Many governments are planning to slash carbon emissions to net-zero by mid-century but they need to make sure green policies do not deepen social divisions, climate experts say
By Thin Lei Win
ROME, Sept 17 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - From Britain, Denmark and New Zealand to Myanmar, Senegal and the Marshall Islands, more than 120 countries, rich and poor, have set their sights on the same goal to avoid the worst impacts of climate change: cutting their emissions to net-zero.
Some have put the target into law with a 2050 deadline while others are discussing ways to formalise it, according to the UK-based Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit.
The U.N. climate science panel has said global greenhouse gas emissions need to be slashed to 'net-zero' by mid-century to have a 50% chance of keeping warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial times, the lowest goal in the Paris pact.
But the discussions on how to get there often overlook a crucial aspect - how to do it in a way that is fair, said Niall Mac Dowell, a professor at Imperial College London.
He cited France's "yellow vests" movement, which began in November 2018, as an example of what can go wrong. Named after the fluorescent jackets all French motorists carry in their cars, it started as a protest against a levy on fuel.
The tax was one of the ways the French government hoped to implement the 2015 Paris Agreement, by making it more costly to drive petrol and diesel vehicles, and boost clean alternatives.
"But if you're like most people in France who don't live in Paris and don't have access to good or any public transport, (the tax) is just a punitive, regressive, unfair measure," said Mac Dowell, who leads Imperial's Clean Fossil and Bioenergy Research Group.
"It's really important that the way in which these agreements and ambitions are implemented are - in fact and in perception - progressive and fair," he added.
Mac Dowell co-authored a recent paper that argued current approaches to decarbonising energy focus too much on costs and technologies and not enough on "a socially equitable transition", raising the risk of "deeper social divisions".
Lee Beck, a director at the Clean Air Task Force who was not involved in the study, said it covered "an important blind spot because... everyone's life will be impacted by phasing out fossil fuels".
The Paris accord says doing so will be necessary by the second half of this century, to keep global warming within relatively safe levels.
The net-zero goals now being set to achieve that aim involve producing no more planet-warming emissions than can be absorbed by trees naturally or by technologies that capture carbon from power plants and other industries and store or use them.
The Imperial paper analysed Britain, Spain and Poland, which have different energy mixes, socio-economic structures and ambitions to tackle climate change.
For Poland - which has one of Europe's lowest GDP levels per capita and relies on coal for 80% of its energy - turning to wind and solar would have significant costs, the paper said.
A full switch to renewables - a central pillar of the European Union's plan to achieve net-zero by 2050 - could lead to 48% unemployment in Poland's mining sector and only "modest" 5% growth in manufacturing jobs, it added.
"This could cause economic upheaval and social inequality," the paper said. Poland might be better off continuing to use coal while taking the emissions out of the air using carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies, it concluded.
CCS is hotly debated among climate scientists and activists.
Many environmentalists fear it could slow a transition to clean power, as fossil fuel firms see it as a way to keep on producing and burning coal, oil and gas.
Deployment of CCS is also way behind schedule, with capacity in Europe at only at a tiny fraction of what is needed.
But Beck, of the Clean Air Task Force, said all technologies, including nuclear and CCS, should be on the table.
"The (coronavirus) pandemic has shown how difficult it is to reduce emissions. We brought the entire economy basically to a halt and we have seen gains but obviously they're not net-zero," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Globally, 20 CCS facilities capture about 40 million tonnes of carbon dioxide every year, which could rise to 100 million after planned facilities are taken into account, she said.
But to meet global climate goals, the International Energy Agency calculates the world needs to capture about 2.4 gigatonnes by 2040, she noted.
"Can it be done? Yes - but we need governments to reduce costs, to speed up deployment timelines," she said, adding it takes six to eight years for facilities to be planned and built.
Zoi Kapetaki, scientific officer at the European Commission Joint Research Centre, said CCS projects had struggled to take off in the past decade due to the 2008 financial crisis, low carbon prices, and a lack of incentives and public acceptance.
But many parts of Europe now have upcoming projects, while the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative, a group of oil companies, is facilitating large-scale commercial investment in CCS, starting with five hubs in Europe, the United States and China, she said.
"In the past, critics said (CCS) is sci-fi. But it is now operational and working," she added.
SPAIN'S 'JUST TRANSITION'
While backers of CCS say it is impossible to reach net-zero emissions without it, others fear it could be used as a justification to keep high-carbon energy and lifestyles.
It was not supported by a British citizens' assembly that handed over its recommendations on reaching net-zero to the government this month.
Joan Groizard Payeras, director-general of IDAE, Spain's national energy agency, said pushing CCS as a solution for fossil fuel-dependent countries "underestimates the power to actually transform the economy".
The Imperial College paper said that if Spain adopted 100% renewables, its experience in wind and solar power meant it would see the lowest socio-economic impact among the three countries studied.
Groizard said that was the result of a decade-long investment in clean energy, while the closure of Spain's coal mines in 2018 and its coal-fired power plants by 2021 had been smoothed by a just transition pact between the government, companies and unions to train and redeploy workers.
"It's about people and jobs, not the coal itself," he noted.
Key to bringing miners on board, he said, was recognising their heritage and hard work, which allowed the country to prosper.
"It's a very difficult conversation. But having seen the process in the last couple of years in Spain... there are interesting opportunities," he said.
(Reporting by Thin Lei Win @thinink; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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