Pathways to contain global warming

Sébastien Soleille, BNP Paribas' Global Head of Energy Transition and Environment, responds to the key questions arising from the IPCC's latest special report.

The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its latest special report on 8 October, 2018. Requested by COP21 in 2015, the report sought answers to two broad questions:

  • The impact of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels
  • The global greenhouse gas (GHG) emission “pathways” that could be compatible with limiting global warming at a maximum of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels

Constance Chalchat, Head of BNP Paribas CIB Change Management, asks Sébastien Soleille, BNP Paribas’s Global Head of Energy Transition and Environment, the key questions arising from this report.

CC: Sébastien, you’ve been working on various sustainability issues for much of your life. Could you provide us with some context around this report and its objectives?

SS: With the approach of COP24, which will take place in Katowice, Poland, in the first two weeks of December 2018, the IPCC report reminds participants – as well as all governmental and economic actors – of the need to act decisively.

The IPCC report was mandated to study both the impact of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and to determine the global greenhouse gas (GHG) emission pathways compatible with limiting global warming at this level. Running such an investigation was, however, seen by many as an impossible task. Notwithstanding these claims, the IPCC experts fulfilled their mission successfully.

CC: According to the report, limiting global warming to 1.5°C is possible but extremely challenging. From your point of view, is it realistic? From a technical and theoretical perspective, such ambitious mitigation policies seem to be possible – but to what extent can they be implemented in the real world?

SS: The IPCC conducted, as it always does, a very sophisticated and well-documented analysis based on the most up-to-date available scientific knowledge.

Its latest report starts by reminding the world that with global warming already 1.0°C above pre-industrial levels, the current situation is already critical and that the difference between the impacts of 1.5°C and 2.0°C of global warming is huge. Just think of it this way: at 1.5°C, 70 to 90% of the world’s coral reefs would disappear, compared to 99% at 2°C. At 1.5°C, 350 million people would be affected by floods, whereas more than 410 million would be affected at 2°C.

Nevertheless, according to the report, it seems feasible to limit GHG emissions in order to reach the 1.5°C target. The effort required is drastic considering the limited timeframe: net global GHG emissions should decrease by roughly 45% between 2010 and 2030 – taking into account that this decrease has not really started yet – and should reach zero by 2050.

In other words, states, public authorities, companies, individuals – everyone – all have a significant role to play and must do everything possible in order to avoid a major disaster.

CC: This underlines the need for everyone to be engaged. BNP Paribas has been working hard to accompany its clients in their transformation journey, while raising awareness among its employees in supporting this mobilisation. We should now work closely with other actors to reinforce our commitments and engage ever deeper in broad economic and societal transformation. What changes should we expect if we are to achieve the IPCC goal?

SS: The report itself describes four different GHG emissions ‘pathways’ limiting global warming to a maximum 1.5°C. Each requires drastic and rapid change.

First, global energy demand will grow only marginally, but a great effort is needed to prevent this limited energy growth from hindering the development of emerging countries with growing populations. Efforts to reduce energy demand include lower energy use and fast electrification of energy end-use.

Second, the electricity production mix will drastically change. Renewable energy will produce 70-85% of electricity in 2050. Nuclear production or fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage (CCS) are projected to increase significantly. Gas (with CCS) will generate around 8% of electricity while the use of coal will be close to 0% for electricity production.

Such changes in the energy mix will need the conversion of millions of square kilometres of agricultural land used for food and feed crops into land for energy crops.
Furthermore, CO2 emissions from industry are to be decreased by 85-90% in 2050 compared to 2010 through electrification, hydrogen, bio-based feedstock and CCS.

As to the building sector, it will require both a strong decrease in energy demand and a strong increase in electrification.

Combustion engine vehicles have to be restricted in Europe by 2030-2040 and no more fossil fuel transportation should exist by 2060.

Finally, the development of carbon dioxide removal (CDR) has of course a very important role to play, either through carbon sequestration in soils and plants or through new technologies such as CCS, especially for electricity generation and industry. Unfortunately, these technologies, besides lacking maturity, also have some important potentially negative impacts on land use, food supply, water and biodiversity.

To make matters even more complicated, let’s not forget that such ‘technical’ issues are deeply interrelated with social considerations. All policies should of course be implemented in a way that does not hinder the economic growth of emerging countries with growing populations. Potential negative trade-offs between climate change mitigation and the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) must be considered carefully to avoid further increasing the burden on disadvantaged and vulnerable people around the world.

The details of these conclusions may be challenged, in one way or another. But what is certain is that all the energy systems have to face drastic changes in the coming years. We, in BNP Paribas, have to adapt ourselves, and to anticipate to such energy transition. It is necessary if we want to help our clients be prepared to such complete change of paradigm.

CC: Those are significant long-term changes for many industries! The good news is that limiting global warming to 1.5°C compared to the pre-industrial era seems to be technically possible, at least from a theoretical point of view. But is it realistic to implement changes of such magnitude?

SS: The IPCC report concludes on an optimistic note, stating that rates of system changes associated with limiting global warming to 1.5°C have already occurred in the past. However, the past energy transitions were dealing with addition of new energies to existing ones: coal came as an addition to biomass-based fuel, oil came as an addition to coal, nuclear power came as an addition to fossil fuels. Today, the necessary energy transition requires the replacement of fossil fuels with low-carbon energy sources. A replacement of such magnitude and at such a rapid pace has never been witnessed in the past.

In addition to this, some technologies providing the 1.5°C pathways, such as CDR, require a massive scale-up while others are still rather controversial. Nuclear power is estimated to grow by 100% to 500% between 2010 and 2050. In addition, we must not neglect the technological progress that will surely bring new solutions and ever more effective technologies in the coming years. Those technologies will need to be taken into consideration by the IPCC as they emerge.

CC: The topic of climate change has often been hotly debated in several countries at the highest political level. From your point of view, what is the role of governments and civil society in the adoption of the required changes?

SS: At this stage, geopolitical issues are obviously a key point in the global climate strategies. Climate change is a global issue with local solutions: every government, every company, every actor have to develop specific solutions if we want to fight effectively climate change, that will have impacts everywhere on each of us. Sharing effort and investment between developed and emerging countries is a heavily debated issue. In that regard, the action of the biggest emitters, the US and China, is still highly uncertain.

Most importantly, such drastic changes require the engagement of most, if not all, inhabitants on this planet since they all have a role to play. Most people, companies and governments need to be convinced that limiting global warming to 1.5°C, or at worst 2°C, is possible, and, more importantly, that it is worth it, for all of us. Even though it entails some radical behavioural changes linked to consumption and ways of living, limiting global warming will help us build a more pleasant world, a world that is easier to live in when compared to a business-as-usual world, with global warming higher than 3°C.

CC: Many thanks for your comments Sébastien. Let us hope COP24 will become the decisive step towards the global mobilisation of effort to tackle climate change!