Managing Director & Partner
Related Expertise: Climate Change and Sustainability, Power and Utilities
Consensus thinking holds that the world will have a hard time reaching the headline goal of the Paris Agreement—keeping the increase in global average temperature to less than 2°C above preindustrial levels. Moreover, in the absence of coordinated global action, countries that unilaterally pursue a “2°C path” will face significant first-mover disadvantages.
While the first point is very likely true, the second is not. There are clear paths for most countries to achieve substantial reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that can generate near-term macroeconomic payback. Just about all leading emitters could eliminate 75% to 90% of the gap between emissions under current policies and their individual 2050 2°C Paris targets using proven and generally accepted technologies. If they prioritize the most efficient emissions reduction measures, taking the necessary steps will actually accelerate, rather than slow, GDP growth for many countries. All countries can generate economic gain by moving at least part of the way—even if they move unilaterally.
BCG recently completed a study of the economically optimized paths for implementing climate change mitigation efforts in Germany. Using this work as a model, we analyzed six other countries that, together with Germany, collectively account for close to 60% of current global GHG emissions: China, the US, India, Brazil, Russia, and South Africa. For each country, we examined three scenarios: the “current policies path,” the “proven technologies path,” and the “full 2°C path.”
This report presents the results of our work, including, summaries of the impact of accelerated climate mitigation actions on each country that we studied. The next few chapters examine our main findings and their implications. Principal among our observations is that there are good economic as well as environmental reasons for many countries to step up their climate change mitigation efforts—starting now.
In Klimapfade für Deutschland (or Climate Paths for Germany), one of the most comprehensive studies of national emissions reduction potential to date, BCG, together with the economic research firm Prognos, recently assessed how Germany can meet its stated goal of reducing GHG emissions by 72% to 93% (versus 2015 levels) by 2050. (This is equivalent to the officially quoted 80% to 95% reduction with respect to 1990 levels.
Under current policies, Germany is already on a path that cuts GHG emissions by more than 45% (60% versus 1990 levels) by 2050. The country can achieve a 77% emissions reduction (80% versus 1990 levels) by pushing further the use of proven technologies—and, if properly orchestrated, such a move would be economically viable even if Germany moves forward unilaterally. With global cooperation, a 93% reduction (95% versus 1990 levels) would not harm economic growth, although it would test the boundaries of foreseeable feasibility and require further maturing of, or overcoming acceptance hurdles against, some technologies.
In an unprecedented position paper, the Bundesverband der Deutschen Industrie (BDI)—the German Industry Association, which commissioned the study—united behind the core findings and demanded more systematic climate action by the German government.
Delivering the German contribution toward a global 2°C scenario requires that emissions decline by 93% from 2015 levels, to 62 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (Mt CO2e), by 2050. This is an ambitious goal, to say the least; for most sectors of the German economy, emissions would need to be eliminated entirely.
Nevertheless, achieving very substantial reductions is well within reach. Under current regulations and assuming current technology trends, Germany is on a path to reduce GHG emissions from 2015 levels by approximately 45% by 2050. Up to 77% lower emissions can be achieved by expanding further the use of proven technologies. Doing so would require the following changes:
Biomass is a valuable and scarce resource in the battle against climate change. Valuable because it can theoretically replace fossil fuels in all sectors of the economy. Scarce because global supplies are limited and most countries do not have sufficient sustainably available volumes to do so.1 It pays to think strategically about how this resource is deployed.
Today, most of the biomass used in energy production is consumed in three applications: biofuels to partly replace gasoline and diesel in transportation, scrap wood pellets or regular firewood to heat private households, and residual solid biomass and biogas, which are incinerated in smaller, decentralized units, to produce (baseload) power.
