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Green Planet

Fifty Shades of Green

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Climate change has long turned from a narrow environmental problem into a significant factor affecting economic processes around the globe. Temperatures on the planet have risen by nearly 1°C compared to the pre-industrial era, and scientists have no doubts that this process will continue. This has already started to adversely affect people’s health in different countries, their access to water and food, and their exposure to natural disasters. Efforts to combat climate change by cutting greenhouse gas emissions serve as a main driver of the world economy’s green transformation. The power generation sector is gradually transitioning towards cleaner energy sources, industry and construction are increasingly embracing green standards, and green bonds are booming in the financial market.

The Iceberg of Green Transformation

The measures being taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions can be compared to an iceberg. The smaller but most prominent part above the sea surface is the 2015 Paris Agreement, which has been ratified by 185 countries to date (Russia is expected to ratify it in 2019). The document calls for capping the rise in temperatures at no more than 2°C compared to the pre-industrial period, preferably at 1.5°C if at all possible. However, unlike the Kyoto Protocol that came before, the Paris Agreement does not impose obligations on all the signatory countries; rather, it merely determines the procedure for declaring so-called nationally determined contributions, which are each nation’s emission reduction plans. The countries develop their plans individually and voluntarily, based on their own development strategies for the economy and the energy sector. The contributions declared to date are fairly modest: they will only cap the rising temperatures at around 3°C above the pre-industrial era.

Just like the bulk of the iceberg is under water, the climate agenda is largely being implemented outside the UN negotiating processes. Global climate change governance is sometimes described as polycentric: not only are the thousands of national, subnational, regional, municipal and non-state actors implementing the global rules, but they are also offering and testing their own climate policy measures, learning from their own mistakes, sharing experiences and introducing bottom-up rules. They remain independent in their decisions while at the same time closely interacting with one another. National governments and regional administrations launch carbon emission trading schemes, businesses introduce internal carbon prices, and investment institutions increasingly join the fossil fuel divestment movement. Rather than being direct consequences of the Paris Agreement, these measures are necessitated by a range of technological, geopolitical, economic, and environmental factors. It is thanks to them that green the transformation of the world economy has become an irreversible process.

Pros and Cons

Not all the actors are equally prepared to embrace the climate agenda. Some are more eager to do so than others. Almost all the developed countries plus China are interested. They contribute the lion’s share of the world’s green investments, ensure the maximum growth of renewable sources in the energy balance, and develop carbon trading schemes. Businesses in these build their corporate strategies with the climate factor in mind. The enthusiasm of these national actors is explained not only by their climate change-related concerns, but also by the added benefits of switching to low-carbon economies (including the European Union reducing its dependence on fossil fuel imports or China fighting urban air pollution).

There are also climate sceptics. At the national level, these include leading developing countries (such as India, Brazil, South Africa, and Mexico), which are not fundamentally opposed to participating in the green transformation drive, but only for as long as they do not have to give up their key priorities of overcoming poverty (including energy poverty), economic growth and industrialization. Another group of sceptics comprises countries where green transformation is fraught with significant risks to their economic model, which is centred around extracting and exporting fossil fuels. These include Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

In fact, the polycentric model implies that low-carbon development is not just the concern of national governments. In fact, national governments could be seen as taking the back seat here. At the national level, the green agenda enjoys the support of a broad range of political parties (which often represent a significant proportion of the middle class in developed countries), companies representing the green economy (for example, renewable energy) and innovative sectors, non-governmental environmentalist organizations, many banks and financial corporations, individual regional and municipal administrations, and universities and research centres. Many of these actors are driven by climate change concerns, while others are guided by commercial or political interests.

At the same time, each country has actors who stand to lose from green transformation and who thus oppose it. These include coal producers, oil- and gas- companies, corporations operating in traditionally carbon-intensive sectors, administrations of regions in which such businesses deploy their production facilities and create jobs, significant portions of people residing in these regions or countries, and the political forces representing them. The reason for these actors’ scepticism is quite simple: green transformation either destroys their businesses or runs counter to other priorities of their social or economic development.

Current Balance of Forces

The pace of green transformation will largely depend on how the balance of forces between these two groups of actors will change. The group of “enthusiasts” has expanded substantially in the past several decades and will continue to consolidate its positions as the effects of climate change worsen and the costs of introducing low-carbon technologies and disseminating green values decrease as incomes increase around the world.

It should be noted that the efforts of the “enthusiasts” are far from enough to keep temperatures at 2°C above the pre-industrial level. In fact, green transformation is facing increased risks as inequality in developed countries deepens. One example of this is the situation in the United States, where the election of Donald Trump as president slowed down the country’s low-carbon development, although did not throttle it altogether. Also illustrative of the trends are the yellow vest protests in France, which were prompted by a hike in fossil fuel taxes.

