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Bending the curves towards a sustainable future

In this video professor Kevin Anderson discusses the rapid emissions reductions that are needed to meet the 2°C target.
As I said before, a 2 degree C temperature threshold is still viable. We can still holds to that, only just. We haven’t got a great chance at it. So, yes, it is possible. And there are three things I think that are really important here. Firstly, equity and behaviour. If we really look at the numbers, only a few percent of the world’s population are responsible for most of the emissions. And that will remain the case the next few years. There’s a lot we can do with technology, as well, as the supply technology. There are lots of things we can do on the demand side in the short to medium term. So there are lots of things that can be done there.
And I also think we have to question the concept of growth. There’s a belief that growth is a fundamental, almost like a physical law of the planet. We have the laws of thermodynamics. And they’ve been here for at least 13 billion years. The current focus on growth, particularly the modern version of it, has only been here for a few decades. It’s a human construct. It probably will be very ephemeral, it will not last that long. At the moment, we are assuming that the current rules that we have for our economy are more important than the laws of physics. In the long run, I think the laws of physics will always win out over the rules of economics.
So if we are serious about a 2 degree C framing of climate change– and I’m talking here, still now, about only an outside chance of 2 degrees centigrade– we have to have very deep reductions in any demand in the short by those of us that are the high emitters, by those of us responsible for the lion’s share of emissions. And we need a massive, what I often refer to as a Marshall-style build programme. A little bit like the reconstruction programme that went on across Europe after the Second World War, transitioning from high carbon energy to low carbon energy. And we need to do that in the next few years, really, in the next few decades.
If you put those two together, we have an outside chance of 2 degrees centigrade. Now, just to give you some flavour of what that might mean– and this would depend on which country you’re in, and the cultural environment that we have, and the geography and the population, and the economy, and so forth– but what this might mean for energy demand, for a start, is that most homes that are built will still be here in 2050. 75% of the houses we live in will still be here in 2050. So we can make those low energy. We could retrofit those houses. And we could work on them and make them much more efficient to live in.
That means low energy, low carbon dioxide. It also eliminates fuel poverty in those households. And it also makes us resilient to volatile energy prices. So you require far less energy to live in those houses. It also means that those houses are resilient to a changing climate, which we are inevitably going to get. And if we were to spent a relatively small percentage of GDP, that not only makes our houses resilient, low carbon energy, eliminates fuel poverty, but it also provides a huge amount of employment for people to retrofit those properties over the next 20 years or so. So there are many very big benefits to society for moving down that sort of route, as well as the carbon emissions.
We also need a maximum CO2 level for cars, for appliances, across the board here, really. And we need, to start with, I think, governments. I work in a university, universities should be showing the way forward. We should ensure that all of our procurement, whether that’s IT equipment, whether it’s any buildings we construct, whether it’s any cars or vans or vehicles we buy for our institutions or our governments, should always be the best that is currently available. So if you put all of that together, I think we could power down in the wealthy parts of the world our use of energy by somewhere from 40%-70% in about 15 years.
And that will be principally driven by those of us in our own countries who are responsible for most of that energy use anyway. That is viable. We still have a good quality of life that we will be living. If we did that, we would then have to dramatically change our supply system as well. A major electrification programme, currently only about 20% of the energy we consume in most countries– it changes a bit, but around about 20%– comes from electricity. The rest of it is not electricity, it’s usually sort of gas, oil, coal, and so forth, burnt directly. So major electrification programme, including transport. Roll out smart grids, intelligent metering, community energy, as well.
We need to exploit the huge renewable potential that is out there in all countries around the globe. And each country will have its own preferred renewable technology. So in the UK, we have lots of wind, and wave, and tidal– other parts would be quite different– and do that sustainably as well. And I think it’s interesting to look, even in the UK, we are not a country that is renowned for its sunlight, that if we had solar panels on the roofs– the southwest facing roofs only– of just our domestic properties in the UK, we could provide about one third of current electricity demand in the UK.
