There are reasons to be more optimistic about climate change now than five years ago, writes climate change economist Adam Whitmore. Several trends, including emissions reduction, carbon pricing or investment into low-carbon technologies, make it appear that the worst of the risks of climate change can be avoided. Courtesy Whitmore’s blog On Climate Change Policy
I have now been writing this blog for just over five years, and it seems timely to step back and look at how the climate change problem appears now compared with five years ago.
In some ways, it is easy to feel discouraged. In the last five years, the world has managed to get through about a tenth of its remaining carbon budget, a budget that needs to last effectively forever.
However, in many ways, there seem to be reasons for much greater optimism now than five years ago. Several trends are converging that together make it appear that the worst of the risks of climate change can be avoided.
There is increasing action at the national level to reduce emissions, reinforced by the Paris Agreement
Legislation is now in place in 164 countries, including the world’s 50 largest emitters. There are over 1200 climate change and related laws now in place compared with 60 twenty years ago[i]. This is not restricted to developed countries – many lower-income countries are taking action. Action at national level is being supported around the world by action in numerous cities, regions and companies.
Among the many policies put in place, the growth of carbon pricing has been especially remarkable
This trend has now been reinforced by the Paris Agreement, which entered into force in November 2016, and commits the world to limiting temperature rises and reducing emissions.
There is increasing evidence of success in reducing emissions
Many developed countries, especially in Europe, have shown since 1990 that it is possible to reduce emissions while continuing to grow their economies. Globally, emissions of carbon dioxide from energy and industry have at least been growing more slowly over the past four years and may even have reached a plateau[ii].
Carbon pricing is spreading around the world
Among the many policies put in place, the growth of carbon pricing has been especially remarkable. It has grown from a few small northern European economies 15 years ago to over 40 jurisdictions[iii].
Many funds are divesting from fossil fuels, and vast amounts of capital are already going into low carbon investments
Prices are often too low to be fully effective. However, carbon pricing has also been shown to work spectacularly well in the right circumstances, as it has in the UK power sector. The presence of emissions caps in many jurisdictions gives a strong strategic signal to investors.
Investors are moving out of high carbon sources and into lower carbon opportunities
Companies are under increasing pressure to say how their businesses will be affected by climate change and to do something about reducing emissions. Initiatives such as the Climate Action 100+, which includes more than two hundred global investors controlling over $20 trillion of assets, are putting pressure on companies to step up their action. This will further the trend towards increasing investment in a low-carbon economy.
Meanwhile, many funds are divesting from fossil fuels, and vast amounts of capital are already going into low carbon investments.
Falling costs and increasing deployment of renewables and other low-carbon technologies
Solar and wind power are now at scale and continuing to grow very rapidly. They are increasingly cost-competitive with fossil fuels. The decarbonisation of the power sector thus looks likely to proceed rapidly which, in turn, will enable electrification to decarbonise other sectors. Electric vehicle sales are now growing rapidly, and are expected to account for the majority of light vehicle sales within a couple of decades. Other technologies, such as LED lighting are also progressing quickly.
As lower-carbon alternatives become cheaper, the case for high-carbon technologies will simply disappear
This is not only making emissions reductions look achievable, it is also making it clear that low-carbon technologies can become cheaper than the high-carbon ones they replace, and can build whole new industries as they do. As a reminder of how fast things have moved in the last five years alone, the charts here show global generation from wind and solar since 2000.
Falling costs of low carbon technologies, more than anything else, gives cause for optimism about reducing emissions. As lower-carbon alternatives become cheaper, the case for high carbon technologies will simply disappear.
Charts: Global Generation from Wind and Solar 2000 – 2017
Sources: BP Statistical Review of World Energy, Enerdata, GWEC, IEA
Climate sensitivity looks less likely to be at the high end of the range of estimates
The climate has already warmed by about a degree Celsius, and some impacts from climate change have been greater than expected. However, the increase in temperature in response to increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases has so far shown few signs of being towards the top end of the possible range, although we can never rule out the risk of bad surprises.
Taking these trends together there is reason to be cautiously optimistic
There will still be serious damage from climate change – indeed some is already happening. And it is by no means clear that the world will act as quickly as it could or should. There could still be some nasty surprises in the Earth’s reaction to continuing emissions. Consequently, much effort and not a little luck is still needed to avoid the worst effects of climate change.
But compared with how things were looking five years ago there seem many reasons to believe that things are beginning to move in the right direction. The job now is to keep things moving that way, and to speed up progress.
This article first appeared on Adam Whitmore’s blog On Climate Change Policy and is republished here with permission.