What steps must be taken now to achieve the Paris Agreement?

A sustained low-carbon shift in energy production, transportation and land use are some of the most important actions required to keep global governments and businesses on track with the targets set out in the Paris Agreement, NewClimate Institute policy analyst and edie Live speaker Sebastian Sterl has said.

Speaking ahead of his edie Live exhibition appearance in May, Sterl said that while the legally-binding targets set through the Paris accord are important to focus minds on long-term global emissions reductions to curb climate change, the tangible steps needed to be taken by each sector in the intermediary remain less clear.

Globally, the momentum in some sectors have gained considerable ground in recent times, Sterl said, highlighting the power sector where renewable energy projects are now mainstream to the extent that they are winning auctions competitively against to non-renewable projects.

Renewable energy sources made up nearly nine-tenths of the new power that was added to Europe’s electricity grids last year, and with the price of these technologies continuing to tumble, Sterl expects the demand for fossil fuels to peak in the near future.

“One of the main steps required is to sustain the growth rate of renewables that is happening currently,” he said. “We need to learn how to run electricity grids with very high shares of renewables and eventually reach 100% renewables by 2050. 

“Apart from increasing the share of renewables, we should also phase out fossil fuels, with the dirtiest being coal. No new coal power plants should be built from now and old inefficient coal-powered plants should continue to be dismantled and emissions from coal power should reduce in the short-term by 30% within the next 10 years, and 65% by 2030.” 

Positive steps

Sterl recognises that the decarbonisation speed varies across each sector. The transport industry in particular remains a persistent laggard, with global emissions in the sector gradually rising. The most viable option for transport is the deployment of electric vehicles (EVs), but Sterl concedes that the models are 10-20 years behind wind and solar in terms of technological viability. 

Low-carbon vehicles will, nevertheless, play a fundamental role in the shift away from CO2-hungry conventional models – reports suggest EVs are set to account for more than two-thirds of the road transport by the mid-century. NewClimate Institute’s own research group Climate Action Tracker (CAT) has stressed that zero-emission vehicles will need to hold a dominant automotive market share by 2035 for the Paris targets to be truly achievable, and Sterl says that the last fossil fuel car must be sold be roughly 2035.

A low-carbon equivalent does not currently exist in the “under-researched” aviation and shipping sectors, Sterl laments, with co-ordinated efforts to create decarbonisation targets sorely lacking. He believes research and development (R&D) and heavy investment will be essential to ensure these sectors – currently responsible for around 5% of global emissions – become compatible with Paris Agreement reductions.

The NewClimate Institute policy analyst is calling for vast improvements land and forestry, amid a Greenpeace investigation which has forced banking group HSBC to launch a new zero-deforestation policy. Sustainable sourcing of palm oil has proved a major challenge for firms attempting to strengthen supply chains – Sterl asserts that net-deforestation should stop by the end of the 2020s and accompanied by greater levels of afforestation.

Concerns exist that 2030 emission levels will reach 54-56 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent (GtCO2e), even if the Paris Agreement is fully implemented and enacted upon, placing the world on track for a temperature rise of 2.9-3.4 degrees this century. Sterl concedes that insufficient emissions reductions in the past decade or so – due primarily to insufficient political action – means that negative CO2 emissions will be necessary at large scale at some point from mid-century onwards.

“This is a step that we wish we didn’t have to put in but we feel is necessary,” he said. “This is no silver bullet. Rapid action across all these sectors is necessary to limit the potential need for negative emissions but it is most likely that this will be unfortunately still be necessary to reduce global warming to the agreed limits.

“This means that research into negative emissions technologies such as carbon capture and storage (CCS) needs to happen already now so that once it becomes essential mid-century, it could be implemented.”

Strong momentum

As the green economy looks ahead to the possibility of a zero-emission future, the current global political environment has spread anxieties that this environmental progress could be stalled, particularly in the light of President Trump’s vow to pull the US out of the Paris Agreement and embolden a waning coal industry.

But with heavy clean energy investment in emerging economies such as China and India, and indeed high growth rates in renewables in US states, Sterl insists that the “game is won”, as companies view sustainability as an economic necessity as opposed to a cosmetic indulgence.

“The technologies have demonstrated themselves to be viable, and are now to a large extent determined by markets,” Sterl said. “If politicians say ‘we don’t need this’, it doesn’t mean it will not happen because companies see the value in investing in these technologies.

“The ball is already rolling. This translates in the end into very strong momentum which becomes market driven and not politically driven.”

The business community is gradually realising the benefits of collective sustainable action, with a sharp rise in corporate subscrition to cross-sector initiatives such as RE100EP100 and the Zero De-forestation scheme. Sterl reserves praise for the market leaders in different fields that are being open about their emissions use and disclosing energy information, which he says helps to assess the potential for global emission reductions.

“Profiling yourself as sustainable 20 years ago used to be a left-wing concept but it has become much more mainstream nowadays and companies care much more about their image,” he added. “If you are a company and suddenly ranked bottom of a sustainability index, companies don’t like that at all. It’s important for a company’s image to be known as sustainable.

“Many companies are having the foresight that technological options that are sustainable are also going to be more economically viable in the future so they are investing heavily now. It’s a good way for companies to lead the way – you don’t want to be caught in 10 years seeing how entire sectors have changed and not having adapted to it. It’s a good way for companies to be frontrunners.”

Policy mechanisms

The adoption of science-based targets to drive climate action is also continuing to move rapidly up the corporate agenda, propelling some corporates into global leaders in climate action. But the overarching Paris Agreement targets cannot be achieved without the support of national Governments, and Sterl looks at affluent Western countries to provide climate finance to ensure that developing nations can take the required steps.

The UK has established long-term climate objectives through the Climate Change Act to reduce emissions 80% by 2050, while transitional targets are present in the statutory five-year carbon budgets. This is a world-leading model for climate action, according to Sterl, who believes short-term goals provide tangible goals necessary to achieve realistic emission reductions.

He said: “Long-term targets don’t tell you what needs to happen on the ground, intermediate targets give much more concrete guidance on what kind of actions have to happen and makes it much easier to monitor. Plus it doesn’t shift responsibilities just from one Government to the next.

“If the target is in 20 or 30 years the Government can say ‘OK the next administration will take care of it’. But with short-term targets that’s not possible. So that’s a great policy mechanism that would be nice to have in other countries.”

Sebastian Sterl at edie Live 2017

The NewClimate Institute’s policy analyst Sebastian Sterl is among the expert speakers appearing on stage at edie Live 2017 at the NEC Birmingham on 23-24 May. 

Sterl is appearing in a session on the Strategy and Innovation stage, where he will discuss the 10 most important future actions to limit global warming to 1.5C.

Find out more about edie Live 2017 and register for your free two-day pass here.

George Ogleby

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie