Emissions guru on the virus, improbable CO2 goals and cars

Source: By Benjamin Storrow, E&E News reporter • Posted: Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Glen Peters (center), research director at the Center for International Climate Research, is one of the world’s leading emissions forecasters. John Englart/Flickr

Glen Peters moved to Norway in 2004 to be with a woman and, needing to find a job to stay in the country, stumbled into a research position studying carbon dioxide emissions associated with trade. The relationship didn’t stick, but the CO2 research did.

Peters, an Australian with a background in mathematics and physics, eventually submitted a paper on his research to Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the academic journal. One reviewer panned the piece, which was ultimately rejected.

But another loved it and encouraged Peters to continue his work. The phone call spawned a relationship with the Global Carbon Project, a coalition of international climate researchers, and it put Peters on the path to becoming one of the world’s preeminent emissions forecasters.

Today, he is the research director at the Center for International Climate Research in Oslo, an independent center created in 1990 by the Norwegian government to inform climate policy.

Anyone who has followed the emissions impact of the coronavirus pandemic has likely seen Peters’ work. Most recently, he contributed to a Global Carbon Project report that found emissions declined 17% at the peak of the crisis in early April (Climatewire, May 20).

Peters, 45, spoke to E&E News last week via Skype. In a wide-ranging interview, he touched on the pandemic’s impact on carbon dioxide, whether the world has reached peak emissions and if it’s still possible to hold global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

We’ve seen a lot of headlines with figures like, “Emissions are down 17% at their peak.” What do they tell us?

I guess there’s several elements to that. It all seems very surprising and big. But when you think about the other direction, when emissions have grown — if you take a 5% reduction in emissions in 2020 as a sort of a ballpark figure — coming out of the financial crisis in 2010, emissions grew 5%. So it wasn’t uncommon to have emissions growth of 3%, 4%, which is not that different actually to 5%.

But I think the sort of key takeaway is you can’t just use social measures to reduce emissions. Carbon dioxide is just so infiltrated into every aspect of our lives. There’s no way you can escape it. Wherever you look, there is CO2 coming from somewhere.

So now you shut down your transportation completely, and that’s only 20% of your emissions, depending on the country. You’re still driving, you’ve got lights on, your fridge is running, you’ve got your heater or air conditioner, and industry is still building stuff that you go down to the shop and buy, and so on and so forth.

So really it sort of emphasizes how difficult and complex the climate problem is going to be. There is often no silver bullet to solve the climate problem. It’s so many different measures that you need to make progress.

If individual action can only reduce emissions so much, what does systemic change look like to you?

A lot of technological change, which means you may not see things in a sense.

Electricity generation is a good example. You know, the average person in the average home in the average town in, I don’t know, suburban U.S. wouldn’t know or care if their electricity was produced by coal, gas, solar, wind, whatever.

All they want is to turn on the switch and expect electricity. So that technological change may not lead to some sort of structural change in a bigger sense of people’s lives or something like that. Maybe mobility would because there’d be a push for an active transport, walking or riding a public transport, buses, trains and so on.

Maybe some sort of policy associated with long-distance transport, aviation, whatever that might look like. So that could lead to structural change: redesign of city layout, of town planning. You could have different policies toward consumption, goods and services; how much stuff we buy or the lifetime of products; and so on and so forth.

Whether this affects the individual consumer or whether this affects the producer would be an interesting question. But yes, this structural change, I think, would have a heavy dose of being very technological elements in production and generation systems.

What factors will determine how emissions rebound from this crisis?

First of all, assuming the lockdown is lifted and there’s no restrictions in that sense, then you would expect big things to come back relatively quickly, although I imagine it will vary a lot by sector.

So aviation, for example, will probably stay low for some time. It probably will have longer restrictions on it, particularly international elements of aviation. But also, people might be a little bit of scared or not so sure about making big trips. You can imagine cruise liners and luxury ships, they might not have so much traffic for some years.

So those sectors might be hit hard. Transportation, I think, could go both ways. Like it could come back at a low level or it could come back and rebound. I’m more of the concern that private transportation will rebound beyond where it was before, as people prefer to drive than take public transport.

They’ll be various stages, a bit like the lockdown really. In Norway, I guess it’s the same in the U.S., shops open first but you’re still encouraged or requested to work from home. So you’ll get certain types of transport, but not all types of transport.

And then in a few weeks [or] months, whatever the time takes, then they’ll encourage you and say you don’t have to work from home. You can go to the office, and then there’ll be another boom.

Then there’s the question of getting the economy stimulated again. And a lot of the impacts have been in the service sector. So if you think of restaurants or tourist destinations, people will steer clear of those by choice, or maybe there’ll be additional new policies associated with that. So maybe the service sector will be quite suppressed for some time. Whereas industry and so on may rebound.

But then there’s going to be the question, if the service sectors are suppressed, then people are out of jobs, people might not have so much money, so there’ll be less expenditure. So that might suppress the economy more broadly and suppress energy consumption and so on. My feeling is that they’ll bounce back, but they’ll bounce back at a sort of lower level.

How important will governments be in determining our future emissions trajectory?

It will play some role. And again, I’d think about it as different sort of sectors. Coming back to the mobility aspect, if governments and particularly local governments are implementing different things around the cities to try and encourage mobility, the riding of bikes and so on … you could have various policies or incentives like that that are not really injecting cash into the economy, but then they could have an effect.

