Category Archives: carbon budget

Five years on

The past five years have given many reasons for optimism about climate change

I have now been writing this blog for just over five years, and it seems timely to step back and look at how the climate change problem appears now compared with five years ago.

In some ways it is easy to feel discouraged.  In the last five years the world has managed to get through about a tenth of its remaining carbon budget, a budget that needs to last effectively forever.

However, in many ways there seem to be reasons for much greater optimism now than five years ago.  Several trends are converging that together make it appear that the worst of the risks of climate change can be avoided.

There is increasing action at the national level to reduce emissions, reinforced by the Paris Agreement …

Legislation is now in place in 164 countries, including the world’s 50 largest emitters.  There are over 1200 climate change and related laws now in place compared with 60 twenty years ago[i].  And this is not restricted to developed countries – many lower income countries are taking action.  Action at national level is being supported around the world by action in numerous cities, regions and companies.

This trend has now been reinforced by the Paris Agreement, which entered into force in November 2016, and commits the world to limiting temperature rises and reducing emissions.

There is increasing evidence of success in reducing emissions …

Many developed countries, especially in Europe, have shown since 1990 that it is possible to reduce emissions while continuing to grow their economies.  Globally, emissions of carbon dioxide from energy and industry have at least been growing more slowly over the past four years and may even have reached a plateau[ii].

Carbon pricing is spreading around the world  …

Among the many policies put in place, the growth of carbon pricing has been especially remarkable.  It has grown from a few small northern European economies 15 years ago to over 40 jurisdictions[iii].  Prices are often too low to be fully effective.  However, carbon pricing has also been shown to work spectacularly well in the right circumstances, as it has in the UK power sector.  And the presence of emissions caps in many jurisdictions gives a strong strategic signal to investors.

Investors are moving out of high carbon sources and in to lower carbon opportunities …

Companies are under increasing pressure to say how their businesses will be affected by climate change and to do something about reducing emissions.  And initiatives such as the Climate Action 100+, which includes over two hundred global investors controlling over $20 trillion of assets, are putting pressure on companies to step up their action.  This will further the trend towards increasing investment in a low carbon economy.  Meanwhile, many funds are divesting from fossil fuels, and vast amounts of capital are already going into low carbon investments.

Falling costs and increasing deployment of renewables and other low carbon technologies …

Solar and wind power and now at scale and continuing to grow very rapidly.  They are increasingly cost-competitive with fossil fuels.  The decarbonisation of the power sector thus looks likely to proceed rapidly, which will in turn enable electrification to decarbonise other sectors.  Electric vehicle sales are now growing rapidly, and expected to account for the majority of light vehicle sales within a couple of decades.  Other technologies, such as LED lighting are also progressing quickly.

This is not only making emissions reductions look achievable, it is making it clear that low carbon technologies can become cheaper than the high carbon technologies they replace, and can build whole new industries as they do.  As a reminder of just how fast things have moved, in the last five years alone, the charts here show global generation from wind and solar since 2000.

Falling costs of low carbon technologies, more than anything else, gives cause for optimism about reducing emissions.  As lower carbon alternatives become cheaper the case for high carbon technologies will simply disappear.

Charts: Global Generation from Wind and Solar 2000 – 2017

Sources:  BP Statistical Review of World Energy, Enerdata, GWEC, IEA

Climate sensitivity looks less likely to be at the high end of the range of estimates …

The climate has already warmed by about a degree Celsius, and some impacts from climate change have been greater than expected.  However, the increase in temperature in response to increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases has so far shown few signs of being towards the top end of the possible range, although we can never rule out the risk of bad surprises.

Taking these trends together there is reason to be cautiously optimistic …

There will still be serious damage from climate change – indeed some is already happening.  And it is by no means clear that the world will act as quickly as it could or should.  And there could still be some nasty surprises in the earth’s reaction to continuing emissions.  Consequently, much effort and not a little luck is still needed to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

But compared with how things were looking five years ago there seem many reasons to believe that things are beginning to move in the right direction.  The job now is to keep things moving that way, and to speed up progress.

