The UK website Carbon Brief, which analysed government and industry data, found that 335 terawatt-hours were generated by power plants last year, down by about 1% on the year before. Since 2005 the level has fallen by 16% – or the equivalent of two and a half Hinkley Point C nuclear power stations.
Simon Evans, policy editor at the group, said: “It could be a combination of more efficient appliances, energy-saving lightbulbs and, more recently, LEDs. Then there’s supermarkets installing better fridges, industry using more efficient pumps. Across all of those businesses, efficiency will have been going up. And of course there’s the changing nature of industry in the UK.”
The financial crisis could also have played a role in making homes and businesses more careful with their energy use, he added.
While generation fell almost every year between 2008 and 2014, it remained stable between 2015 and 2017, before resuming its downward march in 2018.
Continuing to use energy more efficiently would help the UK reach its binding climate goals, Evans said. “Using less as an end in itself isn’t the point. But it is the case that meeting carbon targets is made easier if we use energy efficiently.”
Separate data from the National Grid showed that 2018 was the greenest year to date for electricity generation as more power is sourced from renewable sources and less from coal. The carbon intensity from electricity generation was down 6.8% last year and has more than halved since 2013.
The analysis by Carbon Brief found that renewable sources including biomass, hydro, solar and wind power supplied a record 33% of electricity this year, up from 29% last year. Renewables were just 6.7% of the mix in 2009.
Green energy was boosted primarily by new windfarms connecting to the grid, as well as new biomass plants, which included the conversion of a coal unit at Drax power station in north Yorkshire and the conversion of a former coal plant at Lynemouth, Northumberland.
‘Everybody gets paralysed by bad news because they feel helpless,” says Christiana Figueres, the former UN climate chief who delivered the landmark Paris climate change agreement. “It is so in our personal lives, in our national lives and in our planetary life.”
But it is becoming increasingly clear that it does not need to be all bad news: a series of fast-moving global megatrends, spurred by trillion-dollar investments, indicates that humanity might be able to avert the worst impacts of global warming. From trends already at full steam, including renewable energy, to those just now hitting the big time, such as mass-market electric cars, to those just emerging, such as plant-based alternatives to meat, these trends show that greenhouse gas emissions can be halted.
“If we were seeing linear progress, I would say good, but we’re not going to make it in time,” says Figueres, now the convener of the Mission 2020 initiative, which warns that the world has only three years to get carbon emissions on a downward curve and on the way to beating global warming. “But the fact is we are seeing progress that is growing exponentially, and that is what gives me the most reason for hope.”
No one is saying the battle to avert catastrophic climate change – floods, droughts, famine, mass migrations – has been won. But these megatrends show the battle has not yet been lost, and that the tide is turning in the right direction. “The important thing is to reach a healthy balance where we recognise that we are seriously challenged, because we really have only three years left to reach the tipping point,” says Figueres. “But at the same time, the fact is we are already seeing many, many positive trends.”
Michael Liebreich, the founder of Bloomberg New Energy Finance, agrees. “The good news is we are way better than we thought we could be. We are not going to get through this without damage. But we can avoid the worst. I am optimistic, but there is a long way to go.”
Also cautiously hopeful is climate economist Nicholas Stern at the London School of Economics. “These trends are the start of something that might be enough – the two key words are ‘start’ and ‘might’.” He says the global climate negotiations, continuing this week in Germany and aiming to implement the Paris deal, are crucial: “The acceleration embodied in the Paris agreement is going to be critical.”
1. Methane: getting to the meat
Carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels is the main greenhouse gas, but methane and nitrous oxide are more potent and, unlike CO2, still rising. The major source is livestock farming, in particular belching cattle and their manure.
The world’s appetite for meat and dairy foods is rising as people’s incomes rise, but the simple arithmetic is that unless this is radically curbed, there is no way to beat global warming. The task looks daunting – people hate being told what to eat. However, just in the last year, a potential solution has burst on to the market: plant-based meat, which has a tiny environmental footprint.
What sounds like an oxymoron – food that looks and tastes just as good as meat or dairy products but is made from plants – has attracted heavy investment. The buzz is particularly loud in the US, where Bill Gates has backed two plant-based burger companies and Eric Schmidt, formerly CEO of Google, believes plant-based foods can make a “meaningful dent” in tackling climate change.
New plant-based products, from chicken to fish to cheese, are coming out every month. “We are in the nascent stage,” says Alison Rabschnuk at the US nonprofit group the Good Food Institute. “But there’s a lot of money moving into this area.”
Plant-based meat and dairy produce is not only environmentally friendly, but also healthier and avoids animal welfare concerns, but these benefits will not make them mass-market, she says: “We don’t believe that is what is going to make people eat plant-based food. We believe the products themselves need to be competitive on taste, price and convenience – the three attributes people use when choosing what to eat.”