When you start to think about policies that inject cash into the economy, particularly if they’re infrastructure, there is a pretty important opportunity here to put that cash into the right place. We could build a massive road and employ so many people and whatever, but that might have negative consequences further down the track. Saving a fossil industry that was struggling already versus supporting renewables, which are not being hit as hard — they’ve been hit of course, but not as hard. There’s plenty of opportunities to nudge things in the right direction.

Although one thing that worries me is it’s not just as simple as saying, “Well, let’s just invest in renewables,” and build X-thousand wind turbines over here when a lot of the impacts might be in the service sector, for example. So you might need to be much more nuanced in the way that you put out the funds, the money.

Because of that, the fact that a lot of the impacts are in the service sectors, you may end up with a lot of stimulus that is somewhat neutral in the sense of climate because it’s injecting cash and trying to get the tourism industry going again or encourage domestic tourism instead of international tourism, trying to keep restaurants alive or shopping centers alive.

I think early on when this all started, some people were hopeful this really historic drop in CO2 could be a silver lining to the whole pandemic. But my sense is that most of the researchers who study this feel like it’s just the opposite: It shows just how hard it is to cut emissions. How do you see it?

So I do agree with that. But I’d say the silver lining, or the silver lining that I’m hoping for, is mainly in electricity generation. We see fossil fuels getting hit harder, relatively speaking, than renewables. And as we come out of the crisis, maybe renewables rebound or come back stronger, relatively speaking, to fossil fuels.

It’s always going to be relative here because they’re both impacted. If the economy is suppressed for a couple of years, and eventually when we get back to normal, then maybe emissions have peaked and we’re on a downward trajectory because renewables have moved further along the curve relative to fossil fuels. My silver lining or my hope here is that 2019 will be peak emissions and we’ll see flat or declining emissions when the economy’s recovered.

Tell me more about that. Why do you think we may have reached peak emissions? And if we have, why does it matter?

So, you know, going back pre-corona.

B.C., before corona.

[Laughs.] I never thought of that. Yeah, so B.C. emissions growth globally was starting to slow down. You’ve got different trends in different countries, but in 2014, ’15, ’16, emissions were relatively flat. And then they went up again in 2017, 2018, and then were flat in 2019. There are elements of weak economic growth in there. China is playing a big role. A couple of big drops in coal in the U.S. is playing a role. So we’re sort of getting to a situation where you could say emissions growth in 2020 might be 1%, which is pretty low.

Renewables are also starting to have an effect, certainly in some countries, but also globally. Even in China, renewables are starting to do enough to maybe get a peak, though it’s also got to do with weak economic growth. B.C. we were sort of at the point where we were discussing the possibility that peak emissions may not be that far away. And so the corona thing just might speed that up a couple of years. Of course there are uncertainties. Maybe by 2030 emissions are roaring up to 2% a year or something like that.

Increasingly I find myself wondering whether this crisis has shown us that a 1.5-degree Celsius temperature outcome is impossible. We know from the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] that we need around a 7% reduction annually over the next decade to achieve 1.5 C, but this crisis has shown us just how difficult that is. Is 1.5 C still possible?

I’d say no for a whole variety of reasons. The broader point that you are making, though, is reducing emissions at 5% is not so easy. You need to do that year in, year out. This is just 5% we see now. It’s just like a one-off. You’re not going to get another 5% next year. If you just continue the lockdown, it would just be the same as before.

This gets into [there being] no silver bullet, it’s silver buckshot. You need so many of these different aspects, you’re going to be making some pretty radical changes. It wouldn’t be just one-offs. It would be, now we change mobility behavior and lock you down and we keep it. Now we only deploy solar or something. You’d do these things in parallel, sort of as we’re doing now, but nowhere near as efficiently. You would be rolling out all different measures across the economy, across different sectors, consumption, production, behavior, technology.

So you get a new 5% every year. That’s really hard. It’s not easy. And there’ll be various layers to it. It’s a bit easier if you think about the country level and maybe if you think of the U.K., where emissions have been going down quite rapidly in the last 10-plus years because of a shift away from coal primarily, like in the U.S. Then once you’ve got coal out of the system, well, now where do we get our next 5% from? And then you start to hit things like transportation, etc., and then you’ve got a whole range of different challenges.

As you’re rolling out your solar and wind, getting coal out of the system, at the same time you have to be getting fossil cars out of the system and getting electric vehicles in. At the same time, you have to be changing technology in your steel and cement factories. You need to be doing all these things in parallel to be able to get the 5%, then another 5%, then another 5%. And this is no easy task. And if you wanted to do it for 1.5 degrees, then you might need even greater changes.

I’ll make it even worse. There’s got to be regional differentiations. Maybe some countries in Asia or in Africa will be having some emissions growth because they’re very rapidly growing their economies. The reductions that you have in the U.S., Europe or whatever, they might need to be 10% per year, much greater in some sort of equity sense. And they are also further along the curve.

So individual countries have really struggled to get 5% reductions. If that sped up to 10%, then that’s a real challenge. You would need to have all countries on board, not just a few countries that are doing it. It needs to be across the board. So no easy task. These are ambitious targets.

The interview was lightly edited for clarity and brevity.