Turning the corner

The agreement just announced from the Climate Conference in Paris isn’t by any means, a solution to the problem of avoiding climate change. But, along with other developments over the past year, it signals the fact that the world community has turned the corner on this issue. Barring a catastrophe[^1], the world is now on the path to near-complete decarbonization of the economy by the middle of this century, and to stabilization of the global climate with less than 2 degrees of warming.

The big developments of the past year include:

* An apparent (though small) decline in global CO2 emissions in 2015

* Peak Coal. Not only has global consumption of coal begun to fall, but the pressure to abandon coal, exerted at every stage from the initial financing of mines to the burning of coal in power stations has grown in intensity.

* Continued progress in renewables, notably including the appearance of commercially viable battery storage systems. It’s now obvious that, taking all the costs into account, renewable electricity is cheaper than the fossil fuel alternatives, and capable of completely replacing them.

* The political eclipse of leading denialists, most notably Abbott and Harper, and the disarray of US Republicans on the issue

* Looking at the agreement itself, it’s as ambitious as could reasonably have been hoped. Big points include
– The adoption of 1.5 degrees as a goal towards which efforts will be aimed
– The “ratchet” mechanism of 5 year reviews
– The acceptance that all countries need to act to reduce emissions over time.

Taken together, these developments put the world on a path to steadily more ambitious reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, consistent with stabilization of the global climate at 2 degrees of warming or less.

[^1]: The most obvious possible catastrophe would be a Republican victory in the 2016 US elections. But the momentum for change is such that even four years of unified Republican rule would probably not be enough to stop it.

50 thoughts on “Turning the corner

  1. @John Quiggin

    That is true as far as it goes. However, since our known reserves are about twice as large as the allowable fossil fuel consumption to reach 2 degrees warming (let alone 1.5), would it not be rational and efficient to cease ALL coal and oil exploration right now (or even earlier!)? Markets can stay irrational longer than environments can sustain them long term.

  2. I think the climate conference in Paris has had about as good an outcome as could have been expected, and has overall been positive even if it isn’t enough in itself to fix climate change.

    The goal of 1.5 degrees is good news, as some earlier agreements mentioned vaguely that the target should be in line with science, but a number below 2 degrees hasn’t been mentioned in the agreements before.

    Its a shame that the national commitments at this stage are not enough to stay within the 1.5 degrees goal, but that was known before the conference.

    The 5 year time frame for assessing national goals and efforts is a good idea, and I am glad the first one is in 2018 rather than 2020, which means that 2018 can become a target for civil society efforts to get national commitments into line with the goal of 1.5 degrees, which should keep up momentum.

    The side events have taken on a life of their own now — and a lot of these were very promising, like 100% renewable cities, and an interesting new network was launched the “Global Zero Carbon Practitioners Network” made up of science and technical organisations focused on plans for zero carbon (Beyond Zero Emissions, negaWatt, Track 0, World Future Council, Zero Carbon Britain, the Tyndall Institute, the Nordic Folkcenter for Renewable Energy and INFORSE).

    In terms of the livestock issue mentioned in the SMH, that is a real issue. Livestock contributes the bulk of agricultural GHG emissions from the production side (estimated at around 14.5-18% in a 100 year time frame assessment*) and including consumption and transport etc food is responsible for around 30% of GHG emissions. Moving to lower animal product consumption diets in line with decreasing livestock for climate change would also have co-benefits from a health point of view. Also how livestock is farmed can contribute to lower GHG emissions, livestock should be organised in a way more reminiscent of nature with movement across a landscape (by using electrical fences is how farmers do this) like natural herds so as not to let the plants become eaten down too much or the soil get too compacted — this would allow for more trees and shrubbery in livestock areas which would help meet biodiversity goals.

    * Agricultural emissions are one of the difficult emissions to count. This is due to methane acting differently in the atmosphere than carbon. If you work it out for a 100 year time frame livestock accounts from around 14.5-18% (or so) of GHG emissions — but if you work it out for a 20 year time frame it rises to up to about 50% (or so) of GHG emissions — this difference is due to methane dissipating in the atmosphere after a few decades in comparison to carbon’s longer atmospheric life.

    There is a related issue of what to count as agricultural emissions. For instance, if you are doing a life cycle analysis of greenhouse gas emissions would you count cutting down forests for agricultural land or burning forests and savannahs? some studies do, and some studies don’t, so the numbers vary widely in comparison to other figures.

