Master Plan

A Way Out of the Climate Trap

Houses and Kraftwerk ZB
Trying to keep those gases down: Merkel, Obama and Co.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Governments are struggling to come up with ways to fight climate change that do not threaten economic well-being.

  • Facts


    • Experts at the Berlin-based Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change (MCC) have drawn up a climate change analysis.
    • They came up with proposals to reduce CO2 emissions by 2050 that would require only a 0.06 percent decline in consumption.
    • The proposals cover agriculture, industry, the energy sector, cities and transport.
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Heat waves, dying glaciers, floods of Biblical proportions – the consequences of climate change are becoming ever more dramatic. And these phenomena are no longer only harbingers.

In the meantime, there is scarcely a day when further shocking news does not alarm the public.

During May and June, thousands of people died from temperatures of up to 50C (122F) in India and Pakistan. At the beginning of August, entire areas in those countries, as well as in Myanmar, were swamped by monsoon rains. California is suffering from the worst drought in 1,200 years. Around the world, glaciers are melting at a record pace, along with the Antarctic ice sheet, which holds 70 percent of the world’s supply of fresh water.

In scientific terms, it is not possible to determine to what extent the climate catastrophes are due to coincidental weather phenomena and how much they are due to climate change. But the great majority of researchers are unanimous: Humanity is vigorously heating up the globe by emitting larger and larger amounts of greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. climate agency, announced recently that this June was the hottest worldwide since weather data was first recorded in 1880. It was 0.88C above the average value for the 20th century.

So it’s high time to take action.

In June, the heads of seven leading industrial nations worked their ponderous way through to this recognition at the G7 Summit in Elmau in Bavaria, where they had been invited by German chancellor Angela Merkel.

After they had allowed many climate conferences of the United Nations to end without a result, the leaders now made a historic promise: In order to limit the emission of carbon dioxide (CO2) to an amount the climate can bear – 2C – the world is supposed to bid complete farewell to coal, oil and natural gas by the end of this century.

The U.S. president, Barack Obama, said that climate change is no longer a problem of the next generation: “We have to take action – right now.”

But is it realistic to call on the world economy to turn its back on carbon?

If all these various proposals are adopted, the MCC experts argue that the decline in consumption would be a mere 0.06 percent per year.

Will electricity still flow, cars run and machines operate if we don’t burn any more coal or oil? Or can we only save the climate if we renounce growth and prosperity?

Answers to these questions have been given by the renowned Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change (MCC).

On behalf of the business magazine WirtschaftsWoche, the Berlin climate experts used studies by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to develop a scenario in which the exit from the CO2 era costs almost no decline in economic growth.

The experts show where the fulcrum lies in order to apply the lever in the energy sector, industry, cities and land use and to meet the goal of an increase of only 2C.

If the consequences are to remain manageable, the Earth cannot be permitted to warm by more than that amount in relation to the level before the beginning of industrialization.

The challenge is huge. Around 15,000 billion tons of CO2 are contained in fossil fuels still in the ground. According to the head of MCC, Ottmar Edenhofer, no more than 1,000 billion tons of it can be allowed to reach the atmosphere. Otherwise the two-degree goal becomes endangered.

At the moment, all countries together emit around 32 billion tons of CO2. If things continue at this rate, the remaining CO2 budget would be used up in 30 years at the latest.

But what is the best way to stop the extraction of coal, oil and natural gas? Mr. Edenhofer proposes that the economy be required to make extremely high payments for every ton of CO2 emitted.

In 2030, $90 would be due per ton. Today the price in Europe under the emissions trading scheme is $8, payable by only the biggest emitters such as power and steel companies. At the higher amount, “extraction would no longer be profitable, and investments would instead go into clean technologies,” the economist argues.

He is also convinced that emerging nations like China and India have to cooperate in worldwide emissions trading. Especially because they number among the top three climate culprits – along with the United States.

And he calls upon rich G7 countries like Japan, Germany and the United States to support emerging and developing nations in the shift to green energy. “Without transfer payments, there won’t be any effective climate policy.”

