Our Climate Plan Can’t Cope

Our climate plan is broken. Why? Because not enough people take global warming seriously. And who can blame them? When a US President promotes the idea that global warming is a hoax; when the all-powerful President of China is happy to build more and more coal-fired power plants; when governments fail to implement their climate pledges and refuse to abide by the treaties they sign, then global warming has a serious credibility problem.
Climate Protest London
Global temperatures are rising while governments bicker. Photo: Donald Judge (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Our Climate Plan is No Longer Fit for Purpose

The climate plan which was stitched together in Paris, in 2015, after years of UN climate talks, isn’t working.

It’s true that many other leaders are strong believers in global warming and are committed to taking whatever climate action is needed, but for some reason their message isn’t getting through.

Maybe it’s because climate news is always bad news. Or maybe climate change is seen as too complicated or too boring. Or maybe it’s because most of the time we can’t ‘see’ it, so it doesn’t seem real. Or perhaps it’s simply that we don’t want to take it seriously. Because if we did, we might have to face up to unpleasant changes.

Whatever the reason, there is clearly an enormous amount of work that needs to be done by politicians and climate scientists to convey the gravity of our climate crisis in a way that people can understand and relate to. For example, telling people that temperatures will rise by 2 degrees is evidently no more compelling than telling smokers they face an increased risk of lung disease.

Another problem is that climate science itself is evolving. Our understanding of things like climate feedbacks is improving, as is the quality of our data collection, with new climate drones and satellite imagery systems coming on stream. But much uncertainty remains, notably in the area of climate tipping points and the consequences of ocean warming around the world. It’s a gap that is ruthlessly exploited by the climate denial movement, and by populist leaders with a nationalist agenda.

In this article, we explore why our climate plan isn’t working, what challenges we need to face and what is likely to happen.

What is “Our Climate Plan?”

When we talk about ‘our climate plan’, we mean the general scheme propounded by the IPCC and formalized in the UNFCCC Paris Agreement, by which we aim to limit global warming to 2°C (while trying our best to keep it at 1.5°C).

At the heart of this general climate plan are pledges – known as “nationally determined contributions” (NDCs) – made individually by all countries, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Furthermore, all countries agreed to submit new NDCs every five years to the UNFCCC secretariat.

Due to the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris treaty, as well as lukewarm support from several other countries, squabbles about costs, and finally the coronavirus pandemic, submission of NDCs has been delayed. As a result, much of the momentum of the climate action process has been lost.

Our Climate Plan Needs Proper Leadership

World leaders seem to live in a fairy-tale land. Many see climate change not as an existential threat but as a political problem to be exploited for their own ends. The latest leadership tactic is to set wildly optimistic targets in the distant future for achieving carbon neutrality, without any specific climate plan to back it up. This looks good and sounds good. And it reassures voters that everything is under control. Except it’s not.

Most leaders seem unable or unwilling to explain the real difficulties ahead. This includes leaders of Green parties, some of whom use climate issues to gain power without explaining the reality of the task ahead and the lifestyle changes that are needed.

Instead of hiding the truth, political leaders should treat global warming in the same way as the COVID-19 pandemic – as a global emergency.

They should be highlighting the need for a ‘global solution’ to climate change – a common approach involving all countries, rich and poor. Because without this type of global understanding, it is doubtful that electorates will ever agree to make the financial or social changes that will be necessary.

To be specific, they need to agree a common climate change mitigation strategy, paid for by the world’s wealthier nations who should support poorer nations with both technology and funding. (More on this later.)

In order to obtain the support of their electorate, governments need to plan and implement a mass climate education and information campaign that explains how and why our climate is changing, and what is likely to happen if we do nothing about it.

It’s no good telling the electorate that all they have to do is buy an electric car, and cut down on a few long-distance plane trips. We should be urging everyone to adopt a green lifestyle, and get ready to make significant cuts in their energy consumption. Because all of us, from the highest to the lowest, need to adapt to a new green norm.

But nobody is going to change their lifestyle without a damn good reason. Australia is burning up but the country still has lots of people who don’t believe in climate change.

So, the idea that people in the affluent West are suddenly going to adopt an austere green lifestyle to help save the planet, is pure fantasy. We need a decade of proper climate education programs aimed at schools, universities, boardrooms, and churches. Nothing less will suffice.

