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Since the Industrial Revolution, fossil fuel technologies have been driving economic growth, so reducing emissions may appear to threaten developing countries’ progress, but to meet the Paris target, this is exactly what needs to happen. Is there a way for developing countries to prosper without increasing their emissions? 

How Do Developing Countries Contribute to Climate Change?

A study from the World Resources Institute in 2017 reveals that the world’s top three emitters of greenhouse gases, namely China, the European Union and the US, contribute more than half of the total global emissions while six of the top 10 emitters are developing countries. 

The World Economic Forum recognises that carbon emissions and developing countries being lifted out of extreme poverty are linked. An increase in carbon emissions observed over 30 years shows that poverty has been reduced within East Asia and Pacific and South Asia, while sub-Saharan Africa has, during the same time period, reduced their emissions and almost doubled the number of people living in poverty.

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Moreover, The Paris Agreement acknowledges that the efforts toward reducing carbon emissions will be common but not equal among developed and developing countries. The fairness of these contributions will be determined by national circumstances so that there will be equity in the responses and responsibilities to address climate change. This means that developing countries will be allowed to emit more carbon until they have developed enough that they no longer need to rely on carbon-intensive industries. 

However, data compiled by the World Resources Institute shows that since 2000, 21 developing countries have reduced annual emissions while simultaneously growing their economies, indicating that the decoupling of economic growth with emissions is possible.

Similarly, The Low Carbon Index found that several G20 countries have reduced their economies’ carbon intensity while maintaining GDP growth, including countries classified as ‘developing’, such as China, India, South Africa and Mexico. 

While global carbon emissions have nevertheless been rising exponentially over the past decade, the International Energy Agency reported three years of flat emissions globally, from 2014 to 2016, as the global economy grew. A study conducted in 2017 investigated whether renewable energy has anything to do with this decoupling. The findings indicated that the nations that generated more electricity from renewable resources had lower carbon emissions overall, illustrating that renewable energy is able to support economic growth while reducing emissions. 

Clean Economic Growth for Sustainable Development

According to the Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century’s (REN21) yearly overview of the global state of renewable energy, it made up 24.5% of global electricity generation in 2016. This went up to 26.5% in 2017, but by the end of 2018, it had gone down to 26.2%. While the adoption of renewable energy is steadily increasing, it is not enough to have a significant impact in the long term and needs to be adopted on a much larger scale. 

According to an International Energy Agency report, Africa has the richest solar resources but has installed only 5 GW of solar photovoltaics (PV), less than 1% of global capacity. Aiming to provide electricity for everyone on the continent would require a significant increase in electricity generation, with only 43% of Africans currently having a reliable power supply. According to the report, electricity demand on the continent will more than double by 2040.

The report indicates that with the right policies, Africa can meet the demand by relying on renewable energy, with solar energy having the potential to be its top renewable energy source, exceeding hydropower. That renewable energy is now the cheapest source of energy generation makes this all the more possible. “A focus on energy efficiency can support economic growth while curbing the increase in energy demand,” the report says. 

Africa’s endeavour to meet its energy needs in a renewable way while providing its inhabitants with a good quality of life should serve as inspiration for other developing nations.

There is evidently a huge opportunity for developing countries to generate energy sustainably. Renewable energy sources deliver economic benefits without the risks of fossil fuels; such benefits include creating more job opportunities in the energy sector and achieving energy independence.

Developing Countries Cannot Afford Renewable Energy

However, there are significant barriers that prevent developing countries from adopting renewable energy plans. Decarbonisation is often not a priority for less developed countries compared to economic growth and poverty alleviation. Many of these countries struggle with gaps in technical and financial expertise, a lack of resources and poor governance. 

Creating lowest-emission or renewable energy strategies shaped to each country’s unique circumstances is vital to maintaining and encouraging growth while reducing emissions. 

Developing countries need to implement policies that shift the economy away from carbon-intensive industries. These should be coordinated at a global level to ensure a worldwide shift towards an equitable and environmentally responsible future. 

On June 18 2019, the Canadian government declared a national climate emergency. The following day, the same government approved the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, capable of transporting close to 600 000 barrels of oil per day from Alberta to the port of Burnaby in British Columbia. This is an example of how Canada is a climate hypocrite, where the government claims to prioritise the environment but its actions have the opposite effect, choosing to instead prop up fossil fuels.

Canada, which is in close proximity to Antarctica and is partly located within the Arctic Circle, is extremely vulnerable to the effects of global warming. Declaring a state of climate emergency was a necessary response from the Canadian government in tackling the climate crisis. 

