5 hot spots will decide climate’s fate — report

Source: By Adam Aton, E&E News reporter • Posted: Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Five developments over the next decade could make or break the global climate fight, according to a new Rhodium Group analysis.

Potentially the biggest pivot point, the research firm found, is the 2020 U.S. elections, where climate denial will be on the ballot as President Trump seeks reelection, Democrats try to take the Senate and several key states hold gubernatorial races.

Rhodium says the other key questions are:

  • Whether Brazil protects its forests.
  • How China manages its economic slowdown.
  • How India builds out its electricity sector.
  • Whether the European Union implements a strong European Green Deal.

Each of those decisions affects about 1 to 3 gigatons of carbon emissions. (A gigaton equals a billion metric tons.)

By 2030, the world needs to cut 15 to 32 gigatons of annual emissions to keep warming within the Paris Agreement goals, according to Rhodium, which estimated 2017’s emissions at 51 gigatons.

In other words, the next decade needs to see global emissions drop by one-third. And a significant portion of that would come from the five areas Rhodium identified.

“Meeting this challenge will require a concerted global effort to decarbonize every aspect of our economy, across all regions of the world,” says Rhodium’s report, “Gigatons at Stake.”

“At the same time, we know that the world’s largest economies will play an outsized role in determining the fate of global emissions.”

U.S. elections

Potential emissions at stake: 1.2 to 2.7 gigatons

The U.S. has cut emissions about 17% from 2005 levels, but Trump’s regulatory rollbacks threaten to stall that progress.

Trump is enacting policies that could add another 1.9 to 3.1 gigatons of emissions through 2035, according to Rhodium. But those could unravel if Trump loses (Climatewire, Nov. 27).

Each of the leading Democratic contenders has called for net-zero emissions by at least 2050, though their plans would face a tough path through Congress.

Working backward from that commitment, Rhodium found the U.S. would have to cut its emissions 40%-50% from 2005 levels by 2030.

That’s a tall order, the analysts say. Linear progress to midcentury net-zero would require about 4% or 5% emissions reductions per year, every year, from 2021 to 2030. That has no precedent; since 2005, the U.S. has averaged 1.1% annual reductions.

“Electing a presidential candidate that has vowed to put the U.S. on track to net zero by mid-century will be a critical step for American and global efforts to fight climate change. But that alone will not guarantee success,” Rhodium said.

China’s slowdown

Potential emissions at stake: 1.4 to 2.5 gigatons

China’s economic growth already has started to slow. Last year its economy grew 6.6%, compared with an average of 10.6% in the 2000s. Experts predict it will cool even more in the coming years, as industrialization and urbanization wane.

The International Energy Agency and the World Bank project 5.1% average annual economic growth for China through 2030. But if China’s economy slows even more, emissions could fall significantly.

If China’s annual economic growth underperforms forecasts by about 1 percentage point, it would stop about 1.4 gigatons of emissions, according to Rhodium.

Underperforming forecasts by an additional percentage point would lower Chinese emissions by an additional 1.1 gigatons.

E.U.’s ambitions

Potential emissions at stake: 1.5 to 2 gigatons

European Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen has said that in her first 100 days she will push for a European Green Deal with a 2050 goal of net-zero emissions. She takes over after the E.U. passed a raft of climate measures that, if implemented by member states, could put Europe close to reaching its 2030 pledge of 40% lower emissions than 1990.

Von der Leyen wants to go further and reach 50% by 2030, or possibly 55%, in part by expanding the European Union’s Emissions Trading System. She might also aim for a border adjustment tax for carbon.

If the E.U. adopts those new targets without member states doing much else, the bloc could avoid 1.5 gigatons of emissions in 2030, according to Rhodium. If member states do implement all current policy measures, that would avoid an additional 0.5 gigaton.

Brazil’s forests

Potential emissions at stake: more than 2 gigatons

Land use change and forestry account for more than half of Brazil’s emissions. Strong forestry laws helped the country protect wide swaths of the Amazon between 2004 and 2012, but those gains are being reversed.

President Jair Bolsonaro has overseen the greatest deforestation in the Amazon in more than a decade, with deforestation increasing 30% over the previous year, according to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research.

If Brazil continues its weak protection of the Amazon, annual emissions could rise to 2.2 gigatons by 2030, according to Rhodium. An intermediate course — roughly the same as Bolsonaro’s predecessor — would still cause emissions to rise by about 1.2 gigatons.

Conversely, strong protections would put emissions on a declining path, Rhodium says, avoiding about 2 gigatons of carbon.

India’s electricity

Potential emissions at stake: 0.5 to 0.8 gigaton

India’s population is poised to outgrow China’s, and the world’s largest democracy is expected to become the fastest growing major market for electricity. That could spike India’s emissions if fossil fuels fill that need.

The impact depends on the pace and the manner of India’s electricity build-out, Rhodium said.

Coal has already accounted for three-quarters of the new power capacity built in India since 2000. But the government has promised to change that, pledging to generate 40% of its electricity from non-fossil sources by 2030.

Current policy and demand trends suggest that Indian power-sector emissions could rise 70% from 2017 levels, but that could be limited to 60% if the country meets its low-carbon goals, according to Rhodium.

But higher-than-expected demand could change that. Electricity emissions would rise 94% if the non-fossil goals are met, or 108% if they’re not, according to Rhodium.