Yet green transformation continues. The polycentric model, in which the rules are set at the lower levels and promoted upwards, gives actors who are interested in cutting emissions numerous opportunities to transform their regulatory practices into international standards. For example, Western companies require their partners, including raw-material suppliers, to use green management practices (such as estimating the carbon footprint of products or disclosing information about emissions). Enthusiastic businesses initiate the introduction of industry standards by forming coalitions and promoting their “grassroots” initiatives all the way to the top. One example of this can be seen in the aviation sector, where an International Civil Aviation Organization-wide agreement has been reached on the introduction of an industry-wide emissions control system from 2021. Another example is the 2018 roadmap adopted by the International Maritime Organization. Its main goal is to cut emissions by 50 per cent compared to the 2008 level by the year 2050.

Companies operating in countries that enforce carbon trading schemes, particularly those businesses that introduce internal carbon prices, are worried that they may be losing to foreign competitors which, they believe, are engaged in climate dumping. Many of these businesses are requesting their national governments to introduce carbon duties against products originating in countries that do not practice carbon trading. The idea has recently been supported by certain politicians, including President of France Emmanuel Macron. If implemented, this innovation in the low-carbon agenda is set to change the landscape of global trade, just like it has changed the global energy sector over the past decade.

The green transformation of the world economy is irreversible. It is not defined by the Paris Agreement, nor by whether Russia ratifies it, nor even by whether the United States chooses to withdraw from it altogether. The rules of green transformation are set from the bottom up, and the key part here is played by those actors who are most interested in cutting their emissions. Russian business, just like the Russian government, has virtually no involvement in drafting these rules. This can hardly be described as a wise approach, given that the Russian economy primarily specializes in fossil fuels and carbon-intensive industrial production, to which the consequences of green transformation are of critical significance. Many representatives of the Russian political elite and business circles remain sceptical about the very problem of climate change and continue to question its man-made nature. That this view contradicts scientific evidence is beside the point here – it is not a question of faith. Gone are the times when nations and businesses could largely neglect the issues of climate change, low-carbon development and green technologies. There is simply no going back.

First published in our partner RIAC

PhD in Economics, Associate Professor of the World Economy Department, Academic Head of the World Economy Undergraduate Program at HSE- University, RIAC expert

Green Planet

Researchers unveil roadmap for a carbon neutral China by 2060

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Chinese president Xi Jinping told the UN general assembly on 22 September that China would achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. The announcement sparked a huge response and gave rise to speculation as to how this would be achieved.

On 12 October, research into a possible route to that target was published by Tsinghua University’s Institute for Climate Change and Sustainable Development (ICCSD) – the most authoritative roadmap to emerge since the commitment was made. If China follows the recommendations of the report, it could mean tougher energy-saving and emissions-reductions targets for the 14th Five Year Plan (FYP), a more ambitious Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) for 2030, with yet faster and deeper decarbonisation to come from 2030 onwards.  

Decarbonising for the 1.5C target

The 2015 Paris Agreement aims to limit climate warming to 2C (compared to pre-industrial levels) at the end of the century, while pursing efforts to limit the increase to 1.5C. That 1.5C target has been controversial because it requires greater emissions cuts and it was only added to the text of the agreement at the last minute.

Professor He Jiankun, project leader of the new study and chair of the ICCSD’s academic committee, said at a press briefing on the research that “achieving carbon neutrality by 2060 essentially means a long-term deep decarbonisation process oriented at the 1.5C target”. The director of the ICCSD is Xie Zhenhua, formerly China’s special climate envoy. Xie was also overall supervisor of this research project.

According to the roadmap presented in the study, by 2050 China must achieve net zero carbon dioxide emissions, with emissions of all greenhouse gases down 90% on 2020 levels, if it is to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. The authors did not offer a specific roadmap for reducing emissions between 2050 and 2060, but said that emissions cuts should be increased, with negative emissions growth in the energy sector and more capture and sequestration of carbon dioxide using carbon sinks and carbon removal technologies.

The roadmap implies that all greenhouse gases are included in China’s 2060 pledge – something that observers had wondered about. But one expert close to China’s policy on non-CO2 greenhouse gases told China Dialogue that for now it remains an academic assumption, and official documents would be needed to confirm the government position.

