasiveness and persuasiveness of which is a further barrier not only to understanding but also to social acceptance of change.
That is quite an array of problems, showing that climate change is not only an economic, scientific and technical problem but also a problem of justice, psychology, governance, education and communication.
What happened in Paris?
Many of those problems are also the reason why the Paris Agreement was both an impressive achievement and a somewhat flawed one. Despite that mire of complicating factors, nations across the world agreed to work to mitigate climate change for the collective good, setting an overarching target. Wealthier nations agreed to help finance action in poorer countries and generally set more ambitious reduction targets. Yet Paris also saw agreements to allow countries to increase their emissions – some of them drastically – and for other nations to do less than they could. For poorer countries, this was often understandable, in that those countries had low per capita emissions and did not want to hamstring their economic growth. For wealthier countries, it is hard to resist concluding that this was selfish, though partly it was also to do with the structure of their economies. Of major emitters, the positions of South Korea, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey, which set targets based on inflated 2030 ‘business-as-usual’ figures, and Russia, with a target that hid behind the dramatic fall in emissions that resulted from the collapse of the Soviet Union, were particularly disappointing. Those of Australia, Japan, USA and Canada were somewhat unambitious relative to their wealth.
Although critics of the Paris Agreement point to worldwide emissions rising after the accord as a sign of its failure – they rose 4.7% in the three years after 2015, as Figure 5 shows – this is a misunderstanding of the Agreement. Emissions were always expected to increase in the years following, with the hope that they would peak in the mid-2020s. That peaking, and steady declines afterwards, should be the overriding focus of COP26, with an emphasis on the global GHG budget.
Figure 5: World GHG emissions by sector, 1990-2018. in million tonnes of CO2-equivalent (Data downloaded from ClimateChangeData.org, which are taken from the World Resources Institute)
Advances since Paris
With all the complicating problems listed above, it is remarkable that in the years since Paris, and particularly in the last year, there has been a flurry of updated ambitious climate targets set. Amongst them:
- China, the world’s largest emitter by far, setting a ‘carbon neutral’ goal for 2060. Indonesia, another major emitter, has also set this target.
- The UK, EU, USA, Canada, Japan, South Korea and South Africa setting 2050 net-zero GHG targets, with ambitious intermediate 2030 targets that exceed those set in Paris.
- The G20 set of countries (which together emitted 73.8% of world emissions in 2018) in August this year agreeing to adopt 1.5°C of average global surface temperature rise as their target for 2100 (following an earlier G7 target from June), and that they would release updated emissions targets in the lead-up to COP26. The G20 also agreed, in July this year, to endorse carbon pricing, having previously disagreed on the matter.
- The G7 (whose share of 2018 GHG emissions was 20%) announcing in June a range of other climate-supporting initiatives. These included reducing their collective GHG emissions by 50% by 2030, ending the use of unabated coal (that is, the use of coal without carbon capture), and supporting “electrification and batteries, hydrogen, carbon capture, usage and storage, zero emission aviation and shipping, and for those countries that opt to use it, nuclear power.”
- A wide range of businesses and industry groups setting 2050 net-zero GHG targets, including oil and gas businesses BP, Shell, RepSol, Enel, and Total, Cembureau (the European trade body of cement makers), shipping company Maersk, airline British Airways, Apple (by 2030), Microsoft (by 2030), Google (carbon ‘free’ by 2030, already being carbon neutral), as well as thousands of regional and local governments, city authorities and mayors, etc.. A survey by S&P Global Market Intelligence in December 2020 found 11 out of 30 mining companies had net-zero goals for 2050 or earlier.
Table 1: G20 members’ shares of world GHG emissions, 2018, green indicates membership of G7 (note the European Union is the 20th member of the G20 but has not been included here to avoid double counting. Its share of world GHG emissions in 2018 was 6.9%.)
Comparing the temperature and emissions rise projections made by Climate Action Tracker in December 2018 and May 2021 is a quick way of observing this progress (Figure 6). Where the optimistic policy projection in late-2018 was that the global average surface temperature rise would be 3.0°C, by May this year optimistic net zero targets were tracking to 2.0°C. In the space of just 30 months, that is an extraordinary change (even admitting a slight difference in terms), and one would expect further falls in the future. If Glasgow is successful, another step-drop will occur, but thereafter any further falls would be slight, as the 1.5°C target is approached.