This year, a prolonged heatwave in the Arctic that caused temperatures to soar to 38℃ in parts of Siberia, also caused wildfires to rage through parts of Siberia, as well as Canada, Alaska and Greenland. In June, fires in the region emitted 16.3 million tons of carbon- or about 60 million tons of carbon dioxide, the highest levels since 2003 and almost nine times more than the same month in 2018. Since the polar regions are warming at a faster rate than the rest of the world, this puts Canada further at risk.

However, the approval of projects like the Trans Mountain pipeline completely contradict the nation’s goal of reaching zero-net carbon emissions by 2050. A statement issued by the Canadian government outlined that the profits generated from the Trans Mountain pipeline will aid renewable energy projects and support cleantech research within the country, prompting critics to accuse the government of hypocrisy as the pipeline would be emitting large quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, further exacerbating global warming. 

Controversy: Canada’s Prime Minister 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau won his second election by forging solidarity with environmentalists and climate activists, saying that he shares the same view in needing to act in favour of the climate and strive for a greener society. Interestingly, in 2017, Trudeau spoke to Texan oilmen, saying that “no country would find 173 million barrels of oil in the ground and leave it there.” This would mean that Canada, home to 0.5% of the planet’s population, would plan to use nearly a third of the planet’s remaining carbon budget through intensive use of fossil fuels. While it is very possible to change stances on the issue of the climate crisis when confronted with indisputable evidence, in February this year, it emerged that the government was likely to approve the Teck mine, 181 sq km of petroleum mining, located just 25km from a national park. Canadian authorities were aware of the potential environmental harm it would cause, but ruled that it was nonetheless in the ‘public interest’. Thankfully, the mining giant withdrew its plans later that month, but it sealed Canada’s fate as a climate hypocrite. 

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Expected Projects 

Despite many delays, three major pipeline projects are expected to enter service by the end of 2023- namely, TC Energy Corporation’s Keystone XL, Enbridge’s expansion of its Line 3 and the Canadian government’s expansion of the Trans Mountain line.

The three pipelines have already encountered challenges; the Line 3 project continuously faces opposition in Minnesota, where it hopes to expand to, while the Keystone XL project is tackling legal challenges and the Trans Mountain remains disputed by indigenous and aboriginal communities in British Columbia.

Environmental risks of such projects range from water contamination to wildlife habitat disturbances. Provinces and cities have voiced opposition to such projects. Vancouver filed an empirical report on how the Trans Mountain project is ‘not worth the risk’ because ‘tanker traffic spills would be devastating to the coastline’ and in British Columbia, the controversial Bill C-48 issues a suspension on oil tankers carrying large quantities of crude oil along the northern coast to protect the ecosystem. 

New pipelines breach demand levels required under the Paris Agreement. Canada has struggled to establish their natural resources development plans in shifting towards a greener society and divesting from fossil fuels. The Canadian government’s support for proposed pipelines and pipeline extension projects risk the country’s reputation of being one of the few who have shown strong leadership in addressing the climate crisis. 

Carbon Tracker, an independent financial think tank that assesses climate risk, conducted an analysis on the impact of Canada’s pipelines, and found that new oil sands are unnecessary in a low carbon world. The analysis showed that additional pipeline capacity significantly exceeds supply levels across two low carbon demand scenarios, meaning that large portions will end up wasted or underutilised, resulting in stranded assets. Even in the case where new pipelines have lower crude transportation costs and reduce pricing, for example, the entirety of Canada’s unsanctioned oil sands projects would still not comply with a Paris-aligned world of weaker oil demand. 

All proposed new pipelines from Western Canada, primarily Keystone XL and Trans Mountain expansion, do not comply with a Paris-compliant world, the report stated. Under the International Energy Agency’s Sustainable Development Scenario (SDS), for instance, all future oil supplies from Western Canada can be accommodated by alterations and replacements made to already existing pipelines- demonstrating there is no need to build new pipelines. Even if greater pipeline capacity is reduced due to quality and transport challenges, and comply with the requirements of a greener society, new projects will remain uneconomic under the SDS, and therefore the appropriateness of such pipeline projects should be reconsidered. 

The analysts highlighted that the scenarios used in the report still fall short of the Paris Agreement target to limit global warming to 1.5˚C. The analysis showed that the first scenario, the SDS limits warming to 1.7-1.8˚C and the second scenario, Beyond 2 Degrees Scenario (B2D2), to 1.6˚C. 

Economic Viability of Oil Projects

The report stated that ‘investors in oil sands face depressed cash flows in a low carbon world of falling oil demand and weak pricing, but will be forced to produce or pay the price due to inflexible “take-or-pay” transport fees for excess new pipeline capacity’. 

