Mission possible: Polluters can change

Cool: If industries, like this steel plant in Inner Mongolia, become more efficient, warming will be limited. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

Cool: If industries, like this steel plant in Inner Mongolia, become more efficient, warming will be limited. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

Six major elements of the world economy are responsible for a third of all carbon emissions.

They are cement, steel, plastics, shipping, aviation and heavy road transport. The accepted wisdom is that it is too expensive and difficult to make them reduce the emissions from their smokestacks and exhaust pipes.

But this view has been turned on its head by wide-ranging research by the Energy Transitions Commission, a group of planners, corporations and government advisers who decide where money should be invested to shape the future.

Based in London, the commission was founded by Shell and McKinsey, which courted a great deal of controversy. But what it says carries a great deal of weight and about 200 people contributed to its late-November report, Mission Possible: Reaching Net-zero Carbon Emissions from Harder-to-abate Sectors by Mid-century.

It charts how the six sectors could reduce their carbon emissions to zero and calculates how much this will cost.
In the cement industry, for example, this could be done at the cost of 6% extra per house. But the return on this cost will be houses that use less electricity and are nicer to live in. Think winters without blankets and summers without air conditioning.

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The commission’s report starts with the problem. The world is 1°C hotter than it was two centuries ago. In the next century, thanks to people being responsible for increasing carbon into the atmosphere, it could be up to 5°C hotter. In Paris, in 2015, the world’s governments said the warming should be limited to 2°C. Anything above it and the ecosystems that support all life will start to unravel, at a rate that plants and animals will not be able to evolve fast enough to survive.

Much of the work to date has focused on systems and sectors in which emissions can be easily reduced, such as cities adopting hydrogen-powered buses and factories using water and electricity more efficiently. In South Africa, the government’s Industrial Energy Efficiency Improvement Project has saved industry more than R1.5-billion in electricity costs by increasing efficiency. The reduced demand of 800 megawatts is equivalent to the output of one of Medupi’s eight coal-fired units.

Now, the targets have to be more ambitious and hence the report’s focus on the six industries that are responsible for 30% of global carbon emissions. Dropping this to zero would go a long way towards keeping warming below 2°C. And it can be done by industries becoming more efficient, using technology that exists, like electric engines, and by recycling material.

To kick this off, the report says governments and cities have a big role to play. Regulation is required to force companies to change, and also gives them an incentive to do so.

South Africa’s carbon tax is an example of how this could work. Starting in mid-2019, companies will have to pay up to R120 a tonne of carbon they produce. The tax will make it more expensive for companies that do not lower their emissions but it also gives tax breaks to companies that change.

The report’s suggestions for regulation range widely, from carbon taxes to countries allowing only electric or hydrogen-powered cars to be sold. Besides forcing companies to be more efficient, these measures would also make the world economy more circular, and things that would normally be used and thrown away would be recycled.

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Companies would also put more money into research and development and into doing things differently. This has been apparent in the wind and solar renewable energy industry, which has seen prices in South Africa drop by up to 400% in the past decade.

How people do things is also highlighted in the report. Instead of buying new things and throwing them away, it says people need to recycle and reuse things.

By changing consumer behaviour alone, the carbon emissions from the six major elements of the economy that the report surveyed could be dropped by 40%.

What needs to be done

  • The cement industry is responsible for 7% of the world’s carbon emissions. By doing things such as reusing cement, electrifying kilns, or making concrete that doesn’t use cement, this can be dropped to zero. This will add 6% to the cost of a house.
  • Dropping emissions from the steel industry to zero will increase the price of a car by 1%.
  • Shipping, responsible for 3% of global emissions, can drop emissions to zero. This would add R3 to the cost of a pair of jeans.
  • Zero emissions from aviation would add R600 to the cost of a long-distance economy flight.
  • Heavy-duty trucking is responsible for 7% of all emissions. This will double by 2050 if nothing is done. Switching trucks to hydrogen or electric engines would drop this by 100%. And it would cost the consumer nothing because the technology exists and companies have to buy new trucks all the time. — Sipho Kings
Sipho Kings

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