"We still have a window of opportunity": How to avoid global environmental catastrophe

The next two decades are crucial for reversing current trends, an expert tells Salon

By Lindsay Abrams
Published April 11, 2014 3:59PM (EDT)

The U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has already made clear just how bad the effects of climate change can get. Now, they're going to show us how to avoid the very worst of it. The newest report, "Working Group III: Mitigation of Climate Change," drops Sunday in Berlin; it will lay out our potential future pathways for slowing down warming to the 2 degrees limit promised back in 2010.

Salon spoke with Benoit Lefevre, a PhD in economics who specializes in low-carbon urban development and transportation policies for the World Resources Institute, and who contributed to the WGIII report as a lead author for its chapter on cross-cutting investment and finance issues. Lefevre wasn't allowed to comment on what the report will say (there'll be plenty more on that when the embargo lifts next week), but he was able to give us an idea of what to expect.

On the whole, Lefevre said, there's reason to be optimistic -- so long as the world takes the report seriously and uses it to drive action. "The scientists have done what they can do," he told Salon. "Now it’s up to the policymakers" to take what they've learned and do something about it.

Read on for an edited version of our conversation:

This installment of the report focuses on climate mitigation. What sort of things specifically are we talking about?

Since the last assessment report came out in 2007, a lot of new literature has been published.  The third portion of the fifth IPCC Assessment Report (AR5) to be released Sunday is building on this new corpus of analysis and knowledge.  Now we know with high confidence that we are not on track to limit carbon emissions at a level to limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The 2013 UNEP Emission Gaps Report finds that even if we assume countries will deliver on their pledges to reduce carbon emissions, global carbon emissions in 2020 will still be 18-to-27 percent above where they need to be to rein in climate change.

So it is time to act now. Our greatest challenge is time. We have the next two decades to reverse these trends. If we don’t, avoiding a 2-degree plus world will become unfeasible.

I expect this IPCC report to show that it’s still possible to stay below 2 degrees and will outline the way to do so. I anticipate the report to give the timeline of actions required to avoid the worst impacts, to sketch out the different sectors that need to shrink their footprints and highlight the importance of cities. It should also touch on central pathways to decarbonize our energy supply and identify policies and measures governments can take to tackle climate change.

One of the key takeaways I anticipate in the report is validation that there is a need for international cooperation and that the UNFCCC, the international body where countries negotiate actions to address climate change, remains the most legitimate venue to continue to deal with this problem. I also expect that it will point to many ethical considerations that are intertwined with the climate change issue.

Ethical considerations like what?

Like how the task of reducing emissions is shared between the wealthiest and the poorest segments of society. For instance, cities in developing countries bear 80 percent of the costs associated with climate change.  I expect this report will clarify those ethical issues both between countries, but also within societies. Addressing this equity issue will be very important and highly relevant and useful for policymakers.

In terms of the Emission Gaps Report, how close are we to going over that 2 degrees limit, at our current rate of warming? Just how quickly do we need to act to avoid that?

That’s the key question. Again, the key challenge is time. We have a chance to act right now -- we still have a window of opportunity. The next two decades will be the two critical decades of action, especially because the world is urbanizing.

We already know that 70 percent of the world population will live in cities by 2050. And we know that currently, cities contribute 70 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. We expect urban areas to triple in geographic size between 2000 and 2030. That means that most of the world’s urban areas, and their infrastructure, have yet to be constructed.

So we have a choice. Pursuing smart, efficient urban design and planning is critical to avoid locking in carbon intensive infrastructure for decades. The cities that we are going to build in the next two decades will determine -- for a large part -- the level and the nature of energy consumption and the level of future carbon emissions. So it’s really critical that we take the right steps forward now.

And so would that involve things like greener buildings, and more efficient public transportation?

Exactly, and not only that. I expect the report to really highlight the balance between action on the supply-side (the source of our energy supply) and the demand-side (how much energy we use). Decarbonizing electricity generation will be key. We need to divest in fossil fuels, and invest in renewable energy. Decarbonizing electricity generation is a cost-effective carbon reduction approach that should be combined with greener buildings, more efficient transport and cleaner industries.

But limiting energy demand is also a critical element of a climate strategy and will determine how challenging it will be to reduce emissions from the supply side. Using less energy will make it easier to supply cities with a higher percentage of renewable energy.  We need to take a balanced approach to solving both sides of the energy problem.

And we can see that is starting to happen: Low-carbon development has become the core theme of China’s urbanization. In fact, it’s one of the country’s key strategies to achieve its target of reducing carbon intensity by 40-to-45 percent by 2020.

