Quitting the carbon habit

Quitting the carbon habit

School-strike protests, Extinction Rebellion demonstrations around the world and impassioned speeches at the UN have helped bring the climate crisis into sharp public focus, prompting many administrations to announce net-zero carbon targets for 2050 or earlier. But how realistic are these aims, and do we have the technical, financial and organizational resources to achieve them? 

It could come to be called the Greta Thunberg effect: the sudden and widespread realization, in the closing
months of this year, that immediate and far-reaching action is essential if the escalating crisis in the world’s climate is to be slowed down and eventually halted.

For while millions have been risking arrest on city streets in Extinction Rebellion-style climate protests and
politicians continue to make bold promises to halt carbon emissions by 2050 or earlier, it has taken a quiet 16
year-old schoolgirl’s impassioned address to September’s United Nations Climate Summit in New York to finally bring the message home to the mass audience.

“Entire ecosystems are collapsing,” Greta Thunberg angrily told the delegates, after having first harangued
them for expecting young people to solve the crisis. “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”

On the evidence of the months that have followed, Thunberg has hit the nail right on the head. Climate change shot to the front and centre of mainstream news coverage, multinational companies rushed to sign up to the UN Global Compact to keep the global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius, and the Bank of England governor rounded on international capital markets for backing projects that will result in planetary
heating of over 4 degrees. At the same time the International Energy Association (IEA) calculated that offshore wind power could meet all the world’s energy needs several times over.

Pretty soon hundreds of organizations, from local councils to steelmakers, automakers, supermarkets and national governments, were competing with each other to make ever grander promises of zero-carbon futures and environmental good behaviour.

But are these bold statements real commitments or just hollow public relations greenwash to tick the boxes of
corporate social responsibility? And most important of all, if these promises are to be fulfilled, how is the carbon circle going to be squared, if at all?

“There is no doubt,” says Tim Curtis, managing director of Ricardo Energy & Environment, “that there are
enough natural resources to generate all the energy we need. But it is more complicated than that. Finance plays a big part, and so does government policy – these crucial factors impact on whether a technology can be developed, invested in, applied, and to what level.

“There are very different policy frameworks in different parts of the world,” he continues, “and it is my view
that it is the policy agenda that will really drive things. Whilst technology can always be better, cheaper and more efficient, it’s much more about the commitment from governments and international agencies that will make this happen.”

What does net-zero mean?

Achieving net-zero carbon effectively means ceasing to add to the stock of greenhouse gases (GHGs) already in the atmosphere - so any activities that still emit GHGs will have to be balanced by processes that remove those gases from the air. Natural carbon sink systems such as plants, trees, some soils and the oceans will of course continue to absorb GHGs, but their capacity to do so is limited and probably reducing. And the industrial CO2 removal technology that will be needed to complement natural absorption mechanisms is in its infancy and is unproven at scale.

The scale of the challenge is vast. According to the Global Carbon Project some 55 gigatonnes (Gt) of CO2 and other GHGs are emitted each year by everything from farm animals and home fireplaces to power stations, blast furnaces and transport systems. To absorb this through natural processes would require an area 20 times the size of the Amazon rainforest, according to AP News.

Much has been made about the cost of tackling the climate crisis. Yet, argues Curtis, we need to look much further ahead than the next four- or five-year political cycle. “Yes, of course there is a cost of acting and investing. But what is the cost of not acting? It is 12 years since Sir Nicholas Stern said ‘The evidence on the
seriousness of the risks from inaction or delayed action is now overwhelming. We risk damages on a scale larger than the two world wars of the last century’. And the case now is even more compelling - we need
to act now to mitigate the catastrophic potential impacts of climate change, and the huge future cost implications. It’s challenging for the political policy agenda, I know, but the investment today is critical
for the benefits we will see in 50 or 100 years’ time.”

The 2015 Paris Agreement brought a measure of commitment between nations on jointly reducing GHG
emissions, albeit with some major emitters jumping ship, and many others lagging on their agreed timescales;
Europe is leading by example when it comes to putting pro-climate promises into law, giving some hope that other global players may follow, and technology advances across a scattering of industry sectors offer the hope of carbon-free or at least low-carbon alternatives for today’s industrial processes.

But will all this be enough to deliver on the widely hyped zero-carbon targets for 2050 or even earlier?

“Historically,” says Curtis, “climate change has not really been on the agenda at the board level of most corporates, and it has largely been ignored by the finance sector. However, things are changing, and the Environment, Social and Governance (ESG) agenda has gained traction over the last couple of years, and this is beginning to unlock climate-related investment.”

Also, Curtis adds, “I think that a lot of the corporate response to date has been about compliance. With the increased awareness of the ESG Agenda, and the impact of the Taskforce on Financial related Climate Disclosure (TCFD), we are seeing major corporates and asset managers becoming concerned at the risks and opportunities as a result of climate change.”

His colleague James Harries, principal consultant, environmental evidence and data for Ricardo Energy & Environment, concurs: “Lack of progress tends to be a failure of political leadership – set the right policy framework and the rest will follow. “But also,” Harries argues, “it is a failure of individuals. Many of us understand the problem but still don’t take action to cut back on flights, car journeys, meat consumption and other carbon-intensive activities. Some people talk about the need to educate people, but even for
people that understand climate change, cognitive dissonance can be huge.”

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