Is the COP process working?

Are we reducing emissions fast enough
Nick Breeze
An interview with World Resources Institute decarbonisation specialist, Kelly Levin.

collectively, they are insufficient for limiting the worst of climate change impacts but yet they are better than what we would have in the absence of them.

Nick Breeze: There has been a drop in the rate of the rise of emissions. Should we interpret this as good news?

Kelly Levin: The bottom line is that this is bad news because we cannot afford any growth in emissions right now. For our best chance to avoid the worst climate impacts we need to peak emissions by 2020. So not only do we have to slow the growth of emissions but completely bend the curve downwards. While it is a bit of a silver lining that we have a slower growth of emissions, we need to see a decline altogether.

Paris Agreement

NB: Your own report states that we have seen a doubling of emissions since the 1970’s. With 25 years of these COPs, are we achieving anything here politically, do you think?

KL: Certainly, what we know is that in the absence of climate policy and the Paris Agreement, temperature would be much warmer than it would be with these climate change commitments.

Right now we are slated for 3ºC warming. We would have seen 4ºC, possibly more, had we not seen a Paris Agreement. Yet we still see a huge gulf between the Paris Agreement and where we need to be to get down to 1.5-2ºC of warming. 

To take the Paris Agreement off the table would really be spelling disaster.

NB: Do you think having these two weeks at the COP is enough to get what we need to do done. The scale of the problem is so large and yet we allocate quite small amounts of time?

KL: So I think that while these particular negotiations only last for x number of hours in a given year, there is a tremendous amount of technical and diplomatic work that goes on throughout the year. So it is really a culmination and an important inflexion point where you can put pressure on governments. 

It is probably difficult, I think, for them to last any longer but at the end of the day, the action that is really going to move us is happening domestically. Therefore, that is all the climate legislation that is being cast is happening day in, day out back home.

Tremendous transformation

NB: I think it is somewhere like 37 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide that we emit every year. Is that about correct?

KL: Yes. With all the greenhouse gases and the land sector, we have to half emissions from where we are today by 2030 and then get to net-zero by midcentury.

That is a tremendous transformation and yet the pledges that countries have put forward suggest emissions will continue to rise through 2030 at least. That is definitely the wrong direction from where we need to be going.

NB: When we talk about emissions rising and where they actually go, we have these natural land sinks and oceans sinks. How much more carbon can they take?

collectively, they are insufficient for limiting the worst of climate change impacts but yet they are better than what we would have in the absence of them.

KL: It is a very good question. What we have seen is that the ocean sink and the land sink have been sucking in more and more carbon dioxide as we emit more.

They only partially compensate for that growth in emissions, so the emissions still build-up but they are critically important for seeing that the temperature rise that we have already seen is not any higher.

There are scientific studies that show saturation rates in the ocean and in the land. Certainly in the land, there are some tipping points where you could see the Amazon, for example, flip from a tropical forest to a savanna-like ecosystem, where you lose some of that very basic carbon storage-like capability.

If that were to happen, certainly the rise in emissions would be much much higher.

Tipping points

NB: So that the system effectively starts breaking down, from where it is friendly to us specifically?

KL: Yeah, what scientists have pointed out is that there are a number of tipping points in the system and that we are dangerously close already to many of them.

These should really frighten us more than anything because it would really flip us into an unknown state. Human civilisation has flourished in a relatively very stable state climate-wise and this would be a very very big unknown as to what the consequences would be.

NB: You said we are dangerously close to these tipping points?

KL: Some scientists feel like, for some of the tipping points, we are already seeing rates of decline, for example, of sea ice, where those tipping points may have already been reached.

I think there is a lot of unknowns in terms of where particular tipping points lie in the system but the science is advancing significantly. Even just last week there was a significant paper stating that we are closer than we thought to a lot of these tipping points.


NB: One of the biggest causes seems to be use of coal in terms of attributable source. Does the WRI have any proposed strategy for getting away from coal faster?

KL: The good news is that the economics no longer favour it and investors are walking away. In the United States, for example, we are seeing dramatic decreases in coal in the last year to a point that is half what its peak was in 2005.

We are seeing no new construction and lots of announcements of cancellation of plans for new plants. 

Natural gas is in some cases being substituted for coal and to a lesser extent in renewables. In many geographies, we are seeing that coal is on the way out.

Especially in the US and Europe. We are seeing a growth in coal in China and India but the rate of growth in India has slowed considerably.

Natural gas

NB: You mentioned natural gas but that still has half the emissions of coal, is that correct?

KL: Yes, that is right. Natural gas is certainly on the rise and the emissions intensity of natural gas is about half that of what it is for coal.

While natural gas is on the rise the emissions associated with it have not displaced the emissions associated with the decline of coal. In some cases the natural gas is displacing the losses from coal, for example, in the United States. 

In other places, like if you take Japan, the use of natural gas is displacing the use of nuclear, so not everywhere is it displacing the use of coal.

NB: I know people call natural gas a transition fuel, but is there not a way to leapfrog it? It seems like it is not really a great transition option.

KL: Yeah, there is a great danger that we could lock-in natural gas infrastructure for decades to come, which would prohibit growth in renewable energy.

We really need to watch that or natural gas could become the next lock-in story, as coal was!


NB: Transport is another big area where the trends are quite worrying. especially things like flying. We seem to love flying. How do we reverse these kinds of trends that are tied in with peoples aspirations?

KL: It is very difficult. Aviation emissions are on the rise and especially in economies where per capita aviation emissions have been slow to date.

But we are seeing a real heightened amount of flying recently. I think CORSIA is going to help to some extent in the carbon offsetting scheme of aviation to stop the growth in emissions.

There is also going to be needed some technological development but certainly some signals to consumers to both reduce the amount of flying period, as well being smarter in terms of the types of flights they are taking.

NB: Do you have a lot of confidence in the NDCs as a pathway to a safe future?

KL: Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement are climate change commitments that countries put forward. They are nationally determined by nature so countries come forward with whatever they can pledge in terms of their climate action.

What we know is that, collectively, they are insufficient for limiting the worst of climate change impacts but yet they are better than what we would have in the absence of them. Countries next year are invited to update and increase their NDSs. 

The hope is that there will be tremendous pressure over the next year for countries to do so. Maybe some countries have had early implementation success. Maybe the economics of certain technologies have changed but certainly the hope is that we are going to see much more ambition next year because we desperately need it.

Cautious optimism

NB: On a scale of one to ten how optimistic are you that we are going to achieve these goals and really bring down emissions and restore the climate?

KL: What we know is that it is technically feasible but whether or not we actually do this is going to be a question of leadership and whether or not governments will take concerted action. 

What we know from the science is that we need tremendous transformation on a scale that is unprecedented across sectors and geographies. That will be a true test for us.

I think one needs to be a bit optimistic to stay in the game because the consequences are so tremendous otherwise but certainly if you look at the scale of the ambition required, it is very very daunting.

This Author

Nick Breeze is a climate change writer and interviewer and also writes a great deal about wine. He is an organiser of the Cambridge Climate Lecture Series and Secret Sommelier

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