Electricity pylons can be seen on January 26, 2021 in front of the cooling towers of the coal-fired power plant of the German energy giant RWE in Weisweiler.
INA FASSBENDER | AFP | Getty Images
LONDON – Global dependence on fossil fuels is likely to intensify in the coming decades, exacerbating the risk of a climate catastrophe, as world leaders and CEOs repeatedly announce their commitment to the so-called “energy transition”.
Policymakers are under increasing pressure to deliver on the pledges made under the Paris Agreement ahead of this year’s COP26, due to take place in Glasgow, Scotland, in early November.
Yet even if politicians and business leaders publicly acknowledge the need for a transition to a low-carbon society, hopes of limiting global warming and achieving a crucial global goal are rapidly waning.
Almost 200 countries ratified the Paris Climate Agreement at COP21 and agreed to continue efforts to limit the planet’s temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. It remains a priority ahead of COP26, although some climate researchers now believe that achieving that goal is already “practically impossible”.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has estimated that man-made warming from past and ongoing emissions increases global average temperatures by about 0.2 degrees Celsius every decade. If this continues, the IPCC has forecast that warming is expected to reach 1.5 degrees Celsius between 2030 and 2052.
To go below this level, climate researchers have called for a 45% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2030 compared to 2010, before they reach net zero by 2050.
“It is absolutely clear that the transition is too slow from a climatic perspective, but it is important to recognize that it is primarily a question of political will and economic decisions,” said Carroll Muffett, executive director of the nonprofit Center for International Environmental Law CNBC by phone.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson chairs a UN Security Council meeting on Climate and Security at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office on February 23, 2021 in London, England. Great Britain holds the rotating presidency of the Security Council and is hosting this year’s COP26-UN climate summit in Glasgow.
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“It’s not about the lack of technology or the inability to do it. If you actually look at what the cheaper sources of energy are currently, it’s not even a question of economics. It’s much more about embedded power structures and continued support the dying industry, “he added.
One of the “best examples” of this separation, Muffett said, is that the net-zero strategies of some governments and corporations depend on increasing fossil fuel consumption “for decades to come.” These guidelines “tend to rely heavily on unproven and potentially very dangerous carbon removal strategies to magically make the carbon dioxide disappear”.
“We see this in the US, particularly in the context of the proposed massive investment in carbon capture and storage,” added Muffett.
“A bumpy ride”
Currently, the Earth’s carbon dioxide levels are higher than ever in the past 3.6 million years, according to research by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Results released last week found that CO2 and methane levels – the two top greenhouse gases – continued their “unstoppable rise” over the past year despite a sharp economic slowdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
“Human activity is driving climate change,” said Colm Sweeney of NOAA’s Global Monitoring Laboratory. “If we are to mitigate the worst of the effects, we must consciously focus on reducing fossil fuel emissions to near zero – and even then we must find ways to further remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.”
When fossil fuels such as oil, gas and coal are burned, large amounts of carbon dioxide are released into the air. Greenhouse gases store heat in our atmosphere and cause global warming. The IPCC has found that fossil fuel and industrial emissions are the leading cause of global warming, accounting for 89% of global CO2 emissions in 2018.
The US Energy Information Administration predicts that global carbon dioxide emissions from energy-related sources will continue to increase in the coming decades.
In 2019, the EIA forecast that global energy-related CO2 emissions will increase by 0.6% annually between 2018 and 2050, with China maintaining its position as the world’s largest single emitter of energy-related CO2 over that period.
A person walks past a coal-fired power plant in Jiayuguan, Gansu province, China on Thursday April 1, 2021.
Qilai Shen | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Clark Williams-Derry, energy finance analyst at IEEFA, a not-for-profit organization, described the so-called “energy transition” as “the process of shifting an energy system from the 19th century to the 21st century”.
“A transition is under way, but is it fast enough to prevent the worst effects of climate change? Is it fast enough to address air quality concerns in cities in developing countries?” Williams-Derry cited, among other things, dangerous levels of air pollution in countries such as India, China, Bangladesh and Vietnam.
“We are anchored in a legacy of choice, technology and local economies that are holding us back,” he continued. “It’s going to be a bumpy ride.”
“It matters now”
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recognizes that the transition from fossil fuels is a major undertaking and will require “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes” in all areas of society. It also underscores the point that limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius “could go hand in hand with ensuring a more sustainable and just society,” with clear benefits for humans and natural ecosystems.
However, a United Nations analysis published on February 26 found that the commitments made by countries around the world to curb greenhouse gas emissions were “very far” from the deep-seated measures required to experience the most devastating effects of the collapse of climate change avoid.
The most recent United Nations report on national climate protection plans – sometimes referred to as nationally fixed contributions – included countries responsible for only about a third of global emissions. This is because only 75 of the 195 signatories to the Paris Agreement submitted their NDCs to reduce emissions by 2030 for assessment in time.
The US, China and India, some of the world’s largest emitters, have yet to formulate their respective NDCs.
In response, United Nations Executive Secretary on Climate Change Patricia Espinosa has urged policy makers to “step up” ambitious plans to reduce emissions this year. “If this task was urgent before, it is crucial now.”