Although the recommended roadmap is ultimately closing in on the 1.5C target, this does not mean China will immediately fast-track deep decarbonisation. The roadmap has two stages: before 2030 China will cut emissions according to an “enhanced mitigation scenario”, with a tougher 2030 NDC target and increasing efforts to reduce emissions. But that alone would leave China far from even the 2C target. However, the researchers propose much tougher measures after 2030, which will bring China into line with the 1.5C target. Assuming these recommendations are adopted, China will see a later, but steeper decline in emissions than it would if it set out to hit the 1.5C target immediately, with a carbon peak by 2030, an energy consumption peak around 2035, and carbon emissions approaching zero by 2050.

At the launch, He Jiankun explained that “the economy and the energy sector are hugely complicated systems, with a lot of inertia, so a transition will take time”. Rapid implementation of the absolute carbon cuts needed for the 2C or even 1.5C target would be very difficult, and China still needs to develop. So in the first stage, staving off additional emissions rather than cutting existing emissions should be the priority to bring about a carbon peak. But after 2030, the speed with which China reduces emissions will “far outstrip the developed nations”.

Implications for near-term policy

There is a great deal of interest in how China’s 2060 carbon neutrality target will affect the 14th Five Year Plan (for 2021-2025), which is currently being drafted, with this being seen as a test of China’s level of commitment.

The researchers also make suggestions for energy-saving and emissions-reduction targets in the 14th FYP, such as a 20% share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption by 2025, and a carbon emissions cap of under 10.5 billion tonnes (2020 figures for these are expected to be 16% and 10.3 billion tonnes respectively).

“We have to control any rebound in coal use during the 14th FYP and work towards peak coal, or even negative growth,” said He.

The researchers also recommend China toughens and updates its NDC for 2030, lowering carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by over 65% on 2005 levels and reaching a 25% share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption.

Speaking at the launch, Wang Yi, a member of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (China’s top legislative body) and vice director of the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Science and Development, said that 14th FYP targets should remain tough and be expanded: for example, by including overall caps – in particular a carbon cap – alongside existing efficiency targets (such as carbon and energy intensity). Other experts have also called for a carbon cap in the 14th FYP.

Wang also pointed out that a package of legislation will be needed to ensure 14th FYP climate targets are met. This includes an Energy Law currently being drafted, an ongoing revision to the Energy-Saving Law, and a Law on Combating Climate Change being prepared. “The Law on Combating Climate Change will only reach the statute books if a carbon cap is at its core – if not, it loses a raison d’etre as other laws can replace it,” Wang said. Lower level regulations, such as for carbon markets, must also keep up, he said.

From our partner Chinadialogue

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COVID-19 has given a fillip to biodiversity

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The COVID-19 outbreak caused many problems for the world, but in return gave the planet’s environment and biodiversity a chance to breathe. The high mortality rate may be worrisome, but it provided us with the opportunity to think more about how we should treat biodiversity in a better way.

Biodiversity is an important feature of life explained by the vast diversity of plants and animals, which is a non-renewable resource and its loss will be irreparable, Kioumars Kalantari, head of the natural environment and biodiversity of the Department of Environment said.

The growing importance of biodiversity is due to its role in maintaining the stability of ecosystems, because in an ecosystem, the greater the species diversity, the longer food chains, resulting in a more stable environment, he added.

According to him, today the protection of biodiversity, habitats, and natural ecosystems is among the most important indicators of sustainable development in the world.

Fortunately, Iran benefits from rich biodiversity due to special climatic, geographical, and topographic conditions and characteristics, and more than 8600 species of plants and 1300 species of vertebrates live in the country, he highlighted.

Unfortunately, the environment faces a variety of threats and challenges, including pollution, habitat destruction, climate change, sand and dust storms, natural disasters such as droughts, floods, and increasing disease outbreaks, he noted.

He went on to say that despite all the efforts that have been made nationally as well as internationally worldwide, the environment today is no better than it was in the early twentieth century.

The sudden prevalence of COVID-19, followed by lock-downs and restrictions around the world, reduction in human activity, the evacuation of highways, reduction in travel, air, and land transport, and a significant drop in greenhouse gas emissions, has benefited the nature much, he explained.

It greatly improved air quality and reduced the risk of lung and cardiovascular diseases, key environmental indicators that have been steadily deteriorating for more than half a century, remained fixed, or moved towards improvement, he emphasized.

The extent of the disease and the human casualties may be so painful that it does not give us a chance to rejoice in the healing process of nature and the environment, but the good condition of climate and nature can be a fillip for each of us on this planet, especially those in charge, to think more about our past actions and slow down our exponential pace of unsustainable development and the destruction of valuable biological resources, he also highlighted.

Perhaps changing our plans and behaviors to use more of renewable energy, while increasing the use of telecommunications facilities such as video conferencing, webinars, online meetings, can greatly reduce travel as well as greenhouse gas emissions and thus help preserve nature and valuable biodiversity treasures, he said.