Figure 6: 2100 warming projections – from December 2018 and May 2021 (ClimateActionTracker.org)
These actions are the result of:
- Strengthening demand for action from the public and from scientists, economists and NGOs. Part of this is driven by witnessing devastating climate events such as wildfires in California, the Eastern Mediterranean and Australia, and flooding across Europe and Asia.
- Pragmatism on the part of governments, realising action is in their material best interests, and companies, seeing business opportunity but also ‘the writing on the wall’ in terms of risk, market adjustments, regulation and reputation.
- The motivation of individuals working within the public and private sectors, arguing for stronger action and proposing solutions.
Do targets translate into action? How has progress been to date?
With so many targets being set and the main point of COP26 being target-setting, it is well worth examining how target-setting has worked in the past. Figure 7 presents target-setting history against actual emissions for the major emitting countries/blocs, which together accounted for 75.9% of global GHG emissions in 2018. (Some of the data is repeated in Table 2.) What can be observed is that:
- Generally, countries tend to follow the direction of their targets. There does appear to be a kind of honour in meeting international pledges.
- Of countries setting reduction targets, the UK, Canada and Japan have been the most successful countries at meeting targets. The UK has been the single most impressive large emitter. (Countries such as Denmark have also performed admirably, but are included as part of the EU-27 block.)
- Some countries/blocs setting reduction targets were not on track to meet them by 2019; sharp falls due to the COVID-19 pandemic (in the range of 6-12%) saved the blushes of the EU-27 and USA, for example. Australia is off-track to meet its Paris target for 2030; it achieved its Copenhagen target for 2020 of a 5% decrease from 2005 levels, but this was highly unambitious. It and Saudi Arabia are currently the only developed nations that are major emitters without 2050 targets. (All constituent Australian states and territories have set 2050 net-zero targets, but the federal government has not adopted one. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said he hopes the country will “achieve [net zero GHGs] as soon as possible and preferably by ”. Saudi Arabia’s 2030 target was to have an ambitious 50% of its electricity generated from renewables. In recent years its emissions have begun to fall.
- Of major emitters setting reduction targets, South Korea has performed the worst, being way off target to meet its Copenhagen and Paris targets.
- Generally, developing and middle-income nations’ targets have allowed for huge increases in absolute emissions from the time they were set. Most countries have not exceeded those allowances, but China, Mexico and Turkey have, or are on track to. Nearly all have seen their emissions rise significantly, the exception being Indonesia, which changed its land-use practices significantly to mitigate emissions.
The caveats raised previously should be repeated again: consumption emissions for developed countries are generally higher than their territorial emissions and that for many developed nations; and per capita emissions are far higher than for developing nations. (As an aside, however, in 2018, of territorial GHG emissions, China’s per capita amount (8,405 kg/person) was higher than for the EU-27 (7,456 kg/person) and the UK (6,637 kg/person).)
Figure 7: GHG emissions 1990-2018 for major emitters against announced targets – Kyoto, Copenhagen, Paris, and post-Paris. (Emissions data from ClimateChangeData.org, which are taken from the World Resources Institute, with supplementary data for 2019 and 2020 taken from various sources. Some absolute target data taken from ClimateActionTracker.com, calculated from ‘business as usual’ or energy intensity targets set during the Paris Agreement with adjustments for land-use change. DR Congo’s 2030 target is conditional. Saudi Arabia’s 2030 target not included. Where countries have given a target range, I have taken the more optimistic – for instance when Russia set a 20-30% reduction target for GHGs from 1990 levels, I have taken 30%. Countries of the former Soviet Union which are now EU-27 members have only been counted as part of the EU-27.)
The most significant conclusion that can be taken from reviewing targets is that, even though targets are not always met, their pursuit has yielded invaluable advances. Subsidising of renewable energy technologies from the 1990s onwards has led to enormous decreases in their cost (see Figure 8 for solar photovoltaic systems), and that positions all countries for an accelerated roll-out in the 2020s.
