Path beyond the Paris summit

Path beyond the Paris summit

Path beyond the Paris summit
The pledges that countries have signalled they will make in Paris to cut emissions will inevitably fall short of what is needed to solve the problem of climate change. But many political leaders gathering there are pushing for more aggressive cuts. By the dozen, they are signing a voluntary agreement committing their jurisdictions to faster and deeper reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases than their national governments have promised. “We are not moving fast enough,” Jerry Brown of California, who is helping to lead the effort, said in an interview. “We’ve got to do more.” All of which raises a provocative question: What would a truly ambitious plan to tackle climate change look like?

Despite the intensity of the debate around global warming, the question has long been considered theoretical, and few people have spent much time studying potential steps to “deep decarbonisation” — certainly not at the level of detail needed for a concrete plan. Lately, that has started to change. But, the recent analyses make clear just how difficult a worldwide transition to a clean energy system is likely to be. “The arithmetic is really brutal,” said Jeffrey D Sachs, a prominent Columbia University economist. “We’re in such a dreadful situation that every country has to make this transformation, or else this isn’t going to work.”

Jeffrey helped start what is perhaps the most serious effort to draw up a detailed road map for the energy transition: the Deep Decarbonisation Pathways Project, based in Paris and New York. Over the past couple of years, the effort enlisted teams from 16 countries, which account for the large majority of global emissions, to devise such plans. The analysts used conservative assumptions about current technologies and their costs. They also presumed that developed countries would not be willing to make big changes in their way of life, and that poor countries would keep striving to reach higher standards of living, requiring more energy.

The experts also made a point of ruling out energy miracles, such as technologies like nuclear fusion that could help enormously if they became available, but are still largely on the drawing board. “If we couldn’t put on a hard hat and go visit a technology in the field, at least in pilot stage, then we didn’t include it in our analysis,” said Ben Haley, a senior consultant at Energy and Environmental Economics, a consulting firm involved in the work. With those assumptions, the experts focused on a specific question: Can emissions be cut enough from now to 2050 to meet an international target designed to head off the worst effects of climate change?

“It can still be done — barely,” said Guido Schmidt-Traub, the executive director of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, which helped organise the effort.

Technology falls short
Perhaps the single most crucial finding of the project is that the technologies available today, while good enough to get a running start on the transition, are probably not good enough to finish it. That means experts who have long argued for a more intensive research programme on clean energy have a point. The 16-country analysis suggests that many technologies, like electric cars and offshore wind turbines, have to become cheaper and better. Yet, the new research on decarbonisation also suggests that the environmentalists who have long called for a rapid expansion of existing clean-energy technologies also have a point: The very process of rolling them out helps spur innovation, and as they spread beyond niche markets, economies of scale drive down the costs. Solar power offers a stunning example, with costs of the panels plunging 80 per cent in the last decade, a direct result of subsidies and other policies meant to create a larger market. In many places, solar power is still more expensive than power produced from fossil fuels, but the difference has narrowed considerably.

Wind turbines have been a big winner, too, in recent years. The good news about wind and solar power has inspired claims that they could carry the entire load of the energy transition. Mark Z Jacobson, an engineer at Stanford University, has drawn attention with a finding that the entire world could operate on 100 per cent renewable power by 2050. Yet, such scenarios would involve an extraordinary push.

The scenarios laid out by the Deep Decarbonisation Pathways Project echo Mark’s plans to a degree, in that they call for substantial amounts of renewable power. But these scenarios also suggest that the energy transition would be easier and cheaper with additional technology options, including some that are disliked by the environmental movement. For instance, in some countries with growing power demands, like China, the research found that nuclear power would be essential for staying within a strict emissions budget.

And many experts believe the United States, even if it does not build many new nuclear plants, would be foolish to shut down the ones it has, given that they supply 19 per cent of the country’s electric power with minimal emissions.

Yet, some of them have shut down lately, occasionally because of safety fears but mainly because of low power prices prompted by the abundance of natural gas. The research also suggests that to meet strict targets, some countries might need to keep burning coal or natural gas to generate power while capturing the carbon dioxide emerging from smokestacks, compressing it and injecting it deep underground.

Governments have discussed the need for this technology, known as carbon capture and storage, for decades. But they have put little effort into developing it, and it has not advanced much beyond the demonstration scale, though a few projects are starting to come online.

Environmental groups have been wary of the technology, and Germany, among the most determined countries in battling global warming, has largely decided not to pursue it. Perhaps, the most compelling finding of the Deep Decarbonisation Pathways Project is that governments could easily flub the energy transition by failing to plan far enough ahead. Most countries are setting 10- and 15-year targets that can be met with incremental changes.

Most fossil-fuel companies do not appear to be putting much effort into the approach, either, even though it may be the only way for some of them to stay in business over the long haul. “It is a highly contested technology, but if they want to save their industry, they should be investing like crazy in proving the technology,” Jeffrey said.

Yet, that almost guarantees that the toughest problems, like perfecting the carbon-capturing technology, will be tackled too late to meet the long-term goal of zero emissions, the researchers found. “By the time you get to the hard things, you’ve lost too much time,” Guido said. Instead, governments have to figure out where they want to be in 2050, he said, and then work backward to plot the necessary technological path, while remaining open to new inventions.

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