Plant-based milks – soya, almond, oat and more – have led the way and are now about 10% of the market and a billion-dollar business in the US. But in the past year, sales of other meat and dairy substitutes have climbed 8%, with some specific lines, such as yoghurt, shooting up 55%. “I think the writing’s on the wall,” says Rabschnuk. Billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson agrees. “I believe that in 30 years or so we will no longer need to kill any animals and that all meat will either be [lab] or plant-based, taste the same and also be much healthier for everyone.”
2. Renewable energy: time to shine
The most advanced of the megatrends is the renewable energy revolution. Production costs for solar panels and wind turbines have plunged, by 90% in the past decade for solar, for example, and are continuing to fall. As a result, in many parts of the world they are already the cheapest electricity available and installation is soaring: two-thirds of all new power in 2016 was renewable.
This extraordinary growth has confounded expectations: the respected International Energy Agency’s annual projections have anticipated linear growth for solar power every year for the past decade. In reality, growth has been exponential. China is leading the surge but the impact is being felt around the world: in Germany last week there was so much wind power that customers got free electricity.
In the US, enthusiasm for green energy has not been dented by President Donald Trump committing to repeal key climate legislation: bn has been invested since he signed an executive order in March. “I am no longer concerned about electric power,” says Figueres.
3. King coal: dead or dying
The flipside of the renewables boom is the death spiral of coal, the filthiest of fossil fuels. Production now appears to have peaked in 2013. The speed of its demise has stunned analysts. In 2013, the IEA expected coal-burning to grow by 40% by 2040 – today it anticipates just 1%.
“Last year, I said if Asia builds what it says it is going to build, we can kiss goodbye to 2C” – the internationally agreed limit for dangerous climate change – says Liebreich. “Now we are showing coal [plans] coming down.” But he warns there is more to do.
Solar and wind are cheaper than new coal, he says, but a second tipping point is needed. That will occur when renewables are cheaper to build than running existing coal plants, meaning that the latter shut down. If renewable costs continue to fall as expected, this would happen between 2030 and 2040. At that point, says Liebrich, “Why keep digging coal out of the ground when you could just put up solar?”
4. Electric cars: in the fast lane
Slashing oil use – a third of all global energy – is a huge challenge but a surging market for battery-powered cars is starting to bite, driven in significant part by fast-growing concerns about urban air pollution.
China, again, is leading the way. It is selling as many electric cars every month as Europe and the US combined, with many from home-grown companies such as BYD. US-based Tesla is rolling out its more affordable Model 3 and in recent months virtually all major carmakers have committed to an electric future, with Volvo and Jaguar Land Rover announcing that they will end production of pure fossil-fuelled cars within three years.
“We have a domino effect now,” says Figueres. These cars are “now being made for the mass market and that is really what is going to make the transformation”.
“I don’t think it is going to slow down,” says Viktor Irle, an analyst at EV-volumes.com. Drivers can see the direction of travel, he says, with a stream of choked cities and countries from Paris to India announcing future bans on fossil-fuelled cars.
It is true that global sales of electric cars have now achieved liftoff, quadrupling in the past three years, but they still make up only 1.25% of all new car sales. However, if current growth rates continue, as Irle expects, 80% of new cars will be electric by 2030.
Batteries are key to electric cars and, by storing energy for when the sun goes down or the wind stops blowing, they are also vital when it comes to enabling renewable energy to reach its full potential. Here too, a megatrend is crushing prices for lithium-ion batteries, which are down 75% over the past six years. The International Renewable Energy Agency expects further falls of 50-66% by 2030 and a massive increase in battery storage, linked to increasingly smart and efficient digital power grids. In the UK alone, government advisers say a smart grid could save bill-payers £8bn a year by 2030, as well as slashing carbon emissions.
Fears that lithium-ion, the technology that dominates today, cannot be scaled up sufficiently are overblown, argues Liebreich, as the metal is not rare. “I think lithium-ion is a banker in that you can be sure it will get cheaper and you can be sure there is enough.” He is also frustrated by frequent claims that a grid based on renewables and storage cannot be cheap and reliable: “That stupidity and absolute certainty is in inverse proportion to any knowledge of how you run an electrical system.”
It is true, however, that batteries will not be the solution for energy storage over weeks or months. For that, long-distance electricity interconnectors are being built and the storage of the energy as gas is also being explored.
6. Efficiency: negawatts over megawatts
Just as important as the greening of energy is reducing demand by boosting energy efficiency. It’s a no-brainer in climate policy, but it can be very tricky to make happen, as it requires action from millions of people.
Nonetheless, good progress is being made in places such as the EU, where efficiency in homes, transport and industry has improved by about 20% since 2000. Improving the efficiency of gadgets and appliances through better standards is surprisingly important: a new UN Environment Programme report shows it makes the biggest impact of any single action bar rolling out wind and solar power.