So around about 100 terawatt hours in a country that’s not the sunniest in the world. And we can look at indigenous biomass and biogas to help us with issues of intermittency and base load. But again, we have to be very careful, that biomass is not always sustainable, often it is not sustainable. So I think indigenous biomass is probably the right way to go there. And in terms of policy, things like progressive metering tariffs, which mean the more you consume, the more you pay per unit. At the moment, for many countries of the world, the people who pay the most are the poorest per unit of energy. That’s obviously completely wrong and regressive. So we need progressive meeting tariffs.
So the more we consume, the more we pay per unit. We need to adopt what I’ll call here as the low discount rate, which actually means we need to value the future much more than we do now. So we go for much longer term investments that have a longer payback period. Particularly in countries like the UK, we generally go for very short payback periods, which does not favour things like renewables, or anything that really values the future significantly. We’re much more about the short term. And we need to change that. We need a moratorium on all new hydrocarbon development. If we are serious about 2 degrees centigrade, about 80% of the global fossil fuels need to remain in the ground.
If we’re serious about 1.5 degree C, it’s much more than 90%. We need to rapidly retool oil and gas industries, and coal industries around the globe. These are very experienced men and women who really know how to use technology. But they need to be moving rapidly toward technologies that are to do with renewable energy, low carbon, or zero carbon energy. I think that retooling programme, again, is something we could be doing very rapidly indeed. And ultimately– I’ve added this on here– we need a moratorium on airport expansion, because we have currently no way of making aircraft low carbon.
So at the moment, they are a very rapidly growing source of hydrocarbons that we do not know how to reduce in the near term. We have no alternatives in the near term. In the long run, when we have low carbon energy, we can revisit all of these. But until then, we have to be much more serious about it what it is we can do and what it is we can’t do. I’m going to finish here with a message of hope that I always use from Robert Unger. Previously, he was a Brazilian politician, but now much more of a philosopher.
“At every level, the greatest obstacle to transforming the world is that we lack the clarity and imagination to conceive that it could be different.” Now the future will definitely be different. 2 will be forced upon us by the climate, because we’ve done nothing about climate change, and that will be disastrous, or we can choose to be more controlled, have a greater agency, and actually move to a low carbon future. But either way, whether it’s one where we’re hit by the impacts or one where we have changed our energy system and how we live on this planet, either way, the future is radically different from the present.
We have to have the imagination to think that through and the clarity to say what do we need to do to deliver that. But I think if we– as I’ve tried to explain here– I think we have the wherewithal, we have everything we need, to still hold to 2 degrees centigrade without relying on the highly speculative, negative emissions to all of this to solve the problem in years to come.
In this video, visiting Zennström climate change leadership professor Kevin Anderson discusses the rapid emissions reductions that are needed if we are to have even an outside chance of meeting the 2°C target.
Anderson outlines that meeting the 2°C target implies that poor parts of the world would need to peak their emissions at 2025 at the latest, and be fully decarbonized by 2050. Wealthier countries would need to bend the curves even faster:
And basically, across the board, wealthier people around the world would need to reduce their emissions at about 10% every single year. […] It means that by 2020 there will be reductions by about 50% […] and by 2035 we will have to have removed all carbon from our energy systems. Within 20 years from today. That’s a huge request, but again, I think it is just about viable.
He emphasizes that these rates of emissions reductions are far beyond what is currently being discussed in any country:
This is an enormous challenge, beyond anything that is currently being countenanced by any country. The EU has put a pledge into the Paris Agreement for only a 40% reduction, less than half of what would be necessary.
The large inequalities in carbon emissions may in fact be an opportunity for progressive climate policies, according to Anderson:
There are huge inequalities in carbon emissions. And that is actually helpful, because it tells us that we need aim our policies at those of us who emit the most amount of carbon dioxide.
Anderson concludes that meeting the 2°C target depends on short-term consumption by the wealthy, not a matter of long-term population growth:
The 2°C framing of climate change is not about the long term, it is about short term. It is a consumption issue, not a population issue. The poor around the planet will not be able to become wealthy enough in the time frame we have to deal with 2°C, for them to become major emitters.
Read more about historic, present and future emissions at Global Carbon Atlas and see the how different parts of the world contribute to current emissions at Carbon Map.
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