Gareth Huw Davies


As Paris climate talks start, is it time to aim for a zero carbon world?

It’s down to this. The world simply stops using fossil fuels, as soon as possible, and much sooner than the year 2100.

Most delegations heading to the conference chambers of Paris for the vital UN climate talks from governments around the world won’t have it on their negotiating list, yet. Zero carbon is still a bold idea, but becoming less so by the day.

In 2009, in the run-up to the doomed Copenhagen climate talks, the last time the world came together to try to thrash out a comprehensive agreement to limit carbon emissions, few people apart from the outright visionaries were talking about it.

Now, however, with the Paris COP21 talks, which start on November 30th, billed as the world’s last chance to make an agreement that has any prospect of keeping temperatures below 2°C , the complete elimination of fuel and energy generation from fossil reserves has become an imperative. Towns, cities, countries, the entire world powered by 100% renewable energy. No gas, no oil, no coal.

This month former Labour leader Ed Miliband – who led the UK delegation in Copenhagen as energy minister – called on this country to become the first in the world to enshrine in law a target of reducing carbon emissions to zero.

Ed Miliband’s view is that if we are aiming for 80% reduction of fossil fuel by 2050, why not go all the way and target complete elimination? It’s easier for towns and cities to set this target.

The Labour mayoral candidate, Sadiq Khan, has pledged to put London on course to be powered entirely on clean energy by 2050 if he is elected in May (2016). South Australia has committed to zero net emissions by 2050. (“Zero net” allows for the burning of some fossil fuels, so long as they’re balanced out by natural factors such as forest carbon sinks and technologies like carbon capture and storage that keep the pollution from entering the atmosphere.)

The strong view among climate scientists now is that the world cannot avoid even 2°C of warming, which will bring a high likelihood of frequent severe, disruptive weather. Even the promising pledges made by world governments before Paris suggest we will exceed that figure, and head upwards of 2.7°C to 3°C by the end of the century. Writing just before Paris, we are making a promising start, but we need to do more.

So, barely spoken of in 2009, there is a new mantra for 2015. “Zero carbon” – eliminating carbon from the way we produce energy. We might have to wait a few more years orfor the idea to take hold, but it’s hard to believe that when governments reconvene in 2020 to assess progress, it would not be a firm aspiration by then.

I have the book The Energy Imperative – 100% Renewable Now, by Herman Scheer, in front of me. Scheer, who died shortly after its publication in 2010, was a pioneer campaigner for renewable energy. In 2000, as a member of the Bundestag, he drove into law the feed-in tariff, which stimulated the rapid spread of wind, solar and hydro power in Germany and beyond. The book outlines his vision, that it was technically and economically feasible for renewable energy to fully replace fossil and nuclear energy within a short time, if the political will was there.

We can look forward to two things with certainty this century (three, if you include terrorism). Climate change will continue to be with us, a real and pressing and possibly disastrous threat. And, at sometime before the year 2100, we shall stop using fossil fuels.

World governments have at least acknowledged that that distant zero carbon target must be met. But there is a growing body of opinion that the 2100 date is far too modest. Many people reading this article will not be alive then, although our grandchildren will be. They will be entitled to ask why we didn’t care, or care enough to make real change, when all the evidence was before us, along with a very good route map to get us out of this mess before it was too late.

They should know that there were many people in 2015 who did care, and backed a rapid shift to a zero carbon world. And that men ahead of their time, like Herman Scheer, outlined the vision as long ago as 2009, before the current renwables revolution.

There are reasons to believe that we may now make more rapid progress. (See this)  Few people could have foreseen the advance of solar and wind energy as the Copenhagen talks were collapsing just before Christmas in 2009, and how fast and how far the cost of solar panels, in particular, would plummet.

Who would have thought that Germany, on July 25th, 2015, would meet 78 percent of the day’s electricity demand through renewables? Or that windfarms off the coast of Britain would be producing enough energy for cities the size of Cardiff? And this is even more promising, that a Third World country like Rwanda would complete (in 2015) one of the biggest solar plants in Africa, producing energy for 15,000 homes?

And at a very local level, who foresaw the rapid uptake of solar powered lighting, displacing polluting, antique kerosene lamps across Africa and parts of Asia, enabling, in particular, children to work later on their schoolwork in a much healthier environment.

On the other hand, some things have moved slower than we thought. There was no rapid take up of electric cars – people seem to be put off by the cost, the low range, and the fear of running out of power. Even our concern about climate change, measured in opinion polls, is lower than it was 2005, when the situation was less serious than it is today. One poll put it 15th in the public’s list of concerns. Politicians see these figures and act, or don’t act, accordingly.

Much of the popular press, if not actively denying that climate change is real, and happening, have done little to campaign for a solution, and deprived their readers of essential information and guidance on what President Obama described as the most serious problem facing the world.

Something made me angry, around 2012 or 2013. A senior figure in the North Sea oil industry was being interviewed by the BBC. He spoke with a smug certainty about the future of his industry. There was no doubt in his mind that oil extraction would continue at more or less its current level for many years to come. Here was a man with a complete grasp of what is happening to the planet and the atmosphere, and knew the connection between fossil feels and climate change. Did he not think that sometime soon we must slow and then stop extraction, if only in the interests of his grandchildren?

He, however, could not have foreseen the sudden emergence of the movement to persuade institutions, including universities, city councils and churches, to divest holdings and pension fund from oil, gas and coal. This is a significant movement now, and it’s gathering force.

As Herman Scheer wrote, a zero carbon world is achievable. Only governments are holding it back.

The Energy Imperative – 100% renewable now, by Herman Scheer. Published by Earthscan.