But again, continued progress is vital. “We need to drive energy efficiency very, very hard, even for European countries,” says Prof Kevin Anderson at the University of Manchester. “We could power down European energy use by about 40% in something like 10-15 years, just by making the most efficient appliances available the new minimum.”
In countries with cool winters, better insulation is also needed, particularly as a fossil fuel – natural gas – currently provides a lot of heating. “What is a crime is every time a building is renovated but not renovated to really high standards,” says Liebreich, who thinks labelling such homes as “zero-energy-bill” homes, not “zero-carbon” homes, would help overcome opposition.
The destruction of forests around the world for ranching and farming, as well as for timber, causes about 10% of greenhouse gas emissions. This is the biggest megatrend not yet pointing in the right direction: annual tree losses have roughly doubled since 2000.
This is particularly worrying as stopping deforestation and planting new trees is, in theory at least, among the cheapest and fastest ways of cutting carbon emissions. But it is not getting the support it needs, says Michael Wolosin at Forest Climate Analytics. “Climate policy is massively underfunding forests – they receive only about 2% of global climate finance.” Furthermore, the .3bn committed to forests by rich nations and multilateral institutions since 2010 is tiny compared with the funding for the sectors that drive deforestation. “Brazil and Indonesia’s governments alone invested 6bn in the same timeframe, in just the four key driver commodities: palm oil, soy, beef and timber,” says Franziska Haupt at Climate Focus.
In the past two decades, tree-planting in China, India and South Korea has removed more than 12bn tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere – three times the entire European Union’s annual emissions, Wolosin says. This action was driven by fears about flooding and food supply, meaning that global warming needs to be seen as equally urgent in this sector. Regrowing forests can also play a crucial role in sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere, which is likely to be necessary after 2050, unless very sharp cuts are made now.
The race against time
Will these megatrends move fast enough to avoid the worst of climate change? Opinions vary and Anderson is among the most hawkish. He says it remains possible for now, but is pessimistic that the action will be taken. “We’re pointing in the right direction but not moving [there]. We have to not just pursue renewables and electric vehicles and so forth, we have to actively close down the incumbent fossil fuel industry.”
Stern is cautiously optimistic, saying that what has changed in recent years is the realisation that green economic growth is the only long-term option: “There is no long-run high-carbon growth story because it creates an environment so hostile that it turns development backwards.
“There are some tremendous developments so I am very confident now we can do this, but the change, attractive as it is, has to be radical,” he says. “Will we have the political and economic understanding and commitment to get there? I hope so.”
The UK could be a green business powerhouse in the next three decades, but only if given proper support by government, a group representing more than 30 low-carbon companies has said.
The low-carbon economy in the UK employs at least 432,000 people, with a turnover of more than £77bn in 2015. This is larger than industries such as car-making and steelmaking, which are frequently given the spotlight when politicians discuss industry and jobs.
Growth in green business is also expected to outstrip other sectors of the economy, as international opportunities open up for low-carbon goods and services. Investments by major developing countries alone are projected to be tn by the end of the next decade, with green business’s supporters arguing that the UK is well placed to take a share of the burgeoning market.
In a letter to the Guardian, a group representing more than 30 of the UK’s green and low-carbon companies forecast that the low-carbon economy would rocket from 2% of the UK’s GDP today to 13% in the next three decades, boosting both manufacturing and services, but only with government support. The business leaders urged politicians across the spectrum to respond, as the policies of the next government will play a major role in determining how the sector develops and whether job opportunities are realised. They wrote: “Stable policies to grow the UK’s low-carbon market will be essential to turn this potential into reality and ensure our economy remains competitive on the global stage.” Green businesses have been disappointed by the apparent lack of interest in the sector during the general election campaign, and by the absence of strong public commitments in the manifestos. The signatories to the letter concluded: “We call on the new government to put in place ambitious and long-term policies to tackle climate change and improve the state of the environment at the heart of its industrial strategy and vision for the UK.” The letter was coordinated by the Aldersgate Group and also signed by 11 companies including Kingfisher, Aviva Investors, Anglian Water, Siemens, and Scottish and Southern Energy. Nick Molho, executive director of the Aldersgate Group, said the decision by US president Donald Trump to withdraw from the Paris agreement on climate change would not make a major dent in the prospects for growth. He noted that the shift to a more efficient and lower carbon economy is well under way across the globe, with the cost of clean technologies, such as renewable energy and electric vehicles, falling rapidly, and investment growing strongly. “Following the commitments made by six world leaders at the recent G7 summit, and the news of greater cooperation between China and the EU on climate change, major global players like the UK must continue to build competitive, low-carbon economies and honour their commitments under the Paris agreement.” Environmental businesses in the UK have been hit in recent years by swings in government policy that have led to job losses and uncertainty among potential investors. These swings include the scrapping of subsidies and harder planning requirements for onshore wind farms; the slashing of support for solar panels and restrictions on solar farms; the abandonment of the “green deal”, which was intended to boost home insulation; the removal of the promised £1bn funding for carbon capture and storage facilities; and the scrapping of the target to make new homes zero-carbon. Last week, Labour accused the Conservative government of failing to come up with plans on how to achieve the statutory targets on reducing carbon dioxide emissions, set out under the Climate Change Act. Green groups fear that a new Conservative government under Theresa May could scrap the Climate Change Act, leaving the UK without firm targets on cutting greenhouse gases. However, the government has pointed to increased investment for electric vehicles, support for new nuclear power stations, and a boost to offshore wind as evidence of its commitment to low-carbon infrastructure.
