Renewable Energy: The Time for Greater Ambition is Now

by John Brian Shannon.

Just as some in the renewable energy world were beginning to imagine that the battle against fossil fuel was largely won and that it was only a matter of time before we achieved 100% renewable energy globally, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has issued a warning informing us that now more than ever, the push for renewable energy must not lose momentum.

That’s on account of our cumulative CO2 additions to the atmosphere which are in the billions of tonnes annually. It’s one thing to add gigatonnes of carbon dioxide and other gases to the atmosphere, but it’s quite another for the Earth’s natural systems to process and absorb those gases out of the atmosphere at the same rate as they are added.

The planet’s natural systems are capable of absorbing up to 40 gigatonnes of CO2 per year which is produced by decaying organic matter and such natural phenomena as forest fires and volcanoes, but it’s not capable of handling an additional 15 gigatonnes of anthropogenic (man-made) carbon dioxide annually.

As the (IPCC) AR5 report has recently said, “the time for greater ambition is now.”

The report concludes that responding to climate change involves making choices about risks in a changing world. The nature of the risks of climate change is increasingly clear, though climate change will also continue to produce surprises. The report identifies vulnerable people, industries, and ecosystems around the world. It finds that risk from a changing climate comes from vulnerability (lack of preparedness) and exposure (people or assets in harm’s way) overlapping with hazards (triggering climate events or trends). Each of these three components can be a target for smart actions to decrease risk.

“We live in an era of man-made climate change,” said Vicente Barros, Co-Chair of Working Group II. “In many cases, we are not prepared for the climate-related risks that we already face. Investments in better preparation can pay dividends both for the present and for the future.”

Why we have Global Warming

It has also been proven that as many gigatonnes of CO2 as cannot be processed annually by natural Earth systems, will linger in the atmosphere for up to 200 years. That means that the present unabsorbed accumulation is an extremely large amount of carbon dioxide which would take 40 years for the planet’s natural systems to process and absorb, if we permanently stopped every internal combustion engine and every man-made combustion source on the planet. We know that’s not going to happen.

This extra 600 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide is the ‘carbon hangover’ which began during the industrial revolution causing the atmosphere to retain more of the Sun’s heat as compared to the benchmark pre-industrial-era atmosphere. Accumulations of CO2 in the planet’s airmass have already increased the global mean temperature by nearly 2º C since the beginning of the industrial revolution in 1760.

There are other greenhouse gases more potent than CO2 which have even more Global Warming Potential (GWP). For instance, sulfur hexafluoride stays in the atmosphere for 3200 years and causes 23,900 times more global warming per tonne, as compared to carbon dioxide.

See a partial list of these gases below:

Global Warming Potentials chart
Global Warming Potentials chart shows different pollutants and their effects

If we had planted an extra 600 million trees forty years ago, we wouldn’t be facing an extra 600 gigatonnes of CO2 now, as a typical large tree can absorb 1 tonne of carbon dioxide per year converting much of it into life-giving oxygen in the process.

As per the IPCC AR5 update of March 31, while a number of things are going right in the energy sector in terms of advancing renewable energy, the lowering of pollution levels in many cities and adding green jobs to the economy, now is not the time to reduce our efforts thereby shirking our responsibilities to future generations.

What happens if we just ignore the problem?

Of course, we could just ignore the entire problem and spend more money on increasing health care costs, non-stop rebuilding of coastal shorelines, and the dual but related costs of severe weather and increasing food prices.

But here is what that looks like.

Climate Action vs. Inaction
The cost of Climate Action vs. Climate Inaction

Scientists have concluded that for each 1º C increase in the global mean temperature, the cost to the world economy is roughly $1 trillion dollars per year.

It’s already a foregone conclusion that we will see a global mean temperature increase of 2º C (minimum) 2001-2100 due to ever-increasing 21st-century accumulations of CO2. That future temperature increase will be in addition to the previous ~2º C increase which took place during the 240 years between 1760-2000.

What the discussion is all about these days, is capping the second global mean temperature increase to 2º C — instead of ‘policy drift’ allowing an even higher level of climate change to occur.

The energy status quo is no longer affordable

The energy status quo is simply no longer an option as we now discover that the cost of climate inaction is higher than the cost of climate action. Switching out of coal via renewable energy and increasing the energy efficiency of buildings and electrical grids might cost us $500 billion globally — but could cap our generation’s contribution to global warming at 2º C.

Interestingly, $500 billion is roughly equal to the annual subsidy paid to the global oil and gas industry, which totalled $550 billion last year.

The last anthropogenic ~2º C temperature increase took place over 240 years, from 1760-2000. The best-case scenario for us 2001-2100 is to hold the next anthropogenic temperature increase to no more than ~2º C (for a grand total increase of ~4º C increase over the 340 year period from 1760-2100). If all the stars were to align perfectly this goal is just barely possible.

But that shouldn’t stop us from trying. As the IPCC has said, “the time for greater ambition is now.”

Clean Energy Ministerial (CEM5) theme: Act Together, Think Creative

Next-up on the agenda for people who care about our planet, the health of our citizens, and the high costs to consumers — who are, after all, the ones footing the climate bill via higher taxes and higher food and health care costs — is the fifth Clean Energy Ministerial (CEM5) meet-up in South Korea May 12-13, 2014.

CEM5 Seoul, South Korea May 12-13, 2014

Clean Energy Ministerial (CEM5) group government ministers and representatives will meet May 12-13, 2014 in Seoul, South Korea, under the theme of “Act Together, Think Creative” which suggests increased collaboration and innovation by the 23 participating governments as the preferred way to achieve real climate action, culminating in a new international climate agreement in 2015.

From the CEM5 website:

With four years of work behind the CEM, this year’s gathering presents an opportunity to evaluate how the CEM has performed to date and plan for how this global forum can be more effective and ambitious going forward. As in years past, CEM5 will provide ministers with an opportunity to be briefed on the latest Tracking Clean Energy Progress report from the International Energy Agency, hear the status of global clean energy investment from Bloomberg New Energy Finance, participate in public-private roundtables on key crosscutting clean energy topics, and assess progress made through the 13 CEM initiatives. 

Most importantly, CEM5 will offer ministers an opportunity to discuss ways to increase collaboration and action for greater impact—to generate more rapid progress toward CEM’s overall goal of accelerating the transition to a global clean energy economy. The discussions will focus on identifying smart policies, programs, and innovative strategies to increase energy efficiency, enhance clean energy supply, and expand energy access.

CEM5 will feature six public-private roundtables on the following crosscutting clean energy topics:

Follow John Brian Shannon on Twitter at: @EVcentral

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John Brian

Editorial Board at kleef&co. Published by the UNDP.