Climate Change and 2 Degrees: Is the Parisian Emperor Naked?

Last Thursday Prof. Kevin Anderson held an open lecture on the Paris agreement. As the title – obviously inspired by H. C. Andersen’s short tale – suggested, he took the audience to an expedition looking for substance in the Paris agreement. As usual, Kevin spoke his mind claiming that the emperor is indeed naked, but that there had not been a child to speak up yet: Climate policy is really nothing more than hot air.

1, 2, 3 – What degree will it be?

The 2°C scenario is not some kind of optimal degree of warming, but a political goal on the threshold to dangerous climate change, fine-tuned to political and economic sensibility. While the agreement on a target itself is quite positive, “Paris” contains too many flaws, like the missing references to shipping, aviation or even fossil fuel combustion. Many of the percentage reduction goals in carbon emissions as set out for 2030 or 2050 just don’t matter. Kevin highlighted that these kinds of goals cover up what truely counts: carbon budgets. Continued emission of carbon, we will have used up the complete “budget” for the 1.5°C target within the next 3-13 years. The more CO2 we release now, the stricter future reductions will need to be. According to Kevin’s assessment, the current INDCs (Intended National Determined Contributions) equate to rather 3 to 4°C of warming than to 2°C.

Paris goals and energy

Looking at energy consumption gets quite depressing. Technological progress is unlikely to suffice for the required changes in energy demand, especially when taking behavioral effects, like the rebound, into account. Even on the supply side massive electrification is necessary to be able to move towards renewable energy production. Kevin named nuclear power as one example of a low carbon source. Currently it only meets about 2.5% of global energy demand. If one was to raise this share to 25%, there would be a need for 3000 (!) nuclear power plants worldwide. To put this in perspective: today there are around 430 nuclear power stations and about 70 are under construction right now. Even if we want to switch to renewable energies, this will be a Herkulean task.

The “magic trick” of climate policy

What is really necessary to stick to the Paris agreement is a 10% (rather 12% for the developed countries) yearly emission reduction starting now, i.e. zero emissions by 2035. What the EU suggested was a reduction by 40% by 2030. This goal is basically half of what is needed and it was set by the probably most ambitious countries. The attentive reader will now wonder what is supposed to happen to the other half of the emissions. Well, the answers are two fancy acronyms: NETs and BECCS. Negative emission technologies and biomass energy with carbon capture and storage. I will try to elaborate on this further in another blog post, but basically these are technologies which shall suck emitted carbon back from the atmosphere. They have however never worked at scale so far. Also are they inefficient and require massive areas of land. These technologies are the “magic trick” within the model forecasts, because the possibility of their actual implementation is highly questionable.

So what to do?

While the to-do list is infinitely long, Kevin claims that climate change demands system change. We need to fundamentally question our norms and paradigms: higher, further, better. While I agree with Kevin to a certain extent, his general and ubiquitous criticism of economic growth is far too generalized. I am thinking about decoupling growth from resources here, for example. However, Kevin’s most important direct action points are (1) large scale electrification, (2) a sustainable way to produce biofuels and (3) to leave the so-called “unconventionals” (e.g. oil sands) in the ground. For Sweden particularly, Kevin suggests the following list:

  • higher efficiency standards
  • a broad renewable energy program
  • a low-meat diet
  • extended lifetimes of nuclear plants
  • a shift from cars to public transport
  • an upgraded rail networks (especially faster trains)
  • carbon capture and storage for steel and cement production

All necessary facts about climate change have been on the table since the first IPCC report in 1990, but mankind has lacked the courage to take the crucial steps. And we still are. What a sad truth.

If you are interested in climate change you can find a summary of another lecture held by Kevin Anderson here! Also, I would really like to hear your opinions on this. Please leave a comment if you feel like it!

Take care and think twice before booking the next flight or ordering a steak! 😉


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