By Arthur de Graft-Rosenior

With the Conference of the Parties (COP26) now come and gone, is decarbonisation as a burning issue linked to climate change here to stay?  The cliché usually is that ‘We are all in the same storm but in different boats’- but this time…on this one planet Earth, are we all in the same boat, going through the same storm?

We can neither run away nor hide from the fact that planet Earth is the only home (so far) that we as human beings have or have inherited as custodians of the future.  We the people (animals and plants) therefore need to confront the burning issue of decarbonisation.

Decarbonisation is the term used for the process of removing or reducing the carbon dioxide (CO2) output of a country’s economy. This is usually done by decreasing the amount of CO2 emitted across the active industries within that economy. (https://www.drax.com/carbon-capture/what-is-decarbonisation/). 

In the pursuit of carbon neutrality, scientists, governments, businesses and other concerned agencies have put particular focus on organisations achieving ‘net zero’ status.  The latter is defined as: “achieving an overall balance between emissions produced and emissions taken out of the atmosphere of the earth” (https://www.igniteenergy.co.uk/news/netzeroforbusinesses/gclid=Cj0KCQiAlMCOBhCZARIsANLid6YVHnawaWKseF8-PNcK0r4OY8JCaVHgdnyKXqWf08nf8hLvdnumOqUaApuKEALw_wcB).

One of the key thematic sessions of COP 26 was ‘energy day’.  The hue and cry came from the UN Secretary-General António Guterres to: “consign coal to history”. Meanwhile the President of the Conference Alok Sharma ‘announced the new Global Clean Power Transition Statement, a commitment to end coal investments, scale up clean power, make a just transition, and phase out coal by the 2030´s in major economies, and in the 2040´s elsewhere’ (https://news.un.org/en/news/topic/climate-change).

According to UN sources, ‘Unfortunately, the statement leaves out the biggest coal financers China, Japan and Republic of Korea, which however, committed last year to end overseas finance for coal generation by the end of 2021’.

‘Coal is the single biggest contributor to anthropogenic climate change. The burning of coal is responsible for 46% of carbon dioxide emissions worldwide and accounts for 72% of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the electricity sector. (endcoal.org).  The source argues that:   ’If plans to build up to 1200 new coal fired power stations around the world are realized, the greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) from these plants would put us on a path towards catastrophic climate change, causing global temperatures to rise by over five degrees Celsius by 2100. This will have dire impacts for all life on earth’.

However, some major emitters have not shown genuine commitment to achieve their 2030 targets to keep temperature rise to around 1.8 or 1.9 degrees C (particularly those from Australia, China, Saudi Arabia, Brazil and Russia) who still need to offer credible pathways to achieve their net-zero targets. Without such commitments, a major “credibility gap” exists between the 2.5 degrees C-aligned 2030 targets and nations’ net-zero targets.  According to World Resources Institute sources, ‘To fix this problem, these countries’ must strengthen their 2030 emissions reduction targets to at least align with their net-zero commitments’.

Under the Glasgow Climate Pact, at COP26.among other commitments, countries also made bold collective commitments to curb methane emissions, to halt and reverse forest loss, align the finance sector with net-zero by 2050, ditch the internal combustion engine, accelerate the phase-out of coal, and end international financing for fossil fuels.  Similarly, Glasgow became a platform for launching innovative sectoral partnerships and new funding to support these, with the aim of reshaping every sector of the economy at the scale necessary to deliver a net-zero future. (World Resources Institute).

Furthermore, a BBC News report (‘COP26: Document leak reveals nations lobbying to change key climate report-21 October, 2021) revealed leaked documents that reveals ‘Saudi Arabia, Japan and Australia are among countries asking the UN to play down the need to move rapidly away from fossil fuels’ adding that ‘some wealthy nations are questioning paying more to poorer states to move to greener technologies’. In the end, some countries like China and India changed the dialogue from ‘phase-out to phase down’ use of fossil fuels.

Endcoal.com argues that ‘we must end our dependence on coal and invest in affordable and sustainable renewable energy’.  Their concerns were that ‘Coal was the fastest-growing primary energy source in the world in the past decade: between 2001 and 2010, world consumption of coal increased by 45%. During the same time period, total anthropogenic GHG emissions were the highest in human history’

The Union of Concerned Scientist also warn that: ‘When coal is burned it releases a number of airborne toxins and pollutants. They include mercury, lead, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulates, and various other heavy metals. Health impacts can range from asthma and breathing difficulties, to brain damage, heart problems, cancer, neurological disorders, and premature death’.  Regarding the impact of coal on climate change: ‘Consequences of global warming include drought, sea level rise, flooding, extreme weather, and species loss’.

