Nearly 10 months ago, I put down my final thoughts on COP21, the historical climate summit in Paris where world leaders adopted an international agreement to limit global warming to no more than 2ºC by 2100, with the aim of keeping it at 1.5ºC. I remember that nightly writing session very well. It had been an extremely exhausting month due to the conference, and university exams where around the corner. I wanted to go to bed early to catch up some sleep, but I felt the urge to conclude my reporting on the climate summit with a piece about how I perceived the outcome of the climate summit. With the title ‘Born of Hope’, I argued that despite the many compromises, the Agreement was an amazing feat of diplomacy and a victory for all people who had been working day and night to pave the way for this global framework for climate action. I still believe it is a proper basis for meaningful action international level. And that’s what we really need. The sum of individual national initiatives is simply not sufficient to avoid dangerous global warming.
Didn’t I share the doubts about the fact that the agreement still had to go through the whole UN ratification process? That the Paris Agreement indeed put a what, but not a clear when or a how? Of course I had my doubts. It is a deal made by politicians and diplomats, and they will have to implement it too. Of all people, politicians are the last I would entrust humanity’s fate to. But as it happens, that is how the world works.
I also have my doubts about politicians, you know
After COP21, the long and boring process of ratifaction began. In Paris, the countries only adopted the agreement. Then they had to sign it. Next, at least 55 nations covering at least 55% of global greenhouse gas emissions had to ratify the agreement in their national parliaments. Only after fulfillment of these requirements, a UN agreement can take force. Remember the Kyoto protocol? It took 8 years to reach the tresholds. Not a surprise many people where not too optimistic about the meaningfulness of the Paris Agreement.
Delegates and politicians packed their bags, the climate caravan left Paris and the news returned to its normal stream of misery-and-pain-coverage. But apparently the sense of urgency stayed. After the US and China jointly ratified the Paris Agreement by the end of August, 31 countries, including Brazil and Mexico, joined by the end of September, bringing the counter to 60 countries covering 52% of global emissions. Suddenly, the realization of the Paris Agreement came very close. And just last week it happened: the European Parliament gave its green light, and so both requirements were finally fulfilled. The Paris Agreement will take force on November 4th, a bit less than 11 months after its conception.
World leaders at COP21 (photo: euronews.eu)
What the Paris Agreement really implies
Hooray! Bravo! Well done! The politicians can organize a big reception and go brag about themselves. Or can they? Do they actually realize what they signed? Are they fully aware of the reach of such a promise? I doubt it. The truth is that no-one really knows what 2ºC global warming means, nor how we can limit it to no more than that in a way that will be socially and economically acceptable.
A new study published last week by think thank Oil Change International (OCI) makes it suddenly much clearer what the promised 1,5 and 2ºC goals mean. It reveals the outcomes of a fairly straight-forward climate change math exercise. The solution is very simple:
No more drilling and digging. No new fossil fuel extraction or transportation infrastructure should be built worldwide, from today on.
That sounds like a non-ambiguous policy guideline. If politicians are serious about honoring the agreement they just ratified, they know what needs to happen. Or rather, what shouldn’t happen anymore.
A closer look at OCI’s study
But the outcomes of this report just read a bit too much like a climate movement’s manifesto to make the scientist in me feel comfortable. So I took my time to read through the whole document, which turns out to be very well done. In fact the study draws on the by now well-accepted concept of the carbon budget, developped by the Carbon Tracker Initiative and also used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in their assesment reports.
The theory of the carbon budget tells us that the world has 800 Gigatons of CO2 emissions left until we reach the 2ºC global warming limit. That might sound like a lot, but at current rates we will hit it in 2037. Oh, and actually we were aiming for 1,5 degrees, right? Well, then we have just ten years left. Ouch!
The Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College and co-founder of the climate group 350.org, Bill McKibben already calculated four years ago that the world’s fossil fuel reserves are about five times the size of what we can safely burn to stay within our carbon budget. Oil Change International made the math exercise again, using the latest data from Rystad Energy, who in turn gets its estimates of coal, oil and gas reserves from fossil fuel companies and governmental sources.
The new math exercise not only reaffirms Bill McKibben’s work, but also has more concrete findings:
- if you add up the potential emissions of all existing coal, oil and gas extraction projects we already blow the two degrees goal. We blow it through the roof
- even if we would stop using coal overnight, the most dirty of fossil fuels, we will still not be able to stay below 1,5 degrees warming by 2100
One can more easily appreciate these findings by looking at the graph below. Following the International Energy Agency, reserves are defined as the amount of fossil fuel that is already discovered and known to be extractable with current technology and under current economic conditions. If we burn all reserves we currently already have we are in big shit, apperently.
