By Robert Atkinson | Project Manager, Associate
The theme of Earth Day 2022 is Invest in Our Planet. There could not be a more fitting time to focus on our and the planet’s vulnerability or consider how dependent we are on the planet for our continued survival and ability to thrive.
We have just emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic, which has claimed over six million lives globally but also created health, economic, and social repercussions which will affect many countries for years to come. International cooperation ensured that the vaccine rollout was one of the fastest in global history and unprecedented in scale, which protected the most vulnerable, and raised the bar for the worldwide cooperation needed to reduce CO2 emissions. To save lives and assets, individual countries are now looking at investing in preparedness against future crises.
The temporary drop in CO2 emissions during the pandemic was largely reversed in 2021 by an increase of over 2 billion tons—the largest increase to date in absolute terms. Also, 2021 was an unprecedented year for extreme climate events. Mega weather disasters, including intense heat waves and fires in North America, flooding in Europe, and summer monsoons in India, claimed thousands of lives and caused hundreds of billions of dollars in damages.
The State of CO2 Emissions
Communicating the science behind climate change can seem complex because there are so many variables, but it is actually straightforward.
There is naturally occurring CO2, which the planet both produces and absorbs through oceans and forests, that is responsible for regulating the Earth’s average climate of 59℉ (15℃). From plants to animals to humans, this is the ideal temperature the planet needs to sustain life as it has for over 100,000 years.
However, man-made processes from mining to industry to vehicles produce additional CO2, which has now reached a level that surpasses the planet's capacity to absorb it. When the land surface can no longer absorb additional CO2, it goes into the atmosphere, raises the average temperature, and disrupts the delicate balance the planet requires. Hence the need to avoid a rise in temperature by controlling the quantity of CO2 that ends up in the atmosphere.
But that is contingent on two co-dependent variables—a dramatic reduction in the current production of man-made CO2 through international cooperation and legislation, and a corresponding means to remove and sequester the CO2 already present through natural and technological means.
If there was ever any doubt about a link between human-induced CO2 emissions and extreme weather events, the recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the result of several years of study, has confirmed it. The panel’s working group published a report that states:
Human-induced climate change, including more frequent and intense extreme events, has caused widespread adverse impacts and related losses and damages to nature and people beyond natural climate variability. The rise in weather and climate extremes has led to some irreversible impacts as natural and human systems are pushed beyond their ability to adapt.
Building a Better Future Starts Now
Despite all the bad news, the awareness of this risk has also produced a concerted response from governments to corporate entities. Already, advances in legislation, technology, and industry will see significant investments made in the future of our planet and its occupants.
Regardless of what is done to reduce emissions in the future, past emissions mean that some climate change is already inevitable. But we can take action by cutting emissions now, maintaining secure energy supplies, maximizing economic opportunities that encourage this transition, and protecting the most vulnerable by implementing adaptations to cope with future environmental consequences.
A transition to a low-carbon economy will be a defining issue of the 21st century involving a period of dramatic change across many sectors, which will drive as many opportunities as it poses challenges. Acting now will create economic and societal advantages for the countries, businesses, cities, regions, investors, and communities that emerge as leaders. According to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), "Within this decade, upgrading to a zero-carbon future can create 35 million more jobs and $26 trillion more in economic benefits compared to attempting a resuscitation of the high-carbon status quo." It is up to us to look at the future more broadly, and to meet those challenges with creativity, knowledge, experience, entrepreneurship, passion, commitment, and courage.
Responses Through Legislation and International Governance
One dramatic positive is that environmental risk is finally being recognized by global leadership. The 2021 COP26 International Conference set what will be the global agenda on climate change for the next decade. This includes cuts to carbon dioxide emissions, reduced coal use, and the phasing out of fossil fuel subsidies. However, this only defines the what; the how is up to individual nations, and many, mindful of their own challenges, are taking different routes to achieve these goals.
In the US, where 61% of energy comes from fossil fuel dependence, recent volatility in the supply of power has led oil and gas companies to raise prices. This has created economic hardship for consumers and impacted general economic growth. Climate disasters, once rare, are now occurring with disturbing regularity. They have been directly linked to an increased reliance on fossil fuels and an economic cost of $145 billion in 2021. This cost will only increase should the US delay investing in, and implementing use of, alternative energy sources.
