Why the world can’t wait until the 2040s to cut emissions

Cop28 will call for a tripling of renewable energy capacity – which we’re probably close to on-track for – and a doubling of energy efficiency, which we are not

Emissions rise from a steel mill in Salzgitter, Germany. Demands are rising that countries participating in the upcoming Cop28 conference in Dubai agree on a road map for phasing out the use of fossil fuels. Getty Images
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“For however the fortune of war shall go, may it not so end that much that was fair and wonderful shall pass for ever?” King Theoden in The Lord of the Rings laments the end of the Ents, magical tree-herders.

Even if we tackle climate change successfully, some beauty and marvels of the nature and human worlds will be lost to us. Our children and grandchildren may never know polar bears, unspoilt coral reefs, the Piazza San Marco in Venice, a verdant Amazon rainforest, or the Anse Source d’Argent beach in the Seychelles.

If we are from parched, semi-arid, or low-lying coastal countries, our children and grandchildren may not know our land at all – they may be fated to be refugees from climatic catastrophes and conflict.

Reaching net zero at some date – whether 2050, like the target of the UAE, UK and US, the 2060 of Saudi Arabia and China – is good but not enough

But this is not another despair-inducing screed about climate doom. The climate summit Cop28 opens in Dubai on Thursday. And like Cop, this article is about where we are now, where we will soon be, and what to do about it.

This year is set to be the hottest on record. October was 1.7 degrees hotter than pre-industrial levels. The El Nino effect in the eastern Pacific, after an unusually extended period of its colder opposite La Nina, brings hotter global weather in general.

Cleaning up pollution from sulphur-containing fuels in ships, following regulation in 2020, is good for human health, but the white “aerosol” particles had a helpful side-effect in reflecting some of the sun’s heat back into space. The reduction in sulphate pollution has warmed the busy shipping lanes of the North Atlantic in particular.

And in January 2022, the submarine volcano Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai erupted. Tropical eruptions can sometimes release huge amounts of sulphate particles, with a similar cooling effect to that of the shipping pollution. But Hunga instead injected huge volumes of water into the stratosphere, and water vapour is itself a strong greenhouse gas.

Dr Sultan Al Jaber calls for world to unite as pre-Cop28 talks begin

Dr Sultan Al Jaber calls for world to unite as pre-Cop28 talks begin

As El Nino’s full effects take time, next year is likely to be hotter still. But the biggest culprit is not cyclical variations, volcanic eruptions or cleaner ships, but the ever-increasing volume of greenhouse gases we are adding to the atmosphere. The Paris Agreement of 2015 was intended to limit warming to no more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels by 2100. A single hot year does not invalidate that aim, but on current trends, it will be breached regularly by the 2030s.

If all countries meet the goals they set themselves in their Paris-related commitments, global emissions will remain roughly flat by 2030 at around 55 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases per year. That would still be a major achievement – in 2010, it looked as though we were heading for 65 billion tonnes or more.

Yet, to be on target to limit warming to 2°C – the original Paris goal, and still dangerously hot – emissions could be about 41 billion tonnes. For the 1.5°C goal, emissions should be no more than about 33 billion tonnes.

This leads to four important conclusions.

The recognition at Paris of the need to reach net-zero carbon – not just lower emissions – was crucial. Carbon dioxide lingers in the atmosphere for thousands of years. So, the climate will keep getting hotter as long as carbon dioxide emissions continue faster than they can be removed.

Reaching net zero at some date – whether 2050, like the target of the UAE, UK and US, the 2060 of Saudi Arabia and China, or India’s 2070 – is good but not enough. The amount of global warming depends on cumulative emissions, not on the precise date of net zero. It’s far better to get on a path to rapid reductions now, than to imagine we can leave all the hard work to the 2040s, like a student pulling an all-nighter on a final essay.

Second, it’s increasingly unlikely that, whatever our efforts and the successful agreements at Cop28, we will stay below 1.5°C of warming. That isn’t a counsel of despair – it’s a vital recognition of reality that clears the mind for what to do next.

Third, every fraction of a degree matters. We can’t precisely ascribe tenths of a degree to differences in emissions, but we do know that 1.6°C is better than 1.7°C, which is better than 1.8°C.

Fourth, we have no more opportunity for half-measures, for ideological fetters. We have to be absolutely clear about the task at hand. The goal of climate policy is not to overthrow global capitalism, punish the greedy carbon-spewing rich, end the use of fossil fuels, revive the Western working class, introduce a more just social order, right historic injustices, or rebalance geopolitics.

It is to cut net emissions as fast as possible and cope with the inevitable damaging consequences of a hotter world. Of course, we should seize positive social, environmental and economic opportunities where they arise, and at least not make things worse.

Watch: UAE launches wind programme in net-zero push

Watch: UAE launches wind programme in net-zero push

As wartime leader Winston Churchill said, “It is not enough that we do our best; sometimes we must do what is required.”

Cop28 will call for a tripling of renewable energy capacity – which we’re probably close to on-track for – and a doubling of energy efficiency, which we are not. The era of burning fossil fuels and spewing the exhaust into the atmosphere has to end very soon. But that favourite environmental approach is not the wrong answer, but an incomplete one.

The odd hostility in the environmental and much of the journalistic community towards nuclear power and carbon capture needs to reverse – every serious scientific climate scenario has them also playing important parts in Plan A. Plan B includes quicker, cleaner and cheaper ways to remove atmospheric carbon dioxide – not as an alternative to urgent emissions cuts today, but as an essential complement.

And given the increasingly obvious and damaging effects of even 1.5°C of warming, we need Plan C too – cleaner, controlled ways to replicate the cooling effect of those polluting ships and sulphur-bearing volcanoes. Those who dismiss this as dangerous geo-engineering should acknowledge we’ve been running a much larger, unplanned experiment on the Earth’s climate since James Watt’s steam engine in 1765.

We need to advance Plans B and C, not because we’ve given up on Plan A, but because we take every tonne of carbon and every tenth of a degree of warming with the ultimate seriousness. That is because every tree, every rare creature, every great monument of human culture and every child saved from the ravages of a burning, melting planet is one less tragedy.

Robin M Mills is chief executive of Qamar Energy, and author of ‘The Myth of the Oil Crisis’

Updated: November 27, 2023, 6:39 AM