Feasibility and affordability of reducing greenhouse gas emissions

By Ajay Gambhir, Research fellow on mitigation policy at the Grantham Institute

wind turbines300The United Nations Climate Summit 2014, to be held in New York on 23rd September, comes at an important point in the calendar for discussions on how to address climate change. Next year will see nations submit pledges on their future greenhouse gas emissions levels, as part of the United Nations process culminating in the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP) in Paris at the end of 2015, the ambition of which is to secure a global agreement to tackle climate change.

There is now a rich body of evidence on the implications of mitigation at the global, regional and national levels. This note presents some of the evidence, revealed by research in the Grantham Institute over recent years, which supports the view that mitigation remains feasible and affordable.

Technologies and costs of a global low-carbon pathway

The Grantham Institute, in partnership with Imperial College’s Energy Futures Laboratory (EFL) demonstrated a relatively simple, transparent analysis of the relative costs of a low-carbon versus carbon-intensive global energy system in 2050. The report concluded that mitigation in line with a 2 degrees Celsius limit to global warming would cost less than 1% of global GDP by 2050 (excluding any potentially significant co-benefits from improved air quality and enhanced energy security).

Joint Grantham and EFL report: Halving global CO2 by 2050: Technologies and Costs

The importance of India and China

The two most populous nations, India and China, have undergone rapid economic growth in recent decades, resulting in significantly increased demand for fossil fuels, with associated increases in their CO2 emissions. Mapping pathways towards a low-carbon future for both regions presents challenges in terms of technology choices, affordability and the interplay with land, water and other resources. The Grantham Institute, in partnership with other research groups (including IIASA and UCL), has produced long-term visions of both regions using energy technology modelling and detailed technology and resource assessments, to set out pathways to very low-carbon economies which can be achieved at relatively modest costs. In addition, the Institute has undertaken assessments of the feasibility and cost of achieving the regions’ near-term (2020) Cancun pledges.

Grantham Report 1: An assessment of China’s 2020 carbon intensity target

Grantham Report 2: China’s energy technologies to 2050

Grantham Report 4: An assessment of India’s 2020 carbon intensity target

Grantham Report 5: India’s CO2 emissions pathways to 2050

Key sectors and technologies

Reports have been produced on a number of key technologies across all economic sectors and on the role that these can play in a low-carbon world: electric and other low-carbon vehicles in the transport sector; low-carbon residential heating technologies; other building efficiency and low-carbon options; and a range of technologies and measures to reduce emissions from industrial manufacturing.

The successful development and deployment of a range of low-carbon power sector technologies will be central to decarbonising the power generation sector over the coming decades, thereby providing the basis for low-carbon electrification in the building, transport and industrial sectors. The Institute has produced briefing papers on the technological status, economics and policies to promote solar photovoltaics and carbon capture and storage (including with bioenergy to produce net negative emissions).

Grantham briefing paper 2: Road transport technology and climate change mitigation

Grantham briefing paper 3: Carbon capture technology: future fossil fuel use and mitigating climate change

Grantham briefing paper 4: Carbon dioxide storage

Grantham briefing paper 6: Low carbon residential heating

Grantham briefing paper 7: Reducing CO2 emissions from heavy industry: a review of technologies and considerations for policy makers

Grantham briefing paper 8: Negative emissions technologies

Grantham briefing paper 10: Shale gas and climate change

Grantham briefing paper 11: Solar Power for CO2 mitigation

Grantham Report 3: Reduction of carbon dioxide emissions in the global building sector to 2050


A critical consideration in any nation or region’s mitigation strategy is the degree to which a low-carbon transition might put its industries at risk of losing competitiveness against rivals in regions with less stringent mitigation action. In a landmark study using responses from hundreds of manufacturing industries across the European Union, researchers at the Institute, in partnership with the Imperial College Business School and Universidad Carlos III de Madrid, have produced robust evidence to support the contention that the EU’s Emissions Trading System has not produced any significant competitiveness impacts or industry relocation risks.

On the empirical content of carbon leakage criteria in the EU Emissions Trading Scheme – Ecological Economics (2014)

Industry Compensation under Relocation Risk: A Firm-Level Analysis of the EU Emissions Trading Scheme – American Economic Review (2014)

Global energy governance reform

The energy policies of governments around the world will, to a large extent, determine global greenhouse gas emissions.   Western governments cooperate on their energy policies through the International Energy Agency (IEA), which is a powerful advocate and analyst of low carbon energy strategies.  Unfortunately the IEA excludes developing nations, such as China, India, Brazil, Indonesia, from its membership.  The Grantham Institute is working with China’s Energy research Institute (ERI) to advise the Chinese government on China’s options for greater engagement in international energy cooperation, including closer association with the IEA.   China’s participation is important for world energy security and affordability – the other main objectives of energy policy –   as well as for climate mitigation.   A consultation draft report published by this ERI/Grantham project is at Global energy governance reform and China’s participation. An earlier report by the Grantham Institute with Chatham House is at Global energy governance reform.

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