Paul Price

An Taisce’ s Climate Change Committee

paul-price-a-taisce-energy-in-a-carbon-limited-future

Topic:

Are We Serious About Climate Action? Energy in a Carbon Limited Future

Synopsis: 

If your company and sector is increasing carbon efficiency, saving energy, is it really thereby mitigating climate change?  The answer is probably no.  If we make cost savings by saving carbon through energy conservation, renewables use or efficiency measures, how can we guarantee ‘saved’ emissions are avoided forever to keep fossil fuel in the ground permanently?

The answer is straightforward: By ourselves, we cannot!

The key point is : cost-savings due to energy reduction or efficiency will only equate to mitigation if a company or sector operates within a governance system that guarantees a Paris-target-aligned pathway.

Key Takeaways:

  1.  Commonly claimed ‘climate solutions’ – energy efficiency, increased use of renewables, and energy conservation – are not the same as climate mitigation.
  2.  To claim our carbon-energy savings as climate mitigation we must make savings within a governance system that guarantees fossil carbon will permanently stay underground.
  3. Since national and EU level governance are failing to deliver systems in line with Paris-temperature target ambition, all sub-national and international actors operating within them must push them hard to ensure far greater ambition.
  4.  Stabilising the Earth’s climate system at the Paris-target level requires immediate, substantial and sustained CO2 emission reductions at rates far greater than those currently contemplated.  It is up to us in every sector to make it happen quickly if we are to avoid the gravest consequences for our future.

Main Article: Energy in a Carbon Limited Future:

Does your company and sector say it is increasing carbon efficiency, saving energy and thereby mitigating climate change?  If so, this post aims to show why this is not true and how your company and sector can actually get on a path toward climate-proofing future energy use – to help all our futures.

Stopping the rapid, human-caused global warming now occurring is an immense collective action problem for humanity.  The global economy rests on energy availability and the predominant source of global energy remains fossil fuels – oil, gas, coal and peat.  But, every unit of carbon dioxide released from burning fossil fuels results in a corresponding increment of additional global warming that is essentially irreversible on human time-scales, due to the additional solar energy trapped by the ever-accumulating CO2.  Climate action requires global CO2 emissions to go to zero as soon as possible.

Paris Agreement ambition, to limit warming “well below 2ºC” in line with science and equity, already requires cutting emissions very fast indeed – in Ireland sustaining cuts of well above 6% per year.  To meet the Paris target at least two thirds of fossil fuels in already known reserves will have to stay in the ground, especially the dirtiest.  In Ireland, an immediate win for climate action would be to stop extracting peat, our biggest carbon store, and stop the loss-making burning of it for power generation.  Many more, much smarter jobs can be had retrofitting our poor housing stock, saving public money and saving energy.  Business-as-usual really isn’t an option.

The foreverness of warming resulting from raised greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere means that mitigating climate change can only said to be achieved if we can guarantee that our carbon-energy savings really will result in carbon staying in the ground forever. That is just not as easy as many otherwise-knowledgeable people assume. If we make cost savings by saving carbon through energy conservation, renewables use or efficiency measures, how can we guarantee that emissions are avoided to keep fossil fuel in the ground permanently?  The answer is straightforward: by ourselves we cannot!  Without strong system governance we or someone else will waste our efforts at some point in time.  Supplementing on-going use of fossil fuel energy with renewable energy and efficiency gains is not enough; we have to ensure that we ultimately leave most already-known fossil fuel in the ground.

The key point still to be learned is this: cost-savings due to energy reduction or efficiency cannot equate to mitigation unless a company or sector operates within a governance system that guarantees a Paris-target-aligned pathway, constraining total future emissions. At present, that is far from being the case.  Even if achieved, collective, national emission-reduction pledges for Paris will result in very dangerous 3ºC warming.  The EU carbon budget to 2030 is likely double the emissions of Paris-target ambition. With continued high emissions, as projected for Ireland and for the global economy, failure is as inevitable as it is untenable.  It does not have to be so.

Sadly, the past generation has failed to face up to reality. Despite all rhetoric, annual global emissions have increased by 60% since 1990, rich nations have off-shored consumption emissions, and developing nations have increased their own emissions.  To limit warming within the remaining 2ºC carbon budget, decarbonisation has to proceed much faster than considered up to now.  Any and all delay simply increases the rate required.  Cumulative problems mean escalating risks of real impacts for companies and for our societies.

So, yes we need to act much faster. But, crucially, for our savings to count as mitigation we also have to ensure that they are made within a 2ºC governance system.  Therefore, companies and sectors need to push the nations they operate in very strongly to meet Paris-level ambition.  Is your company and sector doing this in Ireland?  If not, continued climate failure will be the real result: emissions savings will continue to disappear as cost-savings are spent and free-riders waste our efforts.

Actual climate mitigation means greatly ratcheting up national and EU emission regulation. Will manufacturing in Ireland push for Paris-level climate regulation, including on goods and trade?  For all our futures, let’s hope so.

Paul Price, Researcher, An Taisce:

Paul Price, a member of An Taisce’s Climate Change Committee. Paul is a conservation carpenter with a MSc in Sustainable Development.

About An Taisce Climate Change (committee):

An Taisce is a charity that works to preserve and protect Ireland’s natural and built heritage. We are an independent charitable voice for the environment and for heritage issues. We are not a government body, semi-state or agency.

An Taisce’s Climate Change Committee

Terms of Reference:  Human activity is now impacting the living environment on global scales. We are encountering multiple hard physical planetary boundaries, each with the potential for severe damage to global ecosystems in general and human welfare in particular. Of these, cumulative greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution of the atmosphere, and consequent widespread climate disruption is the most urgent, the most potentially catastrophic, but seemingly the most resistant to effective societal response. The potential impact of climate change on the welfare of this and future generations is now so large that it determines the very possibility for achieving all other more specific objectives and goals of An Taisce. In this unique historical context, it is necessary for An Taisce to adopt an explicit mission of advocating for radical, urgent, large scale, and politically painful, climate policy action. The An Taisce Climate Change committee (ATCC) is established to provide the necessary expertise, analysis, advice and action to inform and support the An Taisce Board and Council in realising this mission.

 

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