Global warming is a global issue. Recognizing this fact, the international community, starting with the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro 1992, has tried to find a comprehensive global solution. Continuing through the Kyoto Protocol of 1997, the Paris Agreement in 2015 and the recently completed (2021) COP26 (the 26th UN Climate Change Conference) in Glasgow, there have been progress. However, the progress seems so far to be more of a deeper understanding of the problem and in setting ambitious targets than reaching a comprehensive solution with all nations committing to firm and specific actions to reduce emissions.
The problem not only remains but keeps growing. Carbon emissions continue to rise and accumulate in the atmosphere. Temperatures are inching up. Some countries have been successful reducing their emissions but taken together the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions worldwide are increasing.
The longer it will take for carbon emissions to start to come down, the more CO2 accumulates in the atmosphere, making the challenge to achieve the Paris Agrrement’s goal of “limit the global warming to well below 2 degrees, preferably to 1.5°C compared to preindustrial levels” even tougher. The time left gets shorter, and the magnitude of needed reductions gets bigger.
There are several reasons why it has been so difficult to reach binding universal agreements on reductions. The biggest objection has come from developing countries. They argue that the developed/industrialized countries have caused the biggest increases of CO2 in the atmosphere, and per capita these countries have much higher emissions. Consequently, the argument goes that the developed/industrialized countries should carry most of the burden to address the global warming. As a result, in the Kyoto Protocol more than one hundred countries, including China and India, were exempted. It changed by the Paris Agreement, which did not allow for any exemptions. In return the developed countries should help fund the actions by the developing nations by $100 B annually in public and private financing. Recent estimates are that the support reached about $80B in 2019. One of the outcomes in Glasgow is a stronger commitment to really reach the $100 B, a substantial number, but critics say much more will be needed.
The Paris Agreement directed participating countries to determine themselves what contributions they should make to achieve the aims of the agreement. These plans, called nationally determined contributions (NDCs), should be revisited every five years with higher targets.
There is progress, also among some of the large nations. The United States has come down (2019) 20% from its peak of carbon emissions in 2007, thanks to the market-driven shift from coal fired power generation to predominantly natural gas, and wind.
Germany had early, well before the Paris agreement, embarked on its energy transition, “Energiewende”, and has steadily reduced its GHG emissions, by 2020 to 41% lower than 1990 levels, largely thanks to massive economic support to build out wind and solar. The German parliament unanimously adopted the Paris agreement on September 16, 2016. Following it up with a Climate Protection Law in 2019 Germany with a greenhouse gas neutrality plan, that a state of net GHG emissions should be reached by 2050. An amendment in this year (2021) moved it up to 2045. The target for 2030 is toachieve a 65% reduction compared to 1990 levels. The decision in 2011 to phase out all nuclear plants by 2022 has added to challenge. Nevertheless, it is a fair bet that Germany will continue to reduce its carbon emissions by adding more wind and solar, combined with investments in green hydrogen.
Also, other countries can show reduced emissions and increased efforts to reduce further. However, in the big picture China dwarfs everything. In terms of annual emissions, China passed the US in 2004 and is now emitting almost twice as much. In a not-too-distant future China will also in terms of accumulated emissions become the biggest in the world.
A major factor of China’s increasing emissions is the growth of electric power generation, which is dominated by coal fired generation. Since 2004 China has added annually on average about 50 GW of new coal power plants. To put it in perspective, at that pace it took China three years to build coal power plants with a capacity equal to the combined peak demand of Germany and Texas. China is also a big exporter and financer of coal power plants in Asia and Africa.
Right or wrong, China has prioritized economic growth and reliable electric generation over emission reductions, but there are indications things may start to change. President Xi Jinping stated in 2020 that China aims for its emissions to reach their highest point before 2030 and for carbon neutrality before 2060. These goals were confirmed ahead of COP26 as China’s official position. Following an announcement by President Xi Jinping at the UN General Assembly, Bank of China stated in September this year (2021) that they no longer provide financing to new coal power projects abroad.
