Combatting a ‘locked-in’ climate future

Posted on December 5, 2011


Anyone who has been paying attention to lead up to climate negotiations in Durban could be forgiven for thinking that they have become an irrelevant side-show to the economic crisis confronting Europe.  Indeed, with many developing countries refusing to agree to a new binding agreement to replace Kyoto without the inclusion of non-binding targets for these nations, and developed nations seeking to delay any start to a new agreement until 2020, there is a sense that the whole thing is an expensive waste of carbon.  Yawn……What’s the worry anyhow? Surely, we are all heading for slowed economic growth and this should comfortably translate into reduced global emissions, right?  Wrong.

In November 2011 the International Energy Agency told the world that the chances of Earth avoiding dangerous climate change were narrowing dramatically.  Its analysis shows that the wriggle room in the global carbon budget is diminishing rapidly.  There is broad scientific agreement that atmospheric CO2 must not rise over 450ppm if we are to avoid irreversible climate change.  Current concentrations of atmospheric CO2 are in the region of 390ppm.  The IEA’s analysis is most disturbing in three key elements:

  • that current and planned energy and industrial infrastructure account for nearly all of our current emissions and the remaining carbon ‘budget’ these are collectively termed locked-in emissions because the infrastructure is so expensive to replace they are unlikely to be shut down any time soon;
  • that the time available to reduce atmospheric CO2 before runaway climate change occurs is estimated to be only a period of five years (2017 being the point of no return);
  • that the economic rebound from the 2007 global financial crisis resulted in 2010 being the year in which emissions were at their highest in recorded history with a massive 5% rise between that year and the year previous, and that emissions will continue to rise year on year by 3% based on current trajectories.

One would think that with this warning by the IEA, coming as it does on the back of recent IPCC reports which have revised upwards the risk and impacts of climate change, Governments would be scampering to hammer out a hard-hitting deal.  Sadly, this has not been the case, with most developed nations refusing to agree to any deal that allows developing nations to adopt voluntary targets.

However, as global leaders meet in Durban, there appears to be a last-minute opportunity for a deal to be reached on a viable successor to the Kyoto Protocol – and that this could be signed by 2017 rather than the entirely redundant 2020. Reports from Durban today suggest the China and Brazil will consider legally binding targets under certain conditions.

While this latest development has to better than no agreement, there is still an enormous elephant in the room: the small matter of the future of the planet.  For, if the IEA is right and we only have five years in which to cap emissions, turning the tide on their inexorable growth is nigh on impossible within such a short space of time.  Worse still, if the agreement is only signed in 2017, we will already be at the very brink of irreversible climate change – making the agreement entirely redundant.

And, if the IEA is to be relied upon, it is our energy infrastructure which is driving us to a place of no return.  It makes sense then to urgently consider how to decarbonise this infrastructure.  But as any energy expert knows, commissioning new energy infrastructure is costly and time-consuming.  Nuclear plants can take many, many years to build, gas-fired power stations can be up in four but gas will not get us sufficient carbon savings, while renewable infrastructure can be installed very quickly, but commissioning phases can get caught up in lengthy planning processes.  The logical hierarchy would of course be:

  • build all new plants using zero carbon technology;
  • replace the worst carbon emitters with new zero-carbon technology;
  • retrofit the rest with carbon reduction technology;

But, energy infrastructure is hugely expensive.  At a time when, in the UK for example, the Chancellor managed to announce (as one commentator quaintly put it) ‘George’s road maintenance projects’ as a way to help bring economic growth, it is hard to imagine the UK embarking on the kind of expenditure necessary to replace the bulk of its current energy infrastructure with ultra green alternatives.  The bill would easily run into the hundreds of billions and there would not be enough human resource, plant and equipment in all of Europe to achieve the task by 2017.

There are however two significant additions to the list above.  One will become an absolute necessity, and the other is possibly the only inspired pathway out, provided that it is fully supported:

  • turn out the lights – in 2017 with atmospheric carbon approaching 450ppm, I wonder which government will be the first to introduce the equivalent of hose-pipe bans on domestic energy consumption.  The level of reduction required is likely to be close to 80 or 90% of consumption so this would plunge the globe back into the equivalent of the dark ages;
  • urgently invest in technology and systems to sequester carbon from existing emissions sources, and so-called legacy emissions, those emissions which are already in the atmosphere and which have an active life of up to 100 years, and link these to the major sources of our emissions – our cities.

The idea of cutting consumption by simply flicking the switch on the national grid will clearly be a measure of last resort but I will eat my hat if it is not employed by governments before 2020, as shocking as the thought might be (energy rationing clearly!)

The idea of being able to sequester carbon away has been dismissed by many as a loony quick fix and a way for the coal and gas industry to turn public attention away from focussing on their levels of emissions.  Yet the technology is not just about much maligned clean-coal,  but also about soil carbon, bio-carbon and the carbon that can usefully be stored in the sea.  There are many different applications of each technology and the critical challenge will be to ensure that sustainable systems of sequestration are established (for example, the idea of simply pumping lots of CO2 under the ground into disused coal mines makes most people queasy, whereas using CO2 to grow algae which in turn can be used as a biofuel has real co-benefits).

The challenge is to embed this technology at source which is generally within our cities or on their peripheries. A new organisation The Ecological Sequestration Trust (TEST) has been established to urgently test-bed the mainstreaming of whole-of-system ecological sequestration approaches linked to eco-cities.  If sequestration is to play a key part, it must either buy the Earth more time by successfully sequestering enough carbon out of the atmosphere so that levels are reduced, or by retrofitting existing emission intensive industries and regions so that we are reducing our outputs leading to 2017.  Both are possible, but both urgently require collective support and action from governments and the private sector.  Encouragingly, Australia, which has just brought in a comprehensive carbon reduction package now includes substantial carbon sequestration measures in addition to much-needed investment in renewables.  It is perhaps a model to be studied by other carbon consumption leaders.

Finally, governments need to admit that pale attempts to enforce energy efficiency have failed to stem the flow of high consumption lifestyles and industries.  When did owning three television become compulsory?  And why do we shop incessantly for goods which break, almost on the journey home?  This turn around is a new kind of austerity, but unlike this current round of austerity, it must be embraced with innovation and optimism, not grim determination to struggle through to a distant dystopic future full of  shiny, sparkly crap of a different kind.  Instead, a truly sustainable low-carbon future has to be one where we have clean air, clean water and clean soils, fresh food and comfortable homes, where our notion of fun doesn’t come from spending time in monster shopping malls but in spending more time enjoying where we live and who we live with.