Since May 2010, the UK has installed more than 11GW of wind power, generating enough electricity for more than 7.8m homes.
In the late 20th century, those who stood against globalisation were charged with swimming against an unstoppable tide, caricatured as “Stop the world, I wanna get off!” But in the 21st century, history is running with the anti-globalisers. World trade talks have gone nowhere, immigration controls have shot up the agenda, and two post-national EU projects – the euro and Schengen – are under strain. Figures as diverse as Donald Trump, Nicola Sturgeon and Marine Le Pen – who failed to convert a remarkable first-round victory in French regional elections into any outright wins – are all peddling one form of nationalism or another. Rumours of the death of the nation state, then, have proved exaggerated: globalisation is spinning into reverse.
Looking back on the future as it appeared in the 1990s – as a technocratic, transnational order – a democratic push-back was surely inevitable, in some senses even desirable. But when problems from the overuse of antibiotics to terrorism refuse to respect national borders, the retreat from the dream of global governance has some frightening consequences, especially in connection with climate change, the archetypal global problem. Saving the planet in a fracturing world is a daunting challenge indeed.
The Paris COP 21 talks surpassed expectations in rising to it, demonstrating just how much can be achieved by determined diplomacy, even while working within the unbending red lines of jealously sovereign states. A formal treaty was precluded because it would hand a veto to the intransigent legislators of Capitol Hill, while also offending the sensibilities of Delhi and Beijing. Fortunately, it proved possible to work within the fudged alternative framework of a “legally binding instrument”. Everyone offered up voluntary emission targets, and agreed, too, to a five-yearly review of these. While the targets on the table are not yet adequate to avoid the disaster of more than 2C of warming, the surprise inclusion of an aspiration to cap temperature rises at 1.5C signals a shared understanding that the targets will have to be tightened at each successive review. The destructive standoff between developing and developed countries that doomed Copenhagen six years ago has been transcended: the big developing economies, which now produce the bulk of emissions, are no longer pretending that they can delay doing anything until the rich world is perfectly green; at the same time the rich world is effectively accepting that it will have to help shoulder the “loss and damage” costs inflicted by the long legacy of western pollution.
This is, on the face of it, a rare and heartening case of disparate peoples being led to a common conclusion by evidence and reason, but serendipity played its part too. It happens, for example, that in 2015 there is a progressive US president who never has another election to win. It happens, too, that China is the midst of replacing filthy old power stations, which is already curbing its emissions growth, making it less painful than before for Beijing to engage. Indeed, the latest global CO2 data registers a striking levelling off, raising the tantalising possibility that technological progress could be entering a phase where the cast-iron link between emissions and growth begins to rust. If that pattern were borne out in future years, future climate negotiations could get smoother on every front. Then there is the great oil price crash, which facilitates a more fruitful discussion on fossil fuels, by making it much more imaginable to keep it in the ground.
One anxiety is whether this fortuitous alignment of political and economic stars will remain, as nations move from making promises, towards real action. Paris cannot guarantees success, but it does encourage hope – and particularly if Ms Le Pen’s chauvinist form of nationalism can be seen off. The Front National dabbled in greenwash last year, but its insistence on an ecology defined by “patriotism and the national interest”, and its instinctive suspicion of a multilateral UN approach is precisely the attitude which could thwart the translation of impressive COP 21 words into deeds.
Paris has given the world new hope in the possibilities of pragmatic diplomacy, at a time when France’s own politics illustrate the difficulties of assuming solidarity extends beyond national borders. If the answer to climate change is going to have to be found in continuous haggling between 200 nations, then success is also going to depend on winning the argument against narrow nationalism in every corner of the world.
Putting cities on a course of smart growth – with expanded public transit, energy-saving buildings, and better waste management – could save as much as tn and avoid the equivalent in carbon pollution of India’s entire annual output of greenhouse gasses, according to leading economists.
The Global Commission on Economy and Climate, an independent initiative by former finance ministers and leading research institutions from Britain and six other countries, found climate-smart cities would spur economic growth and a better quality of life – at the same time as cutting carbon pollution.
If national governments back those efforts, the savings on transport, buildings, and waste disposal could reach up to tn (£14tn) by 2050, the researchers found. By 2030, those efforts would avoid the equivalent of 3.7 gigatonnes a year – more than India’s current greenhouse gas emissions, the report found.