Figure 8: Installation cost of solar photovoltaic systems at utility scale, taken from the US National Renewable Electricity Laboratory – https://www.nrel.gov/news/program/2021/documenting-a-decade-of-cost-declines-for-pv-systems.html)
The fall in the cost of renewable energy technologies can be considered the first major fruit of target-setting. But other fruits are growing. Some major ones for power generation and heavy industries are given below.
- Battery energy storage costs have fallen significantly and continue to do so.
- Carbon capture and storage (CCS) has increasingly been recognised as a necessary technology by governments, which have increased policy support towards development and deployment, for instance through the Section 45Q tax credits in the USA.
- ‘Negative emissions’ power plants are being planned, using bioenergy and CCS (BECCS).
- Hydrogen and ammonia are emerging as major future fuels/energy vectors, with increasing governmental support (something that was missing in previous ‘pushes’ for hydrogen.) This is encouraging traditional fossil fuel extracting countries such as Saudi Arabia, Canada, Russia and Australia to begin ‘green’ (produced from renewable energy sources) and ‘blue’ (from fossil fuels with CCS) hydrogen and ammonia projects. What is doubly attractive about green hydrogen and ammonia are that they tie-in nicely with the intermittency of solar and wind energy. At times of plentiful wind and sunshine, and high amounts of installed solar and wind power generation capacity, the amount of electricity produced will be in excess of demand. Using this excess to power electrolysis processes to create hydrogen and ammonia creates a means of energy storage that can be used in times of low wind and no sunshine.
- Steelmakers have begun trials to produce some forms of steel using hydrogen and electricity rather than fossil fuels. Both cement and steelmakers are planning to equip plants with carbon capture facilities and have pilot-scale and, in some cases, fully commercial facilities operating.
- The number of carbon capture-equipped heavy industrial plants is increasing considerably, although not yet sufficiently to meet climate targets. Global capacity (deployed and projects-in-planning) increased by one-third between 2019 and 2020.
- Recent work has suggested that carbon capture facilities will be able to capture 95-99% of carbon dioxide emissions from industrial plants economically. This is a significant step-up from the previous assumption of 90%.
- Utility-type businesses are beginning to form that deal with the collection, transport and storage/utilisation of carbon dioxide, such as the Porthos project (based in Rotterdam), the Houston Channel project the Northern Lights project (Norway), and the East Timor hub project.
- The portion of carbon dioxide emissions covered by some form of carbon market is growing (from 5% in 2010 to more than 20% in 2020). The G20’s agreement on carbon pricing is likely to see this percentage increase considerably.
Table 2: GHG emissions and target data. Targets are the latest announced, which is sometimes those announced at Paris and sometimes more recent. (Emissions data from ClimateChangeData.org, which are taken from the World Resources Institute. Peach-shaded figures are estimates taken from ClimateActionTracker.org, calculated from ‘business as usual’ or energy intensity targets set during the Paris Agreement with adjustments for land-use change. Blue-shaded figures are conditional pledges based on receiving international assistance. Grey-shaded figures are linear interpolations between 2030 and 2060 figures. Where countries have given a target range, I have taken the more optimistic – for instance when Russia set a 20-30% reduction target for GHGs from 1990 levels, I have taken 30%. Countries of the former Soviet Union which are now EU-27 members have only been counted as part of the EU-27.)
With all this in mind, we can look at the question of what needs to happen in Glasgow. Conclusions regarding necessary target-setting can be reached by looking at Figure 7, Table 2 and Table 3.
- If all major emitters met their current 2030 targets, the world would see a net increase in GHG emissions (Table 3) and this would probably mean the 1.5°C target would be exceeded during the 2030s. This can become a net decrease if a) some countries reduce their emissions by more than currently planned, and/or other countries have smaller increases in their planned 2030 emissions, or plan to reduce rather than increase. ‘Business as usual’ targets set by some countries in Paris have not been useful; absolute targets are required.
