Does the Paris Agreement hinge on a fossil fuel ‘implosion’?

While the Paris Climate Accord has united 190 countries in attempting to halt the effects of climate change, separate research has suggested that Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) won't be enough to reach a 2C pathway, with fossil fuel production set to foil efforts.

This year’s Earth Day was heralded as “a day for our children and grandchildren and generations to come”, after global leaders met in New York to officially sign the Paris Agreement and work to limit global warming to 2C at the least.

The signing acted as a beacon of intent, but in order for the deal to actually take effect, 55 countries – representing 55% of global emissions – need to ratify it. So far, 18 countries, including France, have ratified the deal. With murmurs of China, the US and possibly India following suite, the mobilisation of climate action seems to be in full swing.

But with Brexit creating a sense of chaos within Europe, a factor that could lead to the European Union (EU) amending its INDC, and a billionaire threatening to cancel the Accord altogether in America, success hinges on rapid ratification of the deal.

UN heavyweights including Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres and COP21 President Ségolène Royal have all called for instant ratification in the past weeks, with Figueres claiming that climate action would provide a “thread of certainty” for post-Brexit Britain.

Emissions gap

However, new studies have revealed that individual country pledges to reduce emissions won’t be enough to reach the 2C pathway, while the world’s second largest emitter the US has tied itself up in fossil fuel leases that exceed the first set of timeframes for its INDC.

With research from the International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) revealing that current contributions look set to lead to a temperature rise of 2.6 to 3.1C by the end of the century, a “controlled implosion” of the fossil fuel industry may be needed to ramp up emission reductions.

“To go the rest of the way, we would need to assume much more stringent action after 2030, which leads to emissions reductions of about 3-4% per year globally,” said Niklas Höhne, a researcher at the NewClimate Institute in who worked on the study.

“But in practice, switching to such stringent reductions right after 2030 would be challenging, and require time—that means that in order to ensure a chance of meeting these targets, we need significant further action from countries before 2030.”

The “significant action” is urgently needed, after the report noted that about two-thirds of the world’s available climate budget for reducing temperatures had already been emitted. In fact, the planet would warm by searing 10C if all fossil fuels are burned.

Despite France emerging as a surprise leader in the low-carbon movement, and China continuing to blitz renewable records, there is still an “ambition gap” of around 15Gt of emissions that needs to be accounted for.

Unfortunately, the uncertainty surrounding the UK and the US’s climate ambitions could put the brakes on an accelerated movement; especially after it was revealed that US-leased fossil fuel projects look set to add around 450Gt in emissions through to 2030.

Findings from the Center for Biological Diversity this week have echoed sentiments for both EcoShift consultants and the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) in claiming that cancelling these leases would prevent 100 million tonnes in annual emissions.

Fossils of the past

With ExxonMobil, Chevron and Shell citing an “unprecedented amount of effort” as reasons not to adapt to the low-carbon pathway, now may be the time to turn to legislation to promote efficiency within the fossil fuel sector.

Despite BP lobbying against EU climate policies, the sector has shown glimpses of willingness in embracing new energy sources and policies. Earlier this week, Exxon announced a new approach that calls on politicians to adopt a carbon tax, having already embraced biofuel extraction.

It would seem that Peabody filing for bankruptcy has created a seismic shift within the industry, and with investors now placing huge amounts of pressure on these companies to “climate-proof” their assets, we could be venturing into the “dawn of a clean industrial era”.

The results of this intense lobbying from investors and protestors alike are still being met with friction. But as rumours surface of alleged moves to downplay climate change, fossil fuel companies may finally “implode” and embrace the low-carbon movement, if only to ensure their own survival.

Matt Mace

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