Comparison of fossil fuel reserves and the common climate change targets (graph: Oil Change International)
Unless we prohibit any new coal, oil or gas extraction projects, we don’t stand a chance. And yes, I forgot to tell you, but the whole discussion about 1,5 or 2 degrees warming is always one of chances. Statistics has never been my favorite subject, but let’s have a closer look. The 2 degrees limit has to be read as a likely chance of limiting warming to 2 degrees. And the UN’s likely officialy means an accepted 33% chance of failure. Knowing that more than 2ºC global warming will almost certainly kick off non-stoppable feedback mechanisms which drag us to further heating, I think that it is quite reckless. If I as an engineer design a bridge with 33% chance of collapsing, they throw me in jail straight away. Just saying.
The best strategy is managed decline
But let’s get back to the main point of the study: no new coal, oil and gas extraction, let alone exploration. Good. But should we stop using fossil fuels overnight? Not at all. The study calls for a managed decline of the fossil fuel industry and a just transition for the workers and communities that now depend strongly on it. In fact, Obama’s Power+ plan is a very nice example of how mine workers can be supported in their retraining to become active in the renewable energy sector.
The study further argues that the required phase out of fossil fuels can be matched to an increase in renewable energy following current trends. It is shown in the graph below. But don’t be fooled, an increase to 50% renewable energy provision by 2035 and 80% by 2045 as a global average is not going to be easy. Not at all. It will need enormous investments in both the energy production facilities as well as grid infrastructure.
A managed phase-out of fossil fuels can be matched with an increase in renewable energy sources following current trends (graph: Oil Change International)
On the other hand, earlier this week a study has been published from no less than the renown economist Stern, who gained international respect from both the climate change believers and skeptics with his study in 2006 about the cost of future climate change versus the cost of acting against it. In the new study he calls for a rapid and strong decline of fossil fuel subsidies (still worth 550 billion USD in 2014) and a rapid shift to green technologies. If we fail in ditching fossil fuels, the economy can ‘self-destruct’. Green growth is the only growth left on the long term.
To take away the doubts of my more skeptical readers who might think ‘but wait, isn’t there the option to keep using fossil fuels and switch later to renewables when they are cheaper?’ or ‘couldn’t we keep burning fossil fuels and use carbon capture technologies to prevent the greenhouse gases from being emitted in the air?’. The answer is no, at least not really. Carbon and capture technology has still a long way to go before it is ready for large-scale application. And with respect to a postponed introduction of renewables, this scenario is most likely not going to work. If governments allow fossil fuel companies to first built new infrastructure, that at a later point has to be closed in a short time span and before the end of lifetime, we are left with a huge amount of stranded assets. And you can be sure that the companies will lobby very hard to keep their plants open a bit longer. Either way it is a terrible waste of money, in the form of wasted investments or otherwise climate damage.
Why these findings are important
You might be wondering why this whole math exercise is so important for policy making (it is). You’re right, many governments set already a cap on emissions or are in the process of introducing emission limits, carbon taxes or other systems that aim to tackle climate change. The problem is that this kind of approaches focus on the demand side of fossil fuels and leave the supply side for what it is. And that’s where the contradiction between the politician’s promises in the Paris Agreement and their actual policy making so far has to be found. Let me explain.
First of all: the supply of fossil fuels is not just dictated by the demand. No, it depends on the state of technology, global economy, possible unrest in certain regions of the world and strategies like the choice of OPEC to keep producing a lot of oil, which brought the oil price to its lowest levels in the last decade. That lower oil price has an increase of demand –and very likely emissions– as result. Many countries have decreased taxes for fossil fuel companies to limit the damage of the low oil price, thus effectively subsidizing emissions. Clearly not what we want.
We already mentioned the stranded assets problem, which is another big contradiction in policy making. The economic reality is that once a (fossil fuel) project has been developed, the economic incentives push for continued production even if it means a long-term loss on the capital invested, since closing down would lead to an even greater loss.
Last but not least, governments tend to act more strongly to protect existing industries than to stimulate future ones. The pain to cut existing jobs is way more important for a politician, than a promise of future jobs. Besides that, an existing industry like the fossil fuel industry has huge lobby power. A future technology has not.
These are the reasons why it makes sense to choose for a strong policy that assures a managed and just decline in fossil fuel supply. If politicians are really serious about the Paris Agreement, they now know what to do: leave those fossil fuels in the ground. Or as the report formulates so nicely: if you’re in a hole, stop digging.