Six Tough Questions About Climate Change
Whenever the focus is on climate change, as it is right now at the Paris climate conference, tough questions are asked concerning the costs of cutting carbon emissions, the feasibility of transitioning to renewable energy, and whether it’s already too late to do anything about climate change. We posed these questions to Laura Segafredo, manager for the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project. The decarbonization project comprises energy research teams from 16 of the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitting countries that are developing concrete strategies to reduce emissions in their countries. The Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project is an initiative of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network.
- Will the actions we take today be enough to forestall the direst impacts of climate change? Or is it too little too late?
There is still time and room for limiting climate change within the 2˚C limit that scientists consider relatively safe, and that countries endorsed in Copenhagen and Cancun. But clearly the window is closing quickly. I think that the most important message is that we need to start really, really soon, putting the world on a trajectory of stabilizing and reducing emissions. The temperature change has a direct relationship with the cumulative amount of emissions that are in the atmosphere, so the more we keep emitting at the pace that we are emitting today, the more steeply we will have to go on a downward trajectory and the more expensive it will be.
Today we are already experiencing an average change in global temperature of .8˚. With the cumulative amount of emissions that we are going to emit into the atmosphere over the next years, we will easily reach 1.5˚ without even trying to change that trajectory.
Two degrees might still be doable, but it requires significant political will and fast action. And even 2˚ is a significant amount of warming for the planet, and will have consequences in terms of sea level rise, ecosystem changes, possible extinctions of species, displacements of people, diseases, agriculture productivity changes, health related effects and more. But if we can contain global warming within those 2˚, we can manage those effects. I think that’s really the message of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports—that’s why the 2˚ limit was chosen, in a sense. It’s a level of warming where we can manage the risks and the consequences. Anything beyond that would be much, much worse.
- Will taking action make our lives better or safer, or will it only make a difference to future generations?
It will make our lives better and safer for sure. For example, let’s think about what it means to replace a coal power plant with a cleaner form of energy like wind or solar. People that live around the coal power plant are going to have a lot less air pollution, which means less asthma for children, and less time wasted because of chronic or acute diseases. In developing countries, you’re talking about potentially millions of lives saved by replacing dirty fossil fuel based power generation with clean energy.
It will also have important consequences for agricultural productivity. There’s a big risk that with the concentration of carbon and other gases in the atmosphere, agricultural yields will be reduced, so preventing that means more food for everyone.
And then think about cities. If you didn’t have all that pollution from cars, we could live in cities that are less noisy, where the air’s much better, and have potentially better transportation. We could live in better buildings where appliances are more efficient. And investing in energy efficiency would basically leave more money in our pockets. So there are a lot of benefits that we can reap almost immediately, and that’s without even considering the biggest benefit—leaving a planet in decent condition for future generations.
- How will measures to cut carbon emissions affect my life in terms of cost?
To build a climate resilient economy, we need to incorporate the three pillars of energy system transformation that we focus on in all the deep decarbonization pathways. Number one is improving energy efficiency in every part of the economy—buildings, what we use inside buildings, appliances, industrial processes, cars…everything you can think of can perform the same service, but using less energy. What that means is that you will have a slight increase in the price in the form of a small investment up front, like insulating your windows or buying a more efficient car, but you will end up saving a lot more money over the life of the equipment in terms of decreased energy costs.
The second pillar is making electricity, the power sector, carbon-free by replacing dirty power generation with clean power sources. That’s clearly going to cost a little money, but those costs are coming down so quickly. In fact there are already a lot of clean technologies that are at cost parity with fossil fuels— for example, onshore wind is already as competitive as gas—and those costs are only coming down in the future. We can also expect that there are going to be newer technologies. But in any event, the fact that we’re going to use less power because of the first pillar should actually make it a wash in terms of cost.
The Australian deep decarbonization teams have estimated that even with the increased costs of cleaner cars, and more efficient equipment for the home, etc., when the power system transitions to where it’s zero carbon, you still have savings on your energy bills compared to the previous situation.
