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Crises drive down carbon emissions

In just over two months, an intersection of two pandemics will manifest in Glasgow, Scotland. The 2021 edition of the United Nations Conference of Parties — COP26 — will be its first international gathering since the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic at the beginning of 2020. 

Involving an expected 30 000 delegates and diplomats from around the world, COP26 is a mission in logistics, negotiations and horse-trading. The summit was initially scheduled for 2020 but in the face of rising Covid-19 cases, nascent vaccination programmes and the looming United States elections, the postponement to 2021 was seen as an exercise in pragmatism. Crucially, given his hostility towards multilateralism, there was hope that anyone except Donald Trump would emerge victorious. Since then, the stakes have changed. 

The primary purpose of the summit — to share notes regarding the state of the world — has become more important in recent decades. The pressing issue is the effect of human activity on climate change. Since the world embarked on a century-long journey of industrialisation, the question of the effect of industrial activities on the environment and the sustainability of the world has loomed large on the planning horizons of scientists and policymakers. 

The undeniable reality, that humanity’s voracious appetite for industrialisation and consumption has imposed significant costs on the environment, has been continuously articulated and measured. The most common indicators are the levels of greenhouse gas emissions and the change in the world’s surface temperatures.

According to data tracked by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, surface temperatures have increased so exponentially that the average temperatures between 2011 and 2020 were 1.1°C higher than the average between 1850 and 1900. 

The year 2011 is an important reference point for South Africa — in that year Durban hosted COP17 where, for the first time since the Kyoto Protocol of 1997, a roadmap towards new commitments on emission targets was the outcome.

The choice of South Africa as a host was a blessing and a poisoned chalice. Its capacity to host a conference of that nature reflected its growing stature among global nations; it was regarded as one of the world’s emerging economies. 

Such countries were the subject of debate regarding the commitments to reducing carbon emissions. Previous agreements, particularly the Kyoto Protocol, allocated a greater burden of emission cuts to developed nations that accounted for the bulk of historical emissions. Emerging economies were regarded by some developed nations as getting a free pass in light of their growing economic and emissions heft.

The rise in temperature has resulted in the global warming trends that have triggered extreme changes in climate patterns. At current trends, the world will see a cumulative increase in temperatures of more than 2°C by 2050. That prospect — and all its attendant consequences — became the driving force behind the deliberations of COP21 in Paris in 2015. 

That conference resulted in the adoption of the ambitious international programme to tackle global climate change — the Paris Agreement, which acknowledged that although the cumulative effects of climate change could not be reversed overnight, efforts had to be made to limit the cumulative increases in temperatures to no more than 1.5°C by 2050.

The small problem with the agreement was that its effective date of 4 November 2016 coincided with the election cycle in the US that resulted in the election of Trump, who promptly pulled the US out of the Paris Agreement. The importance of the US backing any agreement aimed at dealing with climate change is linked to its historical and continuing contribution to climate change.

Greenhouse gases have been the key driver of industrialisation. The most prominent of these — carbon dioxide and methane — have served humanity as the engine rooms of progress and the ignition key for the long-term calamity that now confronts the planet. At the turn of the century, the global emissions of carbon dioxide were measured at 30 gigatonnes  a year. 

By 2015, this had escalated to 40 gigatonnes as developed nations cranked up their emissions and developing nations increased their contributions. The sobering conclusions reached in Paris were that much more needed to be done to ensure a reversal of this trend.

A reduction to 20 gigatonnes a year followed by a reduction to net zero by 2050 became the rallying call of the Paris Agreement. Since then, the question of roadmaps towards net zero emissions have become the focus area of policymakers and business leaders. 

At the heart of the problem is the reliance that many nations and citizens have on fossil fuels and similar carbon-heavy products to keep their economies functional. The answer is the development of alternative sources of energy. The problem is that it comes at a cost that developing nations can hardly bear. On the other hand, the society of historically heavy emitters has exhibited a reluctance to fund the transition. 

This has created a stalemate where various measures have been implemented to break the deadlock. Introduction of carbon taxes and other incentives have so far yielded mixed results and some unintended consequences.

In the world of business, for example, the two industries that are exclusively and collectively responsible for high levels of carbon emissions — the vehicle and mining industry — have adopted patterns that seem to be reflective of the tensions between private profits, environmental sustainability and global prosperity. 

When the German government found a way to test the emissions levels of cars to calculate the burden that manufacturers had to carry for ongoing emissions, it led to the Dieselgate scandal in 2015 involving VW primarily. In seeking to game the system, VW developed technology that would reflect low emissions levels from its engines under test conditions. On the road the emissions levels were much higher than the levels documented during tests.

When Opel announced in July that its cars would be fully electric by 2028, Jaguar announced an even more ambitious date of 2025. VW, previously the centre of the emissions scandal, announced it would aim for 50% electric vehicle production by 2030. This turnaround represents a significant shift from the industry.

Mining companies, with the business model heavily premised on harnessing fossil fuels, have similarly been under scrutiny on the question of their commitment to reducing emissions. Anglo American has disposed of operations in thermal coal as part of its commitment to a 30% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030. 

Glencore has adopted a different strategy that includes taking over some of the fossil-heavy operations that Anglo is divesting from. In his last week as chief executive of Glencore, Ivan Glasenberg concluded a deal that saw the company buy out Anglo American and BHP from a thermal coal mining joint venture in Colombia.

The rationale for the Glencore approach seems to be that until the green transition is underway, the fossil-heavy assets will remain a key source of energy for the world. If the policymakers of the world coordinate their thinking, the taxes and windfall profits generated by such mines may be a key source of financing the shift towards green energy. 

Whichever way businesses react to the quest for zero emissions, it is clear that the interruption to the status quo necessary to achieve a huge reduction in emissions will require the global coordination of many variables and policy shifts. In the absence of that, it may also turn out that the world’s best chance of achieving a significant dent in the global emissions trajectory is to rely on another crisis or pandemic.

Over the past 75 years, the biggest reductions in global emissions have been on the back of global warfare — a 750 million metric tonne reduction at the end of World War II; global recessions — a reduction of 300 million tonnes after the 2008 financial crisis and a full gigatonne after the 1983 recession; and the Covid-19 pandemic — in 2020, the single biggest drop in emissions, 2.5 gigatonnes, was recorded as hard lockdowns kicked in. 

It’s a tragic irony that it took the rise of one pandemic to interrupt the escalation of another, perhaps irreversible danger to humanity.

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Khaya Sithole
Khaya Sithole is a chartered accountant, academic and activist who writes regularly for the Mail & Guardian and discusses the issues raised in his columns on his Kaya FM show, On The Agenda, every Monday from 8pm to 9pm

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