Furthermore, the Canadian government’s stakes in Keystone XL and Trans Mountain could rely on public tax money, which would be far better spent on environmentally friendly and sustainable projects. 

Canada’s leadership position on the climate crisis may be subverted by its support for projects reliant on the failure of the Paris Agreement, indicating that the country’s aspiration of complying with the Paris-aligned world is doubtful. 

Evidently, there remains a divide between environmental motivation and monetary incentives- such that people tend to perceive the two as mutually exclusive. However, if a global, widespread effort is made towards shifting to a greener economy, then the two will inevitably go hand-in-hand. Without this shift, a limbo between wanting to mitigate the climate crisis and wanting to ensure financial stability will continue to prevail. Because of how vulnerable it is to global warming, it is certainly in Canada ’s best interest to divest from use of fossil fuels and instead invest in projects that will green the economy while ensuring profitability. 

Featured image by: kris krüg

The COVID-19 pandemic has no doubt created immense obstacles for the global economic system. In these trying times, there is a ray of light: global lockdown measures have made clear the damaging impact of humanity on the planet, with air pollution in some parts of the globe clearing rapidly. A report issued by the International Energy Agency (IEA) says that as global emissions are likely to fall 8% this year from last, there will be a surge in demand for renewable energy post COVID-19.

The IEA reports that almost every country is steering toward low-carbon energy sources for electricity production, including solar PV, nuclear power, hydropower and wind energy. Demand for renewable electricity is expected to grow by 5% in 2020, ‘with hydropower playing an increasingly important role’.

The pandemic has revealed the weaknesses in the foundation on which our economic system functions. For example, oil prices turned negative for the first time in the US earlier this month, putting the oil industry at risk of losing thousands of jobs. Countries in which strict lockdowns were imposed have seen a 25% decline in weekly energy demand as industrial activities have drawn to a halt. In countries with partial lockdowns, energy demand has fallen by 18%. The IEA predicts that the global demand for natural gas is on course for its largest annual decline in history. Although a rebound is expected in 2021, the latest IEA forecast for natural gas markets does not assume a rapid return to the pre-crisis trajectory.

With the global economy’s reliance on fossil fuels like oil and gas, Dr Charles Donovan, Executive Director of the Centre for Climate Finance and Investment at London’s Imperial College Business School, says, “I think we’re entering a whole new phase of volatility.” He adds that “increased volatility in the oil markets will stand in stark contrast to what may become the great virtue of renewable energy, which has nothing to do with its greenness, but more about the stability of cash flows from underlying assets.”

Naturally, the push to transition to renewable energy sources is primarily environmental, however, there is also a strong economic incentive as governments look to mitigate the future economic impacts of the climate crisis and associated events, like COVID-19 and future pandemics. In April, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) released its Global Renewables Outlook report, which shows that renewable energy could power economic growth post-COVID-19 by spurring global GDP gains of almost US$100 trillion between now and 2050.

Governments need to keep clean energy technologies at the forefront of their plans to restore their economies. After all, investing in these green projects can create jobs, make economies more competitive and steer the world towards a more climate resilient future. 

These clean energy sources are also ‘resistant to monopolisation by cartels and outright manipulation’, which renders them more stable over time in terms of price and should make renewable energy resources immune from deterioration. Capital-intensive industries have large fixed costs, so to provide reasonable prices to the consumer, the scale at which they must produce to spread and reduce these costs means that they will be serving a large portion of the population, creating the conditions for monopolisation. For example, South Africa’s state-owned coal-powered power utility, Eskom, provides 95% of the country’s electricity, but is often prone to station outages due to an unreliable supply of coal. 

To get economies moving again, central banks have injected large amounts of cash to bail out drowning businesses with little success; for example, despite the U.S. Federal Reserve pumping $1.5 trillion into the markets in an attempt to calm investors, the stock markets saw their worst day since the 1987 Black Monday market crash on March 12, prompting market researcher James Bianco to call the Federal Reserve’s move the ‘nuclear option’, saying that “financial markets are not recovering.” To aid this shift to greener alternatives, policy makers should ensure that these cash injections are targeted towards efforts that support decarbonisation. UN chief, António Guterres urged governments not to use taxpayer cash to bail out fossil fuel companies and carbon-intensive industries, but to devote economic rescue packages to businesses that cut greenhouse gas emissions and create green jobs.

The process of developing low-carbon infrastructure is unlikely to fully solve the problems that come with such a pandemic or global economic crisis. However, the idea is that over time the global economy can build resilience to these hits, so that economies can recover faster, as compared to economies that rely on finite resources such as oil and gas that invite volatility into the economy. More importantly, as a global economy, COVID-19 has created an opportunity to integrate renewable energy and overall sustainability into the foundation of our systems, to tackle pressing issues such as the climate crisis and biodiversity loss.

