From Britain, Denmark and New Zealand to Myanmar, Senegal and the Marshall Islands, more than 120 countries, rich and poor, have set their sights on the same goal to avoid the worst impacts of climate change: cutting their emissions to net-zero.
Some have put the target into law with a 2050 deadline while others are discussing ways to formalize it.
The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said that global greenhouse gas emissions need to be slashed to “net-zero” by mid-century to have a 50 percent chance of keeping warming to 1.5?C above pre-industrial times, the lowest goal in the 2015 Paris Agreement.
Illustration: June Hsu
The discussions on how to get there often overlook a crucial aspect — how to do it in a way that is fair, said Niall Mac Dowell, a professor at Imperial College London.
Mac Dowell cited France’s “yellow vests” movement, which began in November 2018, as an example of what can go wrong. Named after the fluorescent jackets all French motorists carry in their cars, it started as a protest against a levy on fuel.
The tax was one of the ways the French government hoped to implement the Paris accord, by making it more costly to drive petrol and diesel vehicles, and boost clean alternatives.
“But if you’re like most people in France who don’t live in Paris and don’t have access to good or any public transport, [the tax] is just a punitive, regressive, unfair measure,” said Mac Dowell, who leads the Imperial College Clean Fossil and Bioenergy Research Group.
“It’s really important that the way in which these agreements and ambitions are implemented are — in fact and in perception — progressive and fair,” he added.
Mac Dowell co-authored a paper arguing that current approaches to decarbonizing energy focus too much on costs and technologies, and not enough on “a socially equitable transition,” raising the risk of “deeper social divisions.”
Clean Air Task Force policy innovation director Lee Beck, who was not involved in the study, said it covered “an important blind spot because... everyone’s life will be impacted by phasing out fossil fuels.”
The Paris accord says doing so would be necessary by the second half of this century, to keep global warming within relatively safe levels.
The net-zero goals now being set to achieve that aim involve producing no more planet-warming emissions than can be absorbed by trees or by technologies that capture carbon from power plants and other industries, and store or use it.
The paper analyzed Britain, Spain and Poland, which have different energy mixes, socio-economic structures and ambitions to tackle climate change.
For Poland — which has one of Europe’s lowest GDP levels per capita and relies on coal for 80 percent of its energy — turning to wind and solar would have significant costs, the paper said.
A full switch to renewable energy — a central pillar of the EU’s plan to achieve net-zero by 2050 — could lead to 48 percent unemployment in Poland’s mining sector and only “modest” 5 percent growth in manufacturing jobs, it added.
“This could cause economic upheaval and social inequality,” the paper said, adding that Poland might be better off continuing to use coal while taking the emissions out of the air through carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies.
CCS is hotly debated among climate scientists and activists.
Many environmentalists fear it could slow a transition to clean power, as fossil fuel firms see it as a way to keep on producing and burning coal, oil and gas.
Deployment of CCS is also far behind schedule, with capacity in Europe at only a tiny fraction of what is needed.
However, all technologies, including nuclear power and CCS, should be on the table, Beck said.
“The [COVID-19] pandemic has shown how difficult it is to reduce emissions. We brought the entire economy basically to a halt and we have seen gains, but obviously they’re not net-zero,” she said.
Globally, 20 CCS facilities capture about 40 million tonnes of carbon every year, which could rise to 100 million after planned facilities are taken into account, Beck said.
To meet global climate goals, though, the International Energy Agency calculates that the world needs to capture about 2.4 gigatonnes by 2040, she added.
“Can it be done? Yes — but we need governments to reduce costs, to speed up deployment timelines,” Beck said, adding that it takes six to eight years for facilities to be planned and built.
Zoe Kapetaki, a scientific officer at the European Commission Joint Research Centre, said that CCS projects had in the past decade struggled to take off, mainly due to the 2008 financial crisis, low carbon prices, and a lack of incentives and public acceptance.
However, many parts of Europe have upcoming projects, while the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative, a group of oil companies, is facilitating large-scale commercial investment in CCS, starting with five hubs in Europe, the US and China, Kapetaki said.
“In the past, critics said [CCS] is sci-fi. But it is now operational and working,” she added.
While backers of CCS say it is impossible to reach net-zero emissions without it, others fear it could be used as a justification to keep high-carbon energy and lifestyles.
It was not supported by a British citizens’ assembly that handed over its recommendations on reaching net-zero to the UK government this month.
Spanish Institute for the Diversification and Saving of Energy director-general Joan Groizard Payeras said that pushing CCS as a solution for fossil fuel-dependent countries “underestimates the power to actually transform the economy.”
The Imperial College paper said that if Spain adopted 100 percent renewables, its experience in wind and solar power meant it would see the lowest socio-economic impact among the three countries studied.
That was the result of a decade-long investment in clean energy, while the closure of Spain’s coal mines in 2018 and its coal-fired power plants by next year had been smoothed by a just transition pact between the government, companies and unions to train and redeploy workers, Groizard said.
“It’s about people and jobs, not the coal itself,” he added.
Key to bringing miners on board was recognizing their heritage and hard work, which allowed the country to prosper, he said.
“It’s a very difficult conversation. But having seen the process in the last couple of years in Spain... there are interesting opportunities,” he added.
In a Facebook post on Wednesday last week, Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Taipei City Councilor Hsu Chiao-hsin (徐巧芯) wrote: “The KMT must fall for Taiwan to improve.’ Allow me to ask the question again: Is this really true?” It matters not how many times Hsu asks the question, my answer will always be the same: “Yes, the KMT must be toppled for Taiwan to improve.” In the lengthy Facebook post, titled “What were those born in the 1980s guilty of?” Hsu harked back to the idealistic aspirations of the 2014 Sunflower movement before heaping opprobrium on the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP)
The scuffle between Chinese embassy staffers in Fiji and a Taiwanese diplomat at a Republic of China (ROC) Double Ten National Day celebration has turned into a public relations opportunity for the government, Beijing and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT). Although the incident occurred on Oct. 8, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) downplayed it, only for the story to be picked up by the foreign media, forcing the ministry to respond. The public and opposition parties asked why the government had failed to remonstrate more strongly in the first instance. It is still unclear whether the ministry missed a trick
US President Donald Trump and his Democratic rival, former US vice president Joe Biden, are holding their final debate tonight. In their foreign policy debate, China is sure to be a major issue of contention for the two candidates. Here are several questions the moderator should pose to the candidates: For both: In the first televised US presidential debates in 1960, then-Democratic candidate John F. Kennedy and his Republican counterpart, Richard Nixon, were asked whether the US should intervene if communist China attacked Taiwan’s outlying islands of Kinmen and Matsu. Kennedy said no, unless the main island of Taiwan was also attacked.
For most of us, the colorful, otherworldly marinescapes of coral reefs are as remote as the alien landscapes of the moon. We rarely, if ever, experience these underwater wonderlands for ourselves — we are, after all, air-breathing, terrestrial creatures mostly cocooned in cities. It is easy not to notice the perilous state they are in: We have lost 50 percent of coral reefs in the past 20 years and more than 90 percent are expected to die by 2050, a presentation at the Ocean Sciences Meeting in San Diego, California, earlier this year showed. As the oceans heat further and