Catastrophic climate change can be averted without sacrificing living standards according to a UN report, which concludes that the transformation required to a world of clean energy is eminently affordable. “It doesn’t cost the world to save the planet,” said economist Professor Ottmar Edenhofer, who led the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) team.
The cheapest and least risky route to dealing with global warming is to abandon all dirty fossil fuels in coming decades, the report found. Gas – including that from the global fracking boom – could be important during the transition, Edenhofer said, but only if it replaced coal burning.
The authoritative report, produced by 1,250 international experts and approved by 194 governments, dismisses fears that slashing carbon emissions would wreck the world economy. It is the final part of a trilogy that has already shown that climate change is “unequivocally” caused by humans and that, unchecked, it poses a grave threat to people and could lead to wars and mass migration.
Diverting hundred of billions of dollars from fossil fuels into renewable energy and cutting energy waste would shave just 0.06% off expected annual economic growth rates of 1.3%-3%, the IPCC report concluded.
“The report is clear: the more you wait, the more it will cost [and] the more difficult it will become,” said E.U. commissioner Connie Hedegaard. The U.S. secretary of state, John Kerry, said: “This report is a wake-up call about global economic opportunity we can seize today as we lead on climate change.”
The U.K.’s energy and climate secretary, Ed Davey, said: “The [report shows] the tools we need to tackle climate change are available, but international efforts need to significantly increase.”
The IPCC economic analysis did not include the benefits of cutting greenhouse gas emissions, which could outweigh the costs. The benefits include reducing air pollution, which plagues China and recently hit the U.K., and improved energy security, which is currently at risk in eastern Europe due to the actions of Russia – a large producer of gas – in Ukraine.
The new IPCC report warns that carbon emissions have soared in the last decade and are now growing at almost double the previous rate. But its comprehensive analysis found rapid action can still limit global warming to 2C, the internationally agreed safe limit, if low-carbon energy triples or quadruples by 2050.
“It is actually affordable to do it and people are not going to have to sacrifice their aspirations about improved standards of living,” said Professor Jim Skea, an energy expert at Imperial College London and co-chair of the IPCC report team. “It is not a hair shirt change of lifestyle at all that is being envisaged and there is space for poorer countries to develop too,” Skea told the Guardian.
Nonetheless, to avoid the worst impacts of climate change at the lowest cost, the report envisages an energy revolution ending centuries of dominance by fossil fuels – which will require significant political and commercial change. On Thursday, Archbishop Desmond Tutu called for an anti-apartheid style campaign against fossil fuel companies, which he blames for the “injustice” of climate change.
Friends of the Earth’s executive director, Andy Atkins, said: “Rich nations must take the lead by rapidly weaning themselves off coal, gas and oil and funding low-carbon growth in poorer countries.”
Along with measures that cut energy waste, renewable energy – such as wind, hydropower and solar – is viewed most favorably by the report as a result of its falling costs and large-scale deployment in recent years.
The report includes nuclear power as a mature low-carbon option, but cautions that it has declined globally since 1993 and faces safety, financial and waste-management concerns. Carbon capture and storage (CCS) – trapping the CO2 from coal or gas burning and then burying it – is also included, but the report notes it is an untested technology on a large scale and may be expensive.
Biofuels, used in cars or power stations, could play a “critical role” in cutting emissions, the IPCC found, but it said the negative effects of some biofuels on food prices and wildlife remained unresolved.
The report found that current emission-cutting pledges by the world’s nations make it more likely than not that the 2C limit will be broken and it warns that delaying action any further will increase the costs.
Delay could also force extreme measures to be taken including sucking CO2 out of the air.
This might be done by generating energy by burning plants and trees, which had absorbed carbon from the atmosphere, and then using CCS to bury the emissions. But the IPCC warned such warned such carbon removal technologies may never be developed and could bring new risks.
“This is a very responsible report,” said Professor Andrew Watson, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Exeter who was not part of the IPCC team. He said there were economic and social risks in transforming the energy system to cut carbon. “However, there are even bigger risks if we do nothing and rely exclusively on being able to ride out climate change and adapt to it.”
Environmental campaign groups, which have previously criticized the IPCC for being too conservative, welcomed the new report. WWF’s Samantha Smith said: “The IPCC report makes clear that acting on emissions now is affordable, but delaying further increases the costs. It is a super strong signal to [fossil fuel] investors: they can no longer say they did not know the risks.”
Kaisa Kosonen, at Greenpeace International, said: “Renewable energy is unstoppable. It’s becoming bigger, better and cheaper every day. Dirty energy industries are sure to put up a fight but it’s only a question of time before public pressure and economics dictate that they either change or go out of business.”