The finding upends the notion that it is too expensive to do anything about climate change – or that such efforts would make little real difference. Not true, said the researchers.
“There is now increasing evidence that emissions can decrease while economies continue to grow,” said Seth Schultz, a researcher for the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group who consulted on the report.
“Becoming more sustainable and putting the world – specifically cities – on a low carbon trajectory is actually feasible and good economics.”
The report called on the world’s leading cities to commit to low carbon development strategies by 2020.
The findings, were released as the United Nations and environmental groups try to spur greater action on climate change ahead of critical negotiations in Paris at the end of the year.
The Paris meeting is seen as a linchpin of efforts to hold warming to 2C by moving the global economy away from fossil fuels to cleaner sources of energy.
The UN concedes the climate commitments to date fall far short of the 2C goal. But the strategies outlined in the report – some of which are being put into place already – would on their own make up about 20% of that gap, said Amanda Eichel of Bloomberg Philanthropies who also consulted on the report.
Two-thirds of the world’s population will live in urban areas by 2050, with Africa’s urban population growing at twice the rate of the rest of the world.
The right choices now, in terms of long-term planning for urban development and transport, could improve people’s lives and fight climate change, the report found.
Investing in public transport would make the biggest immediate difference, the report found. Air pollution is already choking the sprawling cities of India and China. Traffic jams and accidents are taking a toll on the local economy in cities from Cairo to Sao Paulo.
But building bus lanes, such as those rolling out in Buenos Aires, could cut commuting time by up to 50%, the report said.
Green building standards could cut electricity use, reduce heat island effects, and reduce demand for water. In waste management, biogas from waste could be harnessed as fuel to provide electricity to communities, as was already being done by Lagos in Nigeria and other cities.
The EU is celebrating 10 years of the world’s largest carbon trading system this year by looking at new reforms to keep it on track. The emissions trading scheme (ETS), which covers half of Europe’s CO2 emissions by limiting the number of carbon permits available to energy generators and industry, has been dogged by low prices and oversupply of allowances.
The problems are largely ones of success – carbon emissions are lower than anticipated. But much of the oversupply was caused by the recession in Europe, so has the trading system been a waste of time or has it changed business attitudes and operations?
To answer these questions the Prince of Wales’ Corporate Leaders Group commissioned a report, 10 years of Carbon Pricing in Europe – a business perspective, which was released last week. The report is based on interviews with a small number of companies from a variety of sectors that are mandated into the ETS to see what impact it has had on them.
For some, the responses were pretty much to be expected. EDF and Shell have long been advocates of the carbon market and higher prices. Energy companies need the price to justify the right investment decisions at the right time – and many of them are able to pass on the cost of carbon allowances to their consumers – so they would be in favour of a high carbon price.
Although they profess the importance of the carbon market, it is clear that other policies, such as those promoting renewables or nuclear energy, have had more impact.
Carbon trading driving emission cuts
But then there are the energy intensives. Often vulnerable to international competition and with limited options to reduce their CO2 emissions, these industries generally have not been enthusiastic advocates of the carbon price. But here the European carbon market does seem to have had a genuine impact. Steel company ArcelorMittel acknowledged the importance of monitoring and reporting emissions to manage them.
Tata Steel Europe said that even in the depths of the recession some of its facilities were taking steps that would have previously been unacceptable or impossible in order to stay afloat, because reducing emissions is synonymous with efficiency. To the same effect, cement company Italcementi uses CO2 intensity as an indicator of efficiency as it “combines most of the key levers to industrial excellence”.
It seems unlikely these companies would have got this far without the ETS.
Next, we should consider the industries that are within the ETS but for which energy is not such a significant cost or where there are other options. What is interesting here is how the most advanced companies have moved beyond compliance to more interesting and creative ways of cutting emissions.
There are plenty of examples of companies using their waste heat or buying heat from their neighbours, thus going the extra mile to improve efficiency. The bottling company O-I Group uses waste heat to pre-heat raw materials and to heat the floor in their plant. Others have created new business models that have provided a lucrative income stream from offering consultancy advice to others. Here the ETS has provided a valuable focus on carbon and underwritten the improvements made.
Finally, there are those companies that probably would not have gone beyond compliance if they had not had leaders with vision. Where senior managers decide to take carbon seriously there can be huge benefits, even where energy is a small proportion of total costs.
Jaguar Land Rover and GlaxoSmithKline have directed new resources to cutting carbon with astonishing success. This has been crowned by a reduced carbon liability. Clearly in these companies the ETS alone has not driven this transformation, but the senior management teams would not have had this on the agenda without the carbon price being discussed at board level. It is noteworthy that these businesses instigated action in 2007 and 2008 when the allowance price was relatively stable in the €20-€25 range.
