The challenges of environmental action
By Patrice Geoffron, Professor of Economics at the University of Paris Dauphine, Director of the Centre for Geopolitics of Energy and Raw Materials (CGEMP) and member of the Circle of Economists.
The transition from the twentieth to the twenty-first century has seen the terms of the energy debate change. Previously, priority was given to security and cost of supply, with environmental issues being comparatively secondary. From now on, under the effect of climate disruption, saturation of metropolises with fine particles, and the collapse of biodiversity, environmental sustainability is being pushed to the forefront of energy agendas.
Limiting the rise in temperature to 1.5-2°C by the end of the century, in accordance with the Paris Agreement, implies reducing global CO2 emissions in 2050 to their 1950 level, with a tenfold increase in GDP and a fourfold increase in world population. In addition to transforming major technical systems, this means breaking with a highly carbon-intensive wealth creation model, which originated in the first industrial revolution and has therefore been in force for two centuries. In other words, a profound transformation of the organization of societies is required (housing, transport, agriculture, industry, logistics chains, international trade, tourism, etc.) without any “exceptions. Especially since, by the middle of this century, it will be necessary to organize an urban world for 70% of humans, with cities of 10 million inhabitants on all continents.
The 2015 COP 21 laid the foundations for broad international cooperation establishing a “bottom-up” (based on voluntary and progressive commitments by States) and “inclusive” (all are called upon to make transition efforts and not just developed countries) logic, drastically different from the Kyoto Protocol in the fight against global warming. Since then, the shocks induced by the American political cycle have raised doubts about the coherence of the new strategy, with the Trump administration bringing in its wake a halo of skeptical or reluctant states.
However, despite the health crisis, the year 2020 has seen some progress in commitments: China has set a goal of carbon neutrality by 2060 and the EU has strengthened its Green Deal with a target of neutrality by 2050 and much higher targets by 2030. Above all, the new US Administration is committed to going backwards from the previous one: its first decisions were to reintegrate the United States into the Paris Agreement, to align the neutrality horizon with the middle of the century, and to fund an ambitious plan to support low-carbon infrastructure. In addition, in many sectors of activity (from hydrocarbons to telecommunications), leading companies are making “net zero” (carbon neutrality) commitments that were not on their roadmap a few years ago (commitments that they will have to quickly make credible).
But, all in all, this “dynamic” leads to perspectives that are still far from the objectives of the Paris Agreement, as confirmed by the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, in an – yet another – alert to the international community. The urgency leads us to look at the very short term: certainly, the most advanced nations should form decarbonized societies by the middle of the century, but how do we accelerate between now and 2025? And how can we turn the end of the health crisis into an opportunity to contain the climate crisis?