Table 3: Projected changes to GHG emissions from major polluters from 2018 if current 2030 targets were met
- Because of the above, developing and middle-income countries should aim to peak emissions by 2025 if they have not already peaked. The most important single new target at Glasgow would be for China to peak emissions in the middle of this decade, but India’s announcement of the same would be second.
- Developed nations should pledge only to reduce (from 2019 levels) from this year onwards if they are not already reducing emissions.
- All countries should set a net-zero GHG emissions by 2050 target. If not all countries quite meet this, it would leave the world in a similar scenario to the SSP1-1.9 scenario of Figure 2, consistent with the 1.5°C target.
- Developed and middle-income nations without ambitious 2030 goals must set them. This is particularly true of Australia and Saudi Arabia as developed countries, and Russia, Mexico, Brazil, Iran and Turkey as middle-income countries. All bar Iran are members of the G20 and have already pledged to announce new targets in the run-up to Glasgow. The question will be if they are ambitious enough.
- There could be more leeway for developing countries for intermediate (2030/2035) targets than for developed countries. This would mean that technologies across all sectors would be brought to maturity by developed (and middle-income) countries over the next 10-15 years and then deployed in developing countries to help speed-up emissions reductions. This would go some way to meet the need for fairness across countries.
- Of richer nations with established 2050 net-zero targets, there will be the need to increase support to developing nations to fund GHG emissions reductions projects. Table 2 shows that in the rest of Asia, emissions are rising rapidly, and to a lesser extent in Sub-Saharan Africa and North Africa.
- All countries must agree to a target to bring aviation and shipping emissions to zero by 2050 or 2060. (Emissions from these sectors are shown as ‘international transport’ in Table 2. Such emissions rose 10% from 2015 to 2018.) Vessels generally have a lifetime of 20-30 years. For shipping, the technology is ‘there’ for vessels to be run without emissions (e.g. from green methanol), and the technology will improve further to encompass green ammonia and green hydrogen. For aviation, the technology needs further development.
Of major emitters, India and China are particularly important because of their size. China’s goal of ‘carbon neutrality’ by 2060 is very welcome, but 2050 would be even more welcome. China could meet a 2025 peaking target with only moderate effort, and the carbon permit trading system it instituted this year will help.
Are such targets achievable?
For India, a country with the lowest per-capita emissions of any region (as I have grouped them in Table 2), to set a 2025 peaking target is a very big ‘ask’. As Table 3 shows, India’s absolute emissions rise is the largest projected to 2030, even larger than China’s. Looking at how the country’s emissions have risen between 1990 and 2018 (Figure 9), the largest increase has come in the electricity and heat sector (along with significant increases in manufacturing and construction, and transport, as well as agriculture). Electricity demand is sure to continue to increase in India, especially as millions are currently without access to electricity; deployment of renewables instead of fossil-fuel capacity is the low-hanging fruit. India could endeavour to ‘flatline’ its emissions from the electricity and heat sector; deployment of CCS to some existing coal-fired power plants would further contribute to this target, perhaps with the support of richer nations. A 2025 peak would be highly ambitious but achievable. Much the same could be said of North Africa.
Figure 9: GHG emissions by sector for India, 1990-2018. Units are million tonnes of CO2-equivalent. (Data downloaded from ClimateChangeData.org, which are taken from the World Resources Institute.)
The ability to curb emissions from the heat and electricity sector is very real. Figure 10 shows the reduction in that sector in the UK, particularly pronounced since about 2012/13. As Figure 11 illustrates, this has mainly been due to a fall in coal firing (often replaced by the firing of natural gas) and the deployment of wind power, though increased importation of electricity and increased use of biomass firing has also been significant, as has solar.
Figure 10: GHG emissions by sector for the UK, 1990-2018. Units are million tonnes of CO2-equivalent. (Data downloaded from ClimateChangeData.org, which are taken from the World Resources Institute.)
Figure 11: Great Britain’s electrical generation by fuel type % (taken from The Conversation)
In Sub Saharan Africa, the issue is generally more to do with land-use change and agriculture, as Figure 12 shows for the rather extreme case of Democratic Republic of Congo. There is much potential to turn around such emissions, however, while helping countries to provide electricity to their citizens in a low-emissions manner.
