Climate Action

5 ways to fast-track the transition to a carbon neutral world

The Amazon rainforest provides a natural solution to carbon capture

The Amazon rainforest provides a natural solution to carbon capture. Image: REUTERS/Nacho Doce

Emily Farnworth
Director, Centre for Climate Engagement, University of Cambridge
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Climate Crisis

The latest report from the United Nations’ scientific panel on climate change paints a dire picture, as predicted, of the consequences of climate change.

Current levels of greenhouse gas emissions are projected to overshoot the targets of the Paris Agreement and lead to warming of 3°C by the end of this century. This means worsening food and water shortages, extreme weather, wildfires and the extinction of coral reefs.

The report's main message is not new, although it provides much more solid, scientific evidence about the details. The consequences of continued pollution from greenhouse gas emissions have been known about for decades. But more shocking than the report itself is the lack of action being taken to avoid making a difficult situation even worse.

However, against the gloomy backdrop of these most recent facts, it is important to consider some of the solid foundations that have been put in place, and some of the actions that, if accelerated, will help put the climate on a healthier track. While emissions have been increasing, new policies, technologies and best practices have emerged that provide solutions to curb this trend.

I have written before that a low carbon world is possible. Achieving this will bring clear benefits to everyone. It is simply a case of keeping the north star of carbon neutrality in focus and accelerating everything we need to get us there as quickly as possible.

This does not mean that everything can happen tomorrow - this is a long game and requires stamina. But at the same time, there is a lot that can be achieved in a sprint to 2020. Governments around the world have an opportunity to build a legacy of which they can be proud, and to raise ambition to unlock the emissions reductions their people need.

Here are five of the main tried and tested solutions:

1. Investing in nature-based solutions

Forests, soil, coastlines and the ocean provide a natural solution to carbon capture. They are one of the few technically available options to deliver net negative greenhouse emissions at scale, and at lower costs and faster speeds than other carbon reduction options.

By one credible estimate, 37% of the GHG emissions reductions needed by 2030 could be delivered by natural climate solutions at less than $100 per tonne, with a third of those at less than $10 per tonne. Delivering natural climate solutions at scale could also deliver multiple high-value co-benefits, including biodiversity conservation, sustainable community livelihoods, and management of water and other scarce resources.

The ocean absorbs 90% of the heat we generate and captures more than a quarter of the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere every year. Restoring coastal habitats and coral reefs increases absorption of carbon dioxide, reduces the risk of flooding and safeguards a reliable supply of food for millions of people from the seas.

These natural resources give us the oxygen we breathe, the food we eat and provide jobs and livelihoods.

2. Pricing carbon

Climate change is a known failure of the economic system. Pricing it provides a straightforward adjustment to address this. It is no surprise that one of the winners of the Nobel prize in economics, Professor William Nordhaus, was an early advocate of a carbon tax and wrote part of the US Clean Air Act, putting a price tag on the effects of climate change.

Carbon pricing mechanisms have been growing steadily over the last ten years. In April 2018, the Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition reported that 45 national and 25 subnational jurisdictions are putting a price on carbon, covering an estimated 20% of global emissions already. Based on government plans for emissions reductions, around 56% of emissions are covered by plans to put carbon pricing mechanisms in place. Most smart companies that operate in jurisdictions with carbon pricing mechanisms are already factoring in the future cost of carbon to support their strategic and investment decisions.

Most significantly, China launched its national carbon trading scheme in 2017. Once this is fully up and running, it will be the largest carbon market in the world.

As the price of carbon increases, so does the cost effectiveness of low-carbon solutions. Accelerating this economic lever is critical to driving money to the right places.

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3. Utilizing the full potential of 4IR technologies

The opportunity for the Fourth Industrial Revolution to be the first industrial revolution that creates a net positive benefit for the environment is immense, though difficult to quantify. Tools that enable trade in environmental attributes, including low-cost and effective sensors that can provide local data on a range of environmental issues; more accurate geospatial data; artificial intelligence that can better analyse vast quantities of information; and new applications such as blockchain that help increase the transparency and credibility of new transactions, all play a role in creating a ‘planet positive’ industrial shift.

There are tangible examples of how this is playing out in real terms. Doug Macauley is a marine scientist and member of the Friends of Ocean Action, and he’s using big data and new technology to take on some of the ocean's biggest challenges.

Entrepreneur Juan Carlos Castilla Rubio is building a bank of the whole world’s genetic codes. He hopes it will save nature, including huge carbon sinks such as the Amazon rainforest. His project, the Earth Bank of Codes, is working with the World Economic Forum to create the partnerships necessary to collect the genetic sequence of the natural world. The idea is that countries and indigenous communities make money from the resulting scientific breakthroughs, rather than by selling or destroying natural resources such as tropical forests.

Fourth Industrial Revolution innovations such as these hold great potential for improving the management and governance of the global environment, and delivering the systems change required to create clean, resource-secure and inclusive economies.

4. Transitioning to a circular economy

The global “take-make-dispose” economy is generating waste and pollution that unnecessarily strains natural resources. Switching to a circular economy, particularly in the steel, plastics, aluminium and cement sectors, could have a huge benefit for the climate. Emissions in Europe could be reduced by 50% by 2050 if a more circular approach was taken in heavy industry sectors, one study estimates.

A circular economy offers an alternative, regenerative approach to production and consumption, whereby products and materials are redesigned, recovered and reused to reduce environmental impacts.

Business and governments see the benefits. Last month, businesses, international donors, national and local governments, community groups and world-class experts came together to translate commitments into action by fast-tracking circular economy solutions in coastal countries battling plastic waste.

5. Accelerating low carbon energy for all

The exponential growth of renewable energy technologies has been a result of effective policy measures that have helped bring down costs. However, despite the rapid uptake of such policies, fossil fuels remain the dominant source of energy globally. Further policy incentives are needed to scale up technologies such as energy storage, smart transmission and distribution systems, and decentralized energy systems in regions of the world where centralized, national grid infrastructure no longer makes sense.

There is a wealth of knowledge about what it will take to implement a considered and equitable energy transition. The key is for government leaders to work with companies to drive the policies and incentives needed across the demand side markets, such as power, transport and heavy industry, and with supply side players such as clean energy producers.

All these areas of focus are extremely effective, but they require political leadership and public and private collaboration, if they are to deliver carbon neutrality by 2050. In the face of scientific facts that can no longer be ignored, bold leadership is needed to fast-track to carbon neutrality.

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Climate ActionCircular EconomySustainable DevelopmentStakeholder Capitalism
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