When the numbers don’t add up: addressing climate change before it’s too late

Part 1

1 March 2021

John Kerry didn’t pull any punches. “There is no room for B.S. anymore,” Kerry told CBS News. Kerry was referring to addressing climate change as the Presidential Envoy for Climate. He said there were only nine years left to prevent the worst symptoms creating extreme weather of all kinds.

Kerry’s statement echoes the warning of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) of the United Nations, which stated in 2018 that there were 12 years left to address the climate crisis.

The good news is that president Joe Biden recently re-joined the Paris Agreement. The bad news, those previous agreements aren’t going to cut it, according to Kerry.

“Even if we did everything that we said we were going to do when we signed up in Paris, we would see a rise in the Earth’s temperature to somewhere around 3.7 degrees or more, which is catastrophic,” according to Kerry. Bloomberg estimates we’re on a trajectory of “3.3 degrees of warming” by 2100, but even that more modest estimate would have major consequences.

The Paris Agreement aimed for no more than two degrees of warming to prevent the worst symptoms of global warming. To remain below two degrees warming, “emissions need to fall 10 times faster”, Bloomberg states.

Many scientists now state that warming should be limited to 1.5 degrees instead, which would require an annual emissions reduction of 10 percent until 2050, instead of the six percent required for a decrease of two degrees.

Pandemic impact

After spiking in 2019, global carbon emissions from energy temporarily dropped by eight percent in 2020, shares Bloomberg. COVID-19 slowed down climate change by subtracting about 2.5 years of CO2 emissions over the next 30 years, according to Bloomberg’s New Energy Outlook.

On the other hand, the pandemic and the subsequent economic recession increases the risk of countries reverting to fossil fuels. Bloomberg envisions that an estimated US$ 78 trillion to US$ 130 trillion of clean electricity investment is needed between now and 2050 to reduce emissions below two degrees.

United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, David R. Boyd, warned governments not to forget about the climate crisis when designing economic stimulus packages. “Coal is one of the major causes of two of the world’s worst environmental problems — climate change and air pollution”, Boyd added.

“The share of coal in the global electricity supply [in the U.S.] is finally dropping, as falling costs for renewable electricity and concerns about climate change affect the industry”, Boyd said.

In 2019, coal accounted for 35 percent of total electricity generation worldwide. China and India ran 64 percent and 72 percent on coal that year, respectively, according to Bloomberg.

Growing populations, grid expansion to include the 130 million citizens in Southeast Asia who currently don’t have access to electricity, as well as increasing air conditioning usage are responsible for the near-term growth in energy usage before population numbers fall. “Air conditioning accounts for 12.8 [percent] of demand in 2050, rising fastest in India, Southeast Asia and Mexico”, Bloomberg notes.

“There is some near-term growth in coal use in China, India and Southeast Asia, but this is offset by declines in the U.S. and Europe,” says Bloomberg in its 2020 report New Energy Outlook. The U.S. even upped the ante by announcing its aim of net-zero emissions by 2050. “China, South Korea, and Japan all made similar pledges [in 2020], as did the U.K. and the E.U. in 2019”, CNN reports.

China’s plan includes peaking carbon emissions by 2030 and reaching “carbon neutrality” before 2060. It is yet to be seen if China’s ambitious plan will be impacted by COVID-19 recovery packages. Even though Australia is already experiencing climate change, scientists say, it is still eying economic recovery from the pandemic through gas exploration.

Jeffrey Sachs, Director at The Earth Institute of Columbia University, warned in 2015 of the danger of replacing coal with gas. Gas has lower emissions than coal and could help countries meet their 2030 targets as agreed upon in Paris, but the long-term changes require the development of renewable energy facilities.

Even if we were to solely focus on renewable energy, the problem of climate change would not be solved in time. Unlike their name suggests, not all renewable energy sources are in fact, carbon-neutral as will be discussed in part 2 of this series.

Article by Anrike Visser.
Illustration by Imad Gebrayel.
Editing by Laura Martin.

Copyright © 2020, rights reserved as set forth in the copyright notice.

Taking you where others don't
Ready to make sense of foreign news?

By subscribing you agree that your information will be transferred to MailChimp for processing in accordance with their Privacy Policy (https://mailchimp.com/legal/privacy/) and Terms (https://mailchimp.com/legal/terms/).