Our post-industrial civilisation was founded on over a hundred years of large-scale fossil fuel exploitation. The exploding human population, combined with improvements in quality of life, has led to resource depletion and environmental pollution. We have seen temporarily lower greenhouse gas emissions this year as a result of COVID-19, but it is likely that emissions will increase beyond pre-pandemic levels in the years to come under business-as-usual scenarios. The disruption caused by the coronavirus to the global economy is, however, an invaluable opportunity for change. Deep decarbonisation offers one such way to do this.

The term ‘deep decarbonisation’ refers to the phasing out of carbon-emitting fuels in favour of more sustainable alternatives. Deep decarbonisation is more than just a temporary measure to combat the climate crisis: it is a long-term strategy that could offer us a longer lease upon this Earth. 

In 2007, the European Union committed to their 20/20/20 targets: a 20% reduction in CO2 emissions, a 20% increase in energy efficiency and a 20% increase in contribution to total energy from renewable sources by 2020. EU member states collectively increased their share of renewable energy from 8.5% to 17.5% between 2004 and 2017 and are set to attain their 2020 goal, aided by the drop in energy demand due to the coronavirus epidemic. Many states, such as Finland, Sweden, Estonia and Croatia, have already reached their 2020 target and many others are on track to reach theirs later this year.

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Meanwhile, the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project is an international collaboration of energy researchers that focuses on sharing practical solutions for reducing GHG emissions in line with a 2°C increase limit by 2050. It comprises research teams from 16 of the biggest GHG-emitting countries including USA, China, India, Brazil, Germany and Japan. The energy sector is the worst offender when it comes to carbon emissions, being responsible for 72% of global emissions. It therefore stands to reason that deep decarbonisation in the energy sector should be a key climate goal.

Production of energy from renewable sources is rising, continually increasing its cost-effectiveness, and is already out-competing coal in terms of profitability. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), solar photovoltaic- and onshore wind-generated power is often cheaper to produce, and cheaper for consumers, than using fossil fuels, even without government subsidies.

There is also a veritable treasure trove of untapped potential from geothermal energy. Unlike wind and solar, geothermal energy is always available. For heating especially, geothermal is ideal as it does not need to be converted into an intermediate form of energy such as electrical. Iceland has been diverting geothermally heated water to heat pavements for over a decade, keeping them clear of ice and snow and reducing the need for salt which harms the environment. 

Conscience alone, will not be enough to mobilise the large-scale change needed to reduce emissions sufficiently; deep decarbonisation would require the creation of incentives for major contributing countries and industries. The top 5 CO2 emitting countries are China (27%), USA (15%), EU-28 (10%), India (7%) and Russia (5%), with international industries such as shipping and aviation contributing a further 1.15 billion tonnes of CO2 annually, or the same as all of South America combined. 

Simple measures such as reducing cruising speed and varnishing hulls to reduce friction could have a huge impact on reducing GHG emissions. A tax on fuel consumption for members of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) would provide an incentive to reduce speeds and increase energy efficiency, thus decreasing GHG emissions and improving environmental conditions for marine life.

Large ships are also responsible for huge amounts of air pollution in docks throughout the Mediterranean region, causing health and environmental issues for passengers and locals alike.

Faig Abbasov, shipping policy manager for the non-profit Transport & Environment (T&E), says,T&E’s analysis of air pollution caused by luxury passenger cruise ships in European waters shows that the brands owned by Carnival Corporation emitted in 2017 in European seas alone 10 times more disease-causing sulphur dioxide than all of Europe’s 260+ million passenger vehicles.”

Dan Hubbell, shipping emissions campaign manager at Ocean Conservancy agreed, stating that “the IMO must follow the science and aim for full decarbonisation of the shipping sector by 2050 at the latest”.

Introducing a carbon tax would be an easy way to discourage and penalise the biggest emitters, regardless of whether they are net CO2 importers or exporters. Carbon tax encourages households and companies to seek lower-carbon alternatives such as green energy or biofuels, and to consume less energy in general. GHG emissions include CO2, but also methane, nitrous oxide and fluorinated gases, the latter of which is emitted by refrigerators and air-conditioning systems and trap heat 1 000 times more effectively than CO2. Some jurisdictions, such as the EU, already have legislations in place for the gradual phasing out of f-gases where possible, such as prohibiting its use in newly manufactured appliances, stricter checks and servicing procedures to prevent leakages, and restrictions on their sale within the EU.  

A barrier to the phasing out of carbon fuels is the concern that it would interfere with economic growth. However, a reduction in emissions does not necessarily coincide with economic loss; 2019 saw an increase in global GDP while maintaining the emissions levels of the previous year. According to BP statistics, 21 countries increased their GDP between 2000 and 2014, while reducing emissions. Among them, Ukraine and Slovakia decreased emissions by 29% and 22% respectively, while growing GDP by 49% and 75%.

Ways in which governments could stimulate their economies while transitioning to a cleaner and more responsible future include offering cash incentives to replace old vehicles and appliances for more energy-efficient models; expanding electricity networks to accommodate vehicles and infrastructure that run on electricity; and through government-investments in wind and solar power that would lead to the creation of new jobs down the supply chain.

The weeks following the declaration of a global state of emergency due the Covid-19 outbreak have already shown the positive potential that substantial reductions in fossil-fuel consumption could hold for the environment. Amid this humanitarian and economic crisis, the rest of life on Earth is flourishing: air pollution has cleared to reveal the Himalayas for the first time in decades; cormorants have been spotted fishing in the still waters of the Venice canals; and mountain goats are roaming the streets of Llandudno, Wales. Despite the tragic circumstances surrounding these events, perhaps this is a reminder that we can and do have an enormous impact on the quality of our environment. 

Featured image by: Daniel Parks