Three years to safeguard our climate

Christiana Figueres and colleagues set out a six-point plan for turning the tide of the world’s carbon dioxide by 2020.

In the past three years, global emissions of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels have levelled after rising for decades. This is a sign that policies and investments in climate mitigation are starting to pay off. The United States, China and other nations are replacing coal with natural gas and boosting renewable energy sources. There is almost unanimous international agreement that the risks of abandoning the planet to climate change are too great to ignore.

The technology-driven transition to low-carbon energy is well under way, a trend that made the 2015 Paris climate agreement possible. But there is still a long way to go to decarbonize the world economy. The political winds are blustery. President Donald Trump has announced that the United States will withdraw from the Paris agreement when it is legally able to do so, in November 2020.

The year 2020 is crucially important for another reason, one that has more to do with physics than politics. When it comes to climate, timing is everything. According to an April report 1 (prepared by Carbon Tracker in London, the Climate Action Tracker consortium, the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany and Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut), should emissions continue to rise beyond 2020, or even remain level, the temperature goals set in Paris become almost unattainable. The UN Sustainable Development Goals that were agreed in 2015 would also be at grave risk.

That’s why we launched Mission 2020 — a collaborative campaign to raise ambition and action across key sectors to bend the greenhouse-gas emissions curve downwards by 2020 (www.mission2020.global).

As 20 leaders of the world’s largest economies gather on 7–8 July at the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, we call on them to highlight the importance of the 2020 climate turning point for greenhouse-gas emissions, and to demonstrate what they and others are doing to meet this challenge. Lowering emissions globally is a monumental task, but research tells us that it is necessary, desirable and achievable.

After roughly 1°C of global warming driven by human activity, ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica are already losing mass at an increasing rate. Summer sea ice is disappearing in the Arctic and coral reefs are dying from heat stress — entire ecosystems are starting to collapse. The social impacts of climate change from intensified heatwaves, droughts and sea-level rise are inexorable and affect the poorest and weakest first.

The magnitude of the challenge can be grasped by computing a budget for CO 2 emissions — the maximum amount of the gas that can be released before the temperature limit is breached. After subtracting past emissions, humanity is left with a ‘carbon credit’ of between 150 and 1,050 gigatonnes (Gt; one Gt is 1 billion tonnes) of CO 2 to meet the Paris target of 1.5 °C or well below 2 °C (see go.nature.com/2rytztf). The wide range reflects different ways of calculating the budgets using the most recent figures.

At the current emission rate of 41 Gt of CO 2 per year, the lower limit of this range would be crossed in 4 years, and the mid-point of 600 Gt of CO 2 would be passed in 15 years. If the current rate of annual emissions stays at this level, we would have to drop them almost immediately to zero once we exhaust the budget. Such a ‘jump to distress’ is in no one’s interest. A more gradual descent would allow the global economy time to adapt smoothly.

HARNESS MOMENTUM

The good news is that it is still possible to meet the Paris temperature goals if emissions begin to fall by 2020 (see ‘Carbon crunch’).

Source: Adapted from UNEP Emissions Gap Report 2016 Climate Action Tracker and Climate Central

Greenhouse-gas emissions are already decoupling from production and consumption. For the past three years, worldwide CO 2 emissions from fossil fuels have stayed flat, while the global economy and the gross domestic product (GDP) of major developed and developing nations have grown by at least 3.1% per year (see go.nature.com/2rthjje). This is only the fourth occasion in the past 40 years on which emission levels have stagnated or fallen. The previous three instances — in the early 1980s, 1992 and 2009 — were associated with global economic predicaments, but the current one is not 2 .

Emissions from the United States fell the most: by 3% last year, while its GDP grew by 1.6%. In China, CO 2 emissions fell by 1% in 2016, and its economy expanded by 6.7% (ref. 2). Although it is too early to tell whether this plateau will presage a fall, the signs are encouraging.

In 2016, two-thirds of China’s 5.4% extra demand for electricity was supplied by carbon-free energy resources, mostly hydro-power and wind 2 . In the European Union, wind and solar made up more than three-quarters of new energy capacity installed; coal demand was reduced by 10% (ref. 3). In the United States, almost two-thirds of the electricity-generating capacity installed by utility companies was based on renewables (see go.nature.com/2skv20g).

The International Energy Agency (IEA) has predicted that, by 2020, renewable sources could deliver 26–27% of the world’s electricity needs, compared with 23.7% of electric power at the end of 2015. But that underestimates the pace of change in energy systems.

Growth in electric vehicles alone could displace 2 million barrels of oil per day by 2025, according to a February report 4 . It suggests that, by 2050, this could reach 25 million barrels of oil per day — a stark contrast to expectations from the fossil-fuel industry that demand for oil will rise. And solar power alone could supply 29% of global electricity generation by 2050. This would remove the need for coal and leave natural gas with only a 1% market share. However, the oil firm ExxonMobil predicts that all renewables will supply just 11% of global power generation by 2040 (ref. 4).

Investors, meanwhile, are growing wary of carbon risks. BlackRock and Vanguard, the two largest fund managers, voted — along with many others — against ExxonMobil management at its annual general meeting on 31 May and instructed the company to report on the profit impact of global measures to keep climate change below 2 °C. Earlier this month, Norway’s US$960-billion sovereign-wealth fund declared that it will ask the banks in which it has invested to disclose how their lending contributes to global greenhouse-gas emissions.

Last year, the installed capacity of renewable energy set a new record of 161 gigawatts; in 2015, investment levels reached $286 billion worldwide, more than 6 times that in 2004. Over half of that investment, $156 billion, was for projects in developing and emerging economies 5 .

There is a strong headwind against the low-carbon transition in some places, which may impede progress. For example, the Financial CHOICE Act — a bill passed by the US House of Representatives on 8 June — would make it nearly impossible for investors to challenge companies on climate-risk disclosure through shareholder proposal processes, as at ExxonMobil. However, as the UN Secretary General, António Guterres, said in New York last month: “The sustainability train has left the station.” The fossil-free economy is already profitable 6 and creating jobs (www.clean200.org). A report this year by the International Renewable Energy Agency and the IEA shows that efforts to stop climate change could boost the global economy by $19 trillion 7 . The IEA has also said that implementing the Paris agreement will unlock $13.5 trillion or more before 2050.

Recent geopolitical events, too, have galvanized activity in support of the Paris agreement. For example, the #WeAreStillIn campaign — involving more than 1,000 governors, mayors, businesses, investors and universities from across the United States — has declared that it will ensure the nation remains a leader in reducing carbon emissions.

2017-06-28 'Three years to safeguard our climate', Christiana Figueres et al, https://www.nature.com/news/three-years-to-safeguard-our-climate-1.22201

Three years to safeguard our climate

Christiana Figueres and colleagues set out a six-point plan for turning the tide of the world’s carbon dioxide by 2020.

In the past three years, global emissions of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels have levelled after rising for decades. This is a sign that policies and investments in climate mitigation are starting to pay off. The United States, China and other nations are replacing coal with natural gas and boosting renewable energy sources. There is almost unanimous international agreement that the risks of abandoning the planet to climate change are too great to ignore.
Source: Adapted from UNEP Emissions Gap Report 2016 Climate Action Tracker and Climate Central - click for full size image