By Irina Slav
Climate scientists are not known for giving good news, and the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that convened in South Korea was no exception: the scientists that compiled a special report on the climate situation on the planet slapped optimists in the face: the world needs to spend US$2.4 trillion every year until 2035 to slow down the effects of climate change.
Perhaps shockingly, the panel noted that at the current warming rates, Earth’s atmosphere will in less than one hundred years be 3 degrees Celsius warmer than it was before the start of the Industrial revolution, which is twice what the Paris Agreement stipulated in one of its scenarios. No wonder that the panel is calling for following the 1.5-degree scenario instead of the 2-degree one, which was widely seen as more realistic. Realistic or not, apparently, the world needs to work towards a temperature climb reduction of 1.5 degrees, the panel says.
The 1.5-degree scenario will require cutting CO2 emissions by as much as 45 percent over the 20-year period from 2010 to 2030 and to a net zero by 2050—net zero meaning that all CO2 released will need to be captured and stored or reused. But that’s just one aspect of the seismic shift that humankind would have to affect to curb the temperature rise.
Another aspect would be the phase-out of coal and a reduction in the amount of natural gas used for power generation. To some observers unburdened by excessive planetary anxiety, this would probably sound ridiculous: natural gas has emerged as the lesser evil compared with coal and oil, the so-called bridge fuel to a future powered entirely by renewable sources. To get a sense of how easy that would be, here’s the 2017 statistics from IEA’s World Energy Outlook as quoted by Bloomberg: coal accounted for 37 percent of global power generation, which made it the largest single source of electricity. To compare, renewables accounted for 24 percent, as much as natural gas, and that included hydropower.
How do you go from 37 percent to zero in less than 20 years? That’s a question that has a simple answer: only with tons of money and a lot of determination. Yet, Bloomberg New Energy Finance estimated that last year, the total spent on renewable energy came in at US$333.5 billion. The US$2.4 trillion that the climate change panel has calculated as necessary investments is almost seven times more than that. Who can afford it?
Unfortunately, it seems that those who said we’re already too late in saving the planet from the effects of climate change were right. It is theoretically possible to increase investments in renewable energy sevenfold and accelerate the phase-out of coal. It is also theoretically possible to transform the world’s energy networks in a way that supports a lot more use of renewable energy and millions of electric vehicles, which means making space for a lot of energy storage. But then, a lot of things are theoretically possible but remain at the theoretical level simply because there are way too many constraints to make the jump to practical.
The authors of the IPCC report admit as much. “These options are technically proven at various scales, but their large-scale deployment may be limited by economic, financial, human capacity and institutional constraints,” the report said. “We provide a manual of solutions. It’s up to them to use this manual, considering the constraints or opportunities existing in different countries. It’s their decision, but we provide the scientific information,” the chairman of the IPCC, Hoesung Lee, told Bloomberg. We shall wait and see how much of the world takes up the challenge.