Adam Whitmore – 10th April March 2018 

[i] http://www.lse.ac.uk/GranthamInstitute/publication/global-trends-in-climate-change-legislation-and-litigation-2017-update/

[ii] http://www.pbl.nl/sites/default/files/cms/publicaties/pbl-2017-trends-in-global-co2-and-total-greenhouse-gas-emissons-2017-report_2674.pdf

[iii] https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/28510

Economic growth and emissions cuts can go together

There is often said to be a trade-off between growth and decarbonisation, but the evidence shows that advanced economies can combine large emissions cuts with continuing economic growth.

Policy on greenhouse gas emissions reductions is often framed as a trade-off between greater emissions reductions and greater economic growth.  However, while emissions clearly can’t be reduced to zero immediately, faster emissions reductions can be accompanied by robust economic performance.  The clearest example of this is the UK.  Since 1990 the UK has cut its total greenhouse gas emissions much more rapidly than other G7 countries, while growing its economic output per capita more than the average.  This is illustrated in Chart 1.

Chart 1: UK per capita GDP growth and greenhouse gas emissions compared with the G7 average[i]

The extent by which the UK has cut its per capita emissions relative to other countries is emphasised in the following charts, which show that the UK has achieved by far the largest reductions in per capita CO2 emissions.

Chart 2: CO2 emissions per capita in 2016 and 1990 for G7 countries[ii]

Note: Japanese emissions rose by 0.4 tonnes per capita over the period (not shown)

Chart 3: Change in per capita and total CO2 emissions 1990 to 2016 for G7 countries

Note: Data in these charts is for CO2 only, excluding other greenhouse gases.

Of course, some of the relative changes reflect circumstances.  The UK started with relatively high emissions, including extensive use of coal in power generation.  In contrast, France already had a low carbon power sector in 1990, and in 2016 France’s per capita emissions remained about 8% below those of the UK, even though UK emissions had fallen much more from their 1990 levels.

Germany has also achieved significant reductions, having benefitted from reductions in emissions in the former East Germany and installing large amounts of renewables.  However it has been hampered by continuing extensive use of coal and lignite for power generation.  The USA has accommodated significant population growth with only a small rise in emissions, but this is clearly nowhere near enough if it is to make an appropriate contribution to global reductions.  Emissions remain at almost three times UK levels.  Canadian emissions are also high and have increased in absolute terms.  Japan’s emissions have grown slightly over the period.

Some falls in emissions in G7 economies may reflect a shift in the global pattern of emissions, with reduced emissions from industry in the G7 economies balanced by increases in China and elsewhere.  However this can’t account for all of the reductions that have been achieved, or the vast differences in reductions between countries.

Policy has certainly also played its part.  UK policy has successfully targeted relatively low cost emissions reduction, notably reducing coal use in the power sector.  Above all the Climate Change Act (2008) has provided a consistent and rigorous policy framework.

And whatever the reason, one thing is clear.  Cutting emissions more can accompany growing the economy more.

Adam Whitmore – 8th March 2018

 

 

[i]https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/651916/BEIS_The_Clean_Growth_online_12.10.17.pdf

[ii] http://www.pbl.nl/en/publications/trends-in-global-co2-and-total-greenhouse-gas-emissions-2017-report

New long term targets for emissions reduction are needed.

The UK and other jurisdictions need to set target dates for reaching net zero greenhouse gas emissions.  These need to be reinforced by new targets for 2060 that are at least close to zero, and by reaffirmed or strengthened targets for 2050.

Ten years ago setting emissions reduction targets for 2050 was a major step forward

2018 sees the tenth anniversary of the UK’s Climate Change Act[i].  This remarkable piece of legislation established a legally binding obligation for the UK to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 80% from 1990 levels by 2050, with obligations along the way in the form of five year carbon budgets.  So far progress has been remarkably good, though significant challenges remain.

Other jurisdictions also adopted 2050 targets at around the same time.  In 2005 California also set a target of an 80% reduction from 1990 levels[ii].  In October 2009 the EU established a long term EU goal for reducing emissions by 80-95% from 1990 levels by 2050[iii].

At the time these targets were path breaking.  However, ten years on there are good reasons for reviewing and extending them.

But now the world has moved on …

  • When the targets were established, the period to 2050 seemed long enough to give appropriate strategic guidance to policy makers and investors. However, future dates are now ten years closer.  A 2060 target now gives about the same time horizon for planning as the 2050 targets did when they were established.
  • The Paris Agreement sets targets to limit temperature rises which imply stringent limits on cumulative emissions. It also sets a goal of net zero global emissions in the second half of the century.
  • A fifth or more of the world’s carbon budget that remained in 2008 has since been used up[iv], increasing the urgency of emissions reductions.