What needs to happen next? Europe is embarking on reform of the ETS now. Clearly getting prices back up to the lofty levels of 2007 would help but, ironically, the companies that have focused on carbon have found the low hanging fruit of cheap emissions reductions to be almost limitless, which will make it a bigger struggle to raise the price.
Do we need a higher price then? Yes. To tackle the challenging industries that will need technological breakthroughs we will need higher carbon prices to incentivise more reductions and to fund innovation.
Business leaders are preparing for a limited agreement on reducing carbon emissions at the crunch UN summit in Paris later this year, despite growing support from them for carbon pricing and a commitment to cut emissions by enough to avoid more than 2C of global warming.
They called on policymakers to agree on carbon pricing mechanisms, closer collaboration between business and government on climate policies and a joint public and private sector fund for investing in low-carbon technology, particularly in developing countries.
However, business leaders did not expect the necessary emissions reductions or their policy requests to be finalised in December.
“We have to be pragmatic,” French oil group Total CEO Patrick Pouyanné told the Guardian. “If we take the sum of commitments made by countries then I am afraid we will not be on the 2C trajectory. There will be a gap.
“But what is important from the UN talks in December is to have a convergence of companies on the one side and governments on the other. At least some commitments by governments and businesses, and a mechanism in place to improve it,” he said, adding that he is in favour of a carbon pricing principle.
A failure to bring enough emission cut commitments to put the world on track for avoiding global warming of more than 2C is likely to frustrate the majority of businesses, says the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), with more than 30 companies including Ford Motor Company, Unilever, Nissan and H&M having already pledged to set long-term, science-based climate targets. The targets will match the scale needed to meet the goal of limiting global temperature increases to 2C.
“A small minority of companies may be relieved to continue on a business as usual pathway in the short term, but it would lead to a build-up of systemic risk in the economy,” says CDP’s CEO Paul Simpson. “The vast majority of companies want to see a managed transition to a low-carbon future and not costly, last-minute regulation or climate chaos.”
French companies were represented in large numbers at this week’s summit, with Renault saying it would be “totally stupid” not to have the right regulations, framework and price signals in place after the UN talks. “We have made the investments and have the technology ready to implement on a larger scale,” said Claire Martin, director for sustainable development at Renault.
Private sector could help meet targets
While some have doubted the sincerity of energy-intensive businesses in particular in tackling climate change, Unilever CEO Paul Polman suggests the private sector could help close the shortfall in emission commitments made by governments. “It is very likely that all the agreements coming in will not add up to what we need to stay below 2C. [Those commitments] will be around 40% of that in reality. That is why we are mobilising the private sector. If we work together we can close that gap.”
However, Claus Stig Pedersen head of corporate sustainability at Novozymes, said the past five years had shown business could not tackle climate change without a strong political deal.
“We had this reaction after the UN talks in Copenhagen in 2009 of disappointment with politicians and I was part of a movement that said okay, let’s just do it ourselves. A lot of business jumped into this space and took some big steps forward, but after some years business in general realised that we couldn’t do this alone.
“There is no way we can do this without partnering with politicians and making agreements going forward. So if we should end up with a Paris failure, like we’ve had before, then I do think we’ve learnt we can’t do it alone. We have all the solutions needed, it’s just about applying it. And regulation, a carbon price and ambitious goals from the UN climate talks will drive that faster,” he added.
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The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, has said hundreds of millions of Earth hour participants around the world will demand a strong global climate agreement by switching off their lights for an hour on Saturday night.
Many of the world’s brightest lights will go dark at 8:30pm (GMT) as Earth hour marks its ninth year. In a video address, Ban said the symbolic switching-off held more significance than ever, just nine months before a pivotal UN meeting on the climate crisis in Paris.
“Climate change is a people problem. People cause climate change and people suffer from climate change. People can also solve climate change. This December in Paris, the United Nations is bringing nations together to agree a new, universal and meaningful climate agreement. It will be the culmination of a year of action on sustainable development,” said Ban.
More than 7,000 cities in 172 countries are expected to take part in the world’s largest ever demonstration, which has grown from a single World Wildlife Fund (WWF) event in Sydney in 2007.
“Earth Hour shows what is possible when we unite in support of a cause: no individual action is too small, no collective vision is too big. This is the time to use your power,” said Ban.
Organisers said this year’s demonstration would be the biggest yet. Sudhanshu Sarronwala, chair of Earth Hour global said: “Climate change is not just the issue of the hour, it’s the issue of our generation. The lights may go out for one hour, but the actions of millions throughout the year will inspire the solutions required to change climate change.”
Some the world’s most famous landmarks will turn their lights out. The UN building in New York will join London’s Houses of Parliament, Rio de Janeiro’s Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) and the Eiffel Tower in Paris. In Bulgaria a giant Danube sturgeon fish will be drawn in fire in the capital, Sofia. Millions of other, more humble, participants will take part by simply switching from electricity to candlelight for an hour.
