What can each one of us do to help protect the environment? What should be the role of politics? Professor Gunnar Luderer, of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), sets out his vision.
The greenhouse effect owes its name to the greenhouses used in gardens: just as glass keeps the heat in greenhouses, the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere keep the heat on earth. The gases, including carbon dioxide (CO₂), methane and nitrous oxide hold back some of the sun’s rays reflected back from the earth, thus contributing to the warming of the planet. Without this effect, the average temperature on earth would be -18 degrees Celsius rather than +15 degrees Celsius. The problem is that by burning fossil fuels we are producing too much of these gases.
The CO₂ content of the atmosphere is constantly reaching new highs and intensifies the greenhouse effect, with the expansion of agriculture meaning methane and nitrous oxide levels have also increased significantly. As a result, the average temperature globally has already risen by more than 1 degree Celsius since the beginning of industrialisation. The probability that humans are responsible for global warming is close to 100 percent.
CO₂ emissions per capita are far too high, especially in the most industrialised countries. About one third is produced when burning coal, oil and gas to generate electricity. The heating of buildings contributes another sixth of the emissions and roughly a quarter comes from the transport sector, with road transport accounting for the largest share. Another quarter is attributed to industry. Together with the emissions from agriculture, this results in the total emissions per capita.
Each and every one of us contributes to this. Large enterprises such as Volkswagen Group do so to a particular degree – both through their own energy consumption and through their products, namely cars with combustion engines. “That is why it is so important that the Group, too, assumes responsibility and develops new solutions for clean mobility because, unfortunately, the climate problem will not go away”, says Professor Gunnar Luderer, who is Deputy Chair of the Department for Sustainable Transformation Pathways at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) and Professor for Global Energy Systems Analysis at the Technical University of Berlin.
Limiting global warming
“To stabilise our climate and limit warming to less than two degrees Celsius, so that we don’t have more and more extreme weather, we have to achieve net zero emissions by the middle of the century”, explains Luderer. Some sectors, such as agriculture or industry, may not be able to bring their emissions down to zero, but these would then have to be offset by so-called negative emissions, in other words by removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. One solution is to plant trees, and the injection of CO₂ underground is also an approach. However, the technologies are expensive and land for reforestation is limited – that is why we need to start reducing emissions as soon as possible.
The role of institutions
“Individuals can try to change their consumption habits – but all this cannot be a substitute for the appropriate legislative framework set by politicians. The decision-makers must set guidelines, such as an effectively high and comprehensive price on CO₂ emissions,” adds Luderer. This price would apply to all products, in accordance with their emissions intensity. This would then change the incentives for companies and consumers alike, as well as giving a boost to innovation in the field of zero-emission technologies.
“Our research shows that such a price signal is by far the most effective instrument for climate protection,” Luderer concludes. Clearly, however, incentives are needed in some areas – for example, to advance the charging infrastructure for electromobility or to help low-income households make the switch.
And individuals’ contribution
“At a personal level, one can take the plane less often, or not eat so much cheap meat and be more conscious of all the food that we throw away. You can draw electricity from renewable energies for your home. This costs only slightly more than conventional electricity, and with the average consumption of a four-person household, reduces CO₂ emissions by almost three tons a year”, says Luderer.
Mobility is a basic human need and one of the great achievements of modern societies, but we need a comprehensive turnaround in transport – not only to achieve climate targets, but also to tackle road congestion and noise pollution. “To do this, we need to move away from the internal combustion engine by turning towards new forms of mobility services, such as MOIA, which will be able to close the gap between walking and cycling and public transport”, explains Luderer. It will be easier for city dwellers to forego their own car than inhabitants in other areas, such as rural locations where electric mobility will play a major role.