Zero Emissions by 2050

Is it feasible to have zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050? Yes!

WHO: Niklas Höhne, Pieter van Breevoort, Yvonne Deng, Julia Larkin, Gesine Hänsel (ECOFYS Consultants, Köln, Germany)

WHAT: Looking at the technical and economic feasibility of having zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050

WHEN: 2 October 2013

WHERE: On the ECOFYS website

TITLE: Feasibility of GHG emissions phase-out by mid-century (open access)

Is it technologically and economically doable to have zero carbon emissions by 2050 so that we can avoid an unlivable climate? Yes! Huzzah – easiest and shortest blog post ever. Let’s have a glass of wine and go home.

Huzzah! Some climate good news! (Joe Penniston, flickr)

Huzzah! Some climate good news! (Joe Penniston, flickr)

For those of you that don’t just want the tl;dr version, here are the details. The German environmental consulting firm ECOFYS set out to find out if it was doable to have zero GHG emissions by 2050 and it is.

It’s going to take some serious restructuring of how we do things and the systems we use, but we can get 90% of the way there with current technologies and it will cost around 5% of a country’s annual GDP each year.

If that sounds like a lot of money (which it is), consider that the globe currently spends around 3% of annual GDP subsidising fossil fuel production each year. So if we removed fossil fuel subsidies and made them compete on a level playing field with renewable energy, it will practically be cheap!

The authors of the paper also point out that while that’s what the estimated costs are now, the longer we wait to get going on reducing emissions the more expensive it is (and that’s before the billions of dollars extreme weather disaster clean ups cost get factored in).

Ok, so restructuring – what exactly does that entail? It involves changes to the systems that we use to do things. The first big one is energy systems, which account for two thirds of our fossil fuel emissions and the first change that takes a big chunk out of our emissions is electrification.

Because there is no ‘silver bullet’ material to replace oil, moving things that use oil over to electricity makes it easier to decarbonise, because you can take a hybrid-renewable electric grid and feed lots of different kinds of power into it.

Industry and industrial systems account for 30% of the world’s carbon pollution. The fastest way to decarbonise those is through circular manufacturing processes that reuse and recycle 100% of their inputs, which is already being worked on at the Ellen MacArthur foundation. We will also need to be more efficient with things like co-generation where you use waste heat (like the heat in your shower water when it goes down the drain) to heat buildings.

The False Creek Neighbourhood Energy Utility in Vancouver

The False Creek Neighbourhood Energy Utility in Vancouver (City of Vancouver)

These ideas will get industry about 95% of the way off our carbon habit, so the gap will need to be closed with some extra innovation before 2050, which I’m sure humanity is capable of.

Buildings are about 20% of the world’s carbon emissions. The way to decarbonise the existing buildings is to retrofit them to high efficiency standards. In order to do this by 2050, we’ll need to be renovating existing building stock at a rate of 2-3% each year (which the authors say has been demonstrated as an achievable rate).

Because buildings have a long lifespan of decades, the other really important thing is to make sure there are new building standards where all new buildings need to be as close to carbon zero as possible and powered by zero emission sources.

The other areas buildings can be more efficient is to make sure they’ve got efficient appliances in them, and efficient stoves which reduces black carbon (soot) pollution.

What about transport? It accounts for about 15% of global emissions, and one of the first things we can do to make transport less carbon intensive is to have better Urban Planning. Good news – when you have walkable and bikeable urban areas people drive less and take public transport more often!

My kind of bikeable (photo: Amy Huva)

My kind of bikeable (photo: Amy Huva)

All vehicles will need better efficiency standards – all road vehicles, rail transport, air transport and shipping. Passenger and freight transport needs to be switched to zero carbon options.

Here’s the bit I really like – 100% electrification of individual road transport and rail transport. Think of how much nicer cities will be to walk around when they’re full of electric cars! No more nasty noisy traffic, because the internal combustion engine is last century’s technology and hot cars like a Tesla are the future.

Not the future (Simone Ramella, flickr)

Not the future (Simone Ramella, flickr)

For the transport that cannot be electrified like international shipping and air travel, advances in biofuels will get us there by 2050.

Power supply covers about 5% of global emissions, but coal power plants are nasty, dirty, toxic things. So naturally the first step there is to rule that any new power plants get built with carbon capture and storage or not at all. Carbon capture and storage will also be important for biomass, but interestingly, the paper says that nuclear power is not essential for electricity generation.