But all this requires leadership. Political leaders need to galvanize the public and get their support, because without it they will achieve nothing.

Okay, enough said.

Now let’s look at what’s happening to the planet and why, and what is likely to happen in the future.

What’s Happening to the Planet?

Global warming is intensifying. The year 2020 is close to being the warmest year ever, and 20 out of the 21 warmest years have all occurred since 2001.

Why is Earth getting hotter? Because we’re burning too many fossil fuels like coal and peat, as well as petroleum and natural gas. These fuels are killing the planet with their emissions of heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide (CO2).

The science here is quite straightforward. Fossil fuels produce CO2 emissions. The CO2 then heats up the planet. To stop the planet heating up, we need to create fewer emissions by burning less fossil fuel (ideally none). Just remember: emissions lead to global warming.

How sea level rise will change Miami beach if global warming reaches 2 degrees Celsius
South Beach, Miami. What it may look like if temperatures rise by 2 degrees Celsius. Photo: © Nickolay Lamm/ ClimateCentral 1

What are the Consequences?

As a result of these emissions, a growing number of extreme weather events including droughts, heatwaves, blizzards, floods, and storms, are damaging large areas of land, while melting ice, acidification, deoxygenation, and marine heatwaves are damaging the oceans.

Hundreds of millions of people are now at risk from rising seas, as well as floods, crop damage, lack of fresh water, increased disease, and loss of livelihoods. In addition, billions of animals have perished because of climate change and its effects on the biosphere. (See: Effects of Climate Change on Animals.)

All this nasty stuff is happening because of one degree of global warming. (See also: Why A Half-Degree Temperature Rise Matters to the Planet.)

But things are going to get a lot worse. According to global temperature projections by the IPCC and other climate bodies, today’s one degree of warming is just a fraction of the 3°C to 5°C (5.5°F to 9°F) that the world can expect this century on its current trajectory. 2

A 3°C rise could be devastating for the environment and for every living creature, including humans. According to a new report from Climate Central, warming of 3°C could lead to sea level rise of 6.4-meter (21 ft).

This would be enough to flood the cities of Dhaka, Guangzhou, Ho Chi Minh City, Hong Kong, London, Manila, Melbourne, Miami, New Orleans, New York, Rotterdam, Shanghai, Tokyo, Venice, and hundreds of others, placing 432 million people below the water level. 3

The UN Environment Programme is already warning that a 3°C rise will make large parts of the planet uninhabitable and cause mass extinctions of animal species. The cost of protecting our homes, cities and people from extreme weather will quickly escalate, and no country will be immune. 4

Back in 2013, researchers at the World Bank took a look at the effects of 3-4°C warming and were horrified by what they found. Since then, a growing number of research studies indicate that global food production could suffer serious damage even under this level of warming. Poorer countries like Vietnam, Bangladesh, Egypt, and parts of Africa could see large areas of farmland made unusable by rising seas.

Ghastly Future Ahead

A group of eminent scientists from the United States and Australia have warned of a ghastly future for humanity due to unmistakable trends in biodiversity decline, mass extinction, climate disruption, and planetary “toxification”, all of which are linked to human consumption and population growth.

Professor Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University, an expert in mass extinction, said no political leadership was prepared to handle the predicted disasters, or was even capable of such action. This is because leaders assume that counteraction is too costly to be politically palatable. What’s more, global disinformation campaigns designed to protect short-term profits make it doubtful that the changes needed will be made in time. The perspective article, based on 150 studies, was published in January 2021, in Frontiers of Conservation Science. 5

Financial Costs

According to analysis by the Economist, of the world’s 82 largest economies, the effects of global warming are likely to cost the world $7.9 trillion’ by 2050, as increased drought, flooding and crop failures restrict growth and damage infrastructure. The equivalent of 3 percent of global GDP by 2050. Africa was found to be most at-risk, with 4.7 percent of its GDP under threat. 6

Meantime, according to research by the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, switching to a low-carbon, sustainable growth pathway post-COVID can deliver economic benefits in the region of $26 trillion, and can create roughly 65 million new jobs by 2030, compared with a business-as-usual strategy. 7

Above all, evidence demonstrates that the future benefits of climate action far outweigh the future costs of doing nothing. 7 For instance, the UK National Audit Office estimates that for every £1 spent on climate change adaptation measures to protect communities from flooding, roughly £9 in property damages and other costs can be avoided.