Everything is huge in China. Less noticed is that China is the world leader in hydro, wind and solar. By 2020 China has 340 GW of installed hydro generation capacity. 340 GW is close to one third of all hydro power capacity in the world. Brazil is number two in the world at 109 GW followed by Canada at 81 GW.
In terms of wind generation China same year had 273 GW installed capacity. USA was number two with 118 GW with Germany being third at 54 GW. For solar generation China’s dominance is even bigger, 254 GW. The US is second at 75 GW, followed by Japan at 66 GW and Germany at 53 GW.
China has demonstrated a remarkable capability building up its electric energy system. To replace coal to the scale necessary to substantially reduce emissions and significantly contribute to the international climate goals, will be an unprecedented and giant undertaking. In any case, the outcome of China’s future energy transition will have a decisive impact on the level of global warming.
Climate Action Tracker, an independent scientific analysis that tracks government climate actions, has found that the world in 2100 without any climate policies will be 4.1-4.8°C warmer than pre-industrial levels. With current climate policies the increase is estimated to reach 2.7 – 3.1°C. If all countries delivered on their pledges and targets the increase the warming may come to 2.4°C, still far from the Paris and Glasgow goal of 1.5°. Consequently, to get there more needs to be done and be done faster.
There are several studies of what needs to be done to achieve the 1.5°C goal. Achieving net zero emissions (no man-made greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere) by 2050 has been identified more or less as a prerequisite. Two countries, Surinam and Bhutan has already achieved it. Twelve countries have made legislated commitments to achieve net zero by 2045 (Germany and Sweden) or 2050. Three more countries have proposed legislation, and forty-two countries 2050 net zero goals in policy documents. China, India, Russia, Ukraine, and Nigeria have set 2060 as their targets of reaching net zero.
A key milestone and reality check of progress will be to reach the peak of GHG emissions. IPCC (The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) has concluded that the peak needs to be reached latest by 2025 to get to net zero by 2050. However, IEA in July this year (2021) predicted that emissions will hit record levels in 2023, and that no clear peak is yet in sight. The UN Net Zero Coalition in their 2021 NDC Synthesis Report concluded that based on the NDCs of all the 192 parties of the Paris agreement emissions 2030 would be 16.3% above 2010. However, based on the 142 countries who had updated their NDCs before the Glasgow meeting the emissions would be 9% lower in 2030 compared to 2010. In the latest New Energy Outlook by BloombergNEF, they predict emissions could peak in 2027 and then decline by 0.7% per year. If so, the temperature increases 2100 would be 3.3°C. To reach the 1.5°C goal the reductions must be 6% per year.
Given the delays in reaching the peak and insufficient levels of reductions, it seems that CCUS (Carbon Capture Utilization and Sequestration) will become a crucial technology, both in reducing emissions from power generation and industrial processes, as well as reducing the CO2 already in the atmosphere. The direct-air capturing is energy intense and expensive, but the more CO2 accumulates in the atmosphere, the more direct air capturing will be needed.
Given the urgency, decarbonization may need to have priority over sustainability. For example, many argue (fission) nuclear power is not sustainable, but it is zero carbon emissions!
For a similar reason, perfection, i e zero emissions, should not stop other ways to reduce emissions. A priority should be to reduce electric generation by coal. Just replacing a coal plant with a combined cycle gas turbine (CCGT) cuts CO2 emissions almost in half. CCGT with CCUS could achieve reductions in the 80-90% range. It is not zero but is significant.
Arguments have been made that the only way to achieve the 1.5°C goal is by the visible hand of government through mandates, incentives, and penalties. It may be so, but it would be a mistake not to put a meaningful value on carbon and allow the invisible hand of markets to stimulate innovation and accelerate change. The time to 2100 in terms of climate is short, but In terms of technical innovation it is a long time.
Footnote: Greenhouse gases are a set of gases: carbon dioxide, CO₂, (76%), methane, CH₄, (16%), nitrous oxide (6%) and fluorinated gases (2%). Using the dominant gas, CO₂, as the denominator the other gases are translated to CO₂ equivalents, CO₂ₑ. Discussing climate change and global warming, the expression “carbon” generally refers to CO₂ₑ. Decarbonization refers to reduction of CO₂ₑ into the atmosphere.