By Charlie Wilson
Writing in the London Review of Books on 24/3/22 Meehan Crist noted;“One of the worst possible outcomes of the war in Ukraine would be an increasingly militarised response to climate breakdown, in which Western armies, their budgets ballooning in the name of “national security” seek to control not only the outcome of conflicts but the flow of energy, water, food, key minerals and other natural resources. One does not have to work particularly hard to imagine how barbarous that future would be”.
One does not have to work particularly hard to imagine this, because it is a pretty good description of the world we have, just a bit more so.
On 4 April, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report that should have alarm bells ringing in everyone’s heads, but has barely made a ripple because very few people have the emotional and intellectual bandwidth to deal with this at the same time as the war in Ukraine.
This illustrates a fundamental truth. That the world needs co-operative “win, win” leadership to avert environmental disaster, but what we have instead is a war drive from the USA to shore up its weakening global dominance, that, through its sanctions, will have a devastating effect on the Global South and involves a massive divergence of the investment needed into military expenditure.
China is spending one and a half times as much on climate as on its military. But the USA is spending fourteen times as much on its military as it is even contemplating investing in climate transition at home.
And the price Joe Manchin –as the key voice and vote for fossil fuel interests in the Senate -is demanding for that is increased oil and gas drilling on federal and private land, new 5 year oil and gas leases in the Gulf of Mexico and unblocking pipelines currently held up in the courts. The USA is already scheduled to invest more in oil and gas exploration than any other country in the world in the next ten years; and there is no sign of this course being reversed. Digging in on fossil fuel dependency means a steadily unravelling global ecological breakdown – which the US itself can’t wall itself off from and will require increasingly fascistic domestic politics if the ruling class is to stay on top – and shows that the US ruling class and its allies can’t lead humanity anywhere except to disaster.
What follows is a fairly bald summary of the IPCC Report. Comment is almost superfluous. The UK’s “Emergency Energy Strategy” will be dealt with in a separate article.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Report released on 4 April states that to hold global warming to 1.5°C countries must immediately
• phase down fossil fuel production,• embrace low-carbon technologies that are already practical and affordable,• mobilize citizens around the benefits of decarbonization,• and increase low-carbon financing three- to six-fold.
Global greenhouse gas emissions hit 59 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide or equivalent (CO2e) in 2019, 12% higher than in 2010 and 54% higher than in 1990.The annual rate of increase was lower between 2010 and 2019 than in the previous decade, but emissions were still rising, producing the “highest increase in average decadal emissions on record”.
Emissions since the Industrial Revolution stand at 2,400 billion tonnes; 42% of them since 1990; 17% inthe last 10 years.
That leaves a carbon budget of just 500 gigatonnes—less than a decade at current emission rates—for a 50-50 chance to hold average warming to 1.5°C and avert the worst impacts of climate breakdown.
For that, global emissions must peak by 2025.
For a two-thirds odds of holding at 2.0°C, the available carbon budget is just 1,150 Gt.
On current trends, we are on our way to 3.2°C by 2100.
“I don’t have words to explain. ‘Concerning’ is not enough. This is frankly a terrifying report,” former UN climate secretary Christiana Figueres:
• Fossil fuels and other industries are the source of the “largest growth in absolute emissions”• Followed by methane emissions that also trace back largely to fossil fuels.• Climate pollution has increased across all human activities since 1990.• Carbon dioxide from fossil fuels and industry has grown by two-thirds and increased from 59 to 64% of global emissions.• Industry’s gains in reducing its emissions per unit of oil or gas extracted “have been less than emissions increases from rising global activity levels in industry, energy supply, transport, agriculture, and buildings,”
UN Secretary-General António Guterres said this is a:
• “file of shame, cataloguing the empty pledges that put us firmly on track towards an unlivable world.”• We are “already perilously close to tipping points that could lead to cascading and irreversible climate impacts…this is not fiction or exaggeration. It is what science tells us will result from our current energy policies.• “We are on a pathway to global warming of more than double the 1.5° limit agreed in Paris.“Some government and business leaders are saying one thing—but doing another. Simply put, they are lying. And the results will be catastrophic.”
OVERSHOOTING THE CARBON BUDGET
IPCC Reports are negotiated texts published as a consensus of all participating countries, including the world’s biggest oil, gas, and coal producers; so Saudi Arabia, for example, has a veto. But it points out that:
• existing and planned fossil fuel infrastructure will single-handedly exceed the remaining carbon budget for 1.5°C,• and is “approximately equal” to the available carbon budget for a 2.0°C limit.
Annual emission reductions in countries’ commitments under the Paris agreement, require an “unprecedented acceleration” between 2030 and 2050; but “continued investments in unabated high-emitting infrastructure and limited development and deployment of low-emitting alternatives prior to 2030 would act as barriers to this acceleration” thereby missing attainable carbon reduction targets.
That definition of the problem points to potential solutions.
• Decommissioning and reduced utilization of existing fossil fuel-based power sector infrastructure,
• retrofitting existing installations with Carbon Capture and Storage,• switches to low-carbon fuels,• cancellation of new coal installations without CCS.