Dirty coal is not your friend – it’s so two centuries ago (Steve Jones, flickr)

Dirty coal is not your friend – it’s so two centuries ago (Steve Jones, flickr)

What is essential for electricity decarbonisation is smart grids. We need a more efficient electrical grid, and unless we know how much power people are using, we can’t meet demand at the times they need it.

Agriculture contributes 25% of global greenhouse gas emissions (and it’s not just from cow fart methane either). The first thing that needs to happen is the end of deforestation. Cutting down trees means not only that the carbon gets released from the tree, but also that tree is no longer in service sucking in carbon dioxide and giving us back oxygen. We really need trees on the job of sucking up carbon, so we need to stop cutting them down.

Keep the carbon sequestering worker-trees! (ljhar6, flickr)

Keep the carbon sequestering worker-trees! (ljhar6, flickr)

Next we need to enhance the amount of carbon sequestered in soils. There’s a whole heap of new farming techniques that help keep moisture in the soil and retain the nutrients to reduce inorganic fertilizer use, so keep up the good work farmers!

Next, us city people need to stop wasting so much food. It’s estimated at 40% of the food produced globally gets wasted. So we need to stop doing that and stop putting food scraps into landfill where it produces methane. Start composting, people.

You know you want to... (Kirsty Hall, flickr)

You know you want to… (Kirsty Hall, flickr)

Another suggestion the paper had was to make sure all wastewater (the water you flush) gets treated with anaerobic digestion, so the methane can be collected and used to heat things.

With a long list like that it sounds expensive, right? It will be. But you know what’s going to be more expensive? Doing nothing. Business as usual will force us to pay huge amounts to adapt to continued and diversifying climate disasters, which will cost anywhere between 5-20% of global GDP every year depending on how unlucky you are. You could get ‘lucky’ and only have to clean up from an extreme weather event once a year, or you could get unlucky and have drought followed by floods, followed by a storm, followed by weird snow, unprecedented forest fires, etc. The list is scary, long and very, very expensive.

So what do we need to do to make all of this start steamrolling forward? We need a price on carbon. The paper used an estimated price of US$50/tonne, and it makes a lot of sense that if you no longer allow everyone to use the atmosphere as a free pollution dump, then innovation and changes will kick in pretty quickly after that.

So how ‘bout it? Shall we price carbon, stop burning it and make our cities and homes healthier places to live?

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Agreeing to Zero

If the UN climate negotiations were to actually produce an agreement in 2015 to replace the Kyoto Accord, what would it look like?

WHO: Erik Haites, Margaree Consultants, Toronto, Canada
Farhana Yamin, University College London, Chatham House
Niklas Höhne, Ecofys, Wageningen University

WHAT: The possible legal elements of a 2015 agreement by the UN on climate change mitigation (which they’ve promised to try and do by 2015)

WHEN: 13 October 2013

WHERE: Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations, Paris,

TITLE:  Possible Elements of a 2015 Legal Agreement on Climate Change (open access)

Let’s take a walk down fantasy lane for a moment since the UNFCCC climate change talks are happening in Warsaw over the next two weeks and imagine that the process begins to work. I’ll take off my cynical and sarcastic hat, and we can imagine together what the world might look like if nations sent negotiators with some actual power to commit their countries to reducing their carbon emissions.

Realistically, as any Canadian who has paid passing attention to the news can tell you, the Harper Government here in Canada is currently spending a lot of time and money muzzling and silencing their scientists who might talk about inconvenient things like climate change. So we know very little will come of these current negotiations. But I digress- as I said, let’s imagine, because that’s what this paper is doing.

These researchers looked at the current negotiations and figured that since all 194 countries that are part of the UN climate negotiations have agreed to negotiate a new legally binding agreement by 2015 to be implemented in 2020, maybe we should sit down and work out what the best one would look like? They helpfully point out that unless there’s an overarching plan for the negotiations that they get bogged down in procedural details, which is true given that Russia held up almost the entire negotiations on deforestation prevention financing in Bonn this year over the agenda.

Yes, Russia held up two weeks of negotiations over the agenda for the meeting (golf clap for Russia).

So to avoid negotiation grandstanding over the formatting of the agenda, what should the game plan be?