Similarly, UN researchers say that for every dollar spent on making infrastructure more climate-resilient, six dollars are saved down the road. 8

Quick Recap

Earth has got 1°C hotter and the whole planet is suffering. And all the experts have been saying for ages that worse is just around the corner – unless we reduce our CO2 emissions.

So, let’s ask the big question…

Are We Reducing Our Greenhouse Gas Emissions?

No. Despite all the warnings from the UN and the IPCC (as well as the vast majority of climate experts) about the urgent need for dramatic reductions, global greenhouse gas emissions have actually increased by an average of 1.4 percent, per annum, since 2010.

In 2019, there was a more rapid increase of 2.6 percent in 2019, influenced by the large increase in forest fires, including the terrible Australian bushfires of the 2019-2020 season.

But Didn’t the COVID-19 Shutdowns Reduce Emissions in 2020?

Yes. It’s true. The coronavirus pandemic caused emissions of carbon dioxide to fall (by an estimated 7 percent) in 2020. But, long-term, this temporary drop is expected to cause a mere 0.01°C reduction of global warming by 2050. 4 Meantime, atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide averaged 412 ppm in 2019, and are forecast to increase to 414.5 ppm in 2020. Bottom line: the COVID shutdown is unlikely to have any significant effect on global emissions. For more, see: Effect of COVID-19 on Climate Change.

Is a Green Pandemic Recovery Program Likely to Resolve the Emissions Problem?

No. Despite UN claims that a green pandemic recovery can cut greenhouse emissions by 25 percent by 2030, and put the world close to the 2°C pathway, the fact is that pledges made by countries under the Paris Climate Agreement – known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), are still woefully inadequate.

Even if all the NDCs pledged by all the countries were completed in full, global emissions in 2030 will be about 54 billion tons – that’s about 13 billion tons (or 31 percent) short of the 2°C target of 41 billion tons. But countries are already 3-5 billion tons behind on their NDC commitments. So, on the face of it, fulfilment looks doubtful. For details, see: The Emissions Gap.

Business-As-Usual with Lashings of Fossil Fuel

Of course, we’d all like to believe that world governments will finally wake up to the urgency of the climate crisis, but the omens are not good. As recently as December 2019, the global business community (including two dozen banks) was instrumental in underwriting the stock market launch of Saudi Aramco, the Saudi oil corporation, which raised $26 billion for a tiny slice (1.5%) of the company. And before the month was over, global investors were piling in to buy shares.

Aramco is the company that accounted for 4.38 percent of all fossil fuel emissions between 1965 and 2017. 9

When global companies and institutions help to manage the stock market debut of the world’s largest fossil fuel company and then investors rush in to acquire a slice of the action, the idea that the world is on the cusp of a green pandemic recovery plan is too ludicrous for words. Business-as-usual is what it is.

How Do We Get Back on Track?

Answer: Simply continue on a COVID-19 shutdown for the next 10 years.

That’s right. In order to meet the Paris Agreement’s goals on climate change, we need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by 7.6 percent a year for the next decade. (The coronavirus shutdown reduced emissions by about 7 percent in 2020.)

Quick Recap

Instead of falling, emissions are rising. Why? Because not enough governments and not enough people are taking global warming seriously.

Maybe governments will bestir themselves and decarbonize the electricity supply. Maybe, the public will demand effective climate action that actually makes a difference. Maybe fossil fuel companies will stop funding climate denial theories and slash the carbon content of their fuels. But it doesn’t look likely. Instead, as things stand, Earth is likely to experience between 3°C and 5°C of global warming by the end of the century.

Forecasting between 3°C and 5°C of global warming by 2100 is not being pessimistic. Sad to say, it may end up being rather optimistic. Because we have to overcome at least five major hurdles.

Our Climate Plan Faces 5 Major Obstacles

Problem No 1. Renewable Energy isn’t Ready Yet

Sources of renewable energy may be greener and more sustainable than fossil fuels, but many problems remain to be ironed out before they achieve the success that is expected of them.

Right now, the biggest problem is intermittency. Wind power is only generated when it’s windy, solar power when it’s sunny, and so on. This poses a number of challenges concerning their integration into national electricity grids.

