1.5℃ is the climate target, but how did we get there?
The science is plainly clear: limiting global warming to 1.5°C – given that we are already at 1.1℃ – means halving carbon pollution by 2030, and zero by mid-century. But how to do that? What does this important Paris Agreement goal mean for our economies and our daily lives? In other words, what do we have to change? “Everything,” said Henry Wiseman, an expert on low-emissions development at French think tank IDDRI, and a lead author of the 2018 United Nations Climate Report, pointing the way for the first time to a 1.5°C world.
“And it must be a root-and-stock change,” he told a private news organization. “We have to change the way we produce and consume energy, the way we make major industrial products, the way we move from place to place, heat and feed ourselves.” – Where to start? – Faced with a task this overwhelming, the problem may be the temptation to attack one area at a time. But according to experts, we haven’t left enough time for this. Anne Olhoff, a researcher at an university and author of the annual United Nations “Emissions Gap” report, said, “If we want to get to a level consistent with the 1.5°C route, we have to do everything at the same time and immediately, and aim for that our progress in reaching that goal — or lack thereof — will have to be tracked.”
Energy, agriculture, construction, transportation, industry, and forestry are the 6 sectors to target if humanity is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 60 to 25 billion tonnes of CO2 or its equivalent in other gases by 2030, and experts agree with this. Energy production, which accounts for more than 70% of emissions, is widely regarded as the best place to make quick profits, particularly in electricity, which accounts for half of those emissions. “If you have to choose one sector, it’s energy, not only because the emission reduction potential is the largest but also because there are quite a few easy wins,” Olhoff told a private news organization.
“We have the necessary technologies to do this. It’s mainly a matter of political will.” The fossil fuel behind it is the dirtiest and most carbon intensive with the biggest target: coal. “Coal-fired power plants, which account for about 40 percent of total electricity today, need to be phased out in two decades,” said Matthew Gideon, team lead for the mitigation path at the research NGO Climate Analytics. He said rich countries need to take the lead, and shut down all their carbon-baling coal plants by 2030. In the EU, this would mean three closures every two weeks over the next ten years. In the US, this would mean a power plant shutdown every 14 days.
But China burns half of the coal consumed worldwide, so unless Beijing adheres to the 1.5℃ target, it quickly becomes out of reach. Gidden said, “If you want to close China’s 1,082 coal-fired power plants at the rate needed to be in line with the Paris Agreement, one plant would have to be shut down every week, with the last closing around 2040.” That’s the time frame the International Energy Agency (IEA) has set for the global electricity sector — 40 percent of which is currently powered by coal — to become carbon neutral, a target by 2030 that includes solar and wind capacity, which will also need to be increased four times.
Transport, agriculture, industry… — but making electricity carbon neutral isn’t enough — every sector has to clean up its emissions. In the transportation sector, the IEA has called for the last internal combustion engine to be sold no later than 2035. In agriculture, the focus is on production methods that emit nitrous oxide (N20), the third most important greenhouse gas after CO2 and methane. Curbing emissions would also require the production and consumption of far less beef, which by far has the most carbon of all meats.
There is a need to renovate residential and commercial buildings, which generate more emissions in the form of transportation, and new construction methods need to be developed for carbon-heavy industries such as cement and steel. In the end, we cannot afford the continued destruction of the planet’s tropical forests, which absorb and store vast amounts of CO2.
Choices and a clear ‘vision’ — “It’s a question of choices, there is no way where we don’t make a choice,” said Joeri Rogelj, director of research at an Institute. Choices made by individuals, but also on the role of nuclear power, bioenergies, or technologies not yet invented for sucking CO2 out of the air. More than anything, we need “leadership with a vision, so governments are essential,” Rogelj said.