The good news about global warming

Damien Carrington

We’re not out of the woods yet, but there are many positive trends to help the environment

A series of fast-moving global megatrends, spurred by trillion-pound investments, indicates that humanity might be able to avert the worst impacts of global warming. From trends already at full steam, including renewable energy, to those just hitting the big time, such as mass-market electric cars, to those just emerging, such as plant-based alternatives to meat, these trends show that greenhouse gas emissions can be halted.

No one is saying the battle to avert catastrophic climate change—floods, droughts, famine, mass migrations—has been won. “The important thing is to recognise that we’re seriously challenged,” says Christina Figueres, former UN Climate Chief. “At the same time, the fact is we’re already seeing many, many positive trends.”

Michael Liebreich, the founder of Bloomberg New Energy Finance, agrees. “The good news is that we are way better than we thought we could be. We’re not going to get through this without damage. But we can avoid the worst.”

Also cautiously hopeful is climate economist Nicholas Stern at the London School of Economics (LSE). “These trends are the start of something that might be enough—the two key words are ‘start’ and ‘might’. ” He says that the global climate meetings to be held in Poland this December are crucial. “The acceleration embodied in the Paris agreement is going to be critical.”

 

Methane: Getting to the Meat

Carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels is the main greenhouse gas, but methane and nitrous oxide are a major concern because they are more potent. The main source is livestock farming, in particular belching cattle and their manure. The world’s appetite for meat and dairy foods is rising as people’s incomes rise, but the simple arithmetic is that unless this is radically curbed, there’s no way to beat global warming. The task looks daunting—people hate being told what to eat. However, just in the last year, a potential solution has burst on to the market: plant-based meat, which has a tiny environmental footprint.

What sounds like an oxymoron—food that looks and tastes just as good as meat or dairy products but is made from plants—has attracted heavy investment. The buzz is particularly loud in the US, where Bill Gates has backed two plant-based burger companies and Eric Schmidt, formerly executive chairman of Google, believes plant-based foods can make a meaningful dent in tackling climate change.

“In 30 years all meat will be either lab or plant based.”—Richard Branson

Perhaps even more telling is that major meat and dairy companies are now piling in with investments and acquisitions, such as the US’s biggest meat processor, Tyson, and multinational giants Danone and Nestlé. The Chinese government in 2017 put $300 million US (£228 million) into Israeli companies producing lab-grown meat, which could also cut emissions.

New plant-based products, from chicken to fish to cheese, are coming out every month. “We are in the nascent stage,” says Alison Rabschnuk at the US nonprofit group the Good Food Institute. Plant-based meat and dairy produce are not only environmentally friendly but also healthier and avoid animal welfare concerns, but she says these benefits alone won’t make them mass-market: “We believe the products themselves need to be competitive on taste, price and convenience.”

Plant-based milks—soya, almond, oat and more—have led the way and are now about ten per cent of the US market and a billion-dollar business.

Renewable energy: Time to Shine

The most advanced of the megatrends is the renewable energy revolution. Production costs for solar panels and wind turbines have plunged, by 90 per cent in the past decade for solar, for example, and are continuing to fall. As a result, in many parts of the world they’re already the cheapest electricity available and installation is soaring: two-thirds of all new power in 2016 was renewable.

This extraordinary growth has confounded expectations: the respected International Energy Agency’s (IEA) annual projections have anticipated linear growth for solar power every year for the past decade. In reality, growth has been exponential. China is leading the surge but the impact is being felt around the world: over just one week in last November, 2017, there was so much wind power in Germany that customers got free electricity.

 

King coal: Dead or Dying

The flipside of the renewables boom is the death spiral of coal, the filthiest of fossil fuels. Production now appears to have peaked in 2013. The speed of its demise has stunned analysts. In 2013, the IEA projected that coal demand would grow by 40 per cent by 2040—now they project a growth of just one per cent.

The cause is simple: solar and wind are cheaper. But the consequences are enormous: in pollution-choked China, there are now no provinces where new coal is needed, so the country last year mothballed plans for 151 plants. Bankruptcies have torn through the US coal industry and in the UK it has fallen from 40 per cent of power supply to seven per cent in the past five years.

“Last year, I said if Asia builds what it says it is going to, we can kiss goodbye to two degrees Celsius (the internationally agreed limit for dangerous climate change),” says Michael Liebreich. “Now we’re showing coal [plans] coming down.”

A second tipping point is needed, he says. That will occur when renewables are cheaper to build than running existing coal plants, meaning that the latter shut down. If renewable costs continue to fall as expected, this would happen between 2030 and 2040.

 

Electric cars: In the Fast Lane

Slashing oil use—a third of all global energy—is a huge challenge but a surging market for battery- powered cars is starting to bite, driven in significant part by fast-growing concerns about urban air pollution, with cities and countries from Paris to India announcing future bans on fossil-fuelled cars.