Another problem about most renewable forms of energy is inefficiency. That’s why we need very large solar farms and hundreds of wind turbines and vast fields of bio-crops. As a result, when it comes to scaling up renewables, a big problem is where to locate them. Lack of space also applies to hydropower due to the number of dams already built.

One of the main benefits of renewable energy is the fact that it all comes from the sun, wind, gravity or ocean currents, which are all free. But in practice these technologies involve significant costs. The initial outlay is usually quite substantial and running costs can also be significant. This issue has impacted the development of tidal power and wave power, as well as geothermal energy.

Graph showing renewable energy share of global electricity generation
Image Credit: REN21

The whole point of switching to renewable power is to reduce the environmental effects of fossil fuels, by releasing fewer greenhouse gas emissions and less air pollution. But the life-cycle emissions of a wind turbine, or a solar power station can be higher than you might think, and its life-span shorter. Design and materials used are critical factors. 10

That said, renewable energy sources are usually markedly lower in carbon emissions than fossil fuels. Even hydropower, for example, which has high start-up emissions, is extremely clean compared to coal, oil and gas.

Renewable Energy Market Share Still Way Behind Target

Researchers at the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) claim that 65 percent of primary energy use, and 80 percent of electricity could be obtained from renewables by 2050. But this would require a dramatic change in our energy consumption.

For some years now, the share of primary energy supplied by low carbon energy and by fossil fuels has been relatively static. For example, in 2000, coal, oil and natural gas accounted for 86 percent of the world’s primary energy consumption. Of the balance, 6 percent came from nuclear energy and 8 percent from renewables. In 2018, fossil fuels accounted for 85 percent, nuclear 4 percent and renewables 11 percent. (BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2019.) According to Our World in Data, renewable technologies supplied 11 percent of global primary energy in 2019. 11

Electricity generation uses more renewables. In 2019, roughly 26 percent of global electrical power came from renewable sources. 12 In the United States, renewable energy accounts for about 17 percent of electricity generation.

We hear a great deal about the growth of renewable energy capacity (in China and the rest of the world), but so far this is not reflected in renewables share of primary energy consumption.

True, renewable energy’s share of electricity generation is inching upwards, but too slowly. In fact, 2020 was the first year on record that the number of coal-fired power stations got smaller, with more capacity retired in the first half of 2020 than was opened. 13

In China, there has been a surge in new coal-fired power plant construction and approvals at provincial level. As of June 2020, 46 gigawatts (GW) of new coal plants were under construction. China also dominated coal-fired power plant development in the first half of 2020, making up 90 percent of new planned capacity worldwide. All this signals lowered ambition on clean energy behind the bamboo curtain.

For example, in 2020, the provinces of Hunan, Henan and Shanxi all announced that their grid authorities would not permit any new utility-scale solar PV plants in the next four years because of insufficient grid capacity. 14

What renewable energy desperately needs, is more investment to overcome technical problems and lower its life cycle emissions. Progress is being made on batteries, and smart grids, but not fast enough to prevent the rise of global warming.

Bottom line: renewable energy is increasing and will continue to increase its share of global energy consumption, at the expense of high carbon fossil fuels. But the idea that it can supply 80 percent of electricity (up from 26 percent) and 65 percent of primary energy (up from 11 percent) by 2050, seems fanciful. Are we expecting Russia and Saudi Arabia to shut down their oil and gas wells, dismantle thousands of kilometers of pipeline, and start building windmills, or what?

What is Nuclear Fusion?

Nuclear fusion is a futuristic source of low carbon energy. The technical research is astronomically expensive and is likely to take decades to complete. But the promise of endless low-emission energy is a must for any global climate plan.

During the nuclear fusion process, two very excited atoms smash into each other and in the process become one atom. This releases nearly four million times more energy than a chemical reaction like burning coal or gas, and four times as much as regular nuclear fission. 15

Fusion fuels are widely available and nearly inexhaustible. Fusion doesn’t emit CO2 or other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and there is no long-lived radioactive waste. There is no potential overlap between fusion and nuclear weapons, and no risk of a Fukushima/ Chernobyl-style meltdown. The power output of a fusion plant is expected to be similar to that of a fission reactor, (around 1.0 to 1.7 gigawatts), as is the average cost per kilowatt of electricity.

