Winning a battle while losing the war
The 24th Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – COP24 – has ended. All contestants have claimed victory and retired from the field. It is important to recognize the important progress that was made at the conference, and give credit to the negotiators that made it possible. At the same time, it is equally important to know that while we just won a battle, we are still losing the war.
The battle was an important one to win at this juncture. For the first time, we have a transparent, universal rulebook for tracking and reporting climate actions taken by all the parties to the agreement. This was a necessary step to be able to reliably track progress on our climate goals, and is a necessary enabling step to the global stock-take process to come. Unfortunately, that’s about where the good news ends.
The publication of the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5° was welcomed by the delegates. Its content was not welcomed by some. The main conclusions of this report are stark and sobering. Among them are:
- The adverse consequences for society of 2°C of global warming are substantially worse than for 1.5°C;
- Given our current trajectory, we can reach the 1.5°C warming level as early as just over a decade;
- All pathways that keep us under 1.5°C of global warming require that we remove tremendous amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
The conclusion that is at the same time frightening and inspiring is that by mid-century we need to be removing at least as much carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as we emit to it.
The frightening aspect of this conclusion is how far we currently are at being able to do this. As one example, today we have about 20 large-scale carbon capture and storage facilities worldwide. Together they capture and store about 40 million tons of CO2 annually¹. In order to reach the goal of net carbon dioxide neutrality by mid-century, we will need to construct and operate more than 100 such facilities each and every year. So far, we haven’t seen even the shadow of a commitment of this kind.
This would seem like a tremendous business opportunity – so why is it not being pursued? What are some of the barriers in the way? Like for many “wicked” problems, the barriers are many, connected, and feedback on each other in both obvious and subtle ways. An obvious barrier is that until we have a long-term, universally accepted price on carbon, nobody will be able to make money burying it. The feedback is that nobody is willing to risk the substantial investment costs in building a large, expensive CCS facility with a lifetime of half a century unless they are reasonably certain they can recover their investment over that time period. Establishing a fair, transparent, universal and long-term price on carbon must be a top priority.
A perhaps subtler barrier is the fact that the sector with the most experience building and operating facilities of this kind is the same one that contributed to getting us into this predicament – the fossil fuel industry. The bottom line for this sector is that the current business model for fossil fuels is not viable and will be obsolete in the next decade or two. This is a painful insight to accept, and it will require courageous, far-sighted leadership for this sector to adapt to it. While some major fossil fuel actors will resist this change tooth and claw, others are at least acknowledging the challenge and are thinking of scenarios in which they survive a transition to a carbon neutral world . Helping this sector be part of the climate solution – not just a cause of the problem – should also be a priority.
Towards the end of the beautiful film HOME by Yann Arthus-Bertrand, we hear an inspiring rallying cry: We don’t have time to be pessimists. In many cases, solutions to our most pressing problems are already in place. What is lacking is their recognition and the courage to implement them on the kind of scale that is necessary to make a difference globally. The good news is that the business sector is increasingly committed to help raise awareness of solutions. A good example is the Global Opportunity Report by DNV GL, Sustainia and the UN Global Compact. Since 2015 this annual report seeks out and highlights solutions to our most pressing issues, and ways we can achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Recently the initiative has added a digital community – the Global Opportunity Explorer – where more than 1000 solutions are available at your fingertips
These kinds of inspiring solutions will only be successful if they are based on clear, reproducible, objective evidence. The solutions will only be sustainable if they increase the well-being of the planet (all of us humans included), not just the bank accounts of a few individuals. We in the scientific community remain committed to producing this evidence; and we encourage DNV GL and the entire business sector to remain committed to helping to act on it rationally and responsibly.
Kevin Noone is Professor of Chemical Meteorology at the Department of Environmental Science and Analytical Chemistry at Stockholm University.
 Global CCS Institute: The Global Status of CCS: 2017
 Royal Dutch Shell Scenarios: Sky – Meeting the goals of the Paris agreement