What are some of the barriers to growing the renewable sector?

There are many barriers to growing the renewable sector. Let me focus on one: money and the smart use of money.  More investment is critical. Right now we see a lot of different numbers going around for investment in renewable energy. But we know for sure that there’s a huge gap between the funding we have and the funding we need.

For the first time, an IPCC assessment report contains a chapter dedicated to investment and finance. So I anticipate the fifth IPCC Assessment report to come with a clear view on three key aspects of this question: first on information available on the current financial flows, second, on investment needs, and finally on potential sources of funding to fill the gap.

Filling the gap is about a question of “shifting and increasing”. The challenge is how to shift the current financial flow towards more green investment, and how we can increase those investments. 

The Climate Policy Initiative estimates that there currently is about $360 billion annually in public and private climate investments, with governments in the developed world providing somewhere between $10-20 billion per year, according to their fast-start finance reports and OECD estimates.

On the other side, the World Economic Forum in its Green Investment Report estimates that we need to invest at least $5.7 trillion in clean water, sustainable transport, renewable energy and other green infrastructure annually by 2020 in order to keep global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius, thus preventing climate change’s worst impacts.

Finally, we need to be smart about how this money is spent. For example, Mexico’s wind industry showcases how powerful public dollars can be in mobilizing private investment if they are used to provide sustained policy and institutional support and apply appropriate financial instruments at the right time. Between 2003 and 2011, a mix of domestic renewable energy policies, international finance and technical support transformed Mexico’s fledgling wind industry from two small projects to an industry boasting 17 projects and total investments of over $1 billion at the end of 2011.

So this report is something that you need not just policymakers to pay attention to, but also private investors?

Definitely. Private investment is already playing and will continue to play a key role in green investment. For example, if you take the transport sector, private investment is 58 percent of annual capital investment. So we need to determine how to use international public climate finance that we have in order to shift and increase the current financial flows toward sustainable transport. We need to find the right use of the existing and future international public climate finance to mobilize funding at the scale that is needed.

In order to do that, what we need is a clean road map on how to mobilize finance from private and public sources and help them work together. The question becomes how to do that. What are the policies, regulations and institutions that need to be in place to scale up these investments?

And here, I expect this report to show that these enabling policies, regulations and institutions need to be a combination of “push-pull” factors. On the one hand, developed countries will have to create a set of institutional arrangements and adopt laws and regulations in order to effectively mobilize climate finance. On the other hand developing countries need to put in place policies, institutional capacities and share information that attracts this public and private investment.

How does carbon capture technology play into the need for investment? Leaked drafts suggest that that might be an important part of the IPCC report…

We will see when it’s released, but I expect the report will point out that some of these are needed, but need to be done in a smart way. So it’s really about science. Remember, IPCC is not about being policy prescriptive, it’s about putting forth research that is policy relevant. There are different pathways to keeping warming below 2 degrees Celsius. Technologies like carbon capture and storage (CCS) can play a role in achieving that.

Do you think there’s general sense of optimism about all of those pathways?

That’s an interesting question. And I think that, in general, this report can help to raise the level of optimism. Because again, a lot of research happened in the last years, and this report really collects and organizes what we know. And I expect this report to show that we know that it is possible to tackle climate change and how we can make that happen, all in a more concrete way than before.

So yes, I think that by providing this information with much more clarity, by being precise on the different aspects and by being policy relevant for decision makers, I expect that this report will raise the level of optimism and help to raise the level of ambition.

My personal view is that, honestly, the scientists have done what they can do. They have outlined roadmaps, plan and policies, they have identified where there is still work to be done, and now it’s up to the policymakers. They have to take up these roadmaps, they have to adapt them to their countries and implement them.

The good news is that climate actions can also help address many other issues developing countries are facing today like air pollution, energy security and energy services.  So for example, by choosing low-carbon options in the transport sector, you can improve the quality of life in your city; you can reduce the local air pollution and address the health issues linked to air quality; you can create green jobs. In short, you can address immediate local concerns while fighting global climate change – it’s a win-win.

This report is coming at an important moment to support and influence policymakers. In September, world leaders will convene for the U.N. Climate Summit in New York City, where we expect them to commit to deeper emissions cuts. And this December in Lima, Peru, countries will pave the way on how to design the future international climate treaty to be ratified in 2015.

So I think that we can be optimistic but we must also be ambitious and call for urgent action. I expect this report to support that.

Lindsay Abrams

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