Deep decarbonisation: The climate action that can save us
Climate change is only too real and does not escape our eyes and ears anymore. Even if the average person does not know the complicated theories behind the concept, the drastic temperature rise is not fooling anyone. Owing to Bangladesh's economic status in comparison to the big actors of the world, the country relies heavily on the mercy of massive polluters to fulfil their commitments to the Paris Agreement on climate change and halt temperature rise under two degrees Celsius within this century.
At the heart of all this, the Paris Agreement calls for much greater ambition from all countries—both developing and developed—in adopting drastic measures to reduce carbon emissions. Scientists and scholars have identified two pathways to achieve the Paris Agreement targets, and one of the most efficient, though little practiced, pathways is "deep decarbonisation".
Deep decarbonisation refers to the drastic reduction or elimination of carbon dioxide from energy sources. In numbers, that would mean a country reducing its emissions by half every decade, e.g. the United States has to halve its carbon emissions from roughly 5.29 metric tonnes in 2016 to 2.5 metric tons by 2026, and keep slashing emissions by half every decade to reach net-zero emissions by 2070. Sounds crazy? Well, it is.
Today's energy economy around the world is powered by the combustion of some sort of fossil fuel, emitting greenhouse gases like nitrogen and water vapour, into the atmosphere. The dominant combustion product—carbon dioxide or CO2 gas—is particularly harmful. If CO2 in the atmosphere rises, temperatures will increase. According to the latest available official statistics, China's CO2 emissions have risen from 3.3 billion metric tonnes in 2000 to 9.5 metric tonnes in 2016, making it the world's worst polluter. While the United States—the second-worst polluter in the world—has managed to reduce emissions over the last 16 years, they still emit 5.29 billion metric tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere a year.
Eighty percent of the current world economy relies on fossil fuel combustion, which emits mainly CO2 into the atmosphere. Do we just drop everything and not produce energy? No, we can't do that. But if we carry on combusting fossil fuels the way we are, we will reach the point of no return by the end of this decade. The easiest image of "the point of no return" is imagining the entirety of Maldives and 80 percent of Bangladesh underwater, more frequent cyclones in the South Asian region, and millions of middle-class families becoming climate refugees, moving from shore to shore to find a new home.
We have to meet the demands of nine to 10 billion human beings in a way that does not emit carbon. According to scientific consensus, that will require full decarbonisation and net-zero carbon emissions by around 2070. The G7 countries have recognised decarbonisation as the ultimate way to save the world from the disastrous impacts of climate change, and many heads of state from the G20 countries have publicly declared their intention, and strong ambitions, to pursue this pathway.
Why is deep decarbonisation agreed on in principle yet not widely practised? The first step for all the countries will be to halve their carbon emissions by the end of 2030. However, countries are still "negotiating" decarbonisation. For instance, the US under Barack Obama committed to reducing 26-28 percent of emissions by 2025. Most scientists are now asking if these reduced ambitions will be enough to limit global temperature rise to under two degrees Celsius. If they pursue measures that only reduce emissions in the short term, countries risk returning to high levels of emissions after 2030.
For instance, one of the simplest pathways to reduce emissions by 2030 is to convert coal-fired power plants into gas-fired power. Carbon emissions are instantly cut from 1,000 grammes of CO2 per kilowatt-hour to half that. Another way could be to bring in internal combustion engines that increase automobile mileage from 35 miles per gallon to 55 miles per gallon. The dilemma with such a "low-hanging fruit" approach is that these are not enough to set countries up for zero-emissions beyond 2030, when the world is collectively looking to achieve 50 grammes per kilowatt-hour by 2050. The alternatives, right from the go, have to be zero-emission technology, not net energy-efficient vehicles.
The lower-hanging fruit pathway achieves a steep reduction by 2030 and probably does it at a much lower cost than any deep decarbonisation initiative, which is why many politicians and policymakers seem to prefer it. It does not take rocket science to figure out that converting an economy into utilising only wind and solar-powered zero-carbon electricity grids, or even replacing current vehicles with electric cars, will be significantly costlier than some patch-up of the currently available technologies. But the scope of reductions using the lower-hanging fruit pathway post-2030 will decrease, and similar conversion costs (to a zero carbon economy) will eventually be inevitable for policymakers since there will be no other string of patch-up measures left to exercise. The likelihood is reaching a dead-end in innovation and climate ambitions.
The next step in the deep decarbonisation debate is to understand the commitment of non-state actors—what, and how much, industries can commit to the initiative, and whether we are set for greener alternatives to take over the world. While the discourse is endless, the facts remain stacked against us. Unless world leaders pick up the pace of decarbonisation and set us up for further slashes in carbon emissions post-2030, we are fighting a losing war even if we win the interim battle.
Asif Muztaba Hassan is a sub-editor and feature writer at The Daily Star's Digital Desk.