A new survey from the US Energy Information Administration has found a decrease in both current and future expectations of coal power generation. The decline is a result of a diminishing number of new coal power plants and divestment of coal from insurers who wish to avoid the environmental and social ramifications of backing the dirty energy source.

— 

In 2018, while addressing supporters at a rally in West Virginia, President Trump assured them that he would put an end to Obama’s so-called ‘war on coal’ and ensure jobs for approximately 33 000 American coal miners who had lost work since Obama took office in 2009. The reality seems to have inadvertently been the opposite, escaping President Trump’s goals. 

Ironically, Trump’s administration has done more for the abolition of the US coal industry than Obama’s Clean Energy Act. According to the US Department of Energy, ‘over the first three years of the Trump administration, coal retirements have continued at an even faster rate than during the Obama years’. 

Records reveal that the average annual coal capacity retirements during Obama’s terms were 4.2 Gigawatts from 2009-12 and 9.2 Gigawatts from 2013-2016, respectively. Yet, President Trump’s first term saw a retirement of 11.7 Gigawatts, higher than either of Obama’s terms, while pledging to do the opposite. This shows no signs of faltering either, with a record breaking 14 Gigawatts of coal capacity expected to be retired in 2019.

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Between 2008 and 2016, 17% of US coal capacity retired. Yet what the Trump administration perhaps fails to realise is how the industry downfall is being driven by market economics rather than any previous President’s policy. 

Coal burning worldwide reached its peak production in 2013, and 2019 saw the biggest decline in global coal burning- 3%- a ‘trend unlikely to change’ according to author Fred Pearce. Further, the number of new coal plants that began construction worldwide fell by 84% between 2015 and 2018. 

In the US, 24% of electricity is now produced by coal; this was at 45% 12 years ago. Trump may assure his supporters in public that ‘the coal industry is back’ but in reality, no coal-burning power plants have been commissioned since he entered the White House. 

Coal is becoming a toxic commodity. This is due to a number of reasons, partly because there has been a surge in the growth of alternatives that are both cheaper and cleaner. 

Burning coal emits a mixture of mercury, sulfur dioxide and minute particulates that are known to cause a range of respiratory problems and cancer. Limits in coal production set by the Environmental Protection Agency have helped prevent some of these emissions, but many plants don’t have the necessary pollution controls installed

Pressure from non-governmental health organisations also has a part to play, with the coal capacity retirement between 2008 and 2016 resulting in 80% less sulfur dioxide and 34% less carbon dioxide.  

Market forces are also a contributing factor, with the US-China tariffs stifling much of the US’s safety valve in the face of shrinking domestic demand for coal. In such an instance, the coal would be exported abroad, yet the expense and rising tensions have put off foreign buyers of US coal. 

Insurers have been gradually turning their backs on coal production, starting in Europe, then the US. Once the European Investment Bank committed to phasing out the financing of fossil fuel projects by 2021, the potential demise of coal spread quickly among insurers. Pressured by organisations like UnfriendCoal, insurers were most likely dissuaded by the thought of facing public backlash by covering the construction of a coal plant. Insurance is vital in the construction of a coal-fired power plant to allow investors and share-holders to gain confidence in its construction with lower risk. Additionally, Axis, a large US insurer, has pledged not to ‘provide new insurance or facultative reinsurance for the construction of new thermal coal plants or mines and their dedicated infrastructure or oil sands extraction and pipeline projects and their dedicated infrastructure’. 

This decline in confidence for coal makes it all the more unlikely that any insurers will provide insurance for the construction of new coal power plants, as it would mean a reputational and financial risk in a turbulent, uncertain economic and political climate. Murray Energy in the US declared bankruptcy last month, one of eight coal companies in 2019 to do so. 

It seems as though earlier calls for companies to back out of coal have succeeded. Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England, warned that unless firms woke up to the climate crisis, many of their assets would become worthless

The COVID-19 pandemic has seen dramatic declines in coal consumption in China, with the coal throughput of Qinhuangdao, the main coal port, falling to the lowest level in four years in the four weeks to March 1. However, this will most likely return to normal levels once the virus abates. 

It looks as though coal may be completely phased out in the US and Europe, a vital part of reducing our pollutants. One of the most effective ways this is possible is by reducing the energy produced by the oil and gas industry, the largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions (42%), to make way for cleaner energy production in an effort to decarbonise the future. 

A new report has found that since agreeing to the Paris Agreement, G20 countries have acted directly counter to it by providing at least USD77 billion a year for fossil fuel subsidies through their public finance institutions. 

