After the battle for net zero emissions, more climate battles are coming

Oct 14, 2021
climate change protest
(Image: Unsplash)

The battle for net zero emissions is nearly over, but not the war. A new battle, to cut emissions deeply by 2030, is under way. Following hard behind, another battle is starting, to cut emissions of methane.

The world’s first battle, which we hear about a lot, is committing to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. This is in its late stages.

Carbon Action Tracker says 73 per cent of global emissions are now covered by net zero targets, although not all are set in law or to be reached by 2050.

China, by far the biggest emitter with about 28 per cent of the total, is not quite there. It surely will be before long.

A year ago, President Xi Jinping surprised many by announcing that China’s emissions would peak before 2030 and that it would be “carbon-neutral” by 2060.

China has a strong interest in reducing climate change. It is as vulnerable as any nation to increasing heatwaves, droughts, floods and huge storms.

Much of its enormous land mass is dry. The great rivers vital to its water supply all rise in the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau. Snowmelt from this region is decreasing because of global warming.

In addition, some of the wealthiest and most industrialised areas, including the Pearl River Delta and the area around Shanghai, are at risk due to rising sea levels. These can form a deadly combination with big storms.

China is the biggest investor in wind turbines and solar power (and the biggest maker of the equipment). It is very big in nuclear power as well. It could speed up its transition to a low-carbon economy and probably will at some point.

The president of the upcoming COP 26 climate conference Alok Sharma has been urging China to announce more ambitious plans before the world gathers in Glasgow.

However, it may not do so at this time. Xi and the Communist Party are now engaged in a wrenching reform of huge scale, aimed at curbing the power of tycoons in technology, property and other fields and bringing more “common prosperity” to the people.

At the same time, they are pushing further growth and moves to dominate global industries like electric vehicles. The 20th party congress is a few months away. This is a huge political event likely to be accompanied by plenty of tension.

Moreover, there is an energy crisis in China now, just as the cold winter approaches. The economy has grown very fast. Power supply has not kept up, and coal supply has not kept up with rapid building of coal-fired power stations. The ban on imports of Australian coal is a minor factor but has not helped.

Australia is one of the stragglers in committing to net zero emissions by 2050. Prime Minister Scott Morrison says he wants to see net zero emissions “as soon as possible” but has not committed to the 2050 deadline.

We have all watched the strange spectacle of the National Party, whose rural supporters stand to gain more than most from abatement of climate change, demanding some sort of payoff before it will let the government commit to 2050.

There are other stragglers. Russia is a significant one, Saudi Arabia another. The rest are mainly small (the least-emitting 100 countries collectively emit only 3 per cent of the total). Singapore is surprisingly in this company.

Many of the stragglers, including Australia, will probably be gathered into the tent of global commitment at COP26. At the least, the proportion of emissions that are not set to be run down to zero will be small enough that this battle will essentially be over.

2030

One battle may be over, but not the war.  Another battle is well under way, over deeper emissions cuts by 2030.

The science volume of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) monumental Sixth Assessment Report came out in August. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said it was “code red for humanity”. It showed that only under the strictest emissions abatement scenario is there hope for the world to keep global warming below the Paris target of 1.5 degrees Celsius. Even then, the world will probably overshoot 1.5 degrees and have to make its way back later in the century by sucking huge quantities of greenhouse gases out of the air.

To stay below 1.5 degrees, the whole world needs to cut emissions by 45 per cent by 2030 and to zero on a net basis by 2050.

When carbon dioxide goes up a chimney, some is absorbed by the oceans or plants, but the greater part remains in the atmosphere for a long time. It accumulates.

This is why the concentration in the atmosphere has gone up from 280 parts per million before the Industrial Revolution to 419 parts today. This has been the single most important driver of climate change. The world urgently needs to stop increasing the concentration of CO2 in the air.

In the lead-up to COP26, the UK has set in law its goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 68 per cent by 2030 and by 78 per cent by 2035, both compared to 1990 levels. The US has committed to a cut of 50–52 per cent by 2030 compared to 2005 levels. And the EU has set a target to cut emissions by 55 per cent by 2030 compared to 2005.

Where is Australia?

Well, er, it is still stuck with Tony Abbott’s minimalist goal to cut emissions by 26–28 per cent by 2030 compared to 1990. This is the target Morrison has said we are supposed to be meeting “in a canter”. It is clearly not enough. Carbon Action Tracker says if the world were to follow a policy like Australia’s, global warming would reach 2.9 degrees Celsius by 2100. Catastrophic, irreversible climate change would be inevitable.

The battle for deeper cuts by 2030 will rage at Glasgow and from then on, until it is won. Australia will be in the firing line.

Methane

Before the battle over emissions cuts by 2030 is over, another may start. This time, the focus will be emissions of methane.

The IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report drew fresh attention to methane, the second most important greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide. It accounts for 20 per cent of man-made global warming. Its concentration in the atmosphere has gone up by 156 per cent since pre-industrial times and has been rising rapidly in recent years.

Methane is many times more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2. But it does not last as long. Over half of any methane is gone from the atmosphere within 10 years. The IPCC points out that this means policies that reduce methane emissions can potentially have a large effect on future climate change.

Methane comes from several sources.

One is agriculture, where the biggest part is the burping of cattle. Another is coal mining. A third is oil and gas production, which produces “fugitive” methane through leaks, purging of equipment and occasional blowouts. Rotting of rubbish in landfills and of sewage produces more methane. Natural decay of dead plant matter and marine sediments is another source.

The good news is most man-made sources of methane can be abated. Work is going on to reduce animal methane production through adjustment of diet or selective breeding. Leaks from the oil and gas sector can be controlled through better maintenance. Methane from landfills and sewage plants can be captured and burnt to make power.

For this to work, each country needs a framework of laws and incentives. Australia, as you might expect, does not rate highly in its policies to counter methane emissions. It does not even measure them systematically.

Unless we change to a more forward-looking set of national policies on climate change, we can expect to be on the losing side of yet another global battle.

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