Negotiating While the World Burns
The recent COP25 climate negotiations in Madrid ended in failure, and global greenhouse-gas emissions continue to increase. At the same time, however, the stunning technological progress during the 2010s makes it possible to cut emissions at a cost far lower than everyone dared hope a decade ago.
LONDON – The 2010s may be remembered as the decade when the fight against harmful climate change was lost. In 2015, at the COP21 climate conference in Paris, 196 countries agreed to limit global warming to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels. But global greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions have continued to increase, atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide are at their highest levels in 800,000 years, and current policies will likely result in warming of about 3°C by 2100. Moreover, the recent COP25 negotiations in Madrid ended in failure, with governments squabbling over the value and allocation of “carbon credits” held over from a discredited previous policy regime.
At the same time, however, stunning technological progress during the 2010s makes it possible to cut GHG emissions at a cost far lower than we dared hope a decade ago. The costs of solar and wind power have fallen more than 80% and 70%, respectively, while lithium-ion battery costs are down from $1,000 per kilowatt-hour in 2010 to $160 per kWh today. These and other breakthroughs guarantee that energy systems which are as much as 85% dependent on variable renewables could produce zero-carbon electricity at costs that are fully competitive with those of fossil-fuel-based systems.
In addition, it is now clear that even the “harder-to-abate” sectors of the economy, such as heavy industry (including steel, cement, and chemicals) and long-distance transport (shipping, aviation, and trucking), can be decarbonized at costs which, although significant for any one company acting alone, are trivial in terms of the impact on people’s living standards.