By Soh Chin Ong in Beijing, China on Nov 23, 2018
A United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report has outlined the disastrous effects of temperature rises of 1.5 degrees Celsius and 2°C. It also stated that global temperatures have already risen by 1°C. How do you feel about the future?
I feel optimistic. After nearly 30 years of talking about climate change, leaders now realise the work that needs to be done, and that they must put aside politics and stop playing games. It is obvious that the world is already suffering from the effects of climate change, with the intense typhoons, hurricanes and floods this year.
At the first COP in 1995, I remember a lot of arguments about who should do what and who should pay for the costs. But now, as can be seen in the two short years it took to put together the IPCC Special Report, scientists and policymakers are willing to work harder and faster to address climate change.
The report was a huge undertaking, drawing from 6,000 studies by 91 authors from 40 countries.
Are there signs that the IPCC findings will influence governments?
Countries like the UK, Canada, Denmark and Spain have already pledged to be carbon neutral by 2050. The European Union is also working on a mid-century strategy that includes the 1.5°C target. As the IPCC findings are still preliminary, the hard work begins now on setting realistic pathways to that goal.
More scientific research needs to be done on concrete ways forward, which will go into the Sixth Assessment Report, due in 2020.
After the IPCC report was presented in Incheon, Korea, my colleagues and I decided to create our own research road map for China to support the policy proposal, with targets set every six months. It is not a formal grouping. It will just be a bunch of colleagues working on climate change issues, through workshops, modeling forums and information exchange.
How difficult will it be for China, the world's largest carbon emitter, to become carbon neutral by 2050?
There are only 32 years left so it will be a huge and difficult, but possible, transition to lower-carbon energy. Speed is important, but if change happens too fast and without proper planning there could be massive unemployment and social unrest.
For example, coal-related businesses – not only coal mining, but also coal-fired power plants and the cement and steel industries that are powered by coal – would be affected. That is a tough issue that China, as well as other countries, must think hard about.
China is the world's biggest producer and user of electric vehicles (EVs). Can this momentum be sustained?
Yes, because China’s subsidies are the highest in the world and its policies, which include free permits for EVs, are also strong. The Energy Research Institute of the National Development and Reform Commission (ERI), which plans China’s economy, sees all sales of new cars in the country being electric by 2025 to 2030.
By 2035 to 2040, according to ERI projections, the technology could be so advanced that all cars in China could be autonomous.
How can China work with the world to tackle climate change?
The climate change agenda needs leadership. The USA wants to quit the Paris Agreement. In China, there are also people who feel their country should do the same.
They question why China is pursuing a low-carbon policy when the costs are high and when the USA is still pushing fossil fuels. They say that China has a lot of coal, so why not focus on that? At the same time, there are some who criticise China’s Belt and Road Initiative - an investment and infrastructure development plan across Asia, Europe and Africa - as a vehicle to promote coal exports as well as investments.
As researchers, we say China should work together with the world - and take the lead if necessary. The European Union and China could, perhaps, combine leadership to give their voices more global weight.
Governments of countries that are already developing clean technology should set tough targets. If China finds a way to make wind power or solar photovoltaics cheaper than coal, for instance, I don’t think it will be exporting coal.
The ERI is preparing another paper which asks what it means for the world if China succeeds in hitting the 1.5°C target. As a huge global investor, China could lead the way in encouraging the world to adopt low-carbon practices. As researchers, we believe China’s overseas investments should be low-carbon and green. We just need to keep making a case for it globally.
Data from Shell's Sky scenario, which meets the goals of the Paris Agreement, shows China modifying its Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to reach an emissions peak in 2025 instead of 2030. It adds that China's emissions will fall by 5% by 2030 and nearly 15% by 2035. Can this scenario become a reality?
The ERI’s scenario for a rise of well under 2°C is that China should reach peak emissions by 2020 to 2022, after which emissions will decrease by 65% to 70% by 2050 compared to 2020. Data from the Sky scenario falls somewhere in between the ERI scenario projection and China's NDC Paris commitment. So, yes, it could happen.
The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change has asked countries to propose a mid-century strategy for 1.5°C. So, China might, by 2019 or 2020, include a 2050 emissions target in its proposal. I hope it will set tough targets.
China’s NDCs for Paris were not tough enough. Even as far back as the Copenhagen summit in 2009, when it proposed a 40% to 45% reduction in carbon intensity, data already showed that it could easily do 50% to 55%.
What can people do now to help tackle climate change?
If more people pay attention to the carbon footprint of the goods they consume, that will go a long way to reducing emissions.
The easiest thing is to switch to energy-efficient models of fridges, washing machines and televisions.
People can also walk or take public transport, instead of driving cars. They can cut down on meat if they can’t go completely vegetarian, because the cultivation of livestock is carbon intensive. Cows produce greenhouse gases, including methane. A lot of nitrous oxide also comes from producing feed for livestock.
We’ve spoken about the role of governments and individuals. What should businesses do?
In 2015, I was invited to give a speech at a battery summit in Shenzhen. It was attended by more than 200 companies specialising in batteries and battery technology. If only one or two of these succeed, that could be enough to change the course of the climate change agenda.
The speed at which technology is evolving gives me hope that the world can hit the 2050 target. In our research, we have found that technology sometimes moves much faster than our models allow. Take the rise of energy-efficient LED lighting, which is quickly replacing incandescent lightbulbs.
What we need now are clear targets and government policies so that businesses can invest confidently in these technologies. Once the interests of governments and businesses are aligned, the world can be patient and optimistic that it can thrive in the energy transition.
Note: Views expressed are those of the individuals featured and not the Shell group and their affiliates.