This week’s G7 meeting at Schloss Elmau in the Bavarian Alps marked a major breakthrough in climate change policy. The seven largest high-income economies — the US, Japan, Germany, the UK, France, Italy and Canada — made the revolutionary decision to decarbonize their economies over the course of this century.
For the first time in history, the world’s major economies have agreed on the need to end their dependence on fossil fuels. US President Barack Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the other G7 leaders have risen to the occasion and deserve strong global approbation.
The historic breakthrough is recorded in the final G7 communique. First, the G7 countries underscored the importance of holding global warming to below 2°C. This means that the Earth’s average temperature should be kept within 2°C of the average temperature that prevailed before the start of the Industrial Revolution, roughly before 1800. Yet global warming to date is already around 0.9°C — nearly halfway to the upper limit.
Then, the G7 leaders did something unprecedented. They acknowledged that in order to hold global warming below the 2°C limit, the world’s economies must end their dependence on fossil fuels — coal, oil and natural gas.
Currently, about 80 percent of worldwide primary energy comes from fossil fuels, the combustion of which emits around 34 billion tons of carbon dioxide. This level of emissions, if continued in future decades, would push temperatures far above the 2°C upper limit. Indeed, with rising worldwide energy use, continued dependence on fossil fuels could raise global temperatures by 4°C to 6°C, leading to potentially catastrophic consequences for global food production, higher sea levels, mega-droughts, major floods, devastating heat waves and extreme storms.
The science is clearer than many politicians would like. For humanity to have a “likely” chance of staying below the 2°C threshold, a small reduction in carbon emissions is not enough. In fact, emissions have to fall to zero later this century to stop any further rise in the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide. Simply put, the world economy must be “decarbonized.”
The breakthrough at the G7 summit was that the seven governments recognized this, declaring that the 2°C limit requires “decarbonization of the global economy over the course of this century.” The G7 finally stated clearly what scientists have been urging for years: Humanity must not merely reduce, but must end, carbon emissions from fossil fuels this century.
Decarbonization is feasible, though by no means easy. It depends on taking three key steps.
First, we must become more energy efficient, for example, through modern building designs that reduce the needs for heating, cooling, and energy-intensive ventilation. Second, we must produce electricity with wind, solar, nuclear, hydroelectric, geothermal, and other non-carbon energy sources, or by capturing and storing the carbon dioxide produced by fossil fuels — a process known as carbon capture and storage (CCS). Third, we must switch from fossil fuels to electricity or hydrogen produced by zero-carbon electricity, or in some cases, such as aviation, to advanced biofuels.
The hard part is the practical, large-scale implementation of broad concepts in a way that does not disrupt our energy dependent world economy and does not cost a fortune to achieve. However, as the costs are tallied, it should be noted that runaway climate change would impose the greatest costs of all.
To succeed, it is expected to take several decades to convert power stations, infrastructure and building stock to low-carbon technologies. The low-carbon technologies also need to be upgraded, whether it is PV solar cells, batteries for energy storage, CCS for safely storing carbon dioxide or nuclear power plants that win the public’s confidence. The G7, notably, committed to “developing and deploying innovative technologies striving for a transformation of the energy sectors by 2050” and invited “all countries to join us in this endeavor.”
This global process of decarbonization is expected to be long and complex, requiring detailed roadmaps with periodic redesigns as technologies evolve. The G7 also made a historic breakthrough by declaring its readiness to “develop long-term national low-carbon strategies” to get to a decarbonized future. The UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, which I direct on behalf of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, has been working on such low-carbon strategies for the main emitting countries in a project called the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project.
Of course, the G7 declaration is only a declaration, and it does not yet include the commitments of many of the world’s largest carbon-emitting countries, including China, India and Russia. Yet it is a crucial step that could greatly encourage other countries to participate in decarbonization, especially in view of the G7’s commitment to speed the development of improved low-carbon technologies.
The outcome of the G7’s meeting augurs well for a strong global agreement on climate change when all 193 UN member states meet in Paris in December to hammer out a global climate agreement. The G7 countries have not yet ensured a successful outcome at the Paris meeting, but they have taken a big step toward that goal.
Jeffrey Sachs is a professor of sustainable development, professor of health policy and management and director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. He is also special adviser to the UN secretary-general on the Millennium Development Goals.
Copyright: Project Syndicate
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