The report from Oil Change International and Friends of the Earth (FOE) US focuses on financing for oil, gas and coal projects, comparing figures from 2016-2018 to those from 2013-2015, from members of the Group of 20 (G20), which comprises governments and central bank governors from 19 countries, including the US, the UK, Saudi Arabia and Australia, and the European Union. G20 members represent around 80% of the world’s economic output, two-thirds of the global population and three-quarters of international trade. These countries therefore have a massive responsibility to take the lead in transitioning to a greener economy. 

Fossil Fuel Subsidies by Country

The report reveals that support for fossil fuels has not dropped since the Paris Agreement was made, with annual average support for coal from G20 countries increasing by $1.3 billion per year, and support for oil and gas staying steady at $64 billion a year. China, Japan, Canada and South Korea provided the most public finance for dirty energy projects from 2016 to 2018. 

Kate DeAngelis, FOE US senior international policy analyst, says, “Our planet is hurtling towards climate catastrophe and these countries are pouring gasoline on the fire to the tune of billions. We must hold G20 governments accountable for their promises to move countries toward clean energy. They have an opportunity to reflect and change their financing so that it supports clean energy solutions that will not exacerbate bad health outcomes and put workers at greater risk.”

To spur economic recovery post-COVID-19, governments around the world are preparing public finance packages representing a massive part of their GDP; Japan is investing 21% of their GDP into a stimulus package and the US 11%, while globally, these packages represent more than 5% of the global GDP. Without a dramatic departure from recent trends, these packages are likely to spur another crisis, one that will become more dangerous even after the virus abates. 

The report, called “Still Digging: G20 Governments Continue to Finance the Climate Crisis,” warns that ‘we cannot afford for the wave of public finance that is being prepared for relief and recovery efforts to prop up the fossil fuel industry as it has in the past. Business as usual would exacerbate the next crisis- the climate crisis- that is already on our doorstep’. 

Bronwen Tucker, Oil Change International research analyst, says, “Fossil fuel corporations know their days are numbered. Their lobbyists are using the COVID-19 crisis as a cover to try to secure the massive new government handouts they need to survive.”

The report urges G20 governments and multilateral development banks to support a global, just recovery to the pandemic. 

Tucker says, “Government money must instead support a just transition from fossil fuels that protects workers, communities, and the climate- both at home and beyond their borders. Instead of bankrolling another major crisis- climate change- our governments should invest in a resilient future.”

The report also urges G20 governments to direct the public’s money away from fossil fuels and toward climate solutions that will build a more resilient economy and makes recommendations, including ending all public finance for fossil fuel projects after 2020, scaling up investment in clean energy, energy efficiency and energy access, as well as ensuring transparent and timely reporting on all energy finance.

However, the report doesn’t cover ‘majority government-owned banks without a clear policy mandate, sovereign wealth funds, or public finance institutions with subnational governance’, or ‘subsidies to fossil fuel production at the national level in G20 state budgets, which previous analysis has indicated may provide an additional $80 billion per year in support to fossil fuel production’. 

The facts are clear- if we are to limit warming to 1.5°C and avoid the worst of the climate crisis, we cannot afford to finance new fossil fuel projects. G20 countries need to take the lead in investing in new technologies and implementing policies that prioritise a green recovery from the coronavirus and beyond. The report says that these countries could be the catalysts for more climate-friendly financing decisions ‘due to their economic and political power’ and they should use this power to protect the future of the planet. 

Featured image by: UniversityBlogSpot

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.

Decarbonisation: Definition

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

Renewable energy has long been touted as the solution to the climate crisis. However, a study at Stanford has found that 100% renewable energy does not always equal 100% carbon-free energy. 

How Much Power is Currently Being Generated by Renewables Globally?

When 100% Renewable Energy Doesn't Mean Zero Carbon
Renewable energy generation, world (Source: ourworldindata.org).

From the 2000s, renewable energy started to emerge as a popular alternative to traditional biomass energy sources. Globally, the production of renewable energy has increased immensely since the 1960s. In 2016, the global production of renewable energy was approximately 5.9 TWh, representing a five to six-fold increase since the 1960s. Hydropower has been the dominant renewable energy source for the past 50 years with over 4 TWh generated in 2018, or almost 70% of renewables consumption. 

Solar and wind energy production is also steadily increasing. According to Enerdata, an energy intelligence and consulting company, renewable energy accounted for about 26% of world’s electricity generation in 2018 while the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates that this will increase to 31% by 2040.

The Carbon Footprint of Renewable Energy

The fact that 100% renewable energy does not equal 100% carbon-free energy is largely due to a limitation on technology, among other challenges. 

