More Courage Needed to Protect the Climate
The rapid development of wind and solar energy alone will not put an end to climate change. Greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise around the world. Even Germany has not been able to drive down the use of coal as an energy source. In the absence of a decisive policy, there will be no progress on climate protection, and future generations will pay the price. They would be forced to resort to drastic and controversial measures to reduce CO2 emissions.
Last year, 2017, was not a good year for climate protection — either in Germany or around the world. Under a newly elected President Donal Trump, the USA announced its exit from the Paris Agreement. This was a major setback for international cooperation on climate change. It was instrumental in determining that there were no important climate protection accords at the G20 level. In Germany, climate policy gives an impression of increasing paralysis given the country’s imminent failure to meet its own climate targets for 2020. This, despite what were initially high hopes, with Germany holding the chair of the G20 summit and the UN Climate Change Conference to be organised in Bonn on behalf of the Fiji Islands. And as though there weren’t enough bad news already: The Global Carbon Project presented its latest emission estimates for 2017. The scientists’ projections indicated that global CO2 emissions, which had remained at about the same level over the past few years, were likely to rise steeply, by 2%.
Figure 1 — Global CO2 emissions from fossil fuels and industrial processes. Source: Le Quere et al. (2017); Global Carbon Budget (2017)
Climate protection and the phase-out of fossil fuels are not going to happen on their own, there must be policies to shape them.
That the rapid developments of wind and solar energy, or such developments combined with battery technology would put paid to fossil fuels all by themselves has never been more than a fairy-tale. The current CO2 growth is a clear indication of coal’s unchanging role as the central fuel source for energy production. In the absence of more-decisive policy interventions, many additional coal-fired power stations around the world will soon be brought online – despite the substantial curtailment of development plans for coal-fired power plants in some important countries, like India and China. There are still power stations with an aggregate capacity of 270 gigawatts (GW) currently under construction and a further 570 GW in the planning stage – taken together that is equivalent to around 40 percent of today’s global capacity. But even in a country like Germany, which can claim to be a leader in international climate policy, coal power has not yet been driven down. At 40 percent, coal’s share in the German energy mix has remained unwaveringly high for a decade. Coal is the main reason for the failure of emissions to fall more rapidly in Germany for years. This – particularly in view of the concurrent phase-out of nuclear power –has gone some way towards robbing the swift expansion of the use of renewables of its climate-policy kudos.
Figure 2 – Green-house gas emissions in Germany since 1990 and the country’s climate targets; data: German Federal Environmental Agency (2017), graphic: Max Callaghan (MCC)
Time is in short supply. To meet the international climate targets, the world still must become carbon neutral by the second half of the 21st century: humans have to take every tonne of CO2 that comes out of a chimney or exhaust pipe back out of the atmosphere right away through negative emissions. Achieving carbon neutrality will take nothing less than a historic trend reversal. The global growth in emissions, which has averaged 2 percent per annum over the past four decades, would have to be give way to a decrease in global emissions of approximately 3 percent a year for the next three decades (see figure 3). This will require a proactive approach to climate policy that is well coordinated both at the national and international level.
A “more-of-the-same” policy means the loss of the scope for flexibility in the design of international climate policy.
We cannot allow “more of the same”, either in Germany or in international climate policy. Despite all the success stories of the energy revolution and the Paris Agreement, the trend reversal is far from being realised. The voluntary pledges to reduce greenhouse gases that countries have made so far under UN climate accords will allow global emissions to continue to rise – they will just slow them down a bit. If we do not manage to increase willingness to cut down emissions in the coming years, we will be left with no scope for flexibility in the design of future climate policy. Today, we are still relatively free to design the mix of technologies to use to limit global warming to 2°C – if we wait until 2030, there will be almost no such latitude left. Germany would be forced to seriously consider unpopular technologies like carbon capture and storage. With each passing year in which global emissions continue to rise, the voices calling for the use of “symptomatic technologies” to directly influence the earth’s radiation balance (i.e. solar geoengineering) will grow louder. Yet we still know next to nothing about the risks associated with action of that kind. Only courageous and determined climate policy can prevent us from sliding into a situation where our actions are dictated by the climate emergency. How to forge a basic global consensus around this common interest is one of the most important questions of our time.
Figure 3 – Two possible climate protection pathways limiting global warming to 2°C. Immediate and rigorous reduction of emissions (dark green pathways) before 2030 permits greater scope for action after 2030. The costs of delaying climate mitigation action (light green pathways) will have to be paid later in the form of higher decarbonisation rates and more rapid expansion of climate protection technologies. This includes a far greater dependence on negative emission technologies, which remove C02 from the atmosphere after their emission (not shown). Source: IPCC (2014)
The world needs climate protection pioneers: A GroKo would have to reinvent itself with respect to climate policy
The world needs countries like Germany to take resolute action and lead the way forward, particularly after a year as problematic for climate protection as 2017. Germany could, for instance, join forces with France to push forward a reform of the European emissions trading scheme for instance. The introduction of a minimum price would have to be the key element of such a reform, as it would make it possible to have a steering effect and security of investment for businesses. Without an effective price signal at the European level, taking effective action to mitigate climate change and phase out coal will be difficult and expensive over the long term. Germany should team up with France’s President Emmanuel Macron and lead the “high-ambition coalition” formed at the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris into a successful future.
So, a Grand Coalition reloaded (or GroKo for Grosse Koalition) strikes many as a disastrous development. And indeed, any notion of serious debate about how to close the gap between current projections and German climate protection targets for 2020 was brushed aside during the exploratory talks. The avoidance of serious discussion of short-term climate protection gives rise to the suspicion that the new focus on the 2030 targets is intended primarily to distract the public from the lack of a real desire to take any action.
Despite the rumblings of climate-change denial increasingly emanating from the conservative fringes and right-wing populist parties: the imperative of preventing dangerous climate change is of central importance to our future and one on which there is broadly based scientific and societal consensus. Politicians must begin to focus on putting Germany’s economic standing on a sustainable footing rather than striving to protect the status quo. The threat to the German automotive industry is not climate protection, it is missing the opportunity to get off to an audacious start with alternative, sustainable drive technologies. Lusatia’s economic future is not going to be secured by holding on to jobs in open-cast lignite mining for as long as possible, but through the early initiation of structural change in the region. We are lucky in that the imperative of climate protection has taken firm root in mainstream German society. A possible Grand Coalition should reflect this as well – only by seriously grappling with issues of importance for our future will it be possible to stem the growing tide of populism. What other justification for a relaunched Grand Coalition can there be, if not the imperative of tacking the great challenges on which our future depends?
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