David A. Andelman, World Policy Journal’s editor emeritus, is reporting from the Paris Climate Conference. This week, he sat down with Kaisa Kosonen, Climate and Energy Policy advisor for Greenpeace Nordic, to discuss the potential impact of the conference’s outcome and the future of climate adaptation.
DAVID A. ANDELMAN: One of the key questions is how low can we go? Obviously, the ideal for most environmentalists is a 1.5 degrees centigrade increase [in global temperatures] over the next 10 years?
KAISA KOSONEN: No, the century.
DA: Oh, the century? The general consensus on the first day seemed to be more like a 2.7 to 3.5 degree increase. How likely are we to get to 1.5, and what would it take to get there?
KK: Well, the thing is that currently we are heading toward 2.7 or even 3.5, but at the same time countries have agreed that this is too much; they had earlier agreed to keep warming below 2 degrees. They have already agreed that it might be that the target is not strong enough, so let’s review. They started this review process a couple of years ago that is now about to conclude. They have found that yes, indeed, 2 degrees is already dangerous, so you know those calling for 1.5 have a fair point. It’s not like countries will be agreeing on 2.7, but you’re right, they say one thing and act on another thing.
DA: But even 2.7 is considered to be considerable progress over what we had going into this conference.
KK: Oh, yes, but if it’s still going to melt our poles and kill our species, it’s not enough. There are fewer scenarios for the 1.5 goal than 2 degrees, but actually when you look into the pathways, they’re quite similar when you take a strong likelihood of staying below 2 degrees and the [lower] likelihood of getting to 1.5. So we’re talking about scenarios that bring all greenhouse gas emissions up to 95 percent below 2010 levels by 2050 for 1.5. But altogether, I’ve written an analysis of what the IPCC actually says on this, so how will I simplify it? If we take an assumption that we want to have a higher than 66 percent likelihood of staying below 2 degrees, so a very strong likelihood, …
DA: Staying below 2 degrees?
KK: Two degrees, and a decent chance of staying below 1.5 degrees. The IPCC, the U.N. Climate Science Panel, came out with their newest report last year. Their lowest concentration pathway, which is the emission reaction pathway, would take us to about zero or below in all greenhouse gas emissions by the end of the century and with carbon by about 2070, if we assume that we can quite extensively use negative emissions, plant a lot of trees, or burn biomass and capture the emissions and bury them under the ground. Under these assumptions having 66 percent likelihood of staying under 2 degrees using negative emissions, starting soon, we’d have to have about zero carbon by about 2070 and all greenhouse gases by the end of the century. Now if you want to have a higher likelihood of staying below 2 degrees and some chance of staying below 1.5, then you need to bring that zero [sooner].
DA: So what decade? What would be the marker point?
KK: For carbon, at the latest by 2050.
DA: So full de-carbonization by 2050, is that realistic? There are so many countries now that are so heavily reliant on carbon – some very large countries, particularly India and China. China obviously has a motivation to move it forward more quickly because they’re dying, they’re strangling from this. But India doesn’t necessarily. My sense is that what they’re saying is if you give us $100 billion a year, then every year between now and 2050 we will commit to doing this. Is that realistic?
KK: Well, the goal is very, very difficult, that’s clear. Technically it can be achieved – Greenpeace has also done its own modeling on together with a German DLR institute on how we can get to zero carbon emissions in the whole energy sector by 2050, with the help of renewable energy and energy efficiency. We, by the way, have a side event on it today. Now politically, it is a whole different story. It would be easy to say it is completely unrealistic in light of current politics and what is happening. And there was a study by Climate Analytics yesterday or the day before where they looked into all coal-fired power plants that are already in the pipeline or being planned, and if all of those were implemented, we could pretty much say goodbye to both 1.5 and 2 degrees. However, what we have seen in the last few years is what the transformational change looks like, what disruptive change looks like. It’s the global breakthrough of renewable energy, which has been much faster than people thought. And solar PV prices have dropped 80 percent in 5 years. And personally for me, the biggest reason for hope has been the coal consumption curve, especially for China and the U.S. even. In the U.S., coal had more than a 20 percent drop in what, 4 or 5 years? But in China, see a few years ago if you look at the emissions graphs, you might have seen this graph of China’s emissions go woosh, primarily because of coal and 10 percent growth a year. So I was there looking at these graphs thinking there’s no way in hell we can peak global emissions in time for any temperature. But now given that the air problem became so apocalyptic, they have interest in the issue.
DA: That’s in China?
KK: Yes, in China. In a few years China has implemented such drastic measures that the coal consumption first plateaued and now is in decline. China produced one fourth of all emissions globally, so what China alone does matters a lot. Of course, as they’ve shown putting a lot of resources into renewable energy, it’s largely because of them that solar prices came down that much. So we’re seeing a big shift, a change in course in China and also in many other countries.
DA: But India is still a very important country.
