Until recently, the world had assumed that the US would lead the transition from an era of fossil fuel guzzling into a low carbon one. That belief died when the US withdrew from the Paris climate agreement on June 1. World leaders have done their best to minimise the impact this will have on the fight against climate change. But all their brave statements amount to no more than whistling in the dark.
Estimates made by the United Nations shortly after the Copenhagen Accord in 2009 gave a ballpark estimate of 1,000 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) as the maximum that the world could afford to add by year 2100 to the CO2 already in the atmosphere if it wanted the rise in temperature to stay below 2C. But since then, freshly committed investments in fossil fuels have virtually guaranteed that more than 720 gigatonnes of CO2 will be added to the atmosphere by 2030.
The Trump challenge
To stay within the 1,000 gigatonnes limit, therefore, the world will have to bring annual emissions down to zero in the next 14 years. Since such a steep reduction is manifestly impossible, there will be a substantial excess of concentration well before the middle of the century. Climatologists have therefore concluded that the only way of staying within the 1,000 gigatonnes/2C ceiling will be to start pulling large quantities of CO2 out of the atmosphere in the second half of this century. This is the challenge that US President Donald Trump may have made almost impossible to meet.
This may not become apparent immediately. China has lost no time in stepping into the breach and promising an accelerated shift out of fossil fuels. India, a much smaller, but still the third-largest CO2 emitter, has also reiterated its commitment to meeting its Paris Agreement obligations.
But the US withdrawal may also trigger the so-called free rider problem for other countries. This is the perception that if some, particularly the large, countries continue to pollute as before then the costs incurred, and sacrifices made by the others, will be to no avail. They will, in effect, be giving a free ride to the polluters at their expense.
Not a hypothetical problem
We’ve had this problem before after President George W Bush refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. Once that happened even environment-conscious Japan, where there had been a strong consensus on a series of hard measures to reduce CO2 emissions, found it impossible to implement them. As a result, in 2013 it cut its erstwhile target of a 25% reduction below its 1990 emissions by 2020 to a paltry 3.8% reduction from the 2005 level, which actually amounted to a 3% rise over 1990. But Japan’s failure paled into insignificance before that of Canada, whose emissions, instead of falling by 6% below 1990 levels, instead rose by 31%.
History may not repeat itself. China’s emissions growth has slowed following a stall in industrial growth since 2013. It has brought down the rate of growth of global emissions from 2.3% per annum between 2003 and 2013 to 0.7% in 2015. India’s industrial growth also slowed dramatically after 2011. But the slowdown in the two fastest growing economies is unlikely to persist, so the free rider problem will almost certainly rear its head again when their growth resumes. Unless Trump experiences a belated epiphany, emissions are likely to continue growing at a substantial rate in the 2020s. If that happens, staying within the 1,000 gigatonnes/2C ceiling will become impossible.
Preliminary estimates of the impact of Trump’s pull-out are that it could raise mean atmospheric temperatures by an additional 0.3C. The question is whether it will be 0.3C over the hoped for within-2C rise by 2100, or 0.3C over the 3C rise that the world was headed for in 2013 before the second dip of the global recession. In the end, it may not matter because at 404 parts per million (ppm) in November 2016, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is already far beyond the danger point at which it poses an existential threat to humanity, and most other living species, on the planet.
What policymakers, both at Copenhagen and Paris, chose to ignore is that the full effect of a rise in CO2 concentration on air temperature takes several hundred years to be felt. What the Earth could look like, not in 2100 but 2200, may be judged by its state in the Pliocene period, three million years ago. At that time, the mean air temperature was about three degrees higher than today, verdant vegetation was to be found 60 miles from the North Pole, and the whole of southern Africa was a desert. But the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere that caused all this was only 360 ppm.
We will all be toast
The truth, as James Hansen pointed out a decade ago, is that at 2C and 450 ppm, “we will all be toast.” To be reasonably sure of saving our way of life and most of the living species on the planet, global warming needs to be limited to 1.5C. This will require, at the very least, lowering the concentration of CO2 to 350 ppm. It can only be done by pulling large amounts of CO2 out of the air.
Contrary to world-wide belief, technologies that can reduce carbon emissions not only exist but are close to being profitable for investors, even during the current slump in global coal, oil and gas prices. Giant solar thermal plants are being built in Saudi Arabia and South Africa that will provide power for 18 hours a day at US$ 0.12 a unit. It is close to being fully competitive with modern coal-based power plants. An array of technologies has also been developed that can convert any type of biomass into any transport fuel one desires. These wait only a recovery of oil prices from their current historic lows (or the imposition of a global carbon tax) to be brought into use.
What the world needs is a concerted global effort, on the lines of the Global Apollo Programme proposed by seven eminent British policymakers under the auspices of the Grantham Institute of the London School of Economics two years ago, to subsidise pioneering ventures in these fields for a limited period. It will reduce risk, and bring down capital costs as large scale production kicks in.
So rapid is the spread of information today, and so great the accumulation of capital in search of new avenues of investment, that it is technically possible for the world to complete a shift out of fossil fuels in as little as 40 years, which is the average life span of most oil fields, and of modern coal-based power plants today. That will leave 40 more years in this century for the earth’s natural carbon sinks to suck up to 800 gigatonnes of CO2 out of the atmosphere. Salvation is still possible but hangs by a hair, and Trump is bent upon cutting it.
This article was first published on India Climate Dialogue