Make no mistake, this will require large-scale investments in the clean energy economy as an energy source but also in distribution as the country’s infrastructure (especially its energy grid) is still largely tied to fossil fuels. In 2021, a historic cold snap exposed vulnerabilities in Texas' power grid, leaving 4.5 million homes and businesses without power, resulting in the deaths of at least 151 people. A clean energy transition is needed to reduce planet-warming emissions and create job opportunities in green sectors while stabilizing energy costs for families.
In Europe, climate change and environmental degradation are now viewed as an existential threat to its citizens and the world. The recent war in Ukraine highlights Europe’s vulnerability in its reliance on cheap sources of fossil fuels like Russian coal and natural gas (up to 40% of its energy supply source). This disruption has underlined the need for countries to adopt strategies for achieving energy independence through exploiting sustainable sources, which could potentially provide an unlimited flow of energy with minimal environmental damage. Continuing as before would simply increase the reliance on fossil fuels, exploiting limited reserves of energy extracted from volatile conflict-prone regions and unsavory regimes with poor human rights records. Such resources are not only environmentally damaging but rapidly diminishing at present consumption rates and will cause further instability.
To overcome these challenges in Europe, the European Commission unveiled its Green Deal to transform the European Union into a modern, resource-efficient, and competitive economy. Adopted in the wake of recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, the EU drew up a seven-year budget, allocating one-third of its €1.8 trillion investments to finance the European Green Deal. Its objective is to decouple its economic growth from resource use and ensure its greenhouse gas emissions are cut by a minimum of 55% by 2030. The goal is to make sure there are no net emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050.
In the UK, there has been a concerted government policy effort to build a low carbon economy. Britain was the first country to set legally binding carbon budgets, aiming to cut UK emissions through the 2008 Climate Change Act. The last three decades have seen a reduction in emissions by 44%—while the economy grew by over 75%. The aim is to achieve a net-zero carbon economy by 2050 through investment in energy efficiency and clean energy technologies such as renewables, nuclear energy, and carbon capture and storage. It also takes into account mitigation strategies such as coastal protection against rising sea levels and planning for a future with a changing climate. However, it goes further, seeing economic opportunity in moving first. The United Kingdom, the birthplace of the first industrial revolution, is looking to emulate that success through a green industrial revolution, building a defining competitive edge through the creation of vast new global industries from offshore wind to electric vehicles, and carbon capture and storage.
The last three decades have seen a reduction in emissions by 44%—while the economy grew by over 75%.
Protecting the Most Vulnerable
While global leaders focus on their economies, international organizations are focusing on protecting the most vulnerable. The scientific research underpinning the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report recognized that the people and ecosystems least able to cope are being hit the hardest. Risks not only include those to people’s health, lives, and livelihoods but also extend to property and infrastructure, such as energy and transportation systems, which are increasingly affected by hazards like heatwaves, storms, drought, flooding and rising sea levels.
The UN report provides extensive regional information to enable climate resilient development for those cities in developing countries and cities where more than half the world’s population live. The COP26 agreement pledged to significantly increase money to help developing countries cope with the effects of climate change and make the switch to clean energy. There is the prospect of a trillion-dollars-a-year fund starting in 2025. While several developing countries stress the need for further progress, this represents the start of a breakthrough in climate mitigation for the world outside the West.
Likewise, the UNFCCC initiated the ‘Race to Zero’ Campaign in 2021 to build momentum for a shift towards decarbonization. Its goal is to rally businesses, cities, regions, and investors in meeting the Paris Agreement goals by creating a more inclusive and resilient economy. Identifying the origin of 73% of global emissions and reconciling them to net zero strategies, it recognized that although countries must translate national commitments into credible policies, every sector needs to undergo an exponential transformation.
Identifying 30 of the most carbon-intensive sectors including agriculture, the automobile industry, plastics and steel, its approach targets the largest companies within each sector, with the ambition to recruit 20% of the key players into its Race to Zero decarbonization campaign. By working with key players in each industry and sharing best practice approaches it can generate enough momentum for the whole sector to transform.
Here we have looked at the state and future of CO2 emissions, legislation, international governance, and protecting the most vulnerable. But how are businesses responding to Earth’s crisis, and what new technologies are capturing existing CO2 to create an unexpected plethora of vital products? For that check out Part Two, to be posted by the end of this week, Earth Week 2022.