G’nY Is it possible to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 as being discussed widely right now? What role do you think the US should play?
Net zero emissions by 2050 is possible, but it is a huge undertaking, as we are not on the current trajectory that we need to be on. For example, emissions would need to fall fairly steeply every year, not just remain flat. For emissions to fall steeply, unabated coal power would need to be phased out and use of fossil fuels would need to drastically reduce. In its place would be a sharp rise of renewables and other sources of low carbon power, like nuclear, deployment of hydrogen (with carbon capture), and much better use of energy efficiency. At the moment we are not on this pathway as yet. The US is currently not playing a role, as it will be out of the Paris Agreement by the end of the year and the Trump administration does not view tackling climate change as a priority. For the global economy to get anywhere near net zero emissions by 2050 the major economies of the world need to be actively involved, not just the US but also China and the EU. Not just because of their contribution to global emissions, but because of the reverberative impact their policies would have on the rest of the world.
G’nY Do you think the strong carbon emission growth in several nations, despite the stabilisation in China and India, is likely to offset the emission goals?
Emissions in high income economies, in North America and Europe, are either falling are stagnant, while the rate of growth in China has sharply fallen. India’s emissions will still grow (last year was not trend setting but a one off), but still not as strongly as before. However, there is still strong emissions growth in emerging economies as GDP in areas such as ASEAN continues to grow. This latter group is offsetting the gains made elsewhere. Emissions can very well start to increase again, but will do so at a lower rate. In this sense there has been some progress, however global performance needs to be much more far-reaching than what we have seen in the last five years. In 2019, for example, emissions flatlined, but this was heavily skewed towards the fall in coal use in the US and Europe and a one off contraction of coal use for power in India. Demand for oil and gas continues, however, reflecting that little progress is being made in de-carbonising sectors of the economy outside electricity.
G’nY Do you think climate change would impact terrestrial carbon emissions from events such bush and forest fires? How do you think it would impact the emissions goals?
The bushfires in Australia will lead to more carbon being emitted into the atmosphere, but this won’t be counted in national emissions inventories. It does point to, however, the fact that more extreme events, such as bushfires, are more likely due to occur and be more severe, due to the global average temperature increasing. This in turn has economic repercussions, in addition to damage to the environment, so the cost of not addressing climate change cannot be under-estimated, and in fact exceeds the cost associated with trying to limit it. Energy
G’nY What do you think of the European Union’s proposed carbon border tariff programme-is it not opposed to the WTO mandate?
Whether or not the EU’s proposed carbon border adjustment mechanism will violate WTO rules depends on how it will be implemented, and as yet there is not much detail on how the EU would plan to do this. WTO rules do require equal treatment of similar products, so the EU would design the mechanism in such a way that it would avoid breaching WTO rules. It might be easier for the EU to have a carbon tax on all goods, for example, although this would be politically difficult to sell, both with the EU’s major trading partners, and within the EU itself.
G’nY What will be the biggest challenges and roadblocks on the way to carbon neutrality for the entire global community?
The biggest challenges include resistance at the policy level to a faster rate of de-carbonisation; either by political opposition driven by the perception that the energy transition will wreak havoc on living standards and the economy; or by vested interests, in particular from those that stand the most to lose the most by the energy transition itself. The latter group would include the coal sector, for example, which is still a powerful constituency in many countries. While nearly all countries signed up to the Paris Agreement, the last five years have shown that policy implementation has not matched the sentiment that we all should be ‘doing something.’ The problem is that the energy transition is still framed as something that involves economic sacrifice, rather than a pathway for new economic opportunities to be developed and this acts as a break on progress in putting in place more ambitious policies.