The Paris climate change talks sent a signal a carbon-free future is within reach. Now, everything can start to change. Here are some solutions.
Paris Smart City 2050, copyright Vincent Callebaut Architectures
The great success of the Paris climate change talks was not simply that 195 nations backed the first international accord to fight global warming before it is too late. Sealing the agreement also sends a clear signal that decarbonization is the future. Now, everything can start to change.
The task is to find ways of limiting the Earth’s temperature rise to “well below” 2°C, or 3.6°F, above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century, and to aim for no more than +1.5°C, as laid out in the agreement. Business as usual leads to a rise of 4.5°C.
But even under detailed plans for cutting greenhouse gas emissions that 188 countries brought to the summit, warming would still be +3°C to +3.5°C. So how to bridge that gap?
“We believe that humanity can jump-start a transition to a sustainable world by focusing on renewable energy and agricultural reform,” Johan Rockström, head of the Stockholm Resilience Center, and Mattias Klum, a photographer/film-maker, wrote in their 2015 book, Big World, Small Planet — Abundance Within Planetary Boundaries.
Since the industrial era, human activity has released heat-trapping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and this has accelerated sharply since 1950. Scientists agree that an average rise of 2°C or more by 2100 would tip the world into an unpredictable new climate era, making human survival questionable. Warming has already reached +1°C.
The main greenhouse gases are carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N20). The main sectors producing them are electricity generation (37%), manufacturing and construction (19%), transport (15%) and agriculture (14%).
Economic policy. It might seem odd to start here, when technology is often put forward as the key. But advances have already been made in renewable energy, as well as in sustainable urban and land-use planning. Now a major shift in the rules of economic life is required to move away from our fossil-fuel-driven economy. This needs to happen first in the countries responsible for most emissions.
The best way to do this, environmentalists, economists and increasingly businesses argue, is to put a price on carbon dioxide emissions. Some countries have begun to adopt carbon taxes and laws to introduce an energy transition towards no- or low-carbon sources.
Another way of pricing carbon is via carbon markets, where carbon credits and liabilities are traded. The European Emissions Trading System was the first of these, and China plans to start an emissions trading system in 2017.
It is also important to change how nations’ wealth is calculated, Rockström and Klum argue. Gross domestic product should be adjusted to count ecological damage as a cost and creating sustainability as a benefit.
Doing nothing about climate change costs far more than tackling it.
This is the economic bedrock needed for a new industrial revolution that can wean the world off its carbon dependence, advocates say. Businesses are no longer universally opposed to such ideas, as the costs of global warming are increasingly being felt. This shift — patchy as yet — was prompted by economist Nicholas Stern’s findings that doing nothing about climate change costs far more than tackling it.
New materials and circular economics. This industrial revolution involves substituting new energy sources and materials for ones derived from coal or oil, but it also involves changing the way production and consumption are organized. Traditionally processes have been linear — raw materials in, finished product out, waste dumped as an economic “externality”. Sustainable practices involve closed circuits in which there is no waste and everything is re-used.
This can be achieved in factories, distribution circuits and urban planning. For instance, using waste heat from an industrial process for residential heating, or turning a supermarket group’s waste into bio-methane, then used to power its delivery trucks.
In countless innovative companies, the search for new materials continues. Oil from thistles is being used instead of crude oil in Sardinia to make products for the bio-plastics industry. A Swiss company is using waste plastic bags rather than crude oil to make diesel. A California start-up is using plants to mimic the taste of meat and cheese, to satisfy burger-lovers without the environmental impact of livestock rearing.
Energy. Can renewable energies supplant fossil fuels if the chief sources — wind and solar power — are intermittent? Thanks to technological advances, they are now as cheap as fossil fuels, but they still generate only about 2% of electricity worldwide.
Two things hold renewable energies back: Without a carbon price, it is hard to scale them up; and the technology for large-scale electricity storage does not yet exist. However, if signals from governments are sufficiently clear, vast investments could be expected to flow into renewables, which would help on both counts.
Agriculture can become a carbon sink.
Another approach is to reduce energy consumption in advanced countries, which is particularly important in urban environments.
Urbanization. By 2050, seven out of 10 people in the world will live in cities, and cities produce 70% of greenhouse gas emissions. So urban initiatives are key. During the Climate Summit, Paris Mayor Anne Hildago brought together 1,000 mayors from around the world, who pledged to cut back their cities’ emissions drastically by 2030.
How can this be achieved? Cities are introducing bike and electric car rentals, building tramways and upgrading to clean buses and metros. Some have urban farms to cut down transport of fresh produce. Oslo, which elected a Green/Socialist alliance in October, plans to ban petrol or diesel vehicles from the city center in 2019.
But the city of the future will change more radically. Ideas include district heating initiatives that use waste heat in closed circuits, and putting gardens and farms on and around almost every building. A plan for Paris in 2050 by architect Vincent Callebaut for Paris City Hall gives a futuristic view of what eco-cities could become.
Agriculture. Intensive agriculture is a major source of carbon emissions with its heavy use of fuel, inorganic fertilizers and pesticides. But it can become a carbon sink instead.
Methods include crop rotation, recycling waste and planting nitrogen-fixing crops to replace chemical fertilizers. There are also ideas for changing cows’ diets to cut both their methane emissions and CO2 produced in growing animal feed.
Examples in the article are taken from Rockström and Klum’s book, the COP 21 Solutions exhibition, UNESCO’s Earth University and the Sustainable Innovation Forum.
- Big World Small Planet: Abundance Within Planetary Boundaries, by Johan Rockström and Mattias Klum, Yale University Press 2015
- How to Thrive in the Next Economy, by John Thackara, Thames & Hudson, 2015
- A Safe and Just Space for Humanity, Oxfam discussion paper by Kate Raworth, February 2012
- Online simulator for energy policies from Energy Innovation, an energy and environmental policy consultancy
- World Bank Carbon Pricing Watch 2015
- Cities and energy consumption
- Green cities
Watch Nicolas Stern’s Ted talk here.
Sue Landau is a freelance writer and translator based in Paris. She worked in financial and business journalism for 25 years at the International Herald Tribune, Reuters and the Investor’s Chronicle, chiefly in London and Paris. She reported on energy, new technologies, media and advertising, corporate and industry issues, wealth management and investment, and regional development.