Changing drivers of change – climate emergency and renewable energy sources

Changing drivers of change – climate emergency and renewable energy sources

In this second post reviewing changes to the fundamental drivers of change, including the effects of the pandemic, we look at the climate emergency and renewable energy.

Recent events attributed to climate change include wildfires in:

  • Australia: record-breaking temperatures and months of severe drought in an extended 2019/2020 fire season fuelled a series of massive bushfires in NSW and Victoria. In NSW alone fire affected more than five million hectares, destroying more than 2,000 houses; an estimated 25,000 koalas were killed and several endangered species threatened when flames devastated the Kangaroo Island nature reserve in South Australia. Air quality was seriously affected and harmful plumes of black carbon blown to New Zealand, blackening glaciers, and across the Pacific to South America, creating a further global heating feedback loop. Climate scientists say that the bushfires were more catastrophic than any simulation of the changing climate predicted.
  • Western USA: In Oregon, “unprecedented” fires burned destroyed than 900,000 acres and half a million people – about 10% of the state’s population – were under evacuation orders. Parts of the state saw fires of greater intensity than any in the last 300 or 400 years. California has seen six of the 20 largest wildfires in its history this year, which have burned a record 3.1m acres. The fires are also hitting before the traditional start of fire season in the fall. The smoke turned the skies orange, and created “fire thunderstorms”. In Washington state more than half a million acres have burned.
  • In Brazil, the world’s largest tropical wetland, the Patanal, is not supposed to burn. But fires there have destroyed some 25,000 square kilometres— roughly four times the area burnt in California so far. A UNESCO heritage site and one of the world’s most diverse ecosystems — home to dozens of endangered species and the densest concentration of jaguars anywhere — is in jeopardy.
  • Arctic Circle: apart from seeming rather incongruous, the fires burning in the Arctic for the second extraordinary fire season in a row are even more worrying. The burning carbon-rich peat lands emitted a record 244 megatonnes of carbon dioxide — 35% more than last year, which was itself a record. The feedback loop: as peatlands release more carbon, global warming increases, which thaws more peat and causes more wildfires. Northern peatlands could eventually shift from being a net sink for carbon to a net source of carbon, further accelerating climate change.

And the 3-month season from June through August 2020 was the Northern Hemisphere’s hottest summer on record, surpassing both 2019 and 2016 which were previously tied for hottest.

Climate scientists continue to update their forecasts. Recent research narrowed the range of global heating forecasts. Until now, the IPCC has estimated a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide from its pre-industrial level of about 280 parts per million has a 66% chance of heating the planet by between 1.5°C to 4.5°C. The new research reduces that range to 2.6°C and 3.9°C, a move away from the catastrophic upper forecast, but well above the Paris accord targets. It estimates with a 90% level of probability that climate sensitivity is between 2.3°C and 4.7°C; the most likely level of climate sensitivity is slightly above 3°C; a figure below 2°C is extremely unlikely; above 5°C remains possible, though the study lowers that likelihood to 10%.

The upper estimates could be made more likely by feedback loops. Computer simulations of clouds have begun to suggest that as the Earth warms, clouds become scarcer. With fewer white surfaces reflecting sunlight back to space, the Earth gets even warmer, leading to more cloud loss. This feedback loop causes warming to spiral out of control. The simulation revealed a tipping point: a level of warming at which stratocumulus clouds break up altogether. When the tipping point is breached, Earth’s temperature soars 8°C, in addition to the 4° of warming caused by the CO2 directly.

Climate change is also forecast to hit the economy. It will cut global GDP, with hotter countries like India suffering the most.

The reduction in economic activity caused by the pandemic has in effect been an experiment showing the effects on CO2 emissions. Lockdown measures caused electricity demand in England, Scotland and Wales to fall by 13% in the second quarter, compared with the same months last year. This also helped the share of renewables to grow by a third to 40% of the energy mix.

Lower levels of traffic have also reduced carbon emissions (transport accounts for 25% of global emissions) and improved air quality in cities. In early April, daily fossil fuel emissions worldwide were roughly 17 percent lower than they were in 2019. Several cities, notably Paris and Milan, are attempting to keep these gains.

However, as the world returns from lockdown, emissions are rising again and it is thought that the pandemic overall will have a negligible effect on climate change. This is because CO2 is so persistent in the atmosphere, short-term emission reductions resulting directly from the pandemic lockdowns lead to undetectable reductions in warming.

Several commentators and politicians are pushing for a green recovery from the pandemic recession. Some optimistically point to green growth after the last recession. The coal industry is particularly likely to be affected, because the crisis has proved renewable energy is cheaper for consumers and a safer bet for investors. An important exception, however, may be China, where coal growth is returning.

Oil firms too are recognising the challenge. Seven top firms downgraded assets by $87bn in 9 months and reduced payments to shareholders. The price of Brent crude oil fell from around $70 a barrel at the beginning of the year to $15 on April 1st, returning now to around $40.

BP’s annual energy outlook examines three scenarios for the “liquid fuels” global market – in all of them 2020 seems be the year of “peak oil”. However, it is clear that radical action is required to reach “Net zero” by 2050

They conclude with an eye-catching message: “The world is on an unsustainable path…. Delaying ‎policy measures and societal shifts may lead to significant economic costs and disruption.” And this is from an oil company, remember.

BP demonstrated its belief in the renewables market and its desire to “pivot to truly becoming an integrated energy company” by investing $1.1bn in a strategic partnership with US off-shore wind company Equinor to further develop that market. Offshore wind generally withstood the effects of the pandemic, with investments totalling $35 billion, up 319% year-on-year and in fact well above 2019’s record full-year figure (a revised $31.9 billion).

In the UK, BEIS acknowledged that electricity generated from wind and solar is 30-50% cheaper than previously thought. As a result, electricity from onshore wind or solar could be supplied in 2025 at half the cost of gas-fired power.

Further out, hydrogen is regarded by many as the best option to replace fossil fuels. Hydrogen can be used as a feedstock, a fuel or an energy carrier and storage, and has many possible applications across industry, transport, power and buildings sectors. But most hydrogen today is produced using fossil fuels. The EU published its hydrogen strategy recently, in which it plans to move decarbonise hydrogen production and scale up its use. Hydrogen becomes in effect a storage and delivery mechanism for electricity generated by renewables. Japan planned to make the Tokyo the “Hydrogen Olympics”, with hydrogen powered transport and even a hydrogen Olympic flame. Chile is also looking to become a leader in “green hydrogen”.

So despite horrific effects of the climate emergency becoming increasingly clear and “business as usual” forecasts warning of unmanageable levels of global heating, there remains good reason to hope that the economic benefits of renewables will drive their uptake and enable countries to reach “net zero” targets. The pandemic has created an opportunity for “green growth”, though it is as yet unclear whether this will come about.

In the next post in this series, we will look at how the demographic effects and climate change impacts continue to drive a shift to a multi-polar world and re-structure the global economy.

Written by Huw Williams, SAMI Principal

The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.

SAMI Consulting was founded in 1989 by Shell and St Andrews University. They have undertaken scenario planning projects for a wide range of UK and international organisations. Their core skill is providing the link between futures research and strategy.

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