More renewables, carbon tax needed
Climate sceptics, who follow the strategy of creating doubt in the minds of the public to stall action for reducing emissions of GHGs, need to be asked: What if the scientific community of the world is right?
The International Energy Agency (IEA) has reported that for the third year in succession, emissions of carbon dioxide have remained flat, even as the world registered economic growth of 3.1 per cent during 2016. The reason for this lies in the growing generation of electric power from renewable sources, a shift from coal to natural gas, improvements in the efficiency of energy production and use as well as structural changes in the global economy.
The result of these developments has been that global emissions from the energy sector have remained at 32.1 gigatonnes per year in 2016, which was the same as in the previous two years. Both in the US and China, there has been a decline in carbon dioxide emissions, while they have held steady in Europe, thus offsetting increases in other parts of the world. The biggest drop took place in the US, where economic growth during 2016 was 1.6 per cent but emissions declined by three per cent or 160 million tonnes, largely the result of a shift from coal to natural gas and renewable energy (RE).
Emission levels in that country were the lowest since 1992, in a period when economic growth aggregated 80 per cent. Much of the shift from coal to natural gas is the result of a deliberate policy under the Obama Administration, but this has been facilitated by greater production and lower costs of gas, derived from shale. Hence, even though President Donald Trump has proclaimed his intent to revive mining of coal and its use in the US, this is not likely to happen, because the coal mining industry is currently in doldrums, and with the cost advantage of gas and renewables, it is unlikely that coal will receive much attention as fuel for power generation.
The current situation does not, by any stretch of the imagination, herald early peaking of global emissions, but it does clearly show that if the economics of RE options are favourable a shift from past practice would be inevitable.
Logically, if the world is serious about reducing the growing risks from human-induced climate change, then placing a price on carbon as early as possible will accelerate the energy transition that is essential and urgent. A group of well-known officials from past Republican administrations have formed what has been named as the Climate Leadership Council, with James Baker, former Secretary of State; Hank Paulson, former Treasury Secretary; and George P Schultz, also a former Secretary of State; and others.
They have come up with a proposal to introduce a rising carbon tax beginning at $40 per tonne, which would replace President Obama’s climate policies. James Baker took the view, when interviewed, “I really don’t know the extent to which it is man-made, and I don’t think anybody can tell you with certainty that it’s all man-made.” However, he also said, “the risk is sufficiently strong that we need an insurance policy and this is a damn good insurance policy.”
There is a multitude of climate sceptics in the Republican Party, many of whom are funded by the forces of status quo. The new head of the Environment Protection Agency is one of them who takes the misleading view that human influence on climate change is still a subject of considerable doubt. He ignores the collective knowledge and consensus assessment of thousands of leading scientists from across the globe providing overwhelming evidence of human responsibility for climate change, and who work pro bono under the banner of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
He also ignores the fact that IPCC reports and findings are endorsed and accepted by all the Governments of the world. Each summary for policy-makers of IPCC reports is accepted and approved word by word by all the Governments in a prolonged plenary session for this purpose. The Fourth Assessment Report was approved in this manner in 2007 when the Bush Administration was in power.
Climate sceptics, who follow the strategy of creating doubt in the minds of the public to stall action for reducing emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs), need to be asked the question inherent in James Baker’s statement above. What if the scientific community of the world is right? Do we not need an insurance policy? Any audience in affluent countries can be asked why people buy fire insurance. After all, the number of those who experience any serious fire episode in their homes is almost negligible.
To ensure that temperature increase by the end of this century is limited to two degree Celsius over pre-industrial levels, the world would need to reduce emissions of GHGs 40-70 per cent by 2050 over 2010 levels, and bring them down to zero or negative levels by 2100. These targets can be achieved only if we make a serious beginning today. The last three years have demonstrated that by creating market conditions which favour low emission sources of energy, we can still attain high levels of economic growth, reap the co-benefits of lower air pollution at the local level and overall higher levels of energy security.
To usher in a clean and secure energy future a carbon tax is now an urgent imperative, which would provide a strong incentive for innovation towards lower cost and higher efficiency RE technologies. Despite the lack of enabling policies, RE technologies have reached dramatic levels of economic merit. A price on carbon would provide a timely boost for substantial improvements and further gains. Even the generally conservative IEA projects that by 2025 utility level solar power would compete with fossil fuel-based power.
While Governments argue and debate action to be taken under the Paris agreement on climate change, fresh efforts are required to compel them to raise their levels of ambition through concerted grassroots action, led essentially by the youth of the world, since it is their future which is at stake. Every stakeholder group needs to pursue policies and advocacy to ensure an overall change of direction for global energy. There is cause for some cautious optimism despite the climate sceptics in Washington DC. Kazakhstan, a hydrocarbon producer and exporter is holding Expo 2017 in Astana this year, the focus of which is ‘Future Energy’. Hollywood icon and Oscar winner Leonardo DiCaprio is devoting most of his time and the star power to advocating action on climate change. The CEO of his foundation, Terry Tamminen, an intellectual and experienced policymaker in his own right, is articulating the need for halving global emissions every decade. There is in hand a movement for mobilising youth globally to take the lead in tackling climate change, through action in their educational institutions and homes and in their personal lifestyles.
(The writer is former chairman, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)