Colin Butfield, director of campaigns at WWF-UK said the mass participation was a demand for climate action and politicians should take heed. “The fact that such a huge number of people are taking part in Earth Hour across the world and are using it as a moment to inspire action on sustainability in their own communities sends a really clear message that the public is ready to tackle climate change – we now need politicians to show the same drive,” he said.
Britain’s energy and climate change secretary, Ed Davey, who has been heavily involved in the climate negotiations at the UN, called for a response to climate change that was commensurate with its threat. “It’s time for everyone to recognise that climate change will touch just about everything we do and everything we care about. Earth Hour is an excellent opportunity for millions of people across the world to take one simple step to show they’re serious about backing action on climate change,” said Davey.
Ban said the focus on climate change should not distract from Earth Hour’s other key mission: introducing clean energy to the most remote and impoverished communities on Earth. “By turning out the lights we also highlight that more than a billion people lack access to electricity. Their future wellbeing requires access to clean, affordable energy,” he said.
In 2014 Earth Hour used a crowdfunding platform to raise money and deliver thousands of fuel-efficient stoves to families in Madagascar and solar kits to remote villages in Uganda. The organisation also supplied islands in the Philippines with solar power for the first time and raised money for victims of Typhoon Haiyan.
The challenges of our time can feel overwhelming: climate change, economic inequality, water scarcity – even the most passionate campaigner might want to pull the covers over and look away. So can single-issue campaigns such as Buy Nothing New Month or Meat Free Week help us divide important causes into manageable chunks? Or do they only distract?
Peter Burr, CEO of Meat Free Week
Single-issue campaigns are most effective when we have an emotional connection linking us directly to the cause – an aunt dying of bowel cancer; work with mistreated animals; or a concern for the world we’re leaving to our children. Emotional connections compel us to support a cause because we hope to prevent others from enduring the same suffering.
We’re thirsty for knowledge, so any campaign that gets a conversation started will have an impact . Even if you take away only a single aspect of the message that positively influences your life, that’s got to be a good thing.
I have no doubt “wear out” means many people will not participate in a campaign for a second year. But with each year, campaigns attract a significant new audience. That coupled with the residual memory of previous years’ campaigns, will start to return greater numbers. It won’t happen overnight, but it will happen. We’re hoping to achieve that result with Meat Free Week – it’s hard to change habits of a lifetime, but they said that about cigarettes.
Tom Crompton, director of Common Cause Foundation
Stepping up to the challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss is not easy. Embracing small changes in our everyday lives is one important response – but let’s not kid ourselves that this can be remotely sufficient. In the words of David McKay, chief scientific adviser to the department of energy and climate change in the UK, “Don’t be distracted by the myth that ‘every little helps’. If everyone does a little, we’ll achieve only a little.”
Anyone concerned about climate change could ask: How am I encouraging and supporting others to become more vocal in expressing concern – for example, by joining campaigns or public demonstrations, or making far-reaching changes in the way that they live?
Building this deeper concern need not require work on climate change at all. Work on a wide range of issues can be effective, even where there is no mention of anything obviously related to the environment. What’s needed is a re-connection with the things people say are most important to them: friends and family, our communities, beautiful places, the poor or disadvantaged, freedom and creativity.
Conversely, urging people to reuse their shopping bags, or to switch the TV off standby, can undermine this more important work. Unless they invite re-connection with these deeper values, behaviour-change campaigns can be counter-productive if they don’t invite reconnection with deeper values, and can leave people less inclined to respond in more significant ways.
David Willans, director of Will & Progress
Single-issue campaigning is effective if you’re looking for change on a specific issue. It can be incredibly effective for behaviour change if people are aware of a problem, but don’t know what to do about it, as campaigns such as Jamie’s Chicken Run and Hugh’s Fish Fight demonstrate. Traditionally, this type of campaign is akin to taking market share from a competitor. You’re taking people from one behaviour to another. There are mountains of evidence out there demonstrating how to do it (pdf).
If someone’s making a change out of a sense of obligation, as soon as that obligation disappears, all things being equal, so does the change. But thankfully all things are never equal. If the change becomes part of someone’s sense of identity, or gives them a cocktail of personal, social and/or economic benefit that outweighs the effort, there’s a good chance it will last.
Something is effective if it delivers a desired result. If the objective of holistic environmental campaigns is holistic change, which history shows us is never the work of one action, how can you ever decide whether it’s effective? There are two schools of thought about how to drive change at this level. One is intrinsically led change, where we focus on connecting with universally held values and changing societal narratives. The idea is that over time people will shift from one way of living to another. The other is extrinsically led change, where we focus on specifics such as audiences, behaviours and benefits. The idea is that specific changes build up to create more holistic change.
The evidence shows both create positive change. Therefore we need to be doing more and sharing our insights to get better at it. Pitting one against the other is playing the kind of point-scoring game you hear at Prime Minister’s Questions. It’s self-serving and self-defeating and actively puts people off, preventing learning and ultimately wasting precious time.