Some of these challenges include the amount of carbon dioxide that is emitted during both the manufacturing of the materials for power grids and the installation of power grid systems and the lack of renewable energy storage solutions that has led to non-renewable energy needing to be mixed in with clean energy to support the demand of electricity.

With solar farms, the lack of technological advancement is troubling, and at times leads to the use of fossil fuels. California produces so much solar power that it has to pay to divert excess power to Arizona. This is because when there is a surge in solar power generation, some solar farms are ordered to temporarily halt operations or divert the excess power to other states; too much electricity can result in power outages. However, while California can order large-scale solar plants to shut off panels, it can’t control solar rooftop installations. On those days when it receives California’s power, Arizona will shut down its renewable energy generators instead of cutting its energy production generated by fossil fuels.

An insufficient supply of renewable energy may occur on rainy days or in places that have a large fluctuation in renewable energy. To counter this, companies are purchasing traditional non-renewable energy to support the demand for electricity. According to the Stanford study, “Corporations that claim to be 100 percent renewable do not actually cover all their power use with renewables, as some acknowledge. Instead, they purchase or generate enough renewable energy to match 100 percent or more of their electricity use over the course of the year.” 

In order to maintain greenhouse gas reductions during periods of an oversupply of renewable energy, energy policies have to be reviewed, a challenging task. 

In recent years, there has been a noticeably increasing trend in the investments of renewable energy. From 2004 to 2016, global investments in renewable technologies have increased by about 500%. The situation is looking favourable for the growth of renewable energy technology innovation but currently it remains an expensive option, due to, among other factors, storage costs. 

Albeit the financial cost of storage, numerous companies and start-ups are making ground-breaking discoveries, such as Form Energy, funded by Bill Gate’s Breakthrough Energy Ventures, which suggests sulphur flow batteries and e-Zn, a Canadian startup, that announced their project to use zinc as a long-term clean energy storage solution this year. 

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When 100% Renewable Energy Doesn't Mean Zero Carbon
Investment in renewable energy, by technology (Source: ourworldindata.org).

Annual vs Hourly accounting

Currently, greenhouse gas emissions are estimated using a yearly average which is not accurate for places like California and Hawaii, which have high fluctuations in energy production during the year. According to a study carried out by Stanford University, by 2025, the use of yearly averages in California could overstate the greenhouse gas reductions associated with solar power by more than 50% when compared to hourly averages.

Such accounting methods will only lead to similar energy transactions like those between California and Arizona. As Sally Benson, co-author of the Stanford study and co-director of the Precourt Institute for Energy said, “Just purchasing more solar energy in a grid that already has lots of solar generation will not result in zero emissions.

To summarise what hourly accounting methods encompass, each hourly net energy value is assigned an hourly carbon emissions intensity, measured in metric tonnes of CO2 per megawatt-hour, to convert it to an hourly emissions total. These hourly emissions totals would then be summed across the hours in a year. 

Vincent Xia of the Precourt Institute for Energy wrote, “Hourly carbon accounting methods could help large consumers increase their use of low-carbon power from the grid.” The accurate data gathered from the hourly average will allow consumers to make the best-informed decision on renewable investments and consumption behaviours.

Renewables as Efficient as Fossil Fuels?

In the long run, renewable energy may be just as efficient as fossil fuels. Based on a study conducted by the University of Leeds, when the world runs out of easily accessible non-renewable energy sources, the cost of fossil fuel extraction activities will increase, meaning that more energy will be used to extract lower-quality fuels. This will decrease the efficiency of fossil fuels and its ‘Energy Return on Investment’ (EROI) standing. EROI is the ratio of the amount of energy obtained from an energy source to the amount of energy expended to produce that energy; fossil fuels have an EROI of 6:1- similar to that of renewable energy. 

However, the capacity factor of renewable energy at the current technological level is still low. The capacity factor, the ratio of generated electricity to potential maximum electricity in a year, will have to rise in order to raise efficiency. The capacity factor in the UK is 10%, and up to 27% in the sunniest places in the world. Low capacity factors under 10% can impact the efficiency and cost of renewable energy.

The Difficult Divestment From Fossil Fuels 

Divesting from fossil fuels to renewable energy is not easy. A report published by Rainforest Action Network also reveals that many financial corporations have not been acting in accordance with the Paris Agreement. JP Morgan Chase is reported to be the biggest funding corporation who provided financial services to oil, gas and coal extraction activities amounting to £220 billion. 

The findings point to one serious problem behind the possibility of achieving a 100% renewable energy environment — the fossil fuel industry is backed by huge financial institutions. To divest from fossil fuels will cost these corporations. However, the impact of divestment in fossil fuel companies is evident as Shell announced that divestment is a great material risk to the company. 

