Can low carbon growth save us from catastrophic climate change?

Lyuba Zarsky

Climate policy may have fallen off the US legislative agenda but the evidence that the planet is on a path to catastrophic climate change keeps mounting. In early May, the international Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program found that temperatures in the Arctic in the last six years were the highest since measurements began in 1880. Arctic sea ice is melting significantly faster than projected by the UN International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2007 and, along with melting ice sheets and glaciers, points toward a sea level rise of 35-63 inches by 2100.

Most people know by now that cutting emissions of greenhouse gases, especially carbon, is the only way to back off from a global warming “tipping point”– maybe around 2 degrees Celsius (4 degrees Fahrenheit)—that could trigger chaotic climate change. We are already nearly halfway there—the earth has already warmed by 0.75 degrees Celsius– and going strong. Under a “business as usual scenario (BAU),” carbon emissions will double by 2050 over current levels. Given the inertia in the climate system—carbon is very long-lived in the atmosphere–and the momentum of the fossil-fuel-based global economy, is it possible to reduce emissions enough and in time?

Let’s define the goal.  The first step is to stop the rate of increase in emissions, that is, stabilization; the second step is to reduce the rate of emissions. Both need to happen in the context of continued economic growth, especially in emerging economies like China and India but in the West and poor South as well.  While the basic dynamics are not scientifically disputed, the exact relationship between carbon emissions, global warming, and climate change is not known.   To avoid “dangerous climate change,” the IPCC recommends a target 35-50% cut in carbon emissions over BAU by 2030, and 80% by 2050.

The Carbon Mitigation Project at Princeton University posits an “interim goal” of a 100% cut by 2060. That means that despite GDP growth of some 5-6% per year in developing and 2% in developed countries and an addition of 1.5-2 billion people, emissions in 50 years would be the same as today.

To get your brain around this mind-boggling target, the Princeton Project offers the concept of a “stabilization triangle” made up of eight wedges, each representing a reduction of 25 gigatons (one gigaton is a billion tons) of carbon over 50 years.  Wedge strategies fall into four main categories: 1) fuel switching, ie substituting natural gas and nuclear for oil and coal plants; 2) forest and soil storage of carbon; 3)  carbon capture and storage; and 4)  energy efficiency and renewable fuels.

“Low carbon growth” entails the rapid adoption and diffusion of the technologies in the wedge strategies while promoting economic development.  According to a McKinsey report, achieving the stabilization target requires that carbon productivity—the amount of GDP generated per unit of carbon—increases by 5.7% per year from now to 2050. That’s three times faster than labor productivity rose in the US during the whole industrial revolution between 1830 and 1955.

Whether this is feasible will be known only in the trying. The World Bank’s Energy Sector Management Assistance Program recently published assessments of how to achieve low-carbon growth in six emerging market countries—China, India, Indonesia, Brazil, Mexico, and South Africa.

While each country has different technological, natural resource, and financial challenges and opportunities, what emerges from the studies overall is a picture of rapid technological diffusion, large-scale mobilization of targeted finance, and popular understanding and acceptance of the need for rapid change. Under such circumstances, low-carbon growth becomes a strategy for a new economic competitiveness based on a “green economy”.

Designing a low-carbon growth country strategy is relatively easy. But implementation is hard. It requires the intense engagement of the private sector, both business and finance, and community and civic groups. Most important, it requires comprehensive and visionary government leadership and well-crafted incentive-promoting policy.

Which brings us back to the US legislative agenda.  Markets, bless their hearts, are delivering aspects of low-carbon growth. According to a recent Pew report, US investment in clean energy surged in 2010 to $34 billion, up by 51% over the year before.  However, the US dropped to third place behind number one China at $54 billion and number two Germany at $41 billion—both countries with a much stronger government hand in proactively promoting low carbon growth policies.

4 Responses to “Can low carbon growth save us from catastrophic climate change?”

  1. DrJim says:

    “achieving the stabilization target requires that carbon productivity—the amount of carbon emitted per dollar of GDP—increases by 5.7% per year from now to 2050.”

    Don’t you mean GDP per unit of Carbon, not the inverse?

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  3. Michael says:

    Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) as discussed on the UK’s HSE website surely is a solution that can be used globally to help deal with the ever growing problems of global CO2 emissions.

    Or is this a method which has significant flaws that it can’t be used on such a large scale?