The researchers start by aiming high, stating ‘the climate regime needs to move out of continuous negotiation and into a framework of continuous implementation’ which would be awesome. They suggest we need a hybrid approach – avoiding the ‘top down’ regulation from above that tells countries how they can do things, allowing a ‘bottom up’ approach where countries get to choose how they want to reduce their emissions.

Elements of a 2015 agreement (from paper)

Elements of a 2015 agreement (from paper)

They also suggest we end the current split between developed and least developed countries that has been standard so far in the negotiations (generally Annex 1 countries are the western industrialised countries while non-Annex 1 countries are the developing countries/third world).

Instead of sitting down and trying to hash out exactly what each country is going to do to reduce their carbon emissions, the researchers say they should all agree to have net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Everyone. We all agree to zero by 2050 and then it’s up to each nation to work out how.

Using the words ‘net zero’ gives countries that believe in the commercial viability of carbon capture and storage (CCS) to use that technology and still have zero emissions, but most importantly it leaves the details up to each country.

One planet, different ways to reach zero emissions (Norman Kuring, NASA GSFC, using data from the VIIRS instrument aboard Suomi NPP)

One planet, different ways to reach zero emissions (Norman Kuring, NASA GSFC, using data from the VIIRS instrument aboard Suomi NPP)

The simplicity of this idea means that the only agreement needed for 2015 is ‘we all agree to have zero emissions by 2050 and agree that progress will be monitored by the UNFCCC’ (although the UN will say it in their very wordy form of bureaucrat). It makes the idea quite appealing and possibly(?) achievable?

So let’s imagine that everyone agreed that we should all have net zero carbon emissions by 2050. How would the UNFCCC monitor this?

It will need several things – ways to measure reductions, ways to enforce reductions, ways to avoid free-riding and commitments from each country that get upgraded every four years.

The idea these researchers have is that once everyone signs on, each country is then responsible for proving how they’re going to reduce their emissions. They’ll submit these national plans to the UN and the UN will either approve it or send it back telling them it’s not good enough. Each country will also have to prove they’re doing their fair share to reduce emissions (time to pony up the reductions EU, UK, Canada, US, Australia and others!).

The plans will then be reported on every year with the exception of countries that produce less than 0.1% of global emissions. Something that might be surprising to you – 100 countries fall under that threshold! So those countries would only have to report on their progress to zero emissions every five years.

In order to make the process complete, the agreement would need to include everything – air travel emissions, shipping emissions (and who is responsible for the emissions – the country of origin or the country who ordered the stuff?). There will also need to be more money for climate adaptation, because we are already in the age of climate impacts, which will involve wealthier countries coughing up the $100billion each year they promised and haven’t delivered on.

Oh, and of course the agreement needs to be legally binding because everyone knows voluntary commitments are like buying a gym membership as a New Year’s resolution.

Now of course, my first question when reading about an internationally agreed, legally binding commitment to reduce carbon emissions to zero by 2050 through rolling four-year periods that ramp up each time automatically is whether the unicorns are included or extras.

Complimentary unicorns? (Gordon Ednie, flickr)

Complimentary unicorns? (Gordon Ednie, flickr)

However, the researchers rightly point out that with currently available technologies and some political will, it’s possible to have reduced 90% of carbon emissions by 2050. They list sensible and achievable things to get us there like net zero carbon electricity by 2040, totally recyclable products by 2050, zero energy buildings by 2025, decarbonised and electrified passenger transit by 2040, Hydroflurocarbon (HFC) phase out by 2030, zero food in landfill by 2025 and the end of deforestation by 2025.

Even better, they’ve got a list of things we can do before the agreement kicks in for 2020 like: removing the billions of dollars that is current spent each year subsidising fossil fuels, better energy standards and air pollution standards, regulation of shipping and aviation emissions and incentives for early mitigation. Sounds simple, no?

They also recommend incentives for countries that are beating their reduction targets as well as recognition for companies and other organisations within countries that are doing their part too.

This idea is great, if we could get past the sticking point of getting countries to send negotiators who would actually have the power to agree to a legally binding agreement (this year Australia didn’t bother to send their Minister for the Environment, because the new Prime Minister doesn’t believe in climate change).

But if we did all agree that global emissions should be zero by 2050 (which they need to be to preserve a livable climate), this paper outlines a pretty good idea of what it could look like.