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IPCC is clear: without major societal changes extreme global warming cannot be prevented

Early October the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) presented an alarming report on what is needed to achieve the objectives of the Paris Agreement on limiting climate change

By: EBR - Posted: Monday, November 19, 2018

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IPCC gives a strong warning that the sum of all the national commitments made by (most of) the governments, will not lead to limiting global warming to even the upper limit of 2°C. More radical measures need to be taken, they need to be taken soon and obviously, the USA should rejoin the global consensus as soon as possible
IPCC gives a strong warning that the sum of all the national commitments made by (most of) the governments, will not lead to limiting global warming to even the upper limit of 2°C. More radical measures need to be taken, they need to be taken soon and obviously, the USA should rejoin the global consensus as soon as possible

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By  John Hontelez*

Early October the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) presented an alarming report on what is needed to achieve the objectives of the Paris Agreement on limiting climate change. 

IPCC is the largest, most multi-disciplinary and most international group of scientists on the planet. There is no authority more reliable when it comes to advise governments, business and civil society on what is needed to limit global warming to 1,5 °C, the aim of the Paris Agreement, signed end 2015 by all governments in the world, or at least to 2 °C, which is the upper limit set by this Agreement.

IPCC gives a strong warning that the sum of all the national commitments made by (most of) the governments, will not lead to limiting global warming to even the upper limit of 2°C. More radical measures need to be taken, they need to be taken soon and obviously, the USA should rejoin the global consensus as soon as possible.

We have little room for maneuvering left. Historic greenhouse gas emissions caused by man have already led to 1 °C global warming since pre-industrial times. We are seeing the first consequences. A great and long summer in Europe indeed, but also droughts, more violent storms, floods.

 The North Pole is shrinking. Greenland and Antarctica are losing ice, which, in combination with expansion of seawater due to temperature, causes sea-level rises. Permafrost in the northern parts of Alaska, Canada and Russia starts melting, which will lead to massive leaks of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Half of the coral has been destroyed in the last few decades due to warming.

While it took us three centuries to get to that 1 °C increase, the next 0.5 °C will likely happen in the next 20 years. And it will not stop there unless the world undertakes dramatic action. Existing national commitments need to be sharpened, business and civil society need to be fully involved. International cooperation to ensure synergies is essential.

Four pathways but with very different social impacts

IPCC paints four different pathways to illustrate the choices we are confronted with. Very interesting is how it then looks at the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), also adopted by the world’s governments in 2015, to see how these pathways may support or hinder sustainable development globally (“synergies” and “trade-offs”). These SDGs are a unique agenda for sustainable development globally, with a timeline of 15 years. 

Integrated implementation of the SDGs is our best chance to successfully end poverty, misery, poor health conditions, inequality between and inside countries while limiting our impact on the natural resources of the planet. IPCC is completely right to insist on connection between the climate agenda and SDGs, because only a global dictatorship can impose a climate agenda which increases poverty, unemployment, inequality and depletes natural resources. And as we know, dictatorships, besides being immoral, lead to resistance, apathy, sabotage, all counterproductive.

From demand-management to massive carbon-capture and storage.

IPCC’s first pathway appears to be most supportive of the SDGs. This pathway is characterized by reduction of demand for energy. Ambition is to reduce total energy demand with 15% by 2030 (compared to 2010) and 32% by 2050. Non-biomass renewable energy component is growing fast, while also nuclear energy will increase.
In this scenario, the contribution of bio-energy goes down, and carbon capture and storage is exclusively achieved with increasing the world’s forest cover. 

The opposite pathway leads to a resource and energy-intensive world, with 39% more demand in 2030 and 44% more in 2050. In other words, more than twice as much energy demand than in the first scenario. In this scenario oil, gas and nuclear play larger roles. Till 2030 the use of biomass is expected to be stable, but after that an enormous boost is foreseen for Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS). The two other scenarios are placed in between these two.

IPPC expects the demand-driven scenario performs much better in terms of achieving the SDGs, mentioning specifically 12 of the 17, than the other ones.

The gamble: BECCS

From this report, it is clear: if we are not prepared and able to limit and reduce total energy demand, we will either cause dramatic global warming or we have to gamble on massive introduction of Bio-Energy combined with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS). A gamble, most likely an irresponsible gamble. 

IPPC apparently sees BECCS not playing a big role, even in the most energy intensive scenario, before 2030. And it warns that “CDR (Carbon-Dioxide Removal, jh) deployed at scale is unproven and reliance on such technology is a major risk in the ability to limit warming to 1.5°C.” 

Obviously, once BECCS is systematically applied, the current concern about bio-energy emitting CO?, even more per KWH than coal, can be put to rest. Indeed, biomass is the result of ongoing CO? absorption in forests (and agricultural lands) while coal is locked up carbon which was safely stored under our soils for millions of years. However, a rapid increase of bio-energy use does substantially increase CO? emissions in the short term, and the question is whether we have the time to rely on the re-absorption of such CO? in forests over the years. BECCS prevents the CO? emissions by catching it and storing it in underground reservoirs. 