Client Earth also stated that: ‘Coal is the dirtiest of the fossil fuels and responsible for over 0.3C of the 1C increase in global average temperatures – making it the single largest source of global temperature rise’. (https://www.clientearth.org/latest/latest-updates/stories/fossil-fuels-and-climate-change-the-facts/). 

According to a new study by researchers at Stanford University and other institutions, the lead report author, Rob Jackson, a professor of Earth system science at Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences revealed: “We need renewables that displace fossil fuels, not supplement them.”   Professor Jackson however sounded a pessimistic note on the matter as far as progress is concerned. ‘While a handful of countries have begun to decarbonize their energy systems, by dramatically increasing the use of renewables while also improving efficiency, there’s been little progress globally’.

Experts however agree that achieving zero emissions with coal production would not be easily achieved: ‘Globally, the coal mining industry alone employs about 8 million people and creates revenues of more than US$900 billion a year’. (The future of coal in a carbon-constrained climate | Nature Climate Change).

As the people of Glasgow marched in the streets during the Conference of Parties (COP26) gathering of leaders and Heads of states, people around the world were marching as well.  What initially seemed to be a march of the poor people against the rich, is now crystallizing into a march of mainly young people against increasing fears about climate change and a futureless world.

For developing countries to achieve the targets of the Paris agreement, they would need to wean themselves off dependence on fossil fuel.  A World Resources Institute study in 2017 revealed that ‘carbon emissions and developing countries being lifted out of extreme poverty are linked’.  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’.  The report also added 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’.  (https://earth.org/how-developing-countries-can-reduce-emissions-without-compromising-growth/)

Undoubtedly, the human race can no longer afford to dither over the dire need for action on decarbonisation as far as it affects climate change and the emergency exigencies regarding navigating this earthly vessel towards a sustainable future are concerned.  The earth,org report makes it clear: ‘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’.

According to the ‘Progress in reducing emissions 2021 Report to Parliament’ Strategies for achieving zero emissions suggested that: ‘A consensus has developed that the capital investment required for Net Zero can act to boost the economy as it recovers. The importance of good broadband and telecoms provision has become clearer, and we have seen that there is considerable scope to manage offices and other non-residential buildings in a more energy-efficient manner, especially when they are unoccupied’.  The report advocated for progress in the following underlying areas: ‘progress in upgrading the building stock’; ‘Progress in agriculture and land use’; ‘Progress in reducing emissions from waste’; ‘Deployment of renewable electricity generation’; ‘Sales of electric vehicles and the deployment of supporting charging infrastructure’; and ‘emissions reductions in industry (it is unclear how far this reflects structural changes driven by wider factors or genuine improvements in efficiency and carbon intensity), claimed the report.

The report concluded that ‘UK emissions are nearly 50% below 1990 levels, but the journey to Net Zero is far from half done’.  Other proposals for combatting climate change and decarbonization included: Carbon tax; Stopping deforestation; Green grant; Curbing methane emission; Move away from fossil fuel; Dependable, credible energy driven by new technology; solar panels; renewable energy; among others. Corporate businesses like the Panasonic group as part of their contribution towards decarbonisation have pledged: ‘Panasonic has been creating a number of innovative products and solutions and has been collaborating on projects which contribute to the decarbonisation of society. From Smart City projects, to intelligent energy technologies, Panasonic’s environmental business activities are a key strategic pilar for the organisation globally’.

2022 is the last year in which coal may be burned in British domestic hearths (Coal is being phased out—in British homes, at least | The Economist).

Given that richer nations had failed to raise the $100bn annual climate funding they had promised to vulnerable countries, will planet Earth now run out of steam with or without conspicuous consumption of fossil fuels?  What with tensions running high due to the Covid-19 pandemic?  Did tight Covid-19 restrictions during COP 26 deter climate change watchdogs and carbon market regulators from throwing the Paris Agreement “rulebook” at the worst perpetrators of global warming, greenhouse effect and climate change?

What can be done?  New Zealand has used legislations to stop its young people from smoking cigarettes in future.  Now that humanity can successfully and accurately measure the impact of conspicuous consumption of fossil fuels on the planet and the impact of pandemics like Covid-19, what can be done to limit some of the most destructive and unavoidable impacts of climate change?