As Paris disappoints the world fights back against climate change

In 2004 two Princeton economists shook up the world by making some predictions about what humanity would need to do to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) by enough to limit climate change to a level which was not dangerous. Of course those levels have changed in the last decade as we have continued to pump out GHGs.

As the climate change talks in Paris seem to be making disappointing progress and as flooding in Cumbria highlights the violence of the natural world plans to abate greenhouse gas emissions are appears to be one of the top three global policy issues.

GHG wedges

So what did the economists do that was so significant? The economists divided each unit of decarbonisation activity by what they called wedges. By splitting up activity into these wedges they made the changes necessary comprehensible to lay people and policymakers alike.

A wedge represents an activity that reduces emissions to the atmosphere that starts at zero today and increases to 1 giga tonne per year of reduced carbon emissions in 50 years, a cumulative total of 25 giga tonnes of emission reduction over 50 years.

For those in CSR and other corporate leaders it is instructive, at the time of the COP 21 in Paris, to look at how decarbonisation is possible and to step through the issues presented by the more millenarian voices.

The wedges focus on:

Efficiency and conservation

• Improved fuel economy – doubling the fuel economy of the worlds cars
• Reduced reliance on cars – halving the number of miles travelled by car
• More efficient buildings – using energy efficient light bulbs in all commercial buildings
• Improved power plant efficiency – increasing current coal based electricity at twice today’s efficiency

Decarbonisation

• Substituting natural gas for coal – carbon emissions from natural gas plants are almost half that of coal plants
• Storage of carbon captured in power plants – carbon capture and storage (CCS)  technology prevents 90% of carbon emissions reaching the atmosphere. Installing CCS at 800GW of baseload coal plants in next 50 years.
• Doubling the world’s current nuclear capacity – recognised that this would require restoring public confidence in safety and waste disposal.
• Increasing wind electricity capacity by 50 – estimated to require 30m hectares of land (equivalent to 3% of the area of the United States)
• Increasing solar energy capacity by 700 – estimated to require 2m hectares of photovoltaic panels (equivalent to 3 m2 per person)
• Increasing biofuel production by 50 – estimated to require a sixth of world’s crop land. Recognised that it could affect traditional agricultural output.

Natural Sinks

• Reducing tropical deforestation and management of temperate and tropical forests – would require 2 stages
(1) doubling the current rate of forest planting
(2) eliminating tropic deforestation within 50 years
• Agricultural soil management – adopting conservation tilling in all agricultural soil, which is a way of growing crops from year to year without disturbing the soil through ploughing. reduces decomposition of organic material which would release greenhouse gases.

Wedges include solar power, wind power, more efficient appliances, green buildings, carbon capture, public transport, transport fuel efficiency and nuclear power.

As some of this is implemented GHGs are beginning to fall. It looks like whilst CO2 emissions have trebled since the 1960s and that they have always grown alongside the global economy last year that relationships seems to have begun to breakdown. According to a report due to be published later today by the Global Carbon Project emissions rose last year by 0.6% and are projected to decline this year, albeit by a small amount.

Crucially this would be the first dip in emissions in a period of global economic growth. It also has a massive implication for the atmospheric chemistry of climate change.

The sooner emissions peak then the less greenhouse gas that will have accumulated in the atmosphere.

It is hoped that the negotiators in Paris take advantage of this apparent ray of hope.

Simon Quarendon

Simon Quarendon

As the consultancy’s Chairman, Simon has strategic oversight of all clients. His career in communications spans 28 years, during which time he has held senior management positions in some of the UK’s leading PR agencies.

During his career, Simon has advised numerous blue chip clients and has worked on a number of large scale communications programmes. Simon has extensive international experience and was a previous Secretary General of the International Communications Consultancy Organisation (ICCO), a trade association representing over 1,000 PR agencies in 28 countries.
Simon Quarendon

Latest posts by Simon Quarendon (see all)

About the Author

As the consultancy’s Chairman, Simon has strategic oversight of all clients. His career in communications spans 28 years, during which time he has held senior management positions in some of the UK’s leading PR agencies. During his career, Simon has advised numerous blue chip clients and has worked on a number of large scale communications programmes. Simon has extensive international experience and was a previous Secretary General of the International Communications Consultancy Organisation (ICCO), a trade association representing over 1,000 PR agencies in 28 countries.