However, the reference to CCS assumes technology that can capture 95% of power plant emissions. This is massively beyond what current CCS technology can achieve and may not be possible even with further subsidies, research, and development to be able to scale up.
This is acknowledged by the IPCC itself elsewhere. The U.S. Center for. International Environmental Law noted that
• “The IPCC has repeatedly cautioned against over-reliance on speculative technologies like carbon capture and storage (CCS) and large-scale carbon dioxide removal, including direct air capture (DAC) and bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), which are unproven at scale, risky to humans and nature, and may simply not work to reduce emissions or limit temperature rise,• “Yet… the Summary for Policy Makers… de-emphasizes these core scientific messages, leaving the door open to pathways that dangerously overshoot the 1.5°C limit and overwhelmingly rely on technologies that pose grave threats to people and the environment.”
THE PATH TO FASTER EMISSION CUTS
Of the multiple future emissions pathways in the report, those that most effectively limit average warming to 1.5°C—with lower odds of temporarily overshooting that threshold and risking deeper, permanent climate impacts—all involve bigger, faster emission cuts up to 2030 and rely less heavily on carbon dioxide removal.
“In these global modelled pathways, in 2050 almost all electricity is supplied from zero- or low-carbon sources, such as renewables or fossil fuels with CCS, combined with increased electrification of energy demand,”
These emission reductions pay for themselves.
• “The aggregate effects of climate change mitigation on global GDP are small compared to global projected GDP growth,” even in economic models that factor in climate change mitigation costs but not the costs of the climate impacts or adaptation it avoids.• Emissions reduction options save money,• and“economic benefits from avoiding damages from climate change, and from reduced adaptation costs, increase with the stringency of mitigation.”
• Countries’ efforts to reduce emissions have been lagging since the IPCC released its 1.5°C pathways report in 2018.• Failure to cut emissions in one sector or industry – or country – will force the rest to take up the slack.• A 50-50 chance of hitting the 1.5°C target, requires coal, oil, and gas use falling by 95%, 60%, and 45% between 2019 and 2050 if fossils can get carbon capture to work the way they want it to—or 100%, 60%, and 70% if not.
There is potential for a 40 to 70% emissions reduction in the “end use sectors” that consume energy and produce emissions—systems like mobility, shelter, water, sanitation, and nutrition—between 2020 and 2050.
That potential “differs between and within regions,” but countries could reduce energy demand by up to 45%, avoid up to 30% of emissions in end use sectors (residential, commercial, industrial, and transport), and help people adopt sustainable, healthy diets, reduce food waste, and reduce the emissions footprint of buildings and transport.
The potential and the responsibilityfor that fall primarily on the 10% of the world’s households that contribute 34 to 45% of consumer emissions.
FINANCE FEEDS THE CRISIS
• The IPCC report landed less than a week after this year’s Banking on Climate Chaos report concluded that the world’s 60 biggest banks have invested US$4.6 trillion in fossil fuel projects in the six years since the Paris climate agreement was signed, and on the same day that colossal fossil fuel company Exxon-Mobil said its quarterly profits could exceed US$9.3 billion.• Funding for emission reductions and climate change adaptation increased 60% from 2013/14 to 2019/20. But “average growth has slowed since 2018,” mitigation efforts have received more attention than adaptation, and the available funds haven’t been distributed evenly across the world or sectors.• The world’s richest countries failed to make good on their long standing promise to deliver US$100 billion in annual climate finance to the developing world by 2020.• To date, “public and private finance flows for fossil fuels are still greater than those for climate adaptation and mitigation,”• Though interest in green bonds and other sustainable finance products is on the rise, “challenges remain, in particular around integrity and additionality, as well as the limited applicability of these markets to many developing countries.”
To keep a 1.5 or even 2°C target within reach, emissions reduction financing from the public and private sectors will have to increase three- to six-fold through the end of this decade.
• “There is sufficient global capital and liquidity to close global investment gaps, given the size of the global financial system, but there are barriers to redirect capital to climate action both within and outside the global financial sector, and in the macroeconomic headwinds facing developing regions,”• Barriers include “inadequate assessment of climate-related risks and investment opportunities, regional mismatch between available capital and investment needs, home bias factors, country indebtedness levels, economic vulnerability, and limited institutional capacities.”
NO NEW FOSSIL INFRASTRUCTURE
Sir David King, chair of the Climate Crisis Advisory Group, welcomed the report but declared himself “disheartened that it does not convey the true sense of urgency that is needed,” with the science showing “no chance that we can stay below 1.5°C or even 2°C without a major transition in attitudes and global systems.”
He called for an “equitable and orderly roadmap for the transition away from fossil fuels,” along with “immediate and significant action from the global North to rebuild trust with the rest of the world”.
Carbon Dioxide Removal
The IPCC concludes that CDR is unavoidable to hit net-zero emissions, but has wildly varying estimates of how much removal will be required, from which technologies, and how soon. These depend on how quickly countries take up the range of other emissions reduction options available to them.