This mix is inefficient, and to accelerate emissions reduction economically, it needs to change. The more ambitious an emissions mitigation target that a country pursues, the more it should avoid using its biomass in applications that suffer further transformation losses (such as third-generation biofuels), that have technology alternatives (such as space heating and water heating), or that use the resource inefficiently (such as in power generation). Biomass should be concentrated primarily in the industrial sector, where it can replace fossil fuels in process heat generation.2 Beyond using available volumes most efficiently, this application also has a long-term systemic benefit; the emitted nonfossil carbon dioxide can either be recycled to produce synthetic fuels or stored underground to create a “negative emissions” benefit.
1. Sustainable volumes do not diminish existing forest or create competition with food production and material use. Algae-based biofuels and similar innovations could become interesting breakthroughs, but they are not yet mature enough to predict large-scale application.
2. Solid biomass can be used to generate low- and medium-temperature heat and steam (<500 °C); biogas can serve in high-temperature heat generation (>500°C).
To be sure, the investment required is substantial: a total of $1.6 trillion through 2050 (1.1% of annual GDP).
Achieving the full 2°C target will be much harder. In addition to unpopular carbon capture and storage (CCS) for industrial processes, it will require significant amounts of expensive, imported synthetic fuels to eliminate emissions in power backup and high-temperature industrial heating (power-to-gas) and in shipping, air transportation, and the remaining non-electrified road transport (power-to-liquid). As of today, this will require either solid G20 consensus or alternative—as yet unidentified—technological innovations. (See Exhibit 1.)
The seven markets that we studied reflect the global diversity of economic, demographic, geographic, and technical circumstances affecting climate change mitigation—and reveal many of the challenges that ambitious mitigation paths face. Under current policies, all seven countries will fail to meet their individual 2°C Paris targets; all of them need to invest more in reducing the carbon intensity of their economies. Developed nations must accelerate their decline in per capita emissions. Most developing countries, which continue to employ carbon-intensive technologies in their desire to catch up economically, need to change direction. (See Exhibit 2.)
Developed economies, such as the US and Germany, have already managed to decouple economic growth from GHG emissions growth. At the same time, the mobility and consumption patterns of their prosperous populations result in a high emissions footprint per capita. Under current policies, most developed nations are on a path to lower emissions, thanks to rising efficiency, more electric mobility, and gradual displacement of fossil fuels. The lessons from Germany can largely apply to other European countries because most have comparable economic structures and similar, high levels of fuel importation.
There are some key differences between European nations and other developed countries, however. For example, while Europe’s population (despite continuous immigration) is expected to decline, the US population is expected to increase by one-fifth, or some 67 million people—the equivalent of the population of the UK—by 2050. In the US, with a larger land mass and a strong preference for larger cars, transportation is a much bigger source of emissions. And while Europe needs to import the vast majority of its energy, the US has substantial domestic resources, which reduces the economic benefits of displacing fossil fuels.
These differences have a big bottom-line impact; for example, while Germany will reduce its emissions footprint by 45% under current policies, US emissions are expected to decline by only 11% by 2050.
Reaching their respective 2°C targets would require both countries to substantially accelerate existing efforts. Similar imperatives apply to all highly developed economies around the world.
Many other countries face an even harder challenge. To catch up economically, they continue to employ low-cost and carbon-intensive technologies, increasing their per capita and total emissions footprints. From the perspective of global climate change mitigation, this situation is not sustainable. Most countries need a change in direction.
The difference in starting points and current trajectories is striking:
Russia offers extreme examples of the climate change challenges faced by carbon-intensive economies that do not have high per capita incomes.
Russia’s GDP is about half that of Germany’s, but its fossil fuel-based economy emits nearly 2.4 times as much GHG emissions. As a result, following a 2°C path would require about two and a half times higher investment ($5.5 trillion through 2050). In proportion to its economic capacity, the difference is even greater (6.1% of annual GDP versus 1.4% for Germany—more than four times as high). With the additional factors of high capital costs and cheap domestic fuels, implementation of an aggressive Russian climate change mitigation agenda would need to overcome massive obstacles.
