Reality Check: Serious climate action means change


Global energy demand will increase 30 percent by 2040. At the same time, human greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced to zero by mid-century if global warming is not to exceed 2 °C. Far-reaching measures are needed if we are to achieve both these goals.

China, Australia and India have led the way. In 2017, these countries invested more in the expansion of renewable energy sources than in the construction of new coal-fired or gas-fired power plants. Electricity from renewable sources such as solar and wind power, biogas plants and smaller hydropower plants now accounts for 12.1 percent of electricity generated worldwide – and this percentage is rising, partly because prices for photovoltaic plants, wind turbines and lithium batteries are going down. Energy market experts predict that by 2030 in some parts of the world it will be cheaper to install solar systems than to burn coal in ageing power plants.

Nonetheless, these advances in the Earth’s greenhouse gas balance amount to no more than the proverbial drop in the ocean. Some 81 percent of the electricity currently produced still comes from fossil fuels. To be added to this are the combined emissions from transport, industry and agriculture, the sum of which has been rising steadily for decades.

In the 2015 Paris Climate Change Agreement, the signing Parties committed themselves to significantly reduce their greenhouse gas emissions or to keep them at a low level, by declaring nationally determined contributions (NDCs). In terms of diplomacy, that pledge was a great success. However, analyses performed by the United Nations show that the announced nationally determined contributions are nowhere near enough to achieve the 2 °C goal – let alone 1.5 °C. Even if all pledges to reduce emissions are fulfilled, the world is currently heading for warming of between 2.2 °C and 3.6 °C by 2100.


The mammoth task of going from 100 to zero in practically no time at all

In light of this, the question arises: Is it even possible to achieve the 2 °C goal? In theory, the answer is yes – if the international community succeeds in reducing its overall CO2 balance to zero for the second half of this century. This is a mammoth task, considering that it is not only electricity demand that will continue to rise. The International Energy Agency in Paris predicts that in 2040, around 30 percent more electricity will be consumed worldwide compared to today. For example, in their projection, China’s air conditioning systems alone will need as much electricity as Japan currently consumes in total. Expected growth in food production, which already accounts for around 30 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, is even greater.

Against this backdrop, scientists have developed a set of measures with which the climate targets could be attained solely by reducing emissions. Consequently, the Paris climate goal would be realistic if, among other things, the following could be achieved in the shortest possible time:

  • the electricity sector transitions entirely to renewable energy sources, 
  • vehicles, machines and heating systems are electrified, 
  • aircraft and ships are powered by carbon-free fuels,
  • only modern, energy-efficient appliances and materials are used in industry and households,
  • food production processes are significantly improved, people around the world eat significantly less meat, cease to waste food and alter their mobility habits, 
  • the international community pursues effective climate change policy within the framework of a common global strategy.

Putting a price on carbon

Most economists agree that emitting CO2 must cost money. The simplest and generally most cost-effective way to enhance climate action would be to introduce a carbon tax. To date, there are few economic incentives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Around the globe, both the waste product CO2 and other greenhouse gases are emitted into the atmosphere free of charge and hence without hesitation. A carbon tax would change this and provide incentives to reduce CO2 on the one hand through changes in behaviour and on the other through technical innovation. In turn, countries could use the tax revenues to relieve the burden on consumers in an income-neutral way or to finance adaptation to climate change. Virtually all other proposals for more climate action appear complicated or costly in macroeconomic terms. A sufficiently high price for greenhouse gas emissions, by contrast, would be a climate policy intervention that could be used to effectively implement measures to achieve the 2 °C goal.


Focusing on the future

Whether the international community will still be able to implement the climate action needed to achieve the pledged emission reductions quickly enough is questionable. On the one hand, the global economy and our current lifestyles are based on energy from fossil fuels. Changing this situation in a matter of just a few years without introducing painful cuts or endangering economic growth appears unrealistic right now. Ambitious climate action presupposes that targeted greenhouse gas reductions are already included in every forward-looking decision made today – including construction projects, for example. Be it buildings, container ships or industrial plants, everything that is built today must either comply with the strict climate action guidelines of the future or be easily converted to meet them. After all, these new houses, factories, roads, rail networks, ships and other infrastructures will remain in use far beyond the climate-policy deadline of 2030.

So far, however, many decision-makers have lacked this kind of foresight – or to put it another way, there is a huge gap between what those in charge know and what they are actually implementing in their policies. In Germany, for example, CO2 emissions in the industry and transport sectors continued to rise in 2017. Only the energy sector saw a slight decline. The fact is, that Germany still lags far behind its 2020 target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent relative to 1990. So far, total emissions in Germany have fallen by only 27.7 percent. And although Germany now aims to reduce emissions by 55 percent by 2030, it lacks the political will to actually introduce a full-blown energy and transport transformation alongside with an apparent lack for suitable ideas. ◆



  • The share of electricity from renewable energy sources is growing worldwide. Nonetheless, these emission savings are not enough to reduce the total amount of greenhouse gases released.
  • Global demand for energy and food will continue to rise, and so will emissions as a result.
  • Climate researchers have developed a catalogue of highly-ambitious climate action measures that could halt global warming. But before these measures can be implemented worldwide, there are large hurdles that must be overcome.
  • To effectively promote climate action, CO2 emissions should be taxed. This would also provide incentives to develop new ways to avoid emissions.

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