According to the MCC analysis, politicians have room for maneuver when it comes to deciding how to lower emissions in individual sectors.

Some measures would encounter resistance in the population – this much is clear. It would even be possible to retrieve CO2 from the atmosphere. But the technologies that come under consideration here are controversial, for instance, storing greenhouse gases permanently underground.

If governments refrain from this method because they fear the response of voters, they would then have to radically reduce the use of carbon fuels in the transport sector in order not to exceed the two-degree limit. That could result in costs rising by as much as 240 percent.

But if politicians follow the path suggested by the Berlin experts, the reduction in consumption in relation to a policy of continuing as before would be manageable – and the Earth would be saved.

The experts at MCC have come up with various proposals for turning this around, covering five sectors: Agriculture, energy, industry, cities and transport.

The first area, agriculture, is responsible for around a quarter of climate change.

In order to reach the climate change targets, agriculture and forestry would need to stop emitting greenhouse gases by 2050 at the latest and also contribute to removing CO2 from the atmosphere, for example, through reforestation programs.

One example of how to address the issue is underwater farms, such as that operated by Sergio Gamberini near Genoa in Italy. Under Perspex he grows strawberries, garlic and basil. The upsides to his undertakings are evident. For every ton of food that is grown undersea, no forest has to be cut down, no greens have to be destroyed to have acres and pastures.

Another area for improvement is food waste. Half the world’s food is ending up on garbage dumps. If this could be eliminated, it would cut 6 billion tons of CO2 emissions. Meanwhile, switching to eating vegetables and fruit rather than meat could cut up to 7 billion tons.

A second area is to improve efforts to capture CO2 generated by energy production from the atmosphere. The Swedish company Bioreco, for example, captures the CO2 emitted in the production of biofuels and stores it 2,000 meters underground.

According to MCC, the energy sector, one of the biggest producers of greenhouse gases, has to reduce these emissions by 105 percent by 2050. However, there may not be enough space to store all of the captured CO2.

That is why the sector needs to turn away from fossil fuels. According to the MCC analysis, renewables, nuclear energy and fossil-fuel production using carbon cature and storage technologies have to provide 80 percent of energy by 2050.

A third area the MCC experts looked at is industry. Factories swallow tons of energy but more efficient technology can reduce the amount of greenhouse gases.

One company that is making strides here is Alunorf, one of the world’s biggest aluminum factories, based in Neuss, in Germany’s Rhineland region. Owner Thomas Geupel has invested €7.6 million in buying better ovens for his company, which save time, energy and CO2.

MCC estimates that factories like Alunorf have to reduce their emissions by almost half by 2050 to reach the climate targets.

The fourth area that the climate experts tackle is cities, which contribute 6 percent of the world’s CO2 emissions. As a result of increased urbanization and growing prosperity, cities will need three times as much energy by 2050. Nevertheless, they need to reduce their emissions by a fifth, according to the MCC report.

One city that is making efforts now is Helsinki. Rikhard Manninen, head of the Finnish capital’s urban planning agency, has developed a concept to make the city greener by 2050.

Even though he expects the city’ population to grow by a third to around 860,000, the city won’t produce any more CO2 emissions. To do this, he and his team of architects and city planners want to keep cars from moving in the center of the town. Streets will be car-free and used only by pedestrians and bikes.

The fifth area the analysis looked at is transport, which currently accounts for 14 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. MCC says that emissions in the transport sector need to be reduced by 5 percent by 2050.

There needs to be an increase in the uses of cars and buses that do not run on fossil fuels, such as electric cars that run on hydrogen batteries. Ships and airplanes could also increasingly turn to biofuels, the experts say.

If all these various proposals are adopted, the MCC experts argue that the decline in consumption would be a mere 0.06 percent per year. Applied to Germany, this would mean that in 2014, the economy would have grown around €2 billion more slowly in relation to 2013 – with an economic performance of a good €2,900 billion.

Mr. Edenhofer believes this is money well spent: “Our future ought to be worth that much to us.”


The article first appeared in the business magazine WirtschaftsWoche. Anna Gauto, Andreas Menn and Jürgen Rees contributed to this article. To contact the authors:

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