This does not mean it cannot be done. Saudi Arabia, for instance, which has some similar structures, has announced one of the world’s most ambitious programs to turn its economy toward solar power.
It’s a high bar. To reach the global 2°C goal, all of our analyzed countries must significantly accelerate their emissions reduction efforts. To meet their respective Paris commitments, India and Brazil need to eliminate about half of their 2050 current-policy emissions. The US, China, Russia, and South Africa must eliminate all but one-quarter, and Germany all but one-eighth. (See Exhibit 3.)
Technically, these are achievable goals. All seven countries can close 65% to 90% of the gap between current-policy emissions and their individual 2050 2°C Paris targets with proven and generally accepted technologies. And for the remaining abatement gap, solutions also already exist.
In the following sections we note the changes needed in each of the major carbon-emitting economic sectors. Exhibit 4 illustrates how the most effective technology path differs by country, and why all of the countries analyzed require a national emissions reduction agenda.
By 2050, all of the countries studied could provide at least 80% of their power with low-carbon technologies such as wind, solar, hydropower, biomass, and nuclear. The exact mix depends on country-specific circumstances. For example, Russia will continue to rely heavily on nuclear power, but Germany decided to phase out this technology, along with fossil fuels. Brazil benefits from extensive hydropower capacity. Other countries will need to rely on a wider technology mix. In most, more wind and solar generation would need to be complemented by additional investment in grid infrastructure and demand flexibility, which, together with backup capacity, help to curb volatile generation profiles. (See “The Myth of Excess Power.”)
Popular belief has it that a strong expansion of volatile wind and solar power generation inadvertently creates prolonged periods of “excess power” that can fuel new conversion solutions for cheaply producing hydrogen and power-to-x fuels. This is likely a myth.
In reality, increasing volatile power generation will trigger a “flexibility merit order,” in which loss-prone electricity conversion processes are naturally relegated to last in line. In a first step, expanded power grids (including cross-country interconnections) can increase the amount of generated power that matches demand at any given time. In a second step, new consumers, such as electric vehicles, heat pumps, and power-to-heat processes, can all become more flexible in focusing their demand on periods with sufficient available power. As a result, excess power would either be caused by grid bottlenecks (which will be eliminated, if persistent) or concentrated in very few hours of a year (insufficient to make technologies built around excess power economically viable). In our German scenarios, excess power can be limited to only 1.4% of total 2050 net generation, even when more than 80% of power generation stems from intermittent renewables. Most of the excess occurred in fewer than 100 hours in the year studied.
To further reduce emissions, the use of coal in power generation will need to decline over time. In many countries, this will result from both regulatory pressures and economic forces. As the cost of renewable energy sources continues to fall, and as their share of the power production mix rises, coal will gradually be pushed into a backup role. For this role, coal’s high fixed costs make it a poor fit, which will trigger a gradual shift to gas-based generation in many countries. More ambitious climate change mitigation efforts will accelerate this transition. Because CCS is economically unviable for plants that are running below full capacity, coal plants no longer have a viable economic path to eliminating emissions. For utilities, this means that any new plant construction carries a growing economic risk. (See “No Future for Coal?”)
In a recent publication, we argued that in the years ahead coal demand could remain relatively stable, given no drastic changes in consumption patterns and regulations. (See “Why Coal Will Keep Burning,” BCG article, March 2018.) In the longer term, however, such changes, combined with evolving economics, may give us a very different outlook.
Driven by a rapid decline in costs, the share of renewable technologies in the global energy mix is rising significantly. If these costs continue to fall, coal plants could be pushed into a backup role, for which they are not well suited given their high fixed costs. Many plants being planned or built today face the risk of becoming stranded assets—even in countries with rising power demand.