KK: India’s the biggest question mark.
DA: Right, India’s the biggest question, and yesterday the chief of the Indian delegation said that we can do it, but we need a lot of money to do it. So do you think that the developed nations are prepared to put those kinds of resources into it, particularly since there are so many strong political forces in the United States, for instance, that are saying there’s no problem to begin with, why should we put all this kind of money behind this?
KK: Yes, it’s very important to look into the differences between countries like China and India. I mean India still has something like 300 million people without access to power.
DA: And will have a population larger than China’s within the next decade.
KK: Yes, so they have real challenges that we cannot even comprehend in our countries. So their call for finance is legitimate in that sense. They have a massive least-developed country within them, while at the same time they are one of the biggest economies. Now at the same time, the price of solar has come down so fast and [there are] multiple problems related to coal, mainly air pollution and the fact that big coal power plants and mines need a lot of water, which is scarce in many parts of India. So coal is actually competing with the cities and agriculture for water. And because it’s faster and easier to provide energy access nowadays days with solar to rural areas. I believe we will be seeing, and India is already approaching the situation if it hasn’t already crossed it, that solar is cheaper than coal. So that is a game changer.
DA: Are we relying for the scheme change on technologies that have not yet been developed but that we hope will be developed or are confident that it will be developed?
KK: No, we are counting on technologies we already have. Solar prices are continuing to come down. And increasingly around the world solar and wind are competitive with coal even without subsidies, so we’re talking about big changes in just a few years. So then it just requires this change of a mindset that decentralized energy, small scale, is as good or actually even better than big centralized power plants, we need this mind change for both.
DA: Let’s look forward to the conclusion of this conference next week. We’re going to have some kind of a document. Presumably there’ll be portions of it that will be in some fashion legally binding, but they will not go so far toward legally binding as requiring the U.S. Senate, for instance, to have to approve it. So what can we look out for next week at the end of this huge conference with 40,000 people, an entire city here trying to work toward a goal? What can we look for that’s actually enforceable or, if not even enforceable, realistic?
KK: Well, I’m looking into three different indicators. One – what is the big message that this conference will send? What will be primarily the long-term goal, but also the overall package of goals? Will it send a new message of a new kind of urgency and ambition, and that countries would for the first time admit that we are no longer in the business of just managing emissions but we are heading for emissions phase-out? If we get a phase-out agreement, even if the timeline is not what we’d be calling for, it could be a game-changer. So what is the big message, and how is it formulated in the long-term goals?
The second is what would they do to the short-term targets, which are currently not sufficient? Will they just be like, okay, whatever, we tried, it’s not enough, but let’s just live with it and come back in 5 or 10 years? Now that would be a problem because they [would have] identified it’s not in line with the temperature goals but they would still accept it. So we need to have some kind of a hook with which countries start improving their targets right away.
And third, what kind of message on a new sense of solidarity and responsibility does it send? Currently we are in the situation where it is the victims paying the biggest price with their homes, their livelihoods, and their lives. Yes, we have budget deficits in countries like mine and others, and yes, it’s difficult to find money, but for us it’s much easier than for these people. So how is the issue of finance needs, pollutant [payments], responsibility, and questions of loss and damage adaptation be, so the whole question the needs of the vulnerable countries dealt with. So in these three indicators, if we see meaningful progress in them, everyone feels that in this political context this was a good outcome.
DA: The other thing that President Obama said in his briefing the other day after his speech was in fact, it’s almost the case of [needing] to have enough momentum from enough countries and enough buy-in from enough groups that it becomes embarrassing not to buy in. Do you get the sense that it almost becomes a moral imperative, when you get to this kind of scale for movement on this, that that’s what really could be the most important element?
KK: Absolutely. This is my 11th COP, and I’ve had moments where I just couldn’t take it anymore. I mean, I couldn’t go to Durban, I couldn’t go to a couple of COPs in between, where I just felt it’s not moving, it’s not worth it. And now I really feel that there is a sense that the world outside is already moving faster than what we thought was possible.
DA: So maybe, effectively governments, they’re not governments but companies and individuals – corporations and individuals – can move this more quickly than governments may be prepared to do?
KK: Yes. And I think that’s what already is happening. What we also see is that what the target countries don’t necessarily reflect the best they can do or the best that they are already planning to do at home. So there is hot air in most of the big polluters’ INDCs [Intended Nationally Determined Contributions]. So that also means that even if targets here are low, we will probably see faster action in reality in those countries once this really gets going. And if we get this spirit that has now, within a few years, started in the kind of understanding that we need to move away from fossil fuels for multiple reasons, so why don’t we just do it? Because now solutions are more available than ever before, investors are ready to do it, they just need the stimulus. There’s less expectation of this agreement to solve everything, and there is more understanding that the changes are going to be inevitable.
DA: This agreement, rather than solving anything, will build momentum toward a solution.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]