• “CDR methods vary in terms of their maturity, removal process, time scale of carbon storage, storage medium, mitigation potential, cost, co-benefits, impacts and risks, and governance requirements,”• “Reforestation, improved forest management, soil carbon sequestration, peatland restoration, and blue carbon management are examples of methods that can enhance biodiversity and ecosystem functions, employment and local livelihoods, depending on context.”
• But, “afforestation or production of biomass crops for BECCS or biochar, when poorly implemented, can have adverse socio-economic and environmental impacts, including on biodiversity, food and water security, local livelihoods, and on the rights of Indigenous Peoples, especially if implemented at large scales and where land tenure is insecure.”
The report casts carbon capture and subsurface injection as a “mature technology” in the oil and gas sector— though 80% of the carbon captured in this sector has been used for fracking, so might be considered counterproductive. CCS “is less mature in the power sector, as well as in cement and chemicals production, where it is a critical mitigation option,” and deployment falls far short of what modellers say is needed to hit a 1.5 or 2°C limit.
SOLUTIONS IN ALL DIRECTIONS
The wider range of solutions in the report spans every part of the economy and society.
• 18 countries have sustained emissions reductions for more than a decade, with some of them cutting their carbon pollution by one-third or more.
• There are stunning cost reductions of up to 85% in renewable energy and energy storage technologies that hold potential for a new round of rapid decarbonization.
Smaller, distributed technologies like wind, solar, batteries, and energy efficiency devices can scale up and cut costs faster than large, centralized systems that rely on fossil fuels, nuclear generation, or CCS.
• “The unit costs of several low-emission technologies have fallen continuously since 2010,”• “innovation policy packages have enabled these cost reductions and supported global adoption,”
• But, “multiple large-scale mitigation technologies, with fewer opportunities for learning, have seen minimal cost reductions and their adoption has grown slowly.”
• “major transitions, including a substantial reduction in overall fossil fuel use, the deployment of low-emission energy sources, switching to alternative energy carriers, and energy efficiency and conservation,” with corresponding improvements in areas like air quality and health.• Stranded fossil assets in the sector could total $1 to $4 trillion by 2050 in a 2°C scenario, more with a 1.5° target, while giving coverage to the various CCS options with which fossil companies aim to extend the operating life of their systems.
• “coordinated action throughout value chains to promote all mitigation options, including demand management, energy and materials efficiency, circular material flows, as well as abatement technologies and transformational changes in production processes.”
• with specific options in heavy industries like steel, cement, plastics, primary metals, and chemicals, with hydrogen emerging as an opportunity for some sectors, requiring a wide range of policies—greenhouse gas accounting and standards, materials and energy efficiency, low-emissions energy and abatement technologies, and just transition planning.
• emissions could be almost completely wiped out, falling to three billion tonnes in 2050 compared to projections of 34 to 40 gigatonnes, through a mix of “ambitious and immediate mitigation efforts, including high levels of electrification and improved energy and material efficiency…depending on a city’s land use, spatial form, development level, and state of urbanization,”• municipalities have a wide suite of strategies to choose from, beginning with building retrofits, densification, support for walking, biking, and transit, co-locating jobs and housing, and enhancing natural carbon uptake with bio-based materials, permeable surfaces, green roofs, and green spaces.
• retrofits and new construction must “combine ambitious sufficiency, efficiency, and renewable energy measures” .• “Low ambitious policies increase the risk of lock-in carbon in buildings for decades,”• “well-designed and effectively implemented mitigation interventions, in both new buildings and existing ones if retrofitted, have significant potential to contribute to achieving SDGs in all regions while adapting buildings to future climate.”
• “electric vehicles powered by low-emissions electricity offer the largest decarbonization potential for land-based transport,”
• It’s considered unlikely that transport will hit zero emissions by 2100, so that some form of negative emissions will be needed to offset the shortfall.• Changes in urban form, and pricing systems to shift consumer behaviour, could reduce transport sector emissions in developed countries and limit their growth in developing ones.Investments in transit, biking, and pedestrian infrastructure“can further support the shift to less GHG-intensive transport modes,”• “combinations of systemic changes including, teleworking, digitalization, dematerialization, supply chain management, and smart and shared mobility may reduce demand for passenger and freight services across land, air, and sea.”
• can“deliver large-scale GHG emission reductions and enhanced removals, but cannot fully compensate for delayed action in other sectors,”• The IPCC sees benefits to specific countries in areas like biodiversity conservation, ecosystem services, and livelihoods.
• But“barriers to implementation and trade-offs may result from the impacts of climate change, competing demands on land, conflicts with food security and livelihoods, the complexity of land ownership and management systems, and cultural aspects.”
The IPCC stresses that the gains available through low-carbon technologies have not been equally available to all countries and regions.
• “policy packages tailored to national contexts and technological characteristics have been effective in supporting low-emission innovation and technology diffusion,”
• But“ adoption of low-emission technologies lags in most developing countries, particularly least developed ones, due in part to weaker enabling conditions, including limited finance, technology development, and transfer, and capacity.”• Low-emission technology with the right enabling conditions can “reinforce development benefits” and “create feedbacks towards greater public support for policy”,• But the wrong approach can drive low-wage employment and leave countries dependent on foreign experts and suppliers.