Biodiversity conservation is in fact the protection of ourselves and the resources without which we cannot survive, he stated, adding, human health depends on the health of other creatures and the environment in which they live.

The outbreak of the coronavirus and its pathogenic consequences highlights the importance of the dependence of the health of all organisms on the planet on each other and the environment.

“Our Solutions Are in Nature” which expresses the importance of nature in responding to the challenges we face in terms of sustainable development and the necessity of comprehensive cooperation to achieve a future in harmony with nature, he added.

According to experts, “the most important and largest public asset of any country is the environment”, unfortunately, due to the wrong approach and underestimation of its vital importance, its capacity is declining every day, and it cannot be exchanged or bought, although some officials, especially economists, suggest ways to price these environmental resources, they are invaluable, he stated.

Kalantari further expressed hope that by living in harmony with nature, humans will be able to benefit as much as possible from the valuable resources and to protect and preserve the biological richness of the world in the best possible way.

Why human absence prospers nature?

Pointing out that protecting the planet is important to humans, and we need to maintain the best conditions on Earth after Coronavirus, Mohammad Darvish, a member of the National Security Council for the environment, said that the pandemic has caused the earth to breathe deeply, and now the wise man is faced with the question that “why, when human activity as a member of the ecosystem decreases, not only does nothing happen, but the condition of nature improves.”

Think of bees being removed from nature. In this case, the integrity of the Earth’s environmental property, the reproduction of many species and humans themselves will be damaged, or if brown bears are removed, soil fertility will decrease, or if wild boars are removed, water permeability will decrease and floods will increase, he explained.

Therefore, there have been wise in the creation of all plant and animal species or even insects, and have contributed to the earth’s resilience, he emphasized.

Why has it now happened that man, who considers himself the best of creatures, that must be more responsible, has behaved in such a way that his absence is in favor of nature and the earth?

Such happening should give us a lesson to change our development programs in favor of nature and try to understand the laws of nature, instead of spending budgets on warfare, larger and more horrific weapons, he noted, implying that environmental research and health is now more essential as well as improvement of the education system so that in the post-corona crisis world we can appear wiser, more knowledgeable, and more responsible.

From our partner Tehran Times

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Global Warming: Past as Prologue to the Future

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Dr. Arshad M. Khan and Meena Miriam Yust

If the vice-presidential debate lacked direction, hurricane Delta did not.  It slammed into the Louisiana coast as a Category 2 causing widespread damage with its 100 mph winds, then continued inland as a Category 1 storm.  If Delta sounds like an unusual name for a hurricane, it is. 

The World Meteorological Organization has a list from A to W of 21 potential storm names.  The letters Q, W, X, Y and Z are omitted.  In all there are six lists meaning that the 2020 list will be repeated in 2026.

Using names for storms facilitates identification in communications when compared to the prior method using latitude and longitude particularly when the storm itself is moving. 

So here we are in 2020 with 25 storms so far.  The residents on the Louisiana coast have had a double whammy with hurricane Laura slamming them earlier in the last week of August.  It was a deadly Category 4 with maximum sustained winds of 150 mph.  Just 7 mph short of a Category 5 (the deadliest) Laura was only the fourth Category 4 to strike Louisiana since records were kept.  

In addition to the numbers of storms, there are other climate anomalies.  September this year has been the hottest on record and Death Valley reached a temperature of 130 F (54.4 C) the highest ever observed.  September 2019 in turn had also been the hottest on record for our planet. 

If there are storms along the coasts and flooding due to a warming ocean, inland it is not only warmer but drier.  Forests are like tinder needing only a lightning spark or a downed electricity line to set them off.  Thus the forest fires in southeastern Australia and California.

Europe too is warmer.  Forest fires particularly in the south, and inundation are more frequent.  Reading in England for example has just suffered the wettest 48 hours ever. 

The south of France usually associated with blissful weather experienced torrential downpours with more than a half meter of rain (about 20 inches) in a day.  It was an event Meteo-France noted that occurs once in a hundred years.  And then it happened again.  Storm Alex, the cause of this misery, hit France and also Italy and England.  Floods and landslides caused serious damage north of Nice destroying roads, bridges and houses.  In adjoining Italy a section of a bridge over the Sesia river collapsed in the rising waters.  Affecting the Piedmont, Lombardy and Liguria regions, it dropped over 23 inches (0.63 m) of rain.  The Po river rose more than 9 ft (3 m ) in 24 hours. 

The key lesson from all this is that global warming is making rare events more common, that the window for action is narrowing, and that the longer such action is delayed the more onerous will be the burden on humanity.  In the meantime, the global warming already built into the system will continue to affect climate for the foreseeable future. 

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