More Courage Needed to Protect the Climate

Quelle: Flickr/​Guy Gorek

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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