Global Warming & Climate Action (5)

After reviewing the physics of global warming, the impact of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions on the global average temperature, and the various predictions of climate impacts and extreme weather events in the near future, the case for urgent climate action is clear.  In this Part we review the current status and express the hope that an urgent and practical approach will be adopted and implemented in the near term.

Part 5: Climate Action

The case for urgent climate action is clear and at the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference (COP21) in Paris, long-term goals and a framework of execution were agreed to guide the global reduction of anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases.  The Paris Agreement is a legally binding international treaty, currently signed by 192 parties, including the top-3 greenhouse gas emitters China, the USA, and the European Union.

The Paris Agreement sets long-term goals to guide all nations:

  • to substantially reduce global greenhouse gas emissions to limit the global temperature increase in this century to 2 degrees Celsius while pursuing efforts to limit the increase even further to 1.5 degrees;
  • to review countries’ commitments every five years;
  • to provide financing to developing countries to mitigate climate change, strengthen resilience and enhance abilities to adapt to climate impacts.

To reach global net-zero emissions by 2050, the world will need to make tremendous investments to decarbonize the economy.  A 2020 report by the Institute for Sustainable Futures (Teske et al) finds that in order to meet the Paris Agreement’ target:

"The estimated investments in new power- and heat-generation capacities and in bio- and synthetic fuel production are calculated to be US$60 trillion between 2021 and 2050 under the 1.5°C pathway—an average of US$2 trillion annually or around 1.5% of global GDP. This does not include investments in new energy infrastructure."

For context, an investment of $2 trillion per annum is about the size of the global annual military expenditure ($1.9 trillion in 2019).

The institute's report further states that:

"[…] 18% of those investments must go to solar photovoltaic and 28% to wind power (onshore and offshore). Between 2021 and 2025, approximately 2,500 GW solar photovoltaic, 1,000 GW onshore wind, and 150 GW offshore wind power plants must be installed globally. Compared with the market volumes in 2019, [installation of] solar photovoltaic must increase from 115 GW per year (GW/a) to 500 GW/a; onshore wind from 54 GW/a to 200 GW/a; and offshore wind from 6 GW/a to 30 GW/a."

The report from the Institute for Sustainable Futures was commissioned by the ‘UN-convened net-zero asset owner alliance’, an international group of over 60 institutional investors with more than $10 trillion in assets under management who have committed to transition their investment portfolios to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

Given the realities of public and private sector budgeting processes, industrial production scale-ups, and large-scale project delivery, nothing short of a “wartime effort” might provide some, but by no means all, of the required funds, production capacity increases, and accelerated project deliveries that this report calls for during the 2021-25 period.  One cannot simply deliver 5x more offshore wind farms per annum overnight.

The case for urgent climate action is clear, but the action program needs to be well-reasoned and achievable, combining short-term high impact actions with long-term structural changes. 

It can be hoped that the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of Parties (COP26) in Glasgow in November 2021 will address the need for an urgent and practical approach.