Nuclear fusion is being conducted by ITER (the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) at Saint-Paul-lès-Durance, in southern France. Here, an experimental tokamak nuclear fusion reactor is being built which will become the largest-ever magnetic confinement plasma physics project.

ITER is funded and run by seven participants: the EU, United States, China, India, Japan, Russia and South Korea, with 28 other countries participating directly or indirectly. Construction of the ITER complex began in 2013 and total construction costs to 2025, are estimated at $65 billion, making it the most expensive scientific project in history.

Problem No 2. Emissions Will Continue Rising in Developing Countries

Let’s take a look at the construction, transport and electrical power sectors.

Cement Emissions

Developing countries are (by definition) developing. This means they are building more roads, more pavements, more houses and apartment blocks, more schools and colleges, hospitals, airports, harbors, ports, breakwaters and other coastal defense structures. All this requires concrete, which in turn requires cement. China, for instance, used more cement during the three years 2011, 2012 and 2013, than the United States did in the entire 20th Century. 16

Unfortunately, cement is the second biggest emitter of greenhouse gas on the planet after fossil fuels. In total, more than 4.1 billion tonnes of cement are produced annually, accounting for about 8 per cent of global CO2 emissions. 17 Although some progress has been made in producing lower-emission cements, they tend to be specialist rather than mainstream products. For more on this, see: Cement Emissions Bad for Climate Change.

Looking ahead, according to Chatham House an independent think-tank and policy institute, the floor area of the world’s buildings is set to double over the next 40 years, requiring a 25 percent increase in cement production by 2030. Much of this growth is predicted to come from developing countries as they endeavor to satisfy the needs of their people.

Cars and Electrical Power

The rapid expansion of cities in the developing world, along with larger road networks, has been accompanied by a marked growth in car ownership. Even so, in roughly half the world’s countries, there is still only one car for every 10 people. In a third of countries, it’s one car between 20. We can expect these figures to increase substantially over the next few decades, leading to a surge in emissions from transportation. (For progress on electrification of cars, see: Electric Vehicles: All You Need to Know.)

Similarly, despite strenuous efforts by governments throughout the developing world, more than 950 million people do not have access to electricity. This includes 600 million in sub-Saharan Africa (57 percent of the population), and 350 million in Asia (9 percent of the population). What’s more, in 15 African countries, more than 75 percent of people have no electricity. As a result, electricity demand in Africa is forecast to more than double by 2040. 18

Bottom line: in developing countries, the demand for cement, cars and electricity – all directly linked to energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions – is going to expand rapidly over the next few decades. Not because of extra population (that’s another story), but because of rising expectations, wages and opportunities of today’s population. All this is going to stretch any climate plan to the limit.

Problem No 3. Food and Resources Needed for 3.2 Billion Extra People

The average Chinese person doubled their calorie intake between 1961 and 2000. 19 This was a reflection of rising wages and an increase in food availability. So, the population of other developing countries in the year 2020, faced with similar conditions, can be expected to increase its calorie intake significantly (though not necessarily by 100 per cent) over the coming decades.

In addition, the developing world will also share in the projected rise in average life expectancy (from 73 to 82). So not only will its inhabitants increase their per capita calorie consumption, they’ll carry on eating for longer.

Now let’s factor in the 3.2 billion extra humans which are expected by 2100. That’s a population increase of 43 percent, the vast majority of which will be in developing countries. 20

This and all the other factors help to explain why global food demand is expected to increase by 59-98 percent by 2050. 21

Unfortunately, food and the land needed to grow it, conflicts head-on with the need to conserve our forests in order to preserve the huge stores of carbon locked up in the world’s forests, like the Amazon Rainforest and the Congo Rainforest in West Africa.

The point is, deforestation causes rapid and irreversible loss of biodiversity, and accounts for 11.5 percent of global CO2 emissions. Its contribution to global warming continues to add pressure on agriculture production for which forests were cleared in the first place. It has no place in any rational climate plan.

For example, studies predict that rising temperatures, climate-induced water scarcity, and extreme weather events will have major long-term effects on crop yields. These are forecast to affect numerous large agricultural regions, especially in the tropics.