  3. We have turned a corner in the last year as John says, and nothing illustrates it better than Clive Hamilton’s pieces (links below). Clive has always been a bit of a curmudgeon and one would never accuse him of being an optimist on the prospects of change coming quickly enough to prevent major damage. But he recognises that big business is moving as are many other actors like city mayors.
    On the other hand Clive accepts that the pessimistic view still has a lot of evidence behind it, so to declare victory now would be premature. There has been a turning point in this last year, but the world could turn again. https://theconversation.com/good-deal-or-bad-emotional-turmoil-as-paris-climate-talks-draw-to-a-close-52243

  4. I guess I should have been over it years ago, but once again I’m surprised by the rusted-on negative responses on this page. I’m not sure exactly what anyone was expecting but it seems to be absolute pie-in-the-sky stuff. Seriously, was China for example, or anyone else for that matter, going to sign up to a externally enforceable system based on monitoring mechanisms that don’t exist?

    This seems quite a cultural move from the last meeting. The denialist position has passed into the political fringe. There is a general and firm commitment to the 1.5 degree target. The culture has moved on from you-first. The five year review process got accepted, which provides enforcement-by-shame.

    A big positive for me is exactly what the detractors see as failure: the recognition that a centrally mandated one-size-fits-all enforcement protocol is not going to work and we shouldn’t be waiting for a magical agreement. It has so far proven to be recipe for endless argumentation with every country pushing for the special consideration. This actually pushes the onus back on individual countries to achieve carbon neutral economies themselves – in what is a fairly rapid time frame considering the magnitude of the change – as per their unequivocal statement of commitment.

  5. One should never give up hope Jim. If Clive Hamilton can move from his rusted-on negative position to a more variegated paradoxical position then there is hope for the posters on this blog. (I’m very tempted to say Clive has moved to a more ‘nuanced’ position but I know both Clive and John would object. I loved the ‘F..k nuance’ piece by Healy that John has previously linked to).

  6. We had Westpac CEO stating that if their criteria were satisfied, they would invest in coal (mining).

    I think the message we need to send out as loudly and clearly as we can to business is that any spending on coal mining and/or coal use for fuel, electricity, is a guaranteed risk waiting to blow up in their faces, that they are taking on board. There will be law suits fought over this, as people and countries cotton on to the fact that corporations involved in funding or in using coal are endangering all of us. If the CEOs of big banks like Westpac go down this path, well they’d better believe it that compensation is going to be a big issue, as all the world’s major financial corporations are patently aware of the direct connection between coal and climate change damages—and, now that COP21 has really put it on the front page around the world, everybody else knows this too.

    There are no longer good reasons for “investing” in coal; yet, both the LNP and the ALP have claimed that there is always a place for coal in our energy future. No, there is not. Our party leaders need to break this news to the coal industry, and search for ways of enabling coal workers to manage a transition to other lines of work.

    If we want to keep to the parameters for which the climate changes don’t spiral out into some vicious cycle of reinforcing feedbacks, we really can’t risk getting to the 860GtCO2 of remaining admissible emissions (if we are to have a decent chance of keeping below a 2C increase in global temperature). At our current emissions output trajectory, that target is blown by 2031 to 2033, which isn’t far away. Even if we accept a lower probability of staying under 2C, the budget is blown by 2045 or thereabouts.

    It’s no longer good enough for any political leader to be saying that there is always a place for coal, as if there is a viable future for it. The only way there is a viable future in it is if we keep playing the coal lobby’s game, leaving the door open when it should already have been firmly shut.

  7. I don’t know Donald why you need to prosecute your case with such black and white thinking. Coal is not the devil incarnate. We need to reduce coal use quickly, and move to net negative carbon emission over the next few decades, but some coal use, especially coking coal, will still be useful as we make the transition. And even when we get to net negative carbon emissions, there may still be a minor role for coal as long as it is offset.

  8. “Fossil fuels are reaping $550 billion a year in subsidies and holding back investment in cleaner forms of energy, the International Energy Agency said.” – Bloomberg Business, 2014.

    How soon are governments going to end fossil fuel subsidies? That would be a minimum condition for realistic action. It’s good economic practice too to remove market-distorting subsidies.

    Also, why do trade agreements have teeth (ISDS) but climate change prevention arrangements have no teeth at all? This is a very revealing anomaly. It shows that agreements can be given teeth when certain parties want it. Clearly, the major players wanted a show-piece MOU with no teeth.

