COMMENT: No expense should be spared on the climate tab for the sake of future generations

Publish date: November 29, 2011

Carbon dioxide released today remains in the atmosphere for hundreds of years, so it seems extremely unlikely that our children and grandchildren would complain that we spent money on "expensive" measures before 2020 to prevent a runaway climate system leading to dangerous environmental changes.

In reality, the questions of our descendants will rather be along the lines of: “How could you have had as much information about dangerous climate change and the solutions required, and not put a low carbon economy into practice?

Now the opportunity once again presents itself to sign binding agreements on emissions cuts in cooperation with other nations. The Climate Summit in Durban, South Africa started November 28 and is headlined as “Working Together, Saving Tomorrow Today.”  

“There is neither an economic rationale, nor a climate policy option to postpone action:, says Jane Everett, head of Bellona’s Energy Division, “The ambitious goals must now be followed by an ambitious action plan put forward by our political leaders.”

What are we waiting for?

Global warming is the greatest challenge or our time. Meanwhile, man-made emissions of greenhouse gases are on the increase, despite the confidence with which the world’s leading climate scientists state that global emissions must be reduced by 85 percent by 2050. Over the next 40 years, not only the world energy sector must be decarbonized, but also the transport and industry sectors.

“We do not have time to wait for a quota system that is sufficiently universal and tight, to wait for that alone to trigger the investment required to develop and ramp up the technologies we need to solve the climate problem,” said Janne Stene, head of Bellona’s Cleaner Energies Norway program.

“We need to combat global warming by necessity, not because we want to fulfill international obligations. It is necessary also to focus on alternatives to the UN track when the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012, such as bilateral agreements,” she said, echoing a sentiment many gathered in Durban are debating.

The 2-Degree Celsius target
Internationally, it is agreed that a limit to global warming of a maximum of two degrees over pre-industrial times must be set. Norwegian parliament in 2007 adopted this goal.

The two-degree target (445-490 ppm) implies that global greenhouse gas emissions must peak in 2015. Earlier estimates indicate that the emissions must be reduced by 50 – 85 percent by 2050. The last analysis presented shows that these forecasts were too optimistic. The graph below, developed by the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) shows that if we are to reach the two-degree target, we must all be carbon negative by approximately 2070.

Per capita emissions of two tons

The two-degree target means that in 2050 emissions must be reduced to a maximum of two tons per person. In present day Norway, emissions equal a staggering 11 tons per person. Norway may chose to buy emissions allowances from other countries to offset that amount, but ultimately Norway too must take hold of its national emissions by 2050 and reduce per head output to two tons.

“It is not realistic to believe that we can demand from poor parts of the world that they have emissions that are lower per head than us so they can help to support our continued emissions growth,” said Stene.

With the climate agreement, all Norwegian parliamentary parties except the Progress Party, agreed that Norwegian greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced by 15 to171 million tonnes of CO2 equivalents by 2020. This represents a 20 percent domestic cut over eight years. This was a positive step towards the zero emission society we must achieve by 2050.

“We urge the [Norwegian] government to promote a parliamentary white paper that presents [climate] mitigation measures and that it will implement to meet climate policy,” said Stene.

Too expensive to wait

It does matter when emission reductions are implemented. Carbon dioxide emissions accumulate in the atmosphere, so the longer we wait, the greater are the cuts that must be implemented.

One can therefore say that it is better to cut a ton of CO2 today than in the morning, as waiting for tomorrow will mean having both to reduce the specific ton that was released as well as having to reduce further to compensate for the ton that has already reached the atmosphere

More and more researchers advocate adopting a carbon budget by 2050. A carbon budget includes the total amount of carbon that is emitted and implies that the longer you wait to cut, the larger and more painful to the annual cuts will be.

In 2017 the door slams again

The International Energy Agency’s (IEA’s) new figures show that with the today’s energy, construction and industry infrastructure, we have already used up 80 percent of our total carbon budget associated with the 2 degree target.

The IEA has traditionally been very conservative in its analysis, as well as in giving the impresssion that it is getting concerned. If current emissions trends continue, says the IEA and we do not achieve internationally coordinated action by 2017, all new infrastructure built after 2017 will have to be carbon negative.

The energy sector further will either have to continue to replace capital equipment before its engineered life-span has expired or to invest in emissions-reducing technology that will lead to emissions slashed of 5.7 gigtons by 2035. This is equivalent to about 45 percent of all global installed capacity of fossil energy.

Norway in the world

Many seem to think that implementing emissions cuts in Norway is disproportionately expensive.

“We will argue that in the long term is significantly cheaper to implement cuts today than it is to put off the cuts that will all the same have to come,” said Stene. “Not only will we have to reduce much more because the cumulative emissions have risen –  in addition, we had to implement many expensive mitigation measures as a result of the climate changes that will begin to affect us.”

Large investements in infrastructure, early warning systems, protective measures (like dikes and seawalls) will be necessary, and we will see that the dangerous and expensive effects of climate change have already begun to materialize.

The IEA says that postpoing action provides only a false savings for governments because each dollar saved in investments before 2020 means tha 4.3 dollars will have to be spent to compensate for increased emissions

In addition, there remain questions of how competitive the Norwegian business sector will be in a low-carbon society in which Norway has not helped develop some of the solutions, and how Norwegian companies have ceded the edge to their competitors in terms of investments in new and modern technology.

Creating competitive Norwegian low-carbon industries

In Norway, some have also nonetheless understood that it pays to show up early.

The Norwegian Board of Technology argues for initiating, in its “Plan B,” the creation of a low emission economy in the following way: “Should it take longer for demands for change to arrise, it still makes sense to begin the transition now. The sooner we start, the more are the years over which we can distribute national emissions reductions, and the greater is the competetivness that Norwegian businesses have in relation to companies that have waited for such necessary restructuring. Those who wait must be prepared for a more rapid and much more painful restructuring once it comes.”

The electrification of the continental shelf and any earmarking of the offshore CO2 tax for a mitigation fund will reduce the cash flow to the oil fund. Future generations will have less money available from the Fund, but that is not something Bellona’s Everett thinks our descendents will blame us for.

“The money will then be used for emissions reductions that otherwise would have had a warming effect and a negative impct for many generations,” she said.

An effective cure is prescribed

Sector analysis from Climate Cure 2020 shows that all sectors must contribute if the Norweigan parliamentry Climate Agreement is to be reached in a cost effective manner, and that measures of up to 1,500 NOK per ton of emissions must be implemented.

Without contributions from all sectors, Climate Cure demonstrates, costs will rise significantly. It will also be significantkly difficult, or nearly impossible, both technically and politically, to achieve the goal set in the Climate Agreement.

Many of the measures in Climate Cure 2020 based on the quota sector. This means that the measures implemented in Norway will free emissions quotas for sale, which in turn can lead to increased emissions in other countries that are part of the quota system. It is, of course, essential that these quotas are “deleted” as the measures have a real impact on the climate within the quota system.

Norway has virtually emission-free energy production. Norwegian industry is, however, far from emissions free, even if much of the industry is based on clean hydropower. Norway will need the technology for more energy-efficient production, not the least of which is to make use of Carbon Capture and Storage technology (CCS) in industry.

“Norway is in a unique position to develop CCS. We have technological expertise, storage options for CO2 and financial muscle,” said Stene.

1. Including the uptake of 300 million tons of CO2 by forests.

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