Obviously, one can do this also with CO? emissions from coal, oil and gas. And indeed, some 10 years ago this was a big hit in the EU with Norway in the lead, offering empty oil-reservoirs in the North Sea owned by its company Statoil. Now, CCS-with-coal seems to have faded away. CCS sounds simple, but to store it safely, avoid the risks of polluted groundwaters etc., one needs to clean the emissions from other chemical components. Infrastructure is needed to transport the CO? and to store it safely. This all comes with a cost and consumes part of the energy produced. 

If CCS-with-coal is expensive, CCS with biomass must be more expensive: per KWh produced there is more CO? to store. If one wants to use CCS to fight climate change, probably the best is to (first?) use it in combination with natural gas.Obviously, if there is a strong societal demand for CCS, the price will be paid. Even if that money could be put to much better use in renewables and demand management.

The second hurdle is more essential: IPCC calculates that up to 1 billion ha. of additional forests would be needed in such a scenario, by 2050. That is a 25% increase of current forest area. While there is a big potential of afforestation and reforestation in the world (and a commitment to reforest 0,45 billion by 2030), question is whether such additional forests are best used to produce fuel. 

The world will need more wood for old and new uses anyway, also in response to climate change. We need to use more wood in construction because, provided it comes from sustainably managed forests, that a considerable lower carbon and environmental footprint, in the production and its use, than concrete, bricks, steel. Wood in construction in fact locks carbon up. The same goes for furniture and other durable wood products. The bio-economy, which is coming, and needed also to reduce use of petrol for production of plastics, fibres, etc, will increase the demand for wood even more. 

So, while moderate use of bio-energy can be based on bio-waste, including from sawmills and some from forests, an energy future with massive increased demand, combined with subsidies, will put enormous extra stress on the forest sector, including driving forest conversion into intensive plantations, with the connected loss of biodiversity.

Need for a strong and consistent business response 

I am not optimistic we can achieve the demand-reduction pathway fully. In the countries with the currently highest energy use, this should be possible even without dramatic measures. But the rest of the world, with much lower energy use/capita, will have serious difficulties given the need to lift up several billions of people out of poverty and a certain level of prosperity everyone has the right to have.

However, it is essential that the focus IS on that pathway, everywhere in the world. All efforts have to be made to get as close as we can. It is also the most realistic in terms of public support, if IPCC is right with its assumptions on the impact on the SDGs. Obviously, that support is not there automatically. It needs to be a shift to an energy efficient world based on social equity and fairness.

Governments should create and implement the framework. But the business sector, in particular large companies, are more influential than ever, their support for the right framework is indispensable.  In the past, when environmental measures were discussed, the most vocal parts of business usually were the ones that feared to be on the losing end. Those that would be on the winning end were not sufficiently aware, small, or even, not yet existing. That has changed over the years. 

We see more and more business involved in making the shift to a clean and efficient energy system. We see more and more business also that commit to responsible sourcing of raw materials to reduce their environmental impacts. So the potential for a powerful progressive alliance is growing, and indeed, several companies have already joined up in climate alliances, as well as in organizations such as the Forest Stewardship Council (for which I work). 

The elements for a powerful business call for a global energy policy reducing demand as IPCC sketched, exist. That call should boldly step over some taboos, to also get wide public support. Elements could be making prices work for the best climate agenda:
o introduce fiscal reforms that increase the price of energy consumption when produced with fossil fuels
o Stop subsidizing bio-energy, shift those funds to energy conservation, zero-energy housing, smart public transport, infrastructure and logistics.
o Reduce taxation on labour, when this stimulates lower energy and resource use (repair, insulation of existing buildings, nearby services….)
o Use fiscal incentives to reduce income inequality, to prevent energy-poverty in low-income groups.

Other needed measures include, ambitious requirements for eco-design, refurbishment of poorly insulated social housing, etc.; support to business replacing goods with services where this has a positive environmental; and social impact and stimulating cascaded use of wood and other materials.

Business itself can be a driving force and set the example by 
- Giving a clear, united, signal to governments that they do no longer resist environmental fiscal reform, want to cooperate to make it as effective as possible, in terms of reducing environmental impact of the economy while being socially fair and progressive.
- Being transparent about its current environmental and social impacts on the planet: apply the natural capital protocol, investigate the social impacts of the companies supplying to you and your plants in developing countries
- Action to systematical go for reduced impact: work with the best certification schemes in the world (FSC for wood products), set targets for reducing carbon footprint….
- Compensate current impacts with support for reliable Payments for Ecosystem Services, in particular in the tropics.
- Joining the Vancouver Declaration, of companies that commit to go for 100% FSC certified materials/products (relevant for forest materials of course), also to contribute to the implementation of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. 


*Chief Advocacy Officer of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).  John Hontelez wrote this article on his own behalf.

FSC is the most trusted global forest certification scheme. Currently 200 million ha forests in 80 countries are FSC certified. Together they produce some 23% of all industrial timber in the world. Around 60.000 companies globally take part in the FSC supply chains, and FSC labelled products can be found in shops in most countries of the world. 


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