More ambitious climate change mitigation efforts would exacerbate this effect because coal plants have no economic path to eliminating emissions if they are running far below full capacity.1 In all the countries we analyzed, closing down existing coal plants, even prematurely, and replacing them with a mix of intermittent renewables and gas backup would be cheaper than installing CCS capabilities. The risk premium on new plant construction in the coming decades may put the case for coal-based business models in peril.
1. Low-emission coal generation is realistic only with carbon capture and storage (CCS). The further plant utilization declines as a result of intermittent renewables, the further the abatement costs of CCS increase.
All countries could significantly reduce their industrial energy demand by expanding use of efficiency technologies, such as efficient motors and pumps and state-of-the-art process innovations. They could also replace a significant share of the fossil fuels used for industrial process heat generation by redirecting biomass to this application from other sectors. Depending on the availability of sustainable biomass relative to demand in each nation, this shift could eliminate between 14% (in China) and 70% (in Brazil) of all industrial energy emissions.
Cost-effective emissions reduction in the transportation sector requires a widespread shift to electric propulsion.
Cost-efficient reduction of emissions from larger trucks is possible with a mix of electric mobility technologies, including batteries, fuel cells, and overhead electric lines on highly frequented roads, complemented by renewable fuels. Germany, which has the highest road-freight transport density of all analyzed countries, could electrify more than half of its heavy transport with overhead lines. Such moves would not be necessary in countries such as Russia, where more than 60% of freight already travels via low-emitting rail.
In the building sector, direct emissions can be reduced significantly by improving the efficiency of buildings and appliances and by expanding the use of heat pumps in place of gas and oil heating in suburban and rural areas. For countries that employ district heating systems (such as China, Germany, and Russia) it will be easier to phase out fossil fuels in cities. In warmer countries such as India and Brazil, solar thermal could play a growing role in water heating. In these countries, increased building efficiency will also help slow the power demand increase for air conditioning and cooling.
In agriculture and waste management, efficient soil nitrification, better utilization of manure (for biogas production, for example), efficient waste utilization, and a ban on landfilling can help bring down emissions. Reduced mining and fossil fuel use would also help curb fugitive emissions. To reduce emissions from deforestation, several countries must employ more sustainable land use policies. (See “LULUCF: A Burning Platform.”)
A Burning Platform
The worldwide greenhouse gas impact from land use, land-use change, and forestry (LULUCF) is currently 3 Gt CO2e, or about 6% of total global emissions. These emissions are not subject to international climate commitments under the United Nations Framework on Climate Change. Yet under a global 2°C path, they would need to be cut by half.
Achieving this will require a significant increase in agricultural productivity—enough to stop the conversion of forests into farm land. The (quite literally) burning platform for this change lies in Indonesia, which currently causes more than half of the world’s net LULUCF emissions (distantly followed by Zambia and Brazil, with about 10% each).1 If Indonesia alone managed to reduce deforestation to the level in Brazil, and all other countries stayed at current levels, the global LULUCF 2°C trajectory would be met.
1. A major driver of Indonesia’s LULUCF contribution is the increasing global demand for palm oil.
Collectively, the various national paths described in the previous chapter could close about three-quarters of the gap between current-policy and 2°C emissions levels in the seven analyzed countries. The cost is high: some $28 trillion in total investment through 2050. The US, China, Brazil, and Germany (and likely most other OECD countries) would need to invest about 1% of their GDPs in accelerating emission reductions. India, Russia, and South Africa would need to invest nearly twice as much. In the latter countries, two sectors (power and buildings) account for more than 80% of the investment requirement; a more aggressive cost decline in renewables could relieve the financial burden.
But, contrary to conventional wisdom, countries that move unilaterally to lower emissions need not suffer an early-mover disadvantage. Planned and managed properly, unilateral climate change mitigation can have a positive impact on GDP because the required investments create significant economic stimulus. How much of this stimulus translates into a positive net impact depends on a country’s cost of capital and the share of imported fuel in its energy mix. (See Exhibit 5.) For countries with low costs of capital, the investment is relatively affordable. For countries that import