The Climate Crisis: Unrelentingly worrying... but a chance for optimism?

Exploring the dual narrative of climate change. While 2024 forecasts alarming environmental trends, there's a growing optimism, supported by hard data, about significant progress in mitigating climate impact.

17 January 2024

Introduction

The Climate Crisis narrative is unrelentingly worrying. 2024 looks like being another year of record-breaking temperatures, horrendous floods and wildfires. Understandably, the media's focus on these troubling events naturally causes a mood of hopelessness.

However, in an extremely interesting and thought-provoking article in a recent New Scientist publication, a different narrative, backed by hard data, appears to show good reasons to be optimistic about humankind's progress in the last ten years to mitigate climate change. Furthermore, this progress appears to be gathering momentum, especially in China, such that its emissions may peak in the next few years, much earlier than the consensus had recently forecast.

Perhaps most significantly, the article points out that the immutable trade-off that has characterised human history, that as you get richer, you inevitably emit more CO2, is no longer true, and evidence from a range of developed countries shows that clearly. The article does not suggest that humankind's climate crisis is not real and present. But it does clearly point out how the progress of the last ten years is reason to be optimistic that the challenge can be confronted and that the cost of winning this battle isn't falling living standards and declining human well-being.

What's changed since Paris, 2015?

When the Paris Agreement on climate change was signed in 2015, the challenge to significantly and rapidly reduce emissions looked undeliverable. That's because the technologies needed to decarbonise the world were the most expensive. Solar, wind and EVs were too expensive at the time, so it was unrealistic to expect them to be deployed at the required scale.

However, over the last ten years, all this has changed as the technologies have developed and manufacturing costs have collapsed. Now, China can manufacture mass-produced EVs at a cost that is competitive with the most affordable ICE vehicles. That's why they now account for approximately 60% of the new car market in China.

In the energy market, solar and wind have seen dramatic improvements in their underlying technologies and manufacturing costs such that they are now the cheapest power option almost everywhere in the world. Of course, now that they are the cheapest option, countries are deploying them at scale, especially in China, where in 2023, enough new wind and solar were deployed to power the entire UK economy.

This graphic shows how wind turbine technology has evolved over the last 30 years in terms of physical size and output.

How offshore wind turbines stack up: a graphic showing different sizes and outputs of wind turbines

The article is written by Hannah Ritchie, a data scientist at Oxford University and lead researcher for the influential online publication Our World in Data. One of the key points she discusses in the article is the decoupling of the relationship between economic growth and emissions, and she references data from Australia, the US and the UK to illustrate the point.

Many high income countries have decoupled economic growth and CO2 emissions: a chart showing economic growth of US and Australia compared to CO2 emissions

Here, the data from the UK is even more surprising for those who might have thought that tackling developed economy emissions was an unwinnable task. Importantly, the chart shows consumption-based CO2 per capita, which takes into account international trade and emissions from items produced offshore but consumed in-country. Production-based CO2 doesn't do this. What is clear is that in the UK, over the last 30 years, emissions have decoupled from economic growth quite spectacularly.

A chart showing economic growth of the UK compared to CO2 emissions – the UK decoupling is very clear

Furthermore, and perhaps the most startling statistic in the piece, is the chart of per capita emissions in the UK going back to the 18th century. (Shown below). This shows that in the UK, emissions per person at 5.5 tonnes are back to where they were in about 1860. Most of this decline is down to the UK effectively eliminating coal, the dirtiest and most polluting fuel, from its energy mix. But this is, nevertheless, a remarkable win in the battle against climate change.

Carbon footprint in the UK is declining

As important as this achievement is, what happens in the UK is of limited significance in a global context. What happens in China, however, is much more important. China is the world's biggest emitter from coal but its emissions per head are much lower than those that prevailed in the UK and the US in the past. (see below) Of more importance, however, is that as a result of the dramatic shift in the energy mix that is underway in China, its emissions are now expected to peak in the next 18 months or so. This is unequivocally good news for the planet, but there is much more work to be done on cutting our dependence on fossil fuels, reducing emissions of CO2 and addressing humanity's devastating impact on biodiversity.

CO2 emissions per person from coal are falling

Here, too, the article offers up a positive narrative. In the past, in order to produce more food to feed a growing population, we used more land and cut down more forests. This other immutable relationship has also been broken. Modern farming practices and technology can now deliver more food from less land use and reduce agriculture's environmental impact.

Whilst the article highlights the progress mankind has delivered in recent years in terms of emissions and agricultural productivity, the message is clear that to avoid a catastrophic rise in temperature, much more needs to be done in terms of emissions and protecting the natural environment and biodiversity. For example, although global emissions per capita have peaked, the world is still producing more CO2, and that has to stop and go into reverse.

Global CO2 emissions per person have peaked

Conclusion

So how does the world build on this momentum to ensure emissions targets become a reality rather than a wish list? On this, too, there are reasons to be optimistic. Renewable energy costs are still falling, so deployment at scale will continue and likely accelerate worldwide. In addition, new technologies are now becoming viable that will help deliver additional emission reductions; probably the most important of those in the immediate future is carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS). Deployed at scale, which is now economically feasible, this technology has the potential to make a massive difference in reducing global emissions. Agricultural technology is also improving at pace, enabling farmers to increase productivity while reducing emissions and environmental impacts.

At Curated, we have a role to play, as do we all, to contribute to this global effort to limit the impact of human-induced climate change. To this end, we are working with several businesses on the front line of this battle, developing new technologies designed to deliver against these critical priorities. C-Capture, for example, has developed a revolutionary solvent technology that delivers a step change in the efficiency, cost and environmental impact of CCUS, and 80 Acres is using leading-edge manufacturing technology combined with proprietary plant genetics and micro-climate management technology to make vertical farming at scale an economic reality.

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The Climate Crisis: Unrelentingly worrying... but a chance for optimism?

In this article, we explore the dual narrative of climate change. While 2024 forecasts alarming environmental trends, there's growing optimism, supported by hard data, about significant progress in mitigating climate impact. This optimism is fueled by technological advancements and the decoupling of economic growth from CO2 emissions, offering a hopeful perspective in the face of a daunting challenge.

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