A million years ago, during the early Pleistocene, when glaciers covered much of the northern hemisphere, deer, bears, elephants, rhinos and elephants, as well as various hominids, coexisted on Spanish lands. This geological stage is well documented in the Atapuerca deposit (Burgos), whose excavations have been reactivated this summer thanks to access to funds, and are of great importance to understand the existing environmental conditions of the time and how climate change suffered the planet in that period caused the extinction of up to 70 species of large mammals.
During the 4.6 billion years of life of our planet, a total of seven “ice ages” have been documented, triggered by changes in the rotational axis of the earth with respect to the sun and by fluctuations in the relative concentration of greenhouse gases (GHG) . The glacial periods coincide with low concentrations of these gases “coincidentally”. Climate change is therefore not something new; our planet will not disappear, but life as we know it will.
By a simple chemical process, GHGs (water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide) have the ability to absorb energy and keep the planet warm. As in recent decades we have started to account for a sharp rise in the concentration of GHG (greater than 400 parts per million (ppm)), the planet is warming. A variety of sectors and processes contribute to the increase in global emissions: energy 73.2% (electricity, heat and transport), industry 5.2%, waste 3.2% and agriculture, so the solution is not simple.
During COP26 more than 40 countries have pledged to let coal burn, including 18 new countries (including Poland, Vietnam and Chile) that for the first time promise to phase out or stop investing in new coal-fired power plants.
This would have the consequence that energy from coal would be completely phased out in the 2030s for the major economies. However, millions of people still live today in a situation of energy poverty and access to electricity is one of the keys to their socio-economic progress, which would imply higher energy consumption and more emissions.
This great dilemma is the one that, for example, is posed by Bill Gates in his latest book and addressed by Alok Sharma (president of COP26) with the announcement of £ 13 billion in investment in alternatives to coal so that the poorest nations can also meet the goal of achieving a green transition by 2040. Unfortunately, the main consumers of coal, the US, China, India and Australia have not signed up to these promises.
The severity of high GHG concentrations is partly due to the fact that these gases have very long “active” lives (50,000 years in the case of tetrafluoromethane); which means that the rate at which it accumulates is much higher than the rate at which they disappear and therefore the measurements take time to see. Methane is a GHG with a 28 times greater capacity to retain heat than CO2, however, its average life of only 12 years compared to the 100 years of active life of CO2. That is, it is much more harmful but its effects less lasting.
It is a simple math topic. Therefore, a smart solution is the one established by the Methane Commitment, signed by 103 countries during COP26, including the United States, but not China, where these economies agree to reduce their methane emissions by 30%; the expected effect of reducing global warming by 0.2 ° C will be almost immediate.
The effective decarbonisation of our planet will require a significant investment in the development of new disruptive technologies for the generation of green energy (renewable, bioenergy or green hydrogen), carbon capture technologies at the generation site (ammonia production facilities or thermal power plants), electrification of the entire heating system as well as new sources of energy for transport by land, sea and air, making the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero’s commitment to invest more than 130,000 million dollars of Private equity is great news. It would cover 70% of the total estimated investments, according to the UN, for the transformation of the electricity, transport, construction, industry, agriculture and energy sectors.
In addition, 23 governments have come together under the name Mission Innovation, to work together to accelerate the development of clean technologies with “innovation missions” to cover emissions the sectors responsible for more than 50% of global emissions. And they are not non-lost investments, green investment generates returns since it is a way to mitigate important physical and transition risks; Until now, many of the negative externalities of our production model were not being computed and this is already changing at the legislative level.
Tycoon Elon Musk, co-founder of large companies such as Tesla, Paypal or SpaceX has seen a vein in high GHG emissions and has focused the challenge of XPrizes on finding negative carbon offsetting technologies. Some see opportunities for growth and development, where others see only obstacles. We need to be more ambitious and keep innovating. Undoubtedly, companies that successfully solve this problem, in addition to generating a sustainable impact on the planet, will obtain significant financial benefits and will contribute to the generation of new jobs and new opportunities for economic growth.
* Isabela Alcázar is Global head of sustainability at IE University.