  9. John Goss there is a big difference between moving to net negative emissions and zero. If we move to zero within the 1.5C deadlines and within our carbon budget we have room to spare and we can take our time about carefully developing carbon sinks that are safe. But a move to negative emissions, in order to enable us to overshoot our carbon budget using coal in teh short term, has huge risks, most particularly:
    1) if you overshoot hte carbon budget you lock in the warming associated with that budget – it takes centuries to unwind warming associated with any total carbon budget
    2) we’re going to need a fairly large amount of currently undeveloped sinks in order to get to zero emissions permanently, in order to offset certain industries that can’t go carbon neutral (agriculture, cement, smelting and air travel). Adding additional sinks to undo past extravagance is going to be really difficult
    3) given 2, if we get to that point, the temptation to go for untested geoengineering without proper time to assess the risks will be great and the consequences potentially huge.

    We need to phase out coal as quickly as possible so we don’t find ourselves contemplating point 3.

  10. Can we make steel without coal? The answer is complicated and a qualified “yes, maybe”. See the article below.


    But we can make huge strides in dropping coal use by;

    (a) ceasing use of thermal coal;
    (b) recycling iron and steel even more;
    (c) using some natural gas in steel making.

    Cement making is another issue of this type. Standard processes result in the release of CO2.

  11. Faustusnote. I wasn’t arguing that we move to negative emissions to enable us to overshoot our carbon budget. I think we will need to move to negative emissions to enable us to reduce the carbon emissions we have already put into the system. So the more quickly we can reduce all fossil fuel burning the better, as it means there is less of a mess to clean up with negative emissions.
    The only point I was trying to make was that there will be some coal use (and oil and gas use) for a long time into the future, but that is OK as long as it is only necessary use and as long as it is offset.

  12. Ivor
    It will indeed take some time to move to zero net emissions. Hopefully by 2040. We achieve negative emissions through more trees and algae. And perhaps fertilising the ocean might work. I am not opposed to geoengineering options if they are done carefully.

  13. Ivor, I have consistently argued on this blog that those sinks are going to be very hard to find and develop, and so we need to move aggressively to cut emissions so that we have as much space as possible for residual emissions from agriculture and cement in our budget. I’m arguing with John Goss that we have limited sinks available, and we should commit them to offsetting unavoidable emissions – shipping and agriculture getting priority – rather than squandering them on coal. For the same reason I think it is criminal of Japan adn Germany to close functioning nuclear power plants – whether or not you think new nuclear is a good idea or viable, closing functioning plants is just increasing the work that land use changes and reforestation have to do.

    I think most people on this blog are more optimistic than me about the potential for carbon sinks, and I count JQ amongst the optimists.

  14. @John Goss

    Most trees stop acting as nett sinks when they mature and deforestation is exceeding reafforestation – particularly in Queensland. Planting trees does not even offset the emissions we have today.

    Generally algae is being developed as a biofuel. This is not negative emission because the CO2 is re-emitted when the fuel is used.

    Where do you store 100 years worth of 2-4 gigatonnes of algae product?

  15. Ivor
    I agree that as we understand it now, there is not much of a carbon sink in new forests. But some genetic engineering might help.
    With algae I would grow it in sea water pumped up onto the Australian desserts, and just leave it there, rather than burn it.

  16. I would think that if gigatonnes of suitable algae can be removed from the environment, then this may have relevance.

    However the specifics are missing. Algae is not an inert form of carbon and if spread in the open air in large quantities (or even in pits) – it would be colonised by microbes, fungi and insects.

    These release CO2 see for example: FUNGUS CO2

  17. Something that has received little attention is that in or around 2013 the world passed peak steel and peak aluminium. Because both these metals are very recyclable we are unlikely to ever use as much iron ore, bauxite, or coke again. This is of course good news for reducing carbon emissions.

    Can we make steel without coal? Of course. (The article Ikonoclast linked to mentions wood but doesn’t mention the fact that Brazil has produced millions of tonnes of steel using wood charcoal.) With a high enough carbon price lower emission methods of steel production will be used.

    A moderate carbon price will also greatly reduce emissions from cement making. This is because coal ash is currently added to concrete in order to cure it. But with a suitable carbon price either no coal ash would be added and the concrete would be allowed to cure slowly and absorb CO2 from the atmosphere, or they would use ash from a biolgical source instead. And with a high enough carbon price, cement/concrete making and steel making would go completely carbon neutral.

  18. Looking into cement making, I see it is a bit more complex then I made it out to be. Only non-hydraulic cement absorbs CO2 from the air. Hydraulic cement, the stuff that cures under water doesn’t, and that would be the bulk of cement used in the world today. And that has coal ash added to it because it’s cheap and while not cement itself helps bind it together. But people have looked into plenty of ways to make cement manufactuer less CO2 intensive and with a carbon price various methods will be put into practice. Just what exactly will be done will depend on the how high the carbon price is, but people have made various types of concrete that are carbon neutral that may end up being used.

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