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A new paper published in Climatic Change estimates that when we account for the pollution costs associated with our energy sources, gasoline costs an extra .80 per gallon, diesel an additional .80 per gallon, coal a further 24 cents per kilowatt-hour, and natural gas another 11 cents per kilowatt-hour that we don’t see in our fuel or energy bills.
The study was done by Drew Shindell, formerly of Nasa, now professor of climate sciences at Duke University, and Chair of the Scientific Advisory Panel to the Climate and Clean Air Coalition. Shindell recently published research noting that aerosols and ozone have a bigger effect on the climate in the northern hemisphere, where humans produce more of those pollutants.
That research led Shindell to question current estimates of the true costs of our energy sources. Much research has gone into estimating the social cost of carbon, which attempts to account for the additional costs from burning fossil fuels via the climate damages their carbon pollution causes. However, this research doesn’t account for the costs associated with other air pollutants released during fossil fuel combustion.
For example, depending on how much more we value a dollar today than in the future (a factor known as ‘discount rate’), Shindell estimates carbon pollution costs us per ton of carbon dioxide emitted in climate damages, and another in additional climate-health impacts like malnutrition that aren’t normally accounted for.
But Shindell also estimates that carbon emissions are relatively cheap compared to other fossil fuel air pollutants. For example, sulfur dioxide costs ,000 per ton, and nitrous oxides ,000 per ton! However, less of these other pollutants are released into the atmosphere during modern fossil fuel combustion.
Electric Cars Cheaper than Gasoline Powered
For an average American car (26 miles per gallon), Shindell estimates that the air pollution emissions altogether cost us 00 in damages per year. In comparison, emissions from energy to power an electric Nissan Leaf would cost us 0 even if purely powered by coal, and 0 if fueled by electricity supplied entirely from natural gas. These costs would become negligible if the electricity came from renewable or nuclear power. Electric vehicles (EVs) are clearly the winners in this cost comparison.
Hence environmental damages are reduced substantially even if an EV is powered from coal-fired electricity, although they are much lower for other electricity sources
The Needed Energy Transition May Have Begun in 2014
The key conclusion from Shindell’s study is that fossil fuels only seem cheap because their market prices don’t reflect their true costs. In reality they are remarkably expensive for society, but taxpayers pick up most of those costs via climate damages and other health effects. Those who argue that we need to continue relying on fossil fuels – like former popular science writer Matt Ridley – just aren’t accounting for the costs of pollution.
These air pollution costs are effectively a massive subsidy, and Shindell likely underestimated their size. When I asked Shindell if he had accounted for recent research by Moore & Diaz showing that climate change slows economic growth, he said,
I saw the Moore and Diaz paper, which was quite interesting, but after my paper had already been accepted so it didn’t make it in there. Indeed if growth is slowed by climate change as in their study, the associated social costs could be much larger … But in general, this is only one of several possible reasons that my values are likely conservative as I’ve left out many things that I didn’t know how to put a price on. That includes the influence of pollution on cognitive function decline, on IQ, and on mental health, the influence of energy on freshwater resources, on national security (e.g. military spending related to oil/gas supplies), the impact of climate change on biodiversity, the effects of ocean acidification, etc.
global emissions of carbon dioxide from the energy sector stalled in 2014, marking the first time in 40 years in which there was a halt or reduction in emissions of the greenhouse gas that was not tied to an economic downturn … In the 40 years in which the IEA has been collecting data on carbon dioxide emissions, there have only been three times in which emissions have stood still or fallen compared to the previous year, and all were associated with global economic weakness: the early 1980’s; 1992 and 2009. In 2014, however, the global economy expanded by 3%.
When we examine the data, 2014 indeed stands out. With 3% GDP growth, it’s the first year on record that energy-related CO2 emissions didn’t increase and GDP nevertheless grew by more than 2%.
The IEA reports that the stagnation in carbon pollution stemmed from a transition away from fossil fuels rather than a drop in energy use due to poor economic conditions, as had been the case in previous years where CO2 emissions didn’t grow.
The IEA attributes the halt in emissions growth to changing patterns of energy consumption in China and OECD countries. In China, 2014 saw greater generation of electricity from renewable sources, such as hydropower, solar and wind, and less burning of coal. In OECD economies, recent efforts to promote more sustainable growth – including greater energy efficiency and more renewable energy – are producing the desired effect of decoupling economic growth from greenhouse gas emissions.
It’s important not to over-interpret a single data point, but it’s a promising sign that carbon pollution emissions didn’t grow in 2014 while the global economy did. This is the sort of “decoupling” of GDP and CO2 that needs to happen for a successful transition away from fossil fuels. Signs that we may have reached peak coal production are also encouraging.
As Shindell’s research shows, it’s an important transition for us to make in order to preserve a livable climate and a healthy economy.