Effective divestment takes place when it is a collective act, which means that more companies have to join in on divesting from fossil fuels. The recorded  $12 trillion fundings divested from traditional fossil fuel companies is only baby steps towards the transition to renewable energy.

Refocus on the Use of Emissions from Energy Sources

In the face of the imminent climate crisis, a rapid transition to carbon-free energy sources is inevitable. However, renewable energy has not been largely consumed until recent decades and there is a lack of technological knowledge for large-scale renewable energy production that promises a 100% carbon-free environment. As technology innovation advances, it would be too early to draw a conclusion now on the best 100% carbon-free solution.

For now, focus should be put on increasing existing energy sources’ energy efficiency. As commented by Joshua Rhodes, a Senior Energy Analyst at Vibrant Clean Energy LLC, a company that is focused on intelligent energy grid designs,“When we focus just on technologies, that restricts the tools we can use. However, the more tools we have at our disposal, the better chance we have to develop solutions to our energy problems in a meaningful way.”

Featured image by: Carl Berger Sr

As the realities of the climate crisis become more widely discussed around the world, governments are increasingly under pressure from the general public to take action. Many institutions and governments have declared a ‘climate emergency’, but does this translate into policy or is it just hot air?

Climate Emergency Declaration: First Country

The city of Bristol was the UK’s first council to declare a climate emergency. Bristol’s move has since been widely credited as a breakthrough for cities, local governments and parliaments worldwide to follow its example. Six months later, the UK became the first country in the world to declare a climate emergency. 

One of the UK’s research hubs on climate change, the University of Bristol, declared such an emergency soon after, becoming the first UK university to do so following widespread pressure from its student body. Reacted to with much elation from environmentally-conscious students, the move was soon followed by other universities across the UK.

However, the question of whether such announcements will translate into effective policy remains.

Dr Dann Mitchell, an Atmospheric Scientist and Associate Professor at the university, responded to the declaration by highlighting the importance of policy follow-through once the declaration has been made.

“Legally, there are no commitments for declaring a climate emergency, so the university doesn’t actually have to do anything. That is a cause for concern because it raises the question of whether the university is just declaring this as a publicity stunt, or if it’s actually developing strategies to become carbon-neutral.”

UK institutions have paved the way for such landmark declarations, and other international bodies are beginning to follow suit. In November, the EU parliament declared a climate emergency following a landslide vote from members, with the president of the European Commission, Ursula Von Der Leyen, asserting that it was a resounding ‘agenda for change’. 

However, these calls to action are waiting to be met with discernible change. Such an agenda places pressure on countries to join the ranks to fight climate change without significant promises or legal action. It invites the European Council to align with the Paris Agreement goal of keeping global mean temperature rise below 1.5°C, but imposes no obligation on them to align themselves with such a goal.

Around the world, it seems that climate emergency declarations haven’t delivered many material accomplishments. One day after Canada declared such an emergency, the government approved a tar sands pipeline expansion that could bring an additional 600 000 barrels of oil per day to international markets. The UK’s declaration in May came as local authorities supported plans to significantly expand coal mining. 

Environmental campaigners approached the declaration in a familiar manner, by applauding the language of change but wanting to see real change. Greenpeace EU policy climate advisor, Sebastian Lang, responded by saying, “Our house is on fire. The European Parliament have seen the blaze, but it’s not enough to stand by and watch.”

Von Der Leyen’s commission has already proposed a reduction to net zero emissions by 2050, but the European Council has failed to pass this motion as of yet with staunch opposition from Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. It’s alarmingly evident that tough words often don’t translate to tough policy. 

The climate crisis however, is obviously not limited to developed countries, where climate action is proclaimed by countries built on the use of fossil fuels and natural resources. Tackling the climate emergency in developing countries must address the complex interface of the need for emissions reduction alongside the necessity for economic development. 

So far, few African and Asian countries have incorporated the climate crisis into their respective policy output, nor adopted the language of ‘climate emergency’. When understood in the wider framework of meeting people’s basic needs, impending environmental issues are often sidelined in favour of more immediate socio-economic development. 

Although wealthy Western nations disproportionately emit the largest percentage of emissions, it must also be considered that six of the top ten global emitters are rapidly developing countries, whose growth has come at the cost of immense emissions output. As economic growth continues around the world, the need to rethink the way that growth progresses, and incorporate the climate crisis into a multi-faceted approach to ‘development’ is becoming even more necessary. The climate crisis demands global cooperation on these issues, or humanity risks losing the determination and effort that such a crisis deserves.

