Climate Change: Are we Taking our Foot off the Gas?

Recent debates have placed the climate change challenge at the front and centre of the international news agenda as organisations around the world re-examine their strategies in the context of reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

The UK Government has taken a bold stance by announcing legislation committing to reaching net zero GHGs by 2050 (the Scottish Government has committed to a 2045 deadline).

The law makes the UK the first member of the G7 group of industrialised nations to legislate for net zero emissions and was described by the UK’s Guardian newspaper as ‘one of the most ambitious such goals set by a major polluting nation’.

Outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May said: “This country led the world in innovation during the Industrial Revolution, and now we must lead the world to a cleaner, greener form of growth.”

The enhanced legislation builds on the Climate Change Act of 2008, which set the UK a target to cut GHG emissions by 80% from 1990 levels by 2050. The recent amendment to the Act was recommended by the UK’s independent climate advisers, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), in line with moves towards a more renewable electricity generation, the phasing out of new petrol and diesel cars and the replacement of natural gas heating for homes with low-carbon alternatives such as hydrogen or heat pumps.

However, the UK Government rejected CCC advice on international carbon credits, whereby a country can pay for cuts elsewhere in place of domestic emissions, by announcing it would retain its ability to use them to help meet the target. A carbon credit permits the right to emit one tonne of carbon dioxide or the equivalent amount of a different greenhouse gas.

“Using international credits within an appropriate monitoring, reporting and verification framework is the right thing to do for the planet, allowing the UK to maximise the value of each pound spent on climate change mitigation,” the Government said.

While the amended legislation was broadly welcomed, Greenpeace argued the potential use of international carbon credits by the UK as part of its attempt to reach its goals would shift the burden of GHG reduction to developing nations.

The role the developing world will play in the global climate change challenge was a key theme of a speech by Mohammed Barkindo, the secretary general of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) at the recent Dundee Energy Forum, which was organised by the University of Dundee’s Centre for Energy, Petroleum and Mineral Law and Policy and attended by Fifth Ring.

Barkindo reiterated to an elite group of global energy experts OPEC’s support of the Paris Agreement to keep the global temperature rise below 2°C above pre-industrial levels. However, he warned against the world ‘putting all our eggs in one basket’ by focusing on a drive to renewables as the sole solution.

“The oil industry must be part of the solution to the climate change challenge,” he said.

He also laid out the issues facing developing nations, which will increasingly demand more energy at an affordable price.

The world’s population is expected to reach 9.2 billion by 2040, an increase of more than 1.5 billion on today’s level. According to OPEC’s World Oil Outlook, global energy demand will increase by 33% to 2040 and 95% of that will come from developing countries with China, India and African nations leading the way. However, despite its rapid growth, Barkindo said renewables will make up only 19% of the global energy mix by 2040, with more than 50% still coming from oil and gas.

In 2017, the International Energy Agency revealed the number of people without access to electricity fell below one billion. However, nearly half the people on earth still use inefficient fuel sources such as wood or coal to cook their food, and every year three to four million people die from illnesses related to smoke inhalation from cooking in this way.

“Energy poverty remains a scourge of our time,” said Nigerian-born Barkindo. “We need to transition to a more inclusive world in which every person has access to energy whether young or old, poor or rich, from the rich industrialised countries or from the poor developing countries. We want to see a world where no one is left behind.

“In the period to 2040 fuel efficiency improvements are expected to result in a far greater reduction in oil demand than the increase in penetration of alternative fuel vehicles. If our industry is concerned about policies that detrimentally impact investment, then we have a potentially dangerous scenario where the necessary investment may not be met – one that would increase volatility significantly and lead to a future energy crisis. Moreover, if those billions of people in the developing world that suffer from a lack of energy access feel they are being sidelined from energies that have helped fuel the developing world then this puts forth further divisions and expands the divide between the haves and the have-nots.”

Standing outside of a Western European perspective and looking at the issue in this way, it is not difficult to see why an oil-rich African nation, for example, may regard the climate change challenge as a problem of the industrial world’s making – and yet one they are required to help solve. Being asked to limit the use of a resource that could fund economic and social development at home by countries that have benefitted greatly from the unfettered exploitation of the same resource over many years raises difficult questions. For instance, should those nations historically responsible for GHGs properly compensate developing nations for projected loss of earnings if they agree to leave their oil in the ground? If so, international carbon credits alone from countries such as the UK would not cover even a fraction the shortfall.