In other news last week, Ari Phillips reported for Think Progress that Shell, Adidas and 70 other companies have called on governments to cap carbon at 1 trillion tons:
Royal Dutch Shell, Adidas, Unilever, and some 70 other companies released a communiqué urging world governments to keep carbon emissions since the industrial revolution to a cumulative of 1 trillion metric tons. This is the emissions cap needed to keep warming below two degrees Celsius and avoid catastrophic impacts of climate change, according to the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, which for the first time calls for a trillion ton cap. We have already surpassed the halfway mark and are somewhere around 578,935,750,000 tons of carbon at the moment. If the current rate of emissions keeps up, the limit will be passed within three decades.
The statement was released by the Prince Charles’s Corporate Leaders Group on Climate Change, a group of companies brought together by the heir to the British throne and managed by the University of Cambridge. The statement is asking for a timeline to reduce emissions to net zero by 2100. It also states that “we will have to reformulate our relationship with energy and completely transform our energy system, including energy used in transport and heavy industrial processes.”
They cite President Obama’s call to end U.S. public financing for new coal-fired power plants overseas and the World Bank and the European Investment Bank similar announcements as evidence of a growing international effort to limit emissions.
This recent communiqué is the seventh from the group, with the first coming at the U.N. climate negotiations in Bali in 2007. In 2012, they called for a clear, global carbon price. Over 1,000 companies from more than 60 countries have signed up to at least one of the communiqués, with 2014 seeing the launch of the Trillion Tonne Communiqué.
Coalitions such as this one or the United States Climate Action Partnership (USCAP) represent powerful voices from influential emitters, but their ability to enact actual change comes far less from words and more from actions. Shell is also a member of the USCAP, which calls for emission reduction targets for total U.S. emissions of 80 percent — 86 percent of 2005 levels by 2020. According to Shell’s website, they reduced direct GHG emissions from facilities they operate by just under three percent from 2011 to 2012, to 72 million tons of CO2-equivalent — which is approximately the total carbon emissions of Chile in 2010.
A study last year found that just 90 companies are responsible for two-thirds of global greenhouse gas emissions since the industrial revolution. These companies, which include Shell, Chevron, Exxon, and other oil and gas companies have the power to do more than endorse government action, but in many cases they fail to do so — continuing to pursue the most profitable path forward. Last week Exxon became the first major oil and gas producer to publish a Carbon Asset Risk report to address investor concerns over how market forces and environmental regulations might impact the production of some of its reserves. In the report the company acknowledged the significant risks climate change poses, but determined that it was unlikely that governments would adopt low-carbon rules and regulations that would impact their bottom line in the coming decades.
Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org and influential climate activist, saw this as a dare for government action, writing an op-ed in the Guardian accusing Exxon of saying “We plan on overheating the planet, we think we have the political muscle to keep doing it, and we dare you to stop it.”
Also last week, Suzanne Goldenberg reported in The Guardian that nearly 100 Harvard University professors have urged the Ivy League school to divest from fossil fuels by purging its $33 billion endowment of holdings in oil and coal companies:
Nearly 100 professors have accused Harvard of a failure of leadership on climate change and called on the university to sell off its investments in fossil fuels.
In an open letter released on Thursday, some 93 faculty members urged Harvard to purge its nearly $33 billion endowment of all holdings in oil and coal companies.
The letter amounts to a rejection of an initiative announced by the university president, Drew Faust, earlier this week committing Harvard to new investment guidelines – but stopping short of divestment.
The faculty members said they were “disappointed” Faust had decided to keep Harvard invested in the industries that cause climate change.
“Our university invests in the fossil fuel industry: this is for us the central issue,” the letter said. “We believe that the corporation is making a decision that in the long run will not serve the university well.”
The open letter, supported by scientists and department heads, represents the latest round in the escalating campaign, at Harvard and other campuses to get universities to sell off their holdings in fossil fuels.
The campaigners are actively targeting some 250 college campuses but Harvard – which has the biggest endowment of all – is the richest prize.
Nine colleges have so far committed to selling off their stocks, as have a number of cities including Seattle.
As the Harvard faculty letter points out, the divestment movement got a push recently from the United Nations and the World Bank, which have both endorsed divestment as a way of fighting climate change.
The faculty members argue Harvard's refusal to purge its portfolio of oil and coal stocks was inconsistent with the university's commitment to influence corporate behavior as a way of stopping climate change.
Faust this week signed the university on to United Nations-backed guidelines for responsible investment. She also said Harvard was seeking to raise funds for climate research.
But the letter argues Harvard would be far more effective if it used its multi-billion endowment to push corporations to act on climate change.
“How, exactly, will the university 'encourage' fossil fuel corporations in 'addressing pressing environmental imperatives'? Will Harvard initiate or support shareholder resolutions? Will it divest from coal companies? Will it ask questions at shareholder meetings?” the letter asks.
It goes on: “We know that fossil fuel use must decrease. To achieve this goal, not only must research and education be pursued with vigor, pressure must also be exerted. If there is no pressure, then grievous harm due to climate change will accelerate and entrench itself for a span of time that will make the history of Harvard look short."