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Climate change risks and opportunities

The ECCT, in cooperation with the British Office and the British Chamber of Commerce arranged a Special Lunch on the topic "Climate change: The risks and opportunities presented by the transition to a low carbon economy" featuring guest speaker Sir David King, UK Special Representative for Climate Change. The speaker described tackling climate change as the single biggest challenge facing humanity but also the greatest opportunity.

Using sophisticated models to analyse historical temperature patterns since 1900 and project future patterns until 2100, taking into account projected greenhouse gas emissions, even optimistic scenarios are alarming. Global average summer temperatures reached record highs last year and by 2040 this year's peak temperature is likely to be that year's average temperature. Under a business as usual scenario the average temperature could rise by as much as 4˚ Celsius or more. According to many experts, if this were to happen the consequences for the planet and the global economy would be catastrophic.

Extreme weather events and normal seasonal climate events such as the El Niño Southern Oscillation and La Niña are exacerbated by climate change. The report King co-authored titled "Climate Change: A Risk Assessment" lays out some of the major risks associated with climate change. For example, the higher the average temperature, the greater the risk of catastrophic crop failures. The resulting consequences of famine and economic deprivation would extend much further than the affected geographical areas.

While the melting of the arctic sea polar ice would not raise global sea levels, if the substantial ice on land, particularly Greenland and Antarctica, were to melt, global sea levels could rise by up to 15 metres. This would be catastrophic for low-lying coastal areas and islands all over the world. Not only would this put millions of coastal regions under water but the salinization of these areas would render vast tracts of arable land useless for growing crops. This would include highly populated areas of Asia such as Indonesia, China, Vietnam and the Mekong Delta region.

While there is now a much greater awareness of the impact of climate change and a commitment to take action, it is unlikely to be enough. At the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 21) in Paris, 197 countries negotiated and accepted the Paris Agreement, a global agreement to address climate change and keep temperature rises to less than 2˚ Celsius. As of 20 March 2017, 136 of the countries had ratified the agreement and begun adopting it within their own legal systems. The UK, which along with other European countries played a major role in securing the Paris agreement, ratified the deal on 18 November 2016 and remains one of the its leading international advocates.

Under the Paris agreement each party has committed to communicate and maintain successive nationally determined contributions (NDCs) that it intends to achieve. Based on analysis, even if all parties to the Paris agreement met their NDC targets, the overall impact is still likely to fall short of what is needed to prevent a 2˚ Celsius increase in temperature. If insufficient action is taken there is a high risk of global temperatures rising by up to 4˚ Celsius or more.

King went on to highlight some of the positive action being taken to address climate change. The two main areas where action is needed are reforestation to increase the world's carbon sinks and phasing out fossil fuels in favour of zero carbon alternatives. For its part, the UK has set aside close to £10 billion for climate fund which is being used to try to stop deforestation, increase reforestation and build renewable energy capacity. Much of the budget is being used to help developing countries. For example the UK-USA Agreement on Energy Africa/Power Africa will assist African governments to roll out clean energy to off-grid villages across Africa, reaching 620 million people by 2030. According to King, 43 countries have already collectively pledged to reforest an area the size of India.

While countries are not doing enough yet to reduce emissions, we may be reaching a turning point. Since 2014, more renewable energy capacity has been added than fossil fuels thanks to aggressive government programmes, such as feed-in-tariff schemes and rapidly falling costs. There are signs that annual carbon emissions may be close to a peak, although evidence is not yet conclusive.

Besides the benefit for the planet, low carbon solutions make a great contribution to the economy. According to King, 2015 alone saw a record US$367 billion invested in renewable energy and in the UK alone 11,500 companies employing 260,000 people are involved in the low carbon economy. While current NDC targets may not be enough, the Paris agreement has a review mechanism whereby parties can adjust their NDCs every five years.

The biggest obstacles facing the mass transition from fossil fuels to renewables are storage of renewables and the lack of smart grids. Mission Innovation is a high-profile initiative to strengthen public funding of clean energy R&D under which 22 countries have committed to doubling by 2020/2021 annual spending to approximately US$30 billion. Moreover, private investors such as Bill Gates have pledged to invest US$20 billion in new technologies and solutions. Seven areas have been identified for R&D: Smart grids, electricity & heat storage; Electricity access to off-grid communities; capturing sunlight to create liquid fuels, carbon capture, use and storage; 2nd generation biofuels; materials to replace steel and concrete and heating & cooling.

King concluded his presentation by showcasing some innovative solutions. The VariaLift Airship, developed by a UK company, is a modern airship capable of carrying up to 20 containers (50 tonnes). The airship burns 80-90% less fuel than equivalent aircraft and can fly at 250-350 kilometres per hour. With the airship, cargo can be loaded and offloaded while the ship is airborne, meaning it can collect cargo directly from the source (such a tomato farm in Spain) and deliver it to multiple locations without the need for expensive logistics infrastructure. This makes it 80-90% cheaper than the equivalent payload aircraft to purchase and operate. He also demonstrated an innovative renewable energy storage system developed by a German company.