The zero emissions challenge in 2050 to limit climate change to 1.5 ° C is unprecedented in history
The 2015 Paris Agreement, which was reached at the twenty-first United Nations Conference on Climate Change, commits the signatory countries to act to achieve the objective of limiting the increase in climate change. planet temperature at 1.5 ° C. In addition, through Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) proposals are collected to achieve net zero emissions in the year 2050.
These commitments must be revised upwards every five years, so that at the summit held at the end of this month – postponed a year due to the pandemic – this task is pending, as well as the objective of mobilizing a fund of $ 100 billion annually for the climate fight, among others.
Few studies have investigated the historical precedent for such a sudden and radical emission reduction transition, especially in relation to the decline of carbon-intensive technologies, which must be accompanied by the widespread adoption of greener ones.
Limiting global warming to 1.5 ° C will require energy consumption from coal and gas to decline at a rate unprecedented in any large country.
Faced with this scenario, an international team of scientists today published a work in the journal One Earth in which they ensure that limiting the global warming it will require energy consumption from coal and gas to decline at a rate unprecedented in any large country. This is what the analysis they have made of the episodes of decrease in fossil fuels in 105 countries between 1960 and 2018 collects this.
In addition, the authors claim that the fastest historical cases of decline of fossil fuels occurred when oil was replaced by oil. coal, gas or nuclear power, in response to the energy security threats of the 1970s and 1980s.
“We have verified that some fossil fuels they fell rapidly in Western Europe and Japan, especially oil in these two decades. Therefore, what we have to do is apply our experience when we mobilize through the threats to energy security and rapid technological development. Unfortunately, what we have found in this study is that even these rapid historical declines would not be enough for the reduction of fuels in some regions: such as coal in Asia or natural gas in the Middle East, Africa and the former Soviet Union ”, says to SINC Jessica Jewell (@jessicadjewell), professor of energy transition at the University of Chalmers (Sweden), the University of Bergen (Norway) and co-author of the study.
We have found that some fossil fuels were rapidly depleted in Western Europe and Japan, especially oil in the 1970s and 1980s.
This is the first investigation to systematically analyze historical cases of decline in the use of fossil fuels by country, during the last 60 years and around the world.
Protect the climate with other sources of energy
To find out if any period of historic fossil fuel decline is similar to the scenarios needed to reach the Paris target, Jewell and his team identified 147 episodes, within a sample of 105 countries between 1960 and 2018, in which the use of coal, oil or natural gas decreased faster than 5% during a decade.
“We also looked at recent political promises to completely phase out coal power, which some 30 countries picked up at the Powering Past Coal Alliance. We found that these propositions do not target a faster decline in coal than has occurred historically. In other words, they largely expect everything to stay the same, “adds Jewell.
According to their findings, the decline in fossil fuels has been limited to small countries like Denmark. But these cases are less relevant to climate scenarios, where they should occur in continental-sized regions.
The decline in fossil fuels has been limited to small countries, such as Denmark, but these cases are less relevant to climate scenarios
“Asia it is currently the most populous region and also the fastest growing. Unfortunately, its economy is based on fossil fuels (as was the past growth of Europe and North America). These countries are still struggling to reach the standard of living of the West and for this they need a lot of energy. Until recently, coal was one of the cheaper and more accessible sources of electricity, so large power plants have been built of this mineral. In order to protect the climate, it would be necessary to drastically reverse this trend and find other sources of energy to support an increase in the standard of living ”, the researcher emphasizes.
The decarbonization of the energy sector it is an especially important strategy to achieve the goal of zero net greenhouse gas emissions. “We identified many scenarios that still reach the 1.5 ° C target, but these are associated with profound challenges. To summarize it briefly: the main one is to replicate on a continental scale in Asia what happened in Western Europe in the 1970s, in response to the oil crisis. Whether this is possible depends on many factors, especially that said decarbonisation provokes the same political and social mobilization, ”Jewell warns.
The speed of phase-out is not only limited by the availability of substitute low-carbon sources, but also by the resistance of strong interest groups associated with coal production.
For the scientist it is unlikely that a single low-carbon source provides a “miracle” solution for the elimination of fossil fuels. However, all low emission energy sources at our disposal: wind, solar, bioenergy and nuclear, as well as carbon capture and storage. “Furthermore, the speed of phase-out is not only limited by the availability of substitute low-carbon sources, but also, for example, by the resistance of strong interest groups associated with coal production. Therefore, we need effective just transition strategies to reduce that resistance, ”he continues.
The historical reductions did not appeal to the climate, but to the scarcity
In the 1970s, Western countries removed oil from electricity because they were concerned about whether exporters would be reliable suppliers after oil embargoes. “Today we have to eliminate fossil fuels, not because of concern about suppliers or shortages, but because of concern about their climate impact,” he says.
The rapid decline of fossils has historically required advances in competing technologies, a strong motivation to change energy systems (for example, to avoid threats to energy security), and effective government institutions to implement the necessary changes.
The rapid decline of fossil fuels has required advances in competing technologies, a strong motivation to change energy systems, and effective governments.
“We have been less surprised, although still impressed, by how quickly the use of coal must decrease in the future to achieve climate goals,” he adds, noting that, of all fossil fuels, coal is the one that would have to be reduced. more quickly.
The authors found that almost all the scenarios for carbon reduction in Asia, in line with the objectives of the Paris Agreement, were unprecedented or scarce. Likewise, more than half of those raised for the decline in coal in OECD countries, as well as for cutting gas use in reforming economies, the Middle East or Africa, would also have no precedent or they would be unpublished.
“This points to both the enormous challenge of seeing such a rapid decline in fossil fuels, and the need to learn from the historical lessons when they were achieved on a national scale,” concludes Jewell.
Vinichenko et al. “Historical precedents and feasibility of rapid coal and gas decline required for the 1.5°C target”. One Earth, 2021.