Extending targets to reflect these changes would have some clear benefits … 

Together these changes imply a strong case for setting new targets now.

The most compelling target would be a date by which emissions must fall to net zero.  Such a target would make it clear to all sectors that they need to completely decarbonise by a specified date.  At the moment emissions of up to 20% of 1990 levels are allowed even in 2050.  This allows each of those sectors where decarbonisation is more difficult – for example parts of industry, agriculture or residential heating – to largely continue in a belief that there will still be plenty of room for them within the 2050 emissions limit, even though this cannot be true for most sectors.  This in turn allows them to continue to believe they can carry on indefinitely without taking the steps needed to decarbonise.  A date for reaching zero makes it clear this can’t happen.

Setting stringent target for 2060 – at or close to zero – would also give investors in low carbon infrastructure greater confidence, and deter investment in higher carbon alternatives. In the case of the UK and California, a simple extrapolation of their current targets would suggest a 2060 target of a 93% reduction from 1990 by 2050, reaching zero by 2065.

As part of the process of setting these longer term goals the existing 2050 targets need to be at least reaffirmed and preferably tightened.  If this is not done there is the risk that policy makers will simply see the problem as having become more distant, and delay action.  This is the last thing that the climate needs.

2050 targets may also need to be revised …

As a first step, the EU’s target of 80-95% cuts clearly needs to be made more precise.  The current uncertainty of a factor of four in the level of emissions allowed in 2050 is too wide for sensible policy planning.

However the events of the last ten years also raise the question of whether the stringency of the 2050 targets need to be increased, with implications for later periods.  The UK Government’s former Chief Scientific Adviser Sir David King and others have suggested that there is a strong case for the UK seeking to reach net zero emissions by 2050[v].  The difference in cumulative emissions in declining linearly to net zero by 2050 instead of by 2065 is substantial, at a little over 3 billion tonnes – equivalent to about 8 years of current UK emissions.

The goal of reaching zero emissions by 2050 is clearly desirable in many ways.  However there is a risk that it may have unwanted side effects.  The government’s advisory body, the Committee on Climate Change has pointed out that policies are not in yet place even to meet current goals for the fifth carbon budget in around 2030[1].  The route to net zero emissions in 2050 – just over 30 years from now – looks even less clear.  Indeed reaching that goal even by 2065 remains challenging.  If even tighter targets are introduced they may come to be regarded as unrealistic, which may in turn risk weakening commitment to them.  A somewhat slower emissions reduction track may prove a relatively acceptable price to pay for retaining the credibility and integrity of the targets.

Whatever the judgement on this, the need for longer term targets is clear.  Governments need to set dates for reaching net zero emissions.  These need to be supported by targets for 2060 that specify continued rapid reductions in emissions after 2050, and by reaffirmation of 2050 targets, tightening them as necessary.  These new targets will in turn help stimulate the additional actions to rapidly reduce emissions that are ever more urgently needed.

Adam Whitmore – 6th November 2017

 Notes:

[1] https://www.theccc.org.uk/publication/2017-report-to-parliament-meeting-carbon-budgets-closing-the-policy-gap/

[i] https://www.theccc.org.uk/tackling-climate-change/the-legal-landscape/the-climate-change-act/

[ii] https://www.arb.ca.gov/cc/cc.htm

[iii] https://www.consilium.europa.eu/uedocs/complementary measures_data/docs/pressdata/en/ec/110889.pdf

[iv] The calculation is based on data in the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report, Synthesis Report.  This quotes a  cumulative budget of 3700 billion tonnes of CO2 for a two thirds probability of staying below 2 degrees.  Of this 1800 billion tonnes had been used by 2011.  Assuming CO2 emissions of roughly 40 billion tonnes p.a. including land use gives a remaining budget in 2008 of 1920 billion tonnes.  Over the subsequent ten years about 400 million tonnes CO2, which is just over a fifth of 1920 billion tonnes, have been emitted.

[v] http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/ministers-greenhouse-gas-emissions-fail-cut-environment-greg-clark-chief-scientist-david-king-a7969496.html