For example, the state of Mato Grosso in western Brazil, one of the most valuable agricultural regions in the world, could experience a reduction of 18-23 percent in corn and soy output by 2050, due to extreme heat. Other farming areas likely to suffer include the Midwest United States and Eastern Australia.

So, forest clearance is totally counter-productive. On the other hand, where are we to grow all the food? Almost half of the world’s vegetated land is already devoted to agriculture, so space is tight.

To make matters worse, the area of land which scientists say is needed to grow renewable energy biomass, is projected to be several times the size of India.

Bottom line: the need to feed 3.2 billion more mouths will greatly exacerbate land shortage and lead to greater deforestation. In turn, this will lead to a surge in emissions. (See also: Land Use & Climate Change.)

In addition, the extra 3.2 billion people will create an enormous extra demand for fresh water, housing, heat, power, transport, health services and material possessions, all of which will lead to the burning of coal, and natural gas for energy, and petroleum for transportation. And as we know, more fossil fuels lead to more emissions and more global warming.

Frankly, it’s hard to see how any climate plan can accomodate global population increases of 43 percent, and food increases of 100-150 percent by 2100, without an additional increase in global warming.

Problem No 4. Rich Countries Must Consume Less

As you can see, climate change has created a two-tier world. The first tier consists of developed countries who have largely completed their development. At present, the developed world accounts for about 20 percent of the world’s population, but it uses about 43 percent of global energy.

The United States, for example, has 4 percent of the world’s population and yet consumes 17 per cent of its energy. It also has a per capita carbon footprint of 16.1 tonnes of carbon, per year. By comparison, the EU has a per capita footprint of 8.7 tonnes – 54 percent less. In comparison, billions of people in the developing world have a carbon footprint of less than 2 tons.

The second tier consists of developing countries, many of whom are trying to lift their population out of poverty. And as we have seen, these nations need more energy and emissions to cover increases in construction, agriculture, transportation and electrical power generation. Energy consumption in developing countries has almost doubled over the last 15 years (to around 57 percent) and is predicted to grow by another 30 percent over the next 15 years. 22

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recognizes this and expects developing countries to increase their emissions over the next few decades as they try to complete their development and raise their standard of living. Poorer countries deserve the opportunity to achieve a certain standard of living. This is a basic principle of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

But the world can’t afford this growth in high-carbon energy consumption, unless it is balanced by energy reductions in the developed world. Otherwise, we risk runaway global warming. Which is why the IPCC has called for deep cuts in emissions from the developed world. There is simply no choice: wealthier nations must follow a more austere climate plan. They must consume less, at least until renewables kick in properly, perhaps in the 22nd century.

So, for example, people in the West need to reduce their energy consumption. No more holiday homes; no more boats; no more fossil fuel-heated swimming pools; no more gas-guzzling cars; no more opulent high-carbon lifestyles.

But who is going to tell the Americans, the Canadians, the Europeans and the Australians that they must adopt a greener lifestyle? Nearly all these countries are liberal democracies where the rights of individuals are almost sacrosanct. And what happens to employment levels in these countries when consumption drops by 10-20 percent? How are politicians supposed to survive the inevitable uproar? (And don’t say: “tell people it’s good for the planet.”)

These are the tough questions that any effective climate plan needs to answer.

Unfortunately, as we made clear at the beginning of this article, most world leaders have failed to prep their electorates about climate change. They haven’t explained the need for a two-tier world, for cuts in energy consumption (and a lot more besides). But, as we said earlier, “nobody is going to change their lifestyle without a damn good reason”, so it’s hard to see how people are going to make the necessary changes without several years of climate education and persuasion.

For more about the politics of global warming, see: The Root Cause of Climate Change.

Meantime, if you want to find out what your carbon footprint is, check out our Carbon Footprint Calculator. For advice about reducing it, please see: How to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint.

Problem No 5. Who Should Pay for Climate Change?

Climate politics continues to bedevil UN climate talks and delay agreement between richer and poorer nations.

At the beginning of this article, we emphasized the need for a ‘global solution’ to climate change – a common approach involving all countries, rich and poor.

The only way to secure this type of global climate plan is by linking it to a funding mechanism that pays for the costs of climate change. Financed by developed nations, in accordance with their GDP (per capita), the fund should cover climate mitigation and adaptation, as well as measures to replace deforestation with more sustainable sources of income, such as eco-tourism.