Figure 12: GHG emissions by sector for Democratic Republic of Congo, 1990-2018. Units are million tonnes of CO2-equivalent. (Data downloaded from ClimateChangeData.org, which are taken from the World Resources Institute.)
Many scientists gave their opinion on the question of achievability at the launch of The Physical Science Basis report in early August this year. Dr Friederike Otto of the University of Oxford, a contributor to the report, put the consensus view perhaps the most succinctly, saying “we are not doomed.”
Apart from the advancements in the power generation and heavy industry sectors listed above, there are many developments across different sectors that give grounds for cautious optimism. Some of them include:
- Road transport emissions should fall considerably from 2030 onwards. Many international carmakers have announced scheduled ends to production of internal combustion engine vehicles in the 2020s/early-2030s, and the share of electric vehicles in the world will rise year-on-year. (In fact, with considerations of resale value, the internal combustion engine vehicle market might collapse.) While battery manufacture is a leading cause of GHG emissions in the production of electric vehicles, manufacturers are looking to locate battery factories in areas with high supplies of renewable electricity too.
- Academics suggest that the technology to reduce agricultural emissions by 50-80% is already available. At the same time, soil carbon enrichment techniques are seen as a means to substantially remove GHGs from the atmosphere, helping to create ‘negative’ emissions.
- There is a growing appetite around the world for forestry projects to remove carbon dioxide from the air. (There are also other land-use-type projects that may sequester GHGs even faster, one example being wetland restoration.) While forestry projects must have the right trees planted in the right places to be effective, forestry projects can be advanced immediately at low cost. They also tie together the aspiration of companies, which can pay for projects, with those of countries, particularly developing countries. Eni, for instance, aims to make its oil and gas exploration and production business net carbon neutral by 2030 partly through planting 81,000 square kilometres of forests across South Africa, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Ghana.
- The envisaged introduction of the EU’s carbon border tax. If this is implemented, as seems very likely, it will be a way of forcing climate action in countries that are not acting to reduce emissions.
- Direct air capture technology is advancing, although of all the technologies I have mentioned, it is the least mature.
As I see them, the largest threats to a successful global effort to reduce GHG emissions are:
- Developing countries not being given sufficient assistance to peak and reduce emissions. This must be addressed in principle Glasgow, even if the details are finalised afterwards.
- Major emitting countries believing it is not in their interests to curb emissions. This might be true of countries such as Russia, Iran and Turkey. One possible way of arresting this will be to impose carbon border taxes on imports from those countries – this is already likely to happen to Russian hydrocarbon imports to the EU, but other countries imposing their own carbon border taxes would really make this work. It is currently difficult to see China or the USA imposing such systems, however. More pragmatically, such countries might be given a means of income from GHG emissions reduction projects, or promises for the purchase of new ‘green’ products from those countries might be given in return for pledges on curbing emissions from other products.
- Implementing policies fairly. This will be remain one of the biggest challenges over the coming decades.
- That despite many Western companies setting 2050 net-zero goals, the trend has not been pronounced in non-Western companies. If the right goal setting was made in Glasgow, companies would eventually be forced into these positions.
- Lower levels of political pressure in some countries compared to others. (Figure 13 gives an idea of this.) This would also be expected to shift in the coming years, as climate change impacts become even more evident and as the younger generation, generally more concerned with climate change, ages.
Figure 13: Public belief in the climate emergency, by country group, from the UNDP’s People’s Climate Vote report, 2021.
It’s going to be tight. But I can imagine an 84-year old Yann Arthus-Bertrand shooting a follow-up film in 2030, flying a green-fuelled helicopter. Unfortunately he would be documenting the worsening effects of climate change – effects lag emissions – but he would also be recording huge reforestation projects increasing habitat for wildlife, ubiquitous renewable energy installations (some of them feeding green fuel projects), massive carbon capture facilities and carbon-negative agriculture. If he chanced upon the same Bornean man, he would see him in his electric 4×4 with his family, paid for through the profit from a reforestation project he helped deliver.