The world can win the green race but what happens this decade is vital: WEF panel

Global carbon dioxide emissions, mainly from burning fossil fuels, need to fall by about 45 per cent from 2010 levels by 2030. PHOTO: REUTERS

SINGAPORE - Greening the world economy is a trillion-dollar race against climate change that can be won with investment from companies and governments pushing for deeper emissions cuts, but they need to pick up the pace.

That is the warning from speakers at a World Economic Forum panel on Thursday (Jan 20).

"Nobody is moving fast enough," Mr John Kerry, the United States Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, told the Accelerating and Scaling Up Climate Innovation session.

"The world has to really pick up the pace," he said. "Nature has been sending us pretty dramatic and sometimes violent messages about the intensity that is now reaching us with respect to the climate transformation. So everybody is aware that this is happening and it's happening at record pace."

He pointed to the growing urgency to limit global warming to 1.5 deg C above pre-industrial levels, as well as the need to ramp up investment in renewable energy and emerging clean technologies, and help developing countries shift away from dirtier, polluting energy.

Action needs to accelerate this decade, he said.

"It's scientists who are telling us that all you people in power, in positions of leadership, have X number of years - it's now about eight to 10 - during which you can make and implement the critical decisions that will avoid the worst consequences of the climate crisis."

The United Nations climate panel said that to have a reasonable chance of limiting warming to 1.5 deg C, global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, mainly from burning fossil fuels, need to fall by about 45 per cent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching "net zero" around 2050. The world has already warmed 1.1 deg C.

The International Energy Agency said that half of the emission reductions needed to reach the 2050 climate goal rely on technologies in early development or prototype stages. Accelerating innovation and investments this decade is critical to cutting the costs of these technologies and building green supply chains.

To that end, more than 30 companies have joined the First Movers Coalition to invest in early efforts to cut emissions in aviation, shipping, steel, cement and other sectors. The aim is to bring down the costs and support wider roll-out of, for example, greener fuels for planes and ships, and steel made using energy from cleaner green hydrogen.

Billionaire Bill Gates, whose Breakthrough Energy initiative is providing financial support to the coalition, said it is vital to quickly bring down the costs of next-generation clean technologies to compete with the fossil fuel incumbents.

And the good news is that investment in new clean tech is at an all-time high, he said.

"We went from 2015 where there was very little money going into these things. Now we have over 10 times as much. Pairing those new technologies up with the big companies that have skills to build those things at scale - I see that as the urgent agenda."

Swedish energy firm and coalition member Vattenfall is already moving away from fossil fuels, including building wind farms and investing in green steel-making, said president and chief executive officer Anna Borg.

"I think there is a tendency to underestimate the risk of not changing when the world around you is changing," she told the panel, pointing to the firm's goal of achieving net zero emissions by 2040.

"For me, the connection to the business is very clear. And I think that what we need to do is look at our own business and phase out our fossil fuels."

Mr Kerry said the green transition will cost trillions of dollars. "It will require a special partnership with multilateral development banks, with the businesses of the world and with the governments. But that's doable."

Accelerating the transition also requires an end to huge subsidies to the fossil fuel industry. He said US$2.5 trillion (S$3.4 trillion) went into such subsidies over the past five years. "Far more money by multiples over what's gone into renewables. We've got to change this."

A proper price on carbon was also urgently needed. Mr Kerry said no one really prices in the cost of health impacts from air pollution from coal plants or coal mines, much less the huge financial cost and loss of human lives from more intense forest fires, floods and storms fuelled by all the additional CO2 pumped into the atmosphere. Burning coal is the single-largest source of CO2 emissions.

But he was hopeful things were changing. He said the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow last November were "a huge step forward". He noted that nations representing 65 per cent of global gross domestic product were on board to limit warming to 1.5 deg C and collective climate plans were reducing the climate risks. A global pledge to cut methane emissions was another plus.

But the reality was that emissions were still rising.

"The challenge is very, very clear. Emissions have gone up in 2021. The world used 9 per cent more coal than we did in 2020. And coal is the dirtiest fuel and in most places, it's unabated," he said, referring to coal plants that do not capture and store the CO2 emitted from smokestacks.

"So we're feeding the very problem that we're trying to solve at the same time."

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