2019 Climate change mitigation, energy mix and organic agriculture trends

The world needs to commit to a virtual target of 1.4C warming above pre-industrial levels to achieve a 2C goal.

Concentrations of CO2 are now 46% greater than the levels in the atmosphere before the industrial revolution. According to UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world needs to spend US$2.4 trillion every year until 2035 to slow down the effects of climate change.

CO2, methane, and nitrous oxide — the three greenhouse gases most responsible for climate change — are all rising. CO2 levels reached 405 parts per million in 2017, a level not seen in 3-5 million years.

Researchers also note the resurgence of a banned gas called CFC-11, a gas that’s used in home insulation.

Methane, the second most important greenhouse gas, some 60% of which is dumped into the atmosphere from cattle farming, rice cultivation and fossil fuel extraction. Methane concentration in the atmosphere is 257% of what it was before the industrial revolution.

Nitrous oxide (laughing gas) that comes from sources like fertiliser use and industry is now about 122% of pre-industrial levels. These gases can impact our climate for centuries after they have been emitted.

Concentrations differ from emissions in that they represent what remains in the atmosphere after some of the gases are absorbed by the seas, land and trees.

Just 90 companies produced 63% of the cumulative global emissions of industrial carbon dioxide and methane between 1751 to 2010, amounting to about 914 Gt CO2 emissions — all but seven of the 90 were energy companies producing oil, gas and coal. The remaining seven were cement manufacturers.

Half of the estimated emissions were produced just in the past 25 years – well past the date when governments and corporations became aware that rising greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of coal and oil were causing dangerous climate change. Nearly 30% of emissions were produced just by the top 20 companies.

Four of ten most air polluting companies in Europe operate coal plants in Germany: RWE, EPH, Uniper, and STEAG.

From a recent article in The New Yorker:

Not only did Exxon [As of 2018, this multinational oil and gas corporation ranked second in the Fortune 500 rankings of the largest United States corporations by total revenue] and other companies know that scientists were right; they used NASA climate models to figure out how low their drilling costs in the Arctic would eventually fall. Had Exxon [the largest refiner in the world] and its peers passed on what they knew to the public, geological history would look very different today. The problem of climate change would not be solved, but the crisis would, most likely, now be receding. In 1989, an international ban on chlorine-containing man-made chemicals that had been eroding the earth’s ozone layer went into effect. Last month, researchers reported that the ozone layer was on track to fully heal by 2060. But that was a relatively easy fight, because the chemicals in question were not central to the world’s economy, and the manufacturers had readily available substitutes to sell. In the case of global warming, the culprit is fossil fuel, the most lucrative commodity on earth, and so the companies responsible took a different track. ..The particular politics of one country for one half-century will have changed the geological history of the earth.

Steel, ammonia, aluminium and plastics production constitute over 40 % of global industry CO2 emissions. Global emissions from farming make up 11 % of total emissions. This is similar in many developed countries, with 9 % in the United States (2016) and as high as 17 % (2017) in France, which boasts Europe’s largest farming sector.

Both the US and France have seen rising or stable farming emissions since 1990, while Germany’s have decreased by almost 18 %, due mainly to the closure of many farms in eastern Germany after reunification.

Concrete measures to fulfil emissions-reduction targets are chronically difficult to pin down in the farming industry. This is partially due to the sector’s very diverse emissions – from animal husbandry, arable soils, moorlands and the use of mineral fertilisers, to name just some major sources of greenhouse gases. In addition, other farming issues tend to eclipse agriculture emissions in the public debate – such as heavy use of single crops, or monocultures, and the loss of biodiversity.

Some 38 % of the European Union’s budget is used to subsides the agriculture sector in Europe. In 2016, every German farm received on average 15,300 euros in subsidies, depending on how much land they own.

Germany is both the world’s third-largest exporter and importer of agriculture products, according to 2015 WTO figures. The German government has set the 2030 target to farming 20 % of arable land organically. In 2016, the share stood at 7.5 %. With revenues of 9.48 billion euros in 2016, Germany is the largest market for organic food in Europe, however its market share is still only 4 %.

Arable soils are the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in Germany’s agriculture sector. They emit around 26 million tonnes of CO2 equivalents (40%) of laughing gas (N2O) per year, mostly due to the use of synthetic fertilisers. Laughing gas is 300 times more harmful to the climate than CO2. Limiting synthetic fertilisers (nitrogen) could curb annual emissions by 5.8 million CO2 equivalents (out of the 65 million tonnes coming from the farming sector).

Grassland is considered permanent if it has not been part of a farm’s crop rotation for five years or more – a reason for even environmentally aware farmers to plough their pastures every five years.

Since 1991 Germany has lost over 600,000 hectares of grassland, mainly due to an increased demand for bioenergy (biogas and biofuels) and fodder plants like maize and rapeseed. This has led to annual greenhouse gas emissions of 2.5-3.1 million tons of CO2 equivalents. Germany has some 9,000 biogas plants, typically operated by farmers and covering 7 % of Germany’s power generation.  The government put a stop to any further increase in power generation from biogas in 2016.

It can take up to 200 years to restore the CO2-rich humus layer, once it’s lost. The most climate-relevant move would therefore be to protect the remaining grasslands.

At a wind power price of 2.5 euro cents per kW/h and a carbon price of €50 per ton, natural gas-based fertilisers will lose out. And the cost of a meal increases by less than 1 euro cent.

In 2017, polls found that almost 90 % of Americans did not know that there was a scientific consensus on global warming. Some 15 years before that, Frank Luntz, a Republican consultant for George W. Bush, wrote in an internal memo, “Voters believe that there is no consensus about global warming within the scientific community. Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate.”

Meanwhile, over 3/5 of Germans believe their government is not doing enough to limit the European country’s impact on climate change.

Bloomberg New Energy Finance estimated that last year, the total spent on renewable energy came in at US$333.5 billion.

The US$2.4 trillion that the UN climate change panel has calculated as necessary investments is almost seven times more than that. Who can afford it?

Exxon recently announced a plan to spend a million dollars—about a hundredth of what the largest of the world’s Big Oil companies, or supermajors, spends each month in search of new oil and gas—to back the fight for a carbon tax of forty dollars a ton. At a press conference, some of the IPCC’s authors laughed out loud at the idea that such a tax would, this late in the game, have sufficient impact.

This fall, California’s legislators committed to using only renewable energy by 2045, which was a great victory in the world’s fifth-largest economy. But California’s governor refused to stop signing new permits for oil wells, even in the middle of the state’s largest cities, where asthma rates are high.