For two weeks this summer I was fortunate enough to be able to attend a Summer School run by the Smith School of Enterprise and Environment (SSEE) at the Oxford University Centre for the Environment. This article provides a (very) brief summary of some of the points discussed in what was a hugely informative and eye-opening course.
As the majority of people will be aware, the Paris Agreement was heralded as perhaps the biggest step forward by national governments across the globe in tackling climate change. The scientific community, as physicist Myles Allen told us, reacted with surprise at the ambitious commitment to hold the increase in global average temperature to below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, and especially at the fact that nations also committed to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C. This therefore begs the question as to how realistic the aims of the Paris agreement are, and I was intrigued to learn of the perspectives of the lecturers on this course, who came from a variety of different backgrounds.
Firstly, the science. Contrary to some reports, it is not geophysically impossible to limit average global temperature rise to 1.5°C, and past emissions do not already commit us to 1.5°C of warming. Currently, average global temperature has risen by approximately 1°C since pre-industrial times. The goal is therefore simple: net carbon dioxide emissions have to reach zero before the global average temperature increase reaches 1.5°C. Prof. Allen argued that the simplest and most cost-effective way of doing this would to be a ‘straight-line path’, i.e. reducing emissions by 20% for every 0.1°C of warming from now on, but the Paris agreement allows for flexible decarbonisation of global economies, with nations making their own emissions reduction pledges that are revised every five years.
Despite these targets being scientifically possible, a number of problems were highlighted with current progress towards the 1.5°C target. To put it bluntly – current pledges are not enough; although nations have pledged to decrease carbon emissions, there are no comprehensive plans to get emissions all the way to zero, and there is no indication of what will happen after 2030. This is a prime example of what many of the lecturers on the course argued is one of the main barriers to progress on tackling climate change: short-termism.
Economic geographer Gordon Clark’s take-home statement from his lectures was this: “Economic growth, or making a profit, is a pre-condition to tackling climate change”. In order to tackle climate change and reach net zero emissions, there needs to be huge investment in technology to allow global energy and fuel needs to be met with renewable, fossil-free sources. The only way that this can happen is if economies are growing and corporations are making profit, so that this profit can be spent on research and development. However, again, the issue of short-termism crops up. Corporations and financial markets are driven by an embedded culture of short-term profit making, exemplified by the demand for constant improvement in performance in quarterly reports. This is preventing companies from investing in things like clean energy research and development, as they require high initial investment and will take longer to be as profitable as fossil fuels. There are therefore few companies that are willing to effectively sacrifice themselves and plug substantial amounts of money into research and development to tackle climate change. Economic growth is therefore only positive for tackling climate change if the profit being made is spent in the right way – current investments by governments and oil majors are barely more than token gestures with no overwhelming turn to investment in clean energy instead of fossil fuels. Linked to this lack of investment in the future, Prof. Clark argued, is the current political climate in countries such as the UK. Despite a resumption in economic growth, income equality is a huge problem, and without a more equal distribution of income it is incredibly difficult to turn the attention of both the government and the population to future generations. Put simply, the UK government, as well as the Trump administration and many other nations worldwide are ‘stuck in the now’, consumed in problems such as Brexit and healthcare, with an inability to look further into the future and think about more long-term problems such as climate change.
So – are there any potential solutions to bring us on track for 1.5°C warming? Prof. Allen argued that the only way to get there would require an ability to take CO2 out of the atmosphere, as he did not believe it would be possible to switch to energy and fuel from entirely renewable sources by the 1.5°C target. Again, the short-termism issue comes into play; with short-term emissions reductions targets, there is very little investment in carbon sequestration or carbon capture and storage (CCS) anymore. Prof. Allen therefore argues that as there is currently no economic benefit in CCS and carbon disposal there needs to be collective action by the fossil fuel community. His proposal was mandatory sequestration requirements, for example making it a legal requirement for fossil fuel extractors and exporters to sequester 15% of CO2. This would mean that significantly more investment would be directed towards finding efficient ways to sequester CO2, or ways to prevent the emission of CO2 entirely, especially if initial requirements to sequester 15% of CO2 were gradually increased to 100%.
Environmental economist Cameron Hepburn discussed further positive signs from the unprecedented rise of solar power – viewed in the long term, the price collapse in solar is remarkable compared to power from other fossil fuels such as coal. There are now places where solar can be as profitable as coal even without subsidies, and research and development means materials for solar photovoltaic (PV) cells are evolving to become more efficient and reliable. To add to this, the rate of decline in battery costs has surprised agencies such as the Committee on Climate Change, and has game-changing implications for the mass adoption of EVs. However, past evidence for coal, oil and natural gas demonstrates that it takes ~50 years for a new energy source to get a reasonable penetration and share of the energy market, meaning that the transition to solar may not happen in time. Also worrying, as Prof. Hepburn demonstrated to us with a decarbonisation equation, is that for 50:50 odds of stopping global temperature rise before it reaches 2°C the necessary capital stock will have been built by 2017; i.e. this is the year in which we need to stop building new fossil fuel plants. This means that in order to meet a temperature rise of 1.5°C any future capital stock, and likely some existing capital stock, will have to be retired early, making them stranded assets. This is something that fossil fuel companies will want to avoid; it is in their interest to burn all their existing carbon to prevent losing significant amounts of money.
In summary, at the current rate of progress meeting the goals of the Paris agreement is going to be a huge challenge. However, perhaps the most important thing I took from the Summer School, is that there remains a sense of positivity and persistence among academics, business people, policy-makers and activists alike. Although we are perhaps not progressing as fast as we need to be, the rate of progress is undoubtedly increasing and action is happening. Global coal consumption around the world is falling, China and the US have managed to decouple emissions from economic growth, carbon prices are now in place in 40 countries and in 2016 more money was invested in renewable energy than in fossil fuels. So although the Paris agreement perhaps can’t be described as ‘realistic’, all hope is not lost, and we must remain optimistic and ready to tackle the challenges ahead.
The content of this article is based on lectures delivered by the following three academics:
Professor Myles Allen http://www.eci.ox.ac.uk/people/mallen.html
Professor Gordon Clark http://www.smithschool.ox.ac.uk/about-the-team/director/index.php
Professor Cameron Hepburn http://www.smithschool.ox.ac.uk/about-the-team/professors-fellows/cameron-hepburn.php
Kate is a recent graduate from Durham University where she studied geography, and is currently on a gap year before beginning a masters in climate change science and policy. She spends most of her free time volunteering, hiking, running or cooking. She has travelled as much as she can in the past couple of years and has many big plans for future adventures!