Why Should Developed Countries Pay for Climate Change?

To begin with, under the founding U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change of 1992, developed nations accepted that they have a duty to help finance climate change mitigation and adaptation measures adopted by developing nations, and to compensate them for their climate losses and damages. (UNFCCC, 1992, Article 4) This treaty was ratified by 197 parties (including most if not all developed nations), who are now bound by its provisions, including those on climate justice.

In addition to their treaty obligations, developed countries are also responsible for by far the largest share of historical emissions.

Plus, on average they consume substantially more energy per capita and more resources per capita, than developing countries. They also have greater earnings per capita.

Climate justice therefore dictates that they shoulder most of the burden of climate change. It’s the only equitable and feasible option. 23

For more on this subject, please see: The Ethics of Climate Change.

Developing Countries Also Have Obligations

But developing countries too, have obligations. After all, the whole point of establishing a fund to finance climate change is to save the planet from burning up, not to put millions of dollars into the hands of corrupt bankers or into Swiss Bank accounts owned by leaders of poor countries in Africa or Asia.

Common sense therefore dictates that safeguards be put in place in any global climate plan, to ensure good governance in recipient countries, or at the very least, effective oversight. Climate justice is not served by paying money to climate-affected countries, if major sums are siphoned off by corrupt leaders and officials.

Extra Threats to Any Global Climate Plan

Fossil Fuel Companies – Friend or Foe?

Ideally, any climate plan should include a role for fossil fuel companies, once they have significantly decarbonized their operations. After all, fossil fuels aren’t simply going to disappear, and it’s likely that we will need them well into the next century. There is also the issue of the companies’ oil and gas infrastructure and the network of pipelines that criss-cross large areas of the world. This should be utilized if at all possible.

How the oil and gas majors plan to handle decarbonization is not yet clear.

Some companies – like BP, Shell, Total, Repsol and Equinor – have developed initial investment plans to diversify their businesses, setting long term energy intensity targets to reduce emissions.

These plans include investing in renewable energies like solar, wind, biofuels and hydrogen, as well as ancillary low-carbon businesses such as batteries and grid-balancing technology. Other potential avenues include carbon capture and storage technologies. 24

According to international management consultants McKinsey & Company, the oil and gas sector must seek to achieve a 90 percent reduction in current emissions. They claim that “the sector can reduce the majority of its emissions, at an average cost of less than $50 per ton of carbon-dioxide equivalent (tCO2e), by prioritizing the most cost-effective interventions.” 25

Less clear is the possible reaction of state-run energy companies, such as Aramco (Saudi Arabia), Gazprom, Rosneft, Lukoil, and Surgutneftegaz (Russia), Sinopec Group and CNPC (China), PDVSA (Venezuela), the Kuwait Petroleum Corporation, the National Iranian Oil Company and others. The oil and gas sector is a major source of hard currency, and no country is going to give up such a valuable resource without a fight.

The governments who control these companies could continue to sell their fossil fuels indefinitely to willing customers, heedless of the emissions they cause. If this were to occur on a wide scale it would undermine any climate plan that the IPCC or anyone else could devise.

But reforms are possible. For example, the rise to power of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia personified the start of a new forward-thinking chapter in Saudi economics, to cope with life after oil. A practical illustration of this was the construction of the Sadara chemicals plant in Saudi Arabia’s eastern province. The $20bn project, completed in 2017, is the largest ever chemicals facility constructed in a single phase.

Owned by Aramco, the facility comprises 26 integrated world-scale manufacturing plants capable of producing more than 3 million tons of high-value-added chemical products annually. 26

There’s only one snag. The complex was built with enough steel to build the Golden Gate bridge twice. And every ton of steel produced emits on average 1.85 tons of carbon dioxide. Not the most auspicious beginning for a fossil-free future.

Chinese Emissions Could Wreck Any Climate Plan

Another major destabilizing influence on any international climate plan is a high-carbon Chinese economy.

Since 2006, China has been the world’s No 1 emitter of carbon dioxide annually and is responsible for roughly two-thirds of the world’s increase in carbon emissions since 2000. 27

The country already accounts for 29 percent of the world’s greenhouse emissions, double that of the United States and three times that of the EU. Once seen as a low-emissions developing country, China is now overtaking Europe in per-capita emissions, too.