China, again, is leading the way. It’s selling as many electric cars every month as the rest of the world combined, with many from home-grown companies such as BYD. US-based Tesla is rolling out its more affordable Model 3 and in recent months virtually all major car-makers have committed to an electric future, with Volvo and Jaguar Land Rover announcing that they will end production of pure fossil-fuelled cars within two years.

“I don’t think it’s going to slow down,” says Viktor Irle, an analyst at EV-volumes.com, the global electric vehicle sales database. “If current growth rates continue, we could see as many as 80 per cent of new cars being electric by 2030,” he says.

The rapid rise of electric cars has left the oil giants playing catch up. In its latest forecast, OPEC forecasts 235 million electric cars will be operative by 2040. ExxonMobil and BP are bumping up their forecasts too. Heavy transport remains a challenge, but even here ships are experimenting with wind power and batteries. Meanwhile the Global EV Outlook (a publication from the International Energy Agency) reports that, “Between nine and 20 million electric cars could be deployed by 2020, and between 40 and 70 million by 2025, according to estimates based on recent statements from car-makers.”

 

Batteries: Lots in Store

Batteries are key to electric cars and, by storing energy for when the sun goes down or the wind drops, they’re also vital for enabling renewable energy to reach its full potential. Here too, a megatrend is crushing prices for lithium-ion batteries, which are down 74 per cent over the past six years. The International Renewable Energy Agency expects further falls of 50 to 66 per cent by 2030 and a massive increase in battery storage, linked to increasingly smart and efficient digital power grids. In the UK alone, government advisers say a smart grid could save bill-payers 8 billion pounds a year by 2030, as well as slashing carbon emissions.

Fears that lithium-ion, the technology that dominates today, cannot be scaled up sufficiently are overblown, argues Michael Liebreich, as the metal is not rare. “You can be sure lithium-ion will get cheaper and you can be sure there’s enough.”

“Achieving large-scale forestation is not just theoretical”—Michael Wolosin Forest Climate Analytics

It’s true, however, that batteries won’t be the solution for energy storage over weeks or months. For that, the physical links that transfer electricity between grids or across borders, are being built and the storage of renewable electricity as gas is also being explored.

 

Efficiency: Negawatts Over Megawatts

Just as important as the greening of energy is reducing demand by boosting energy efficiency. It’s a no-brainer in climate policy, but it can be tricky to make happen, as it requires action from millions of people.

Nonetheless, good progress is being made in places such as the EU, where efficiency in homes, transport and industry has improved by about 20 per cent since 2000. Improving the efficiency of appliances through better standards is surprisingly important: a new UN Environment Programme report shows it makes the biggest impact of any single action bar rolling out wind and solar power.

But again, continued progress is vital. “We need to drive energy efficiency very, very hard, ” says Professor Kevin Anderson at the University of Manchester. “We could power down European energy use by about 40 per cent in something like ten to 15 years, just by making the most efficient appliances available the new minimum.”

In countries with cool winters, better insulation is also needed, particularly as a fossil fuel—natural gas—currently provides a lot of heating. “What’s a crime is every time a building is renovated it isn’t done to really high standards,” says Michael Liebreich, “and this is pretty much a global problem.”

One sector that is lagging on energy efficiency is industry, but technology to capture and bury CO2 from fossil-fueled power stations is being tested and ways to clean up cement making are also being explored.

 

Forests: Seeing the Wood

The destruction of forests around the world for ranching and farming causes about 15 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions. This is the biggest megatrend not yet pointing in the right direction: annual tree losses have roughly doubled since 2000 which is worrying, as stopping deforestation and planting new trees is among the fastest ways of cutting carbon emissions.

But it’s not getting the support it needs, says Michael Wolosin at Forest Climate Analytics in Washington, DC “Climate policy is massively underfunding forests—they receive only about two per cent of global climate finance.” Furthermore, the £1.76 billion committed to forests in key deforestation countries since 2010 is tiny compared with the funding for the sectors that drive deforestation. “Brazil and Indonesia’s governments alone invested £211 billion in agricultural subsidies in the same timeframe, in just the four key driver commodities: palm oil, soy, beef and timber,” says Franziska Haupt, a member of the Climate Focus team, and lead author of the annual New York Declaration on Forests Progress Assessment.

In fact, new research has shown that, and Michael Wolosin says, there are some grounds for hope that new forests can be planted. “Achieving large-scale forestation is not just theoretical. A few countries have done it successfully.”

In the past two decades, tree-planting in China, India and South Korea has removed more than 12 billion tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere—three times the entire EU’s annual emissions, Wolosin says. This action was driven by fears about flooding and food supply.

 

Will these megatrends move fast enough to avoid the worst of climate change?

Opinions vary and Manchester University’s Kevin Anderson is among the most hawkish. He says it remains possible for now, but is pessimistic that the action will be taken. “We have to actively close down the incumbent fossil fuel industry.” The LSE’s Nicholas Stern is cautiously optimistic, saying that what has changed in recent years is the realisation that green economic growth is the only long-term option.

“I am very confident now we can do this, but the change has to be radical,” he says. “Will we have the political and economic understanding and commitment to get there? I hope so.”