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Cheer up: climate change can be stopped

12 October 2018

Richard Black sets out the good news in the IPCC report

IF CLIMATE change is the biggest challenge of our times, then this week has brought some good news: it can be stopped. The solution even has a name: net zero.

Remember December 2015, the Paris climate summit (News, 18 December 2015)? A city in mourning and lockdown after the tragedy of the Bataclan shootings. A cavalcade of world leaders — Barack Obama, Xi Jinping, Angela Merkel, even Vladimir Putin — highlighting the threat of climate change. Scientists, campaigners, doctors, the military, businesses, and, loudest of all, faith communities, making clarion calls for action. The gavel of the French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius reverberated around the world as he declared the deal done.

As negotiators and campaigners celebrated long into the night, some paused to recall one tiny snag: at the time, no one knew for sure what delivering the Paris Agreement would entail. As the summit progressed, ministers from countries especially vulnerable to floods, droughts, storms, and falling crop-yields insisted that governments must make a commitment to attempting to keep global warming to 1.5º Celsius, not the higher figure of 2ºC which had until then been in circulation.

But virtually no academic research had been done on how — or even whether — that target could be met. So, governments asked the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN body that collates and sifts evidence on the issue, to write a special report outlining two things: what needed to happen to deliver the 1.5ºC target, and why it mattered.

On Monday, the IPCC published its report. At its most basic, the prescription for delivering the 1.5ºC world is to bring carbon emissions to “net zero” by mid-century.

The report shows us why it would be worth while: keeping global warming to 1.5ºC, compared with 2ºC, will significantly reduce the climate’s impact in many regions of the world, especially for the poorest and most vulnerable communities.

IT IS worth taking a step back and asking what it would mean in practice to deliver a net-zero-emissions world.

“Net zero” implies cutting emissions of greenhouse gases as far as possible, and then mopping up any emissions that cannot be eliminated by absorbing an equivalent amount of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

The absolute key is to cut all out all the emissions that we can. Put simply, this means virtually ending the use of fossil fuels. Herein lies the challenge. Over the 300-odd years since Thomas Newcomen, from Devon, invented the first effective steam engine, humanity has grown rich by the burning of fossil fuels. Coal, oil, and gas have allowed the world’s population to increase from below one billion to above seven, and its GDP to swell more than 700-fold.

Nowadays, we heat our homes from gas boilers, flick on an electric switch without a care for where the power comes from, and transport ourselves with ease and safety on land, water, and air — all courtesy of fossil fuels.

Reaching net zero — stopping climate change at 1.5ºC of warming — means reversing this dependence on coal, oil, and gas in a period of just 30 years: one tenth of the amount of time it took us to reach this stage. And doing so without diminishing standards of living.

It is not a trivial task. But the IPCC report tells us that it is not impossible. And the real world provides ample reasons to believe that the panel is right.

Last year, the UK’s carbon-dioxide emissions from fossil-fuel use fell to a level last seen in 1890. Yes, you read that correctly.

And yet, clearly, British life did not return to a time before antibiotics, fully funded state education, and universal suffrage. The modern reality is that emissions are falling as the economy grows. Emissions are falling because the economy is moving from goods to services; because we now use energy much more efficiently than in 1890; and because use of coal, the most polluting of fossil fuels, is down to nearly zero.

A parallel statistic is that, last year, more than half the electricity used in the UK came from low-carbon generation: renewables and nuclear. The transition away from coal and gas reduces reliance on fuel imports and makes the electricity system more secure. And — contrary to so much received wisdom — the average British person’s energy bill has fallen over the decade during which levies on bills have stimulated the transition.

This shows that emissions can be cut with no discernible downside.

And it is not a uniquely British experience: in nations from Chile to China, governments are implementing policies that constrain greenhouse-gas emissions while keeping the lights on, and allowing, even stimulating, economic growth.

IF YOU look through the various sectors and ask how emissions can be brought to zero, there are answers in almost all of them. The UK and other countries are on the way to zero-carbon electricity systems. Cars, buses, lorries, and trains are shifting inexorably towards electric or hydrogen propulsion; lifetime costs are already comparable, while ushering out petrol and diesel engines will clean up polluted city air. Oh, and every electric-car owner I know prefers the driving experience.

Changing home heating will be more challenging, and will probably be slightly more expensive, but there are plenty of options, including heat pumps and low-carbon gas.

Technology has been developed in high-emitting industries such as steel, aluminium, and cement, which can deliver clean production. Only in agriculture and aviation is the solution some way off — and, even here, science and technology are finding ways to do it. Substitute feed is reducing methane emissions from cattle, and electric aeroplanes likely to be entering commercial commuter service within five years.

Negative emissions are not rocket science, either. Carbon dioxide can be absorbed from the atmosphere by abetting nature through measures such as planting more trees, conserving peat bogs, or improving soil quality.

Technologies exist, too — mainly in research laboratories, but some in the real world. Last month, the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Society concluded that the UK could take enough from the air to meet a national net-zero target by 2050, if we also cut emissions as much as possible.

I AM grateful that Church Times invited me to guest-edit this edition, because, for me, net zero is the defining story in climate change: an issue in which I have been involved for more than 20 years as journalist and think-tank director.

And the more that climate change progresses, the more the moral case for stopping it resonates. And so in these pages I am very pleased to see the Bishop of Salisbury, the Rt Revd Nick Holtam, recounting the theology behind the Church’s interest in climate change; the First Church Estates Commissioner, Loretta Minghella, telling us what the Church is doing about it; and Joe Ware, from Christian Aid, telling us what we can do about it.

Christiana Figueres, one of the architects of the Paris Agreement, explains why we should be optimistic about stopping climate change — even in the era of President Trump. The campaigner Danni Paffard tells us why so many young people want climate change solved; and the poet Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner brings us the words she wrote to her baby on the shores of the rising Pacific Ocean. That is just a selection.

Ever since the Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius first worked out in 1896 that burning coal would warm the earth by several degrees Celsius, the basic questions in climate change have been “How bad will it be?” and “How do we stop it?”

This IPCC report tells us clearly that a 1.5ºC world will be a better place than one where global warming rises to, or even beyond, 2ºC. It also tells us clearly, for the first time, what is needed to stop it at 1.5ºC. And that, if governments, businesses, and individuals roll their sleeves up and get on with it, it can be stopped.

Richard Black is the founder and director of the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, and a former BBC environment correspondent.

Listen to an interview on the Church Times Podcast here or below:

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