COP26, the United Nation’s Climate Change Conference, is now underway. Its goal is to lower carbon emissions enough to limit temperature increases to less than 2 degrees celsius compared to pre-industrial levels and ideally to no more than 1.5 degrees. The pre-industrial era refers to the 1880-1900 period. Although contested by some, it is generally recognized that average temperatures to date have increased by 1.1 to 1.3 degrees since that time. According to scientists, extra heat causes ecosystem disturbance and more extreme weather such as snow, summer heat and hurricanes.
The member country pledges made so far seem destined to fall short of COP26’s goal. Emissions in 2020 stood at 31.5 billion tonnes, dropping 5.8% from a year earlier. That might seem like progress is being made, but those numbers are largely due to the Covid-19 pandemic and shutdowns across the globe. Although countries are going to beef up their commitments at the COP26, current pledges (if fulfilled) will achieve 20 billion tonnes of CO2 a year by 2050. That’s 20 billion tonnes more than the amount required (net zero) to limit temperatures to 1.5 degrees. In this article I will try to explain why I think net zero emissions by 2050 is unachievable.
According to BBC, Oxfam says governments and companies are ‘hiding behind unreliable, unproven and unrealistic carbon removal schemes’ in order to hit net-zero targets. It says the oil and gas sector is justifying ongoing extraction of fossil fuels by promising unrealistic carbon removal schemes that require ludicrous amounts of land, for example for trees and carbon removal. Oxfam calculated that the total amount of land required for planned carbon removal could be five times the size of India, or the équivalent of all the farmland in the world. Food prices would increase as a result, further exasperating food shortages and famine in poorer countries. These new forests would not be immune to fires and deforestation.
Carbon-emitting sources are a large source of jobs and wealth. According to a study by the American Petroleum Institute, a lobby group for America’s natural gas and oil industry, the industry in the United States alone supports more than 11.3 million jobs. Many countries around the world rely on oil and gas for tax revenue and government spending. Places like Canada, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Venezuela and Angola have oil and/or gas as their top exports. Together these countries total a bit more than 650 million people, how would they survive the transition? Of course renewable energy creates job opportunities but much smaller than current oil and gas industry and related employment. If you listen to Joe Biden’s climate strategy, you’ll hear of the creation of many good unionized jobs. But what you won’t hear is that renewable energy sources, once built, requires few ongoing jobs. Even if electric cars take off, the electricity that powers them has to be from clean sources. There are several types of renewable energy, the most well-known are hydro, wind, solar, geothermal and biomass. Wind energy depends on the weather, solar needs the sun and hydro needs a steady water source. Geothermal and biomass aren’t widely used. Of all of these, the most reliable or least intermittent is hydro electric energy, The US Energy Information Administration says that in 2020, 60.3% of electricity generation came from fossil fuels, 19.7% from nuclear, with most of the balance coming from renewables at 19.8%. The upfront cost of renewable energy is high (in the trillions) but, once built, the cost of electricity from renewable sources is the same or lower than fossil fuels. How do governments expect to fund the transition? What worries me is that rich countries will have to borrow or tax to finance this project. Governments will have to raise prices for electricity or carbon-emitting activities, forcing people to pay more, and squeezing folks who can’t afford them. Electricity prices in the United States have increased over the last two decades even though the cost of producing renewables has decreased dramatically (in some cases by 70-90%). In turn, voters will boot governments out of power because it will be hard to live on a tighter budget. Think of the nationwide protests of the ‘gillets-jaunes’ in France in response to a tax on gas. Or think of when the greens in Germany were voted out of a regional government when they introduced ambitious climate policies that increased the cost of living.
Quite a bit of progress has been made in Europe and the United States, not so much in developing countries. The population of developing countries (excluding China) is around 3.6 billion, a bit less than half of the world. The vast majority of population growth is witihin these countries. Outside of the developed world, people don’t care too much about the environment. Rich countries not only have to convince developing countries to convert to renewable energy, and likely have to pay for it too.
One last point that I’d like to make is about methane. Methane causes way more warming than CO2, but has a much shorter half-life (it last ten years) than carbon dioxide (which lingers for 300 to 1000 years). Most methane comes from leaks (oil and gas) and animals. Leaks aren’t visible and require expensive cameras to spot. Plant-based meats haven’t caught on since they were launched a few years ago, I suspect people aren’t going to easily give up animal meat.
Sources: Energy Information Administration, BBC, Environmental Protection Agency, Forbes