Encouragingly, African leaders called for a global climate emergency at a UN climate action summit in September, in addition to requesting more funding from the international community for droughts, rising sea levels and severe tropical cyclones. However, questions arise as to whether declaring such an emergency will change attitudes in their countries. If developed nations face resistance from those who regard their own issues to be of greater importance, then the world’s lower-income countries will most likely be faced with even more resistance from their people. 

When considering that developing countries are the most likely to bear the brunt of climate change, policymakers and the masses must work together to produce an impactful response to such a declaration that incorporates emissions reduction with a sustainable approach to economic and social development. 

Progress has undoubtedly been made as the world wakes up to the reality of how the climate crisis is unfolding and how it is affecting the planet and those who live on it. Now that the nomenclature is beginning to be more widely adopted, questions abound as to whether effective policy implementation remains, as ever, just out of reach. 

The surge in fires that tore through the Amazon rainforest this year made headlines around the world and stirred up controversy for the Brazilian government. However, another environmental disaster- the third that Brazil has experienced this year- has been affecting the country’s coastline: a mysterious oil spill whose origin is still unclear. 

Since August, oil has been washing up on the northeastern shores of Brazil with little explanation from the authorities. The president, Jair Bolsonaro, first pointed the finger at neighbouring Venezuela and later suggested that it was an act of terrorism initiated by Greenpeace. Conflicting reports continue to emerge, with the blame being put on both Greek and Marshall Islands-flagged tankers.

Brazil Oil Spill Cause

‘Bilge dumping’ (when cargo vessels and tankers illegally dump oily “bilge water” into the ocean) could be the cause of the oil spill, but authorities in Brazil say that this is unlikely. The government has been criticised for its disaster response, having failed to implement contingency plans until October.

While the blame game rages on, the oil spill has continued to pollute shorelines. As of November, 2 500 kms of tropical Brazilian beaches have been stained, more than a third of the total length of Brazil’s coast (7 367 km according to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics).  

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Based on maps of the pollution created by locals and IBAMA (Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources), the oil spill has stained beaches in Praia de Flamengo, Piatã and Boca do Rio (among others), as well as 123 cities, including Salvador, Lauro de Freitas and Esplanada. 14 natural reserves and parks are also among the affected areas. 

Brazil Oil Production

The country’s production of oil and natural gas increased in 2019 compared to the previous year and a record-breaking August saw oil production reach 2.989 million barrels per day, up 18.5% from August 2018, while natural gas production rose 25.3% from August 2018 to 133.3 million cubic meters per day. 

While this increased production will no doubt boost the oil industry (the resource contributes 7% to the country’s GDP), ecosystems and local communities should be considered. Fishermen are especially affected, given that their main economic activity is reliant on the sea; sales of seafood have fallen sharply because of potential oil contamination. 

The Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Supply conducted a study of fish in the affected areas. It identified two fish samples with values above the levels of health concern as defined by the National Health Surveillance Agency (ANVISA), while another 66 fish, shrimp and lobster samples analysed so far have results below these levels. The study noted that there is a risk of contamination ‘only if there is continuous consumption of the same product at these levels for several years’. It is therefore perhaps too early to determine the effects this incident will have on the consumption of fish from the affected areas.

Researchers point out that, in addition to the visible impact that the spill has had on beaches, mangroves and estuaries, traces of oil have been found in animals including shellfish, birds and fish. IBAMA has reported that of 151 oiled animals that have so far been recovered from affected areas, 106 have died. Further impacts on wildlife include asphyxiation, a reduction in fish larvae being fertilised and disturbances in food chains. 

The coral reefs in the areas of impact have also been affected. Experts say that this is the worst disaster in history for Brazilian corals; the reefs were hit as they were recovering from unprecedented bleaching caused by rising sea temperatures that led to 90% of one species dying. Greenpeace explains that coral reefs are affected by decomposing oil, which increases the resource’s density and causes between 10% and 30% of it to be absorbed by sediments and suspended materials, often settling into corals. 

Local communities have taken action to clean up the spill in light of government inaction. However, compounds found in fuel oil can be inhaled without proper protection and are volatile. These compounds (benzene, toluene and xylene) are highly carcinogenic and acute intoxication can cause nausea and headaches. Some volunteers have been hospitalised due to toxin exposure. 

The government of Brazil needs to implement corrective and proactive measures to prevent an accident like this oil spill from happening again or the region will continue to suffer. Unfortunately, this looks to be unlikely as the government has dismantled environmental laws and agencies meant to safeguard the environment and the economy, including reducing the number of fines given for illegal deforestation and essentially dismantling IBAMA. Continuing to behave without regard for the planet will render the most vulnerable inhabitants defenceless against the onslaught of climate change and harmful actions by humans. 

Featured image by: Wikimedia

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