The 2010s can be remembered as the decade of the loss of the fight against harmful climate change. 196 countries agreed to restrict global warming to well below 2 ° C above pre-industrial rates at the COP21 climate conference in Paris in 2015. Yet global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have continued to rise, atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations are at their highest levels in 800,000 years, and current policies are likely to result in about 3 ° C warming by 21:00. In addition, Madrid’s recent COP25 negotiations ended in failure, with governments squabbling over the value and distribution of “carbon credits” held over from a previous policy regime that was discredited.
However, at the same time, stunning technological advances during the 2010s make it possible to reduce GHG emissions at a much lower cost than we dared to hope a decade ago. Solar and wind power costs have dropped more than 80% and 70% respectively, while lithium-ion battery costs have dropped from $1,000 per kilowatt-hour in 2010 to $160 per kWh today. These and other breakthroughs mean that energy systems that rely on variable renewables as much as 85 per cent will generate zero-carbon electricity at costs that are fully competitive with those of fossil-fuel systems.
Furthermore, it is now clear that even the economy’s “hard-to-abate” industries, such as heavy industry, including steel, cement and chemicals, and long-distance transport, shipping, aviation, and trucking, can be decarbonized at costs that, while important to any business operating alone, are negligible in terms of the impact on living standards of individuals.
The United Kingdom Climate Change Committee reported in May 2019 that reaching a UK economy of zero emissions by 2050 will decrease GDP by no more than 1-2 per cent that year. The same commission, which I chaired then, had projected a comparable cost back in 2008 to achieve a reduction in emissions of only 80%.
In addition, lower decarbonization costs and increased awareness of climate risks sparked an increasing emphasis on the potential and need to reach the zero-emission goal by 2050. The UK made a legally binding pledge in July to meet that goal, and earlier this month the European Union settled on the same target. In addition, Maersk, the largest container shipping company in the world, the Swedish steel producer SSAB, and the Indian cement company Dalmia are among the increasing number of leading companies committed to zero-carbon by 2050 or earlier.