A low carbon economy is achievable!

Seoul

After having invented the high-carbon economy that alters the climate of our planet, will man be up to the task of “disinventing” it? And will he manage to stabilize the increase in temperature within 2 °C? That is the major challenge of COP21, the United Nations’ Conference on Climate Change to be held in Paris at the end of 2015.

If we are going to keep climate change under control, it is important to step back and examine its many origins. The phenomenon is the result of a development model based on fossil fuels, which leads to releasing vast quantities of greenhouse gas emissions: that much, we all know. 

But above and beyond that, it is the result of a linear approach to the economy, of the “Extract, Manufacture, Dispose” type, in which increasing quantities of resources are extracted from nature. The non-recovery of waste, the non-reuse of used products, and non-recycling greatly increase the need for energy. But of that, we are far less aware. As a consequence, the combat against greenhouse gas emissions is not limited to electricity producers and energy providers alone. On the contrary, it concerns all sectors of human activity. It requires the implementation of a different model for the use of natural resources, one that consumes less and more efficiently. This other model must be supplied by clean energy and based on the principles of the circular economy—one that turns waste into resources. Making new raw materials by recycling waste produces far fewer CO2 emissions than extracting virgin raw materials from the environment. In the area of plastics, for example, the use of recycled PET emits 70% less CO2 than the production of virgin PET. Too often, we do not realize that the circular economy is one of the main levers for reducing CO2 emissions. 

When we talk about greenhouse gases, we immediately think of carbon dioxide. However, we must not forget short-lived atmospheric pollutants, methane in particular. Calculated over a century, its contribution to greenhouse gases is 14%, but calculated over 20 years, it is as high as 40%! In other words, if we want to achieve rapid results in reducing greenhouse gas emissions—and we know we have to act fast—we also have to combat this other source of air pollution. Bringing down levels of methane emissions would have a significant impact in the short term and must be tackled with as many resources and as much ambition as the sensitive issue of CO2.

In the past decade, we have seen a record number of extreme weather events. Even so, will nations reach agreement on giving up the Earth’s immense reserves of easily accessible, cheap hydrocarbons on the basis that these energy resources contain carbon? We have the right to be pessimistic about that possibility, especially as the fall in oil prices will not encourage it to be used more sparingly and given that coal has come back to the fore in the 

energy mix of many countries. Current oil reserves can meet several decades of consumption, while coal reserves can meet several centuries—it seems very unlikely that we will deprive ourselves of these fossil fuels. If we do not abandon these “dirty” energy sources, techniques to render them artificially clean are essential. Equipping all power plants with carbon capture and storage systems would halve global emissions. On the other hand, it would raise the price of electricity by 40%. This extra cost may seem prohibitive, but it is not higher than that of intermittent renewables, a fact that we are also not at all aware of. 

The world is caught in a dilemma between the need to satisfy growing demand for energy and protecting the climate. Whatever the uncertainties surrounding the agreement that will be reached at COP21, we do have the means to act. Yes, there exist solutions to greenhouse gas emissions. Our company is a leader in waste recovery, whether in the form of energy or materials, and a pioneer in the capture of methane from organic waste and its transformation into heat, biofuel or electricity. We are also a trailblazer in the field of energy savings and energy efficiency and a specialist in forestry biomass and the recovery of unavoidable energy. 

Thanks to this work we have a vast portfolio of technologies to combat CO2 emissions. 

However, no single solution will be enough; no company, no municipality, no nation alone will be able to deploy them on a sufficient scale. If we want the low carbon economy to become a reality and put a ceiling on the amounts of carbon accumulated in the atmosphere, we must intensify our efforts towards cooperation and innovation. Cooperation is needed so as to spread the use of these solutions that, for example, turn energy that some have no use for into basic energy for others, or that organize permanent resource recycling, both of which solutions in turn reduce energy needs. And innovation is required because a low-carbon economy will necessarily be an economy of innovation.

However, for these “anti-CO2” solutions to come into widespread use, it is vital to set a robust, predictable carbon price at a sufficient level, which means at least €30 or €40 per metric ton of CO2. And that means having to take into account the cost of all external factors relating to carbon dioxide—as is already the case for wastewater and waste—by applying the two-fold principle that “the polluter pays” and “whoever cleans up receives help.” At the moment, as there is no carbon price that charges for the use of the atmosphere as a “greenhouse gas dump,” anyone and everyone is free to release as much CO2 as they like. It is simply not possible to conduct strong environmental policy with weak regulatory mechanisms! Without financial incentives and a far-reaching regulatory framework, winning the climate battle will remain a pipe dream. So to all the diplomats who will be preparing COP21, I say—give us a good agreement and we will give you a good low-carbon economy.