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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