If we really want to maintain a livable climate, and prevent global temperatures from rising more than 2˚ Celsius, then no nation, anywhere, can burn any oil, gas, or coal at all after 2050, according to a striking new analysis of the latest climate science.
“The world must start preparing for a rapid decarbonization of the energy and industry sectors within the next decade… and get to zero emissions by 2050,” Bill Hare, a climate scientist at Climate Analytics, told me in an interview from Bonn, Germany, where the latest round of international climate negations are underway.
What Hare is saying is that, in the near future, every country—and every economy—will no longer be able to rely on burning fossil fuels for energy and transport.
The Obama administration’s “Clean Power Plan” to cut CO2 emissions from power plants, then, is only a baby step towards the full breakup we desperately need. “The Obama plan sends a strong positive signal but the US will have to do far more,” Hare said
Radical as all this seems, decarbonization is actually entirely doable, as detailed in this state-of-the art analysis that combines the work of Germany’s Climate Analytics, Dutch energy experts Ecofys and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany. Each of these organizations regularly conduct independent, science-based assessments that track the emission commitments and actions of various countries and publish them as “The Climate Action Tracker”. The results are taken very seriously by many countries, which rely on them to calibrate their emission rates.
Breakups are never easy. The transformation of the energy sector to a zero carbon one won’t be easy, but it won’t cost much, and it will create far more jobs than will be lost, Hare said.
“The US has tremendous potential to reduce emissions and close the gap,” he said.
The ‘gap’ refers to the 2˚C carbon budget. There is a hard cap on how much CO2 can be emitted, worldwide, to have a good chance of staying below 2˚C. And every country will have to do its bit to reduce emissions. For the US, and all the other advanced economies, emissions need to be 35 to 65 percent below the levels they were in 1990. And they have to get there by 2030—less than 15 years.
According to the Carbon Tracker analysis, the Obama power plant cuts would reduce total US CO2 emissions to 5 percent above their 1990 levels. Hence the ‘gap’.
“The State Department says the power plant reductions would be larger but they haven’t shown us their numbers yet,” said Hare. He doesn’t expect they’ll be significantly greater.
However, the US now has a framework with which to make bigger cuts. And a Union of Concerned Scientists analysis details how energy efficiency and renewable energy could close the gap by 2030. Others such as Stanford University’s Mark Jacobson have detailed state-by-state roadmap for 100 percent replacement of coal, oil and natural gas with wind, water and solar energy by 2050. This transformation would dramatically reduce air pollution, preventing an estimated 59,000 deaths a year and saving the country billions of dollars, Jacobson says.
Every country has to be on the same path to zero carbon, but not every country has the same capabilities or resources. This is the thorny issue of fairness, and emphasizes the many ways the who-cuts-how-much cake can be sliced. The Climate Action Tracker analysis took a “least cost and policy-realistic approach” to work out the carbon budgets for various nations that would, together, keep us safely below 2˚C.
As already noted, the US and other advanced economies, known as ‘Annex 1’ countries in UN-climate speak, have to trim their carbon budgets 35 to 65 percent by 2030. For the rest of the world, including big emitters like China and India, the budget is 5 to 90 percent above 1990 levels depending on the country. The range is so wide because some countries like China can only emit a bit more whereas very poor countries have been allowed some room to grow their emissions alongside their economies. Keep in mind that collectively, these non-Annex 1 countries already used up 75-80 percent of their carbon budget by 2010.
We should have started winding down our relationship with oil, gas, and coal 15 years ago. Now it’s going to be messy, painful, and may require unproven new technologies.
“There’s a high chance we can’t get below 2˚C anymore without negative emissions,” Hare said.
Not only will we need very expensive carbon capture and storage systems to prevent emissions, he said, we’re also going need ways to suck carbon out of the atmosphere and bury it somewhere forever. There are a few pilot plants that can do all this, but we still don’t know if it can be done at the scale we may need.
However we do it, it’s way past time to end our toxic relationship with fossil fuels and move on.