The third pillar that we think about are clean fuels, essentially zero-carbon fuels. So we either need to electrify everything— like cars and heating, once the power sector is free of carbon—or have low-carbon fuels to power things that cannot be electrified, such as airplanes or big trucks. But once you have efficiency, these types of equipment are also more efficient, and you should be spending less money on energy.
Saving money depends on the three pillars together, thinking about all this as a whole system.
- Given that renewable sources provide only a small percentage of our energy and that nuclear power is so expensive, what can we realistically do to get off fossil fuels as soon as possible?
There are a lot of studies that have been done for the U.S. and for Europe that show that it’s very realistic to think of a power sector that is almost entirely powered by renewables by 2050 or so. It’s actually feasible—and this considers all the issues with intermittency, dealing with the networks, and whatever else represents a technological barrier—that’s all included in these studies. There’s also the assumption that energy storage, like batteries, will be cheaper in the future.
That is the future, but 2050 is not that far away. 35 years for an energy transition is not a long time. It’s important that this transition start now with the right policy incentives in place. We need to make sure that cars are more efficient, that buildings are more efficient, that cities are built with more public transit so less fossil fuels are needed to transport people from one place to another.
I don’t want people to think that because we’re looking at 2050, that means that we can wait—in order to be almost carbon free by 2050, or close to that target, we need to act fast and start now.
- Will the remedies to climate change be worse than the disease? Will it drive more people into poverty with higher costs?
I actually think the opposite is true. If we just let climate go the way we are doing today by continuing business as usual, that will drive many people into poverty. There’s a clear relationship between climate change and changing weather patterns, so more significant and frequent extreme weather events, including droughts, will affect the livelihoods of a large portion of the world population. Once you have droughts or significant weather events like extreme precipitation, you tend to see displacements of people, which create conflict, and conflict creates disease.
I think Syria is a good example of the world that we might be going towards if we don’t do anything about climate change. Syria is experiencing a once-in-a-century drought, and there’s a significant amount of desertification going on in those areas, so you’re looking at more and more arid areas. That affects agriculture, so people have moved from the countryside to the cities and that has created a lot of pressure on the cities. The conflict in Syria is very much related to the drought, and the drought can be ascribed to climate change.
And consider the ramifications of the Syrian crisis: the refugee crisis in Europe, terrorism, security concerns and 7 million-plus people displaced. I think that that’s the world that we’re going towards. And in a world like that, when you have to worry about people being safe and alive, you certainly cannot guarantee wealth and better well-being, or education and health.
- So finally, doing what needs to be done to combat climate change all comes down to political will?
The majority of the American public now believe that climate change is real, that it’s human induced and that we should do something about it.
But there’s seems to be a disconnect between what these numbers seem to indicate and what the political discourse is like… I can’t understand it, yet it seems to be the situation.
I’m a little concerned because other more immediate concerns like terrorism and safety always come first. Because the effects of climate change are going to be felt a little further away, people think that we can always put it off. The Department of Defense, its top-level people, have made the connection between climate change and conflict over the next few decades. That’s why I would argue that Syria is actually a really good example to remind us that if we are experiencing security issues today, it’s also because of environmental problems. We cannot ignore them.
The reality is that we need to do something about climate change fast—we don’t have time to fight this over the next 20 years. We have to agree on this soon and move forward and not waste another 10 years debating.
Read the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project 2015 report. The full report will be released Dec. 2.
Laura Segafredo was a senior economist at the ClimateWorks Foundation, where she focused on best practice energy policies and their impact on emission trajectories. She was a lead author of the 2012 UNEP Emissions Gap Report and of the Green Growth in Practice Assessment Report. Before joining ClimateWorks, Segafredo was a research economist at Electricité de France in Paris.
She obtained her Ph.D. in energy studies and her BA in economics from the University of Padova (Italy), and her MSc in economics from the University of Toulouse (France).