French climatologist and glaciologist and Honorary President of the Finance Climate Pact launched during the One Planet Summit, Jean Jouzel shares his thoughts on the situation of the fight against the global warming, three years after the Paris Agreement.
Will the commitments made during the Paris Agreement in December 2015 allow the objective of a maximum temperature increase of 2 or even 1.5 degrees to be met?
These are voluntary commitments made by countries – they have all committed to something, some to not very much. Some have also signed the Paris Agreement, but have still not ratified it (such as Russia, for example). The announced withdrawal of the USA, the second largest greenhouse gas emitting country, is likely to have a snowball effect. Even if countries have rallied behind the Paris Agreement, there is a likelihood that some will not ratify or honor their commitments. But there is another problem: these commitments fall far too short of containing the rise in temperatures well below 2 degrees, or even 1.5 degrees, compared to the pre-industrial era.
Even if they were respected, we will only have gone a third of the way. In the best-case scenario, we are on a path towards global warming ranging between an average of 3 and 3.5 degrees by the end of the century. The ambition of the Paris Agreement needs to be raised and there needs to be a threefold increase in commitments to reducing emissions compared to those which have currently been set.
Is it too late?
The scientific community thinks that it is not too late. We are still rather optimistic, even if the objectives look extremely difficult to achieve. At the present rate, we only have the equivalent of about twenty years of CO2 emissions left, barely more. Carbon neutrality should be achieved at global level in the second half of this century. This would appear even more difficult to achieve as demographers are telling us that we will need to feed 10 billion inhabitants. Yet CO2 is the main greenhouse gas, but there is also methane and some of its emissions are related to agriculture and food. It will be difficult to reduce their emissions with a population increase of 50%. I was optimistic up until the Paris Agreement, as all countries had committed to sign. This initiated a virtuous circle. But the US withdrawal was really bad news and I fear that it may trigger a vicious circle, that countries give up on or do not take their commitments seriously and that no country will go any further. I am pessimistic about the 2-degree objective.
Has the notion of climate risk been sufficiently integrated into economic models?
Supporting renewable energy development requires a lot of money. Economists estimate that the energy transition will be extremely expensive. But abandoning this investment is a miscalculation from an economic perspective and from an ecological perspective. Climate risks are not sufficiently taken into account, including for the financial system itself. Not doing anything to fight against climate change would cost more than taking it into account. From an economic perspective, it may be a good calculation in the short term, but in the medium and long term, it is an extremely bad bet. I am convinced that the countries which will take the first steps of transition towards a low-carbon society will stand to gain economically. However, the solution can only be global: we will only succeed if all countries follow the same track.
What solutions need to be implemented?
Today, the only solution to contain global warming would be to generate negative emissions, i.e. to pump CO2 from the atmosphere, as with the bioenergy associated with carbon capture and storage (BECCS). The use of biomass power plants would allow CO2 to be trapped and energy to be produced. The problem is that there is a limited surface area available on the planet. This is especially because that with every likelihood of a major population increase, there is a risk of competition between their use for energy and for food.
Are bioengineering techniques relevant?
There are two approaches: one aims to reduce or pump greenhouse gas emissions, the other works on solar radiation. It will be difficult to avoid CO2 capture and storage if we want to achieve negative emissions, or even simply to limit emissions. The simplest technique is reforestation. By contrast, approaches which involve trying to modify solar radiation by imitating volcanoes, meaning sending sulphate aerosols into the lower stratosphere, are playing with fire. It would mean hanging a sword of Damocles over the young people of today. The only feasible way is to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions and switch to a low-carbon society. Unfortunately, we are not really taking this route!
What does a low-carbon society look like?
Unlike what people imagine, the transition towards a low-carbon society is possible, economically viable and synonymous with economic dynamism. Succeeding the energy transition at European level means relocating activities and creating six million net jobs by 2050 on the continent, including between 600,000 and 900,000 in France. This transition can, of course, only come about if there is a lot of inventiveness, research, creativity. This should be extremely attractive for young people.
What is the situation in developing countries?
It obviously applies to them too. It is absolutely necessary for Africa to develop based on dynamics combining renewable energies and a low-carbon society. One thing is extremely clear: if Africa develops widely on fossil fuels, we will have lost the battle against global warming.
How can we account for the inertia faced with the need for change?
We have been repeating the same message for about thirty years now: global warming is unavoidable if we maintain a development model based on fossil fuels. Policymakers have heard us. The first IPCC report was released in 1990. It was followed by the Climate Convention and policymakers signed it at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. The Convention was enhanced in 2009, then combined with quantified targets in 2015 with the Paris Agreement. The problem is that all these texts which are based on a diagnostic made by the scientific community remain on paper only. There is a divide between the Paris Agreement and the commitments made in the context of this agreement. In France, the law on the energy transition for green growth is fully consistent with the fight against global warming worldwide, but we are already falling behind with its implementation. Achieving zero carbon in France by 2050 is far from a done deal! It is all well and good to announce it, but it has to become a reality.
What are the barriers to the implementation of these objectives?
First of all, the fact that fossil fuels are inexpensive. In the 1990s, we thought that we were going to reach a situation of peak oil and that the depletion of fossil fuels would facilitate the transition. But the exploitation of oil shales and non-conventional oils and gases has completely revolutionized this point of view. The end of fossil fuels is not something for tomorrow. If we want to remain below 2 degrees, we need to leave the bulk of these fuels where they are and only use 3 or 4% of resources. This means asking operators and oil and gas lobbies to commit hara-kiri.
Finally, we ourselves as citizens are not ready to go low carbon. For example, tourism currently accounts for 8% of greenhouse gas emissions and is constantly increasing. Everyone should give up their car and take public transport as much as possible – provided that public authorities ensure its deployment. There is an egoism in all of us. Few people see the interest of changing: they either do not believe in global warming, or they think that we will always be able to come up with a solution once the global warming actually happens, meaning in 10, 20 or 30 years. But they are mistaken!
The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of their institutions or of AFD.