What’s more, China’s $244 billion investment in overseas energy projects since 2000, includes the building and planning of hundreds of coal-burning electric power plants. Edward Cunningham, a Harvard specialist on China and its energy policy, says that China is building or planning more than 300 coal plants in places as far afield as Turkey, Egypt, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines. 28

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s announcement in September 2020 that Chinese carbon emissions would peak no later than 2030 and decline to net zero by 2060, was greeted by many observers as a sign that China was looking to take the lead in climate action.

But Jinping’s new green halo now seems to be slipping. His speech to the international Climate Ambition Summit on Dec. 12, 2020 was decidedly unambitious in its decarbonization plans.

Chinese targets for installed capacity of wind and solar power will rise to 1,200 gigawatts by 2030, he said, which underwhelmed most commentators. This equates to annual growth of around 76GW a year – well below industry expectations of around 115GW a year.

China watchers interpret this pull-back as a sign Jinping intends to prop up smokestack industries that might be threatened by a faster move toward carbon-neutrality. 29

If so, it could signal an important change in energy policy and trigger a surge in greenhouse gases from China’s expanding coal-fired power sector. This would undoubtedly undermine any global climate plan to limit warming to 2 or even 3 degrees.

Nuclear Power: Is it a Necessary Part of Any Climate Plan?

With renewables falling behind target, emissions going up (instead of down), a 43 percent predicted increase in population, over-consumption in the West, squabbles over costs, an unreformed oil and gas sector, and the largest nation on Earth still seemingly reliant on coal, now is not the time to write off nuclear energy. It is after all a dependable source of low-emission energy.

Yet, for many people, the idea of building more nuclear plants before we resolve the decommissioning issue is completely insane.

Safety is another major worry. The memory of Chernobyl and Fukushima is still too vivid.

Lastly, the nuclear lobby lacks all credibility. Even now, secrecy still surrounds the level of radioactive contamination in the Pacific Ocean surrounding Fukushima.

All this gives nuclear energy a bad name.

Unfortunately, the IPCC’s climate plan calls for an increase in the contribution of nuclear power to the global energy mix. In fact, all the IPCC scenarios require more nuclear power. Reliance on nuclear energy increases in all four pathways in relation to 2010, by between 59 and 106 percent by 2030 and by between 98 and 500 percent by 2050. In other words, if current trends continue, compliance with climate objectives will require a significant increase in global nuclear capacity.

It looks like our climate goals just receded even further into the distance.

Carbon Capture and Storage

Carbon capture and storage (CCS), during which industrial CO2 emissions (typically from electrical power plants) are drawn off before they can escape into the atmosphere, is a theoretically important technology which aims to turn high emission processes into carbon neutral events.

It has been a key feature in emission-reduction calculations for some years, but its application at scale has been dogged by problems, mostly in the ‘capture’ phase. Critics, including Greenpeace and other environmental groups, say it leads to more fossil fuels being burned and adds significantly to the cost of electricity. 30

In its Fifth Assessment Report (2014) the IPCC outlines various climate plans or scenarios, known as “Representative Concentration Pathways” (RCPs)”. Two pathways (RCP 2.6 and RCP 4.5) limit warming to 1.5°C.

Both pathways rely on reforestation, shifts to electric transport systems and greater use of carbon capture technology. The effectiveness of the RCP 2.6 scenario is expressly contingent upon the application of carbon dioxide removal (CDR) and carbon capture and storage (CCS).

All of which raises an obvious question: if CCS is no longer feasible at scale, how does this affect IPCC calculations as to emission reductions? Do we need to reduce energy consumption even further? If so, our climate plan just sprang another leak.

Overall, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that our climate plan – the general scheme propounded by the IPCC and formalized in the Paris Agreement – is no longer fit for purpose, and that warming of 3°-4°C (or even higher) is now inevitable.

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  23. Developed countries include: The United States, Canada, Luxembourg, Japan, Germany, UK, France, Italy, Australia, Spain, Netherlands, Switzerland, Saudi Arabia, Poland, Sweden, Belgium, Austria, Norway, UAE, Qatar, Denmark, Finland and others. []
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  27. Source: BP Statistical Review 2020 []
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