Less coal and lower CO2 emissions: A glimpse that change is on the way?
Optimist? Yes indeed
Klassekampen, 9 October 2020
2020 is a horrible year in which nothing seems to be going right in the world. The pandemic, Donald Trump's chaos and on top of all that: climate change that's getting worse and worse. Last summer was the warmest ever recorded on our side of the planet. Australia, California and Siberia have been ravaged by immense wildfires, and the current hurricane season is well on its way to an all-time high with 25 storms to date. All this catastrophe makes it hard to see any bright spots, to believe that in the end things will be alright. Still, I'm going to give it a try.
To start: CO2 emissions will go down this year, something that has only happened twice in the past 25 years. This is of course due to the coronacrisis, but there are signs that structural change is on its way. One such change finally in sight is the end of coal, the most polluting of the three fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas).
This year more coal-fired power plants were closed than opened, when considered globally. Especially in the EU and UK. The EU has made climate a spearhead of its policy, and Boris Johnson announced this week that all UK households should get their electricity from offshore wind by 2030.
Coal is also disappearing in the USA, despite Trump's earlier promise to voters. CO2 emissions from coal have been halved in the country since 2007 – last year the reduction was 15 percent. This has been made possible by old-fashioned capitalism: solar and wind are now cheaper than electricity from coal-fired power plants. As a result, CO2 emissions in the USA have been falling for many years and are now only just above 1990 levels.
The writing is on the wall for the oil companies
But the final nail in the coal coffin came two weeks ago, at the annual meeting of the UN. Xi Jinping unexpectedly announced that China would become climate neutral within 40 years, and that emissions would peak within this decade. China is the largest consumer of coal in the world, and the country is responsible for nearly 30% of global CO2 emissions. If China is committed to clean energy this has the potential to become a real game changer. The impulse they can give to renewable energy means that oil and gas will eventually run their course.
In fact, it could well be that oil is already on the decline. BP released a report recently showing that in a business-as-usual scenario, oil consumption will increase again after the corona crisis, but will not reach 2019 levels and decrease after five years. In other words, the oil peak may already have happened. Surprising news from an oil company that last year expected that this would only happen in about 15 years from now. In addition, they predicted that a successful climate policy will halve oil demand within 20 years. The writing is on the wall for any oil company that still thinks themselves rich by searching for and exploiting new oil fields.
Unfortunately, natural gas is still a concern. Oil companies have – successfully – sold this as a transition fuel to a cleaner future, because gas releases less CO2 upon combustion. But natural gas is just the same as methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times stronger than CO2. Old, leaking infrastructure is a major problem, where methane can be released directly into the atmosphere. It's clear: gas is not a transition fuel, but simply the same fossil problem in a different guise.
The key question is, of course, whether all these changes are going fast enough to stay below 1.5 or 2 degrees of warming. Unfortunately, we are far removed from that goal. Xi Jinping's announcement, important as it was, did not provide any detail on how to achieve this aim. Moreover, he will allow emissions to continue to rise in the coming years. Emissions in the EU and the US are going down, but only slowly, while from now on we need reductions equal to those caused by the corona crisis – every year. Illustrating the difficulty of reaching such goals, this week it was announced that Norway, without new measures, will have reduced emissions by only 21 percent from 1990 to 2030, while the target is at least 50 percent. Suddenly, I am reminded of the Titanic: When the iceberg was spotted, they tried to steer away, but the immense ship was too slow to respond, and the disaster was inevitable.
You understand, it is difficult to write a column with just good news about the climate. Nonetheless, I am an optimist – as defined by the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga in the 1930s: "I do not call him an optimist, who, at the most threatening signs of decline and decay, lightly exclaims: come on, it's not so bad! It will all work out! Optimist I call him, who, even where a road to a better future is barely visible, still doesn't let go of hope.
This text originally appeared in Klassekampen on 9 October 2020