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Carbon-reduction in practice: Should we be thinking about Plan B?

Carbon-reduction targets at international, national and organisational levels are one of the most hotly debated areas of sustainable strategy today. Those involved in the debate often argue that it is simply a matter of political will or business strategy to “make it happen”. As Oliver Morton (The Plant Remade, 2015) reminds us in his book, history suggests that it will be more complex than that.

It´s been 25 years since the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, and instead of sinking the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased by 14%. A similar picture can be drawn to the increase in temperature: Plus 0.5% relative to the Convention baseline of 1951-80. Just to remind ourselves, to have a chance of stopping global temperatures rising by more than 1.5%, relative to pre-industrial levels, by the deadline of 2030, annual greenhouse gas emissions have to fall by practically half, compared with 2010. As The Economist puts it pithily in its April 21st 2019 edition, “they almost certainly will not”.

For the last generation, the response of politics and business has been to set targets for emissions reductions, assuming that either laws or new technologies will allow them to be met. With renewables (including the questionable biomass energy) at just 13% today, the challenge from the perspective of the economy is shifting existing assets – think about the tens of thousands of power stations or the billion or so fossil fuel-powered vehicles – to a completely novel infrastructure. So, as the Economist points out, developed economies must outperform the leader, Germany, in terms of decarbonising, for decades to come, and developing economies must perform the trick of either growing without fossil fuels or stopping growth entirely. That´s a tricky problem for any theory of political economy, let alone current practice.

Here´s the challenge. Today´s warming is the result of yesterday´s usage of fossil fuels. And, logically, any reductions in carbon emissions today, have an impact only in the future. And whereas the benefits of decarbonising the “Earthsystem”, as Morton terms it, are global, the costs are borne by those locally where policies are implemented, or by the shareholders of companies that choose to adopt sustainable strategies. Freeriding, or the attempt to benefits from the policies (and investment) of others is a latent risk in any political system which allows for countries to hoope that others´efforts will prevent disaster. So, to ask for a political system (or voter), or by implication a company (or shareholder), to decarbonise knowing that the benefits lie years in the future, is placing a huge bet when the last 25 years – employeeing the same type of non-binding multinational agreement frameworks which are currently in discussion – have shown that emissions have risen instead of fallen.

Morton warns that the time may come – and faster than we may anticipate – where individual countries may choose to act unilaterally and adopt a more activist approach. This may involve, for example, releasing sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere to reflect a part of the sun´s energy away from the Earth´s surface. The advantage: The effect begins immediately and it can – given the resources – be performed by one country unilaterally. And that that country would choose to implement a solution that most benefitted its own interests seems logical. To put numbers to this, one estimate of the cost is less than NASA´s annual budget today. The more that existing political systems make decarbonising practically impossible, the more likely that a Plan B that involved geo-engineering would become reality.

The irony of geo-engineering is that while it might offer temporary respite from the challenges of global cooperation to reduce carbon, it itself is likely only to buy time, a process that will inevitably lead to a multilateral agreement to coordinate efforts. In the end, then, there is no Plan B, but simply a greater need to harness efforts between countries, and for companies not to treat possible geoengineering solutiions as an opportunity to freeride upon what inevitably will only provide a temporary window for rebuilding the infrastructure of a future decarbonised economy.

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