Only 70 national leaders attended a virtual “Climate Ambition” summit on December 12th, five years to the day after the adoption of the Paris agreement. The agreement has a ratchet mechanism which requires that countries come forward at five-year intervals with increased national climate goals, reflecting technological, economic and social progress in the previous five years. However, what was proposed at the summit is not enough to meet either 2030 or 2050 targets which would give us a chance of keeping temperature rises between 1.5 and 2.0 degrees above pre-industrial levels. The UK government says that we have cut emissions by 68% below 1990 levels, making us the first country to have a 2030 target that is in line with the Paris agreement. This does not include any of the carbon embodied in the products we import as that is accounted for by countries producing those goods.
The Climate Ambition summit was part of the build up to the delayed COP26 now to be held in Glasgow next November. A dispute has broken out about whether this needs to be a face-to-face meeting or (mostly) a virtual one. But this time the motivation for a mostly virtual meeting is not Covid-related but because of the carbon cost of holding an actual meeting. A normal meeting would be attended by some 30,000 delegates from more than 190 countries. Around 4,000 of those will be core negotiators. The rest will be advisers, administrative staff, NGOs and media. COP24 generated almost 60,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions, 93% of which was from air travel. This is equivalent to the emissions from 13,000 passenger vehicles driven for a year or the annual energy use of 7,000 homes. Some environmental groups now argue that this is all too much and send exactly the wrong message. But others says it is vitally important that activists are physically be in the room to ensure their voices are heard when it comes to decision-making. Technology is only a poor substitute and brings barriers in terms of time zones and internet access. The UK government pans to plant trees to offset whatever CO2 production there is.
The overall picture presented at the meeting was not a positive one, and António Guterres, the UN secretary-general, noted that G20 countries were spending 1.5 times more on industries linked to fossil fuels than they do on low-carbon energy. The annual UN Emissions Gap Report provides projections of how global emissions are likely to evolve by 2030 and estimates the gap between these probable outcomes and the ones needed to meet the Paris goals. This year’s edition found that emissions will decrease by between 2 and 12% in 2020 as a result of the pandemic, but that this has done little to narrow the emissions gap. However, it also said that a strong emphasis on decarbonisation as economies recover from the pandemic could cause a 25% drop in 2030 emissions, compared with pre-covid estimates. There are no shortage of promises or rationales for action. As the UK Prime Minister put it in his characteristic way: “We’re doing this not because we are hair-shirt-wearing, tree-hugging, mung-bean-munching eco freaks—though I’ve got nothing against any of those categories, mung beans are probably delicious, we’re doing it because we know that scientific advances will allow us collectively as humanity to save our planet and create millions of high-skilled jobs as we recover from covid.”
A positive feature of the virtual “Climate Ambition” summit was more news of the growing global shift away from coal. Coal now only contributes 2% to UK electricity production. It was 40% in 2013. Electricity generation from coal was further reduced by a third in the first part of this year. We now burn less coal in power stations than we did in 1882 when this process began. But coal still accounts for 27% of global energy use, and although it’s in marked decline in Europe and even in America, it’s still strong across Asia, particularly China. It was encouraging summit news, therefore, that Pakistan is to stop generating electricity from coal-fired power stations (by an unspecified date) with 60% of all energy produced in Pakistan planned to come from renewables by 2030. By contrast, Germany plans to continue to burn coal until 2038. And much of this is dirty brown coal.
Coal-fired electricity production typically produces a third of a tonne of CO2 per megawatt-hour of electricity generated. This is about twice as much as a modern gar-fuelled plant will produce. The IPCC says that if we are to have a decent chance of keeping temperature rises below 1.5 degrees C, all future greenhouse gas emissions have to be between 420 and 580bn tonnes. To reach the less ambitious 2.0 degree target, the range is 1170 to 1500bn tonnes. If coal-fired electricity plants stay open this will not happen. A recent UN report says that coal use has to drop by 7% year on year to hit the 2.0 degree target. To meet the 1.5 degree target, cuts of 11% cuts are needed. And all this assumes that by 2030 a billion tonnes of CO2 is being captured at source and sequestered. Currently, only 4% of that amount is extracted which shows the scale of the problem.
The UK government has published its delayed Energy White Paper in mid-December. This sets out plans to “clean up our energy system”, support up to 220,000 British jobs, and keep bills affordable as we transition to net zero by 2050. The White Paper sets out steps the government will take over the next 10 years to cut emissions from industry, transport, and buildings by 230 million tonnes. This is equivalent to taking 7.5 million petrol cars off the road. Key parts of the proposals are:
– supporting major infrastructure projects for power generation, carbon capture storage and hydrogen.
– changing how we heat our homes and travel, doubling our electricity use, and harnessing renewable energy supplies.
– generating emission-free electricity by 2050 with power ‘overwhelmingly decarbonised’ by 2030.
– investing £1 billion in carbon capture & storage in four industrial clusters by 2030 with at least one fully net zero cluster by 2040.
– developing the low carbon hydrogen economy by working with industry to aim for 5GW of production by 2030.
– by the mid 2030s all newly installed heating systems are to be low carbon or to be appliances that can be converted to a clean fuel supply.
– supporting the transition away from North Sea oil and gas production to carbon capture and storage and hydrogen production.
The White Paper has been criticised because it is too vague on the detail of how all this is to be achieved. It is also criticised because it does not address key issues urgently enough (gas boilers, for example). It also does not envisage a role for schools in helping the public understand the shifts that will be needed. Indeed, the public hardly gets a mention. We found five, none of which envisage educational interventions as opposed to routine communications exercises:
– Page 100: “Public awareness is low about the connection between climate change and how we heat homes and workplaces. Research by BEIS suggests that the majority of the population has not heard of low-carbon heating technologies. Almost a third of gas-users stated they were on ‘environmentally-friendly heating’, suggesting a general under-appreciation of what the transition to low-carbon heating could mean in practice.”
– Page 111: “We believe that significantly increasing the deployment of heat pumps for on-gas grid homes through the 2020s, on a voluntary basis, will be beneficial, whatever the eventual mix of technologies for clean heat in 2050. We recognise that, to achieve this, we will have to increase business and public confidence in heat pump technology.”
– Page 135: “The [oil and gas] sector is already coming under significant pressure from investors and the public more widely to respond to the challenge. Shareholders, for example, are increasingly requiring listed companies to price carbon into their business models and demonstrate how they can reduce emissions from their operations or support the wider decarbonisation of the economy.”
– Page 146: A public consultation process will take place on the implementation date for this policy and to help align government’s support
for clean technologies. The consultation will close in February 2021 and its findings will help form the North Sea Transition Deal.”
And yet, if we look at what organisations such as Teach the Future are saying, this is exactly what young people want to be involved in. It just looks like mainstream environmental education.
That’s it for 2020. The next weekly round up will be on January 4th 20231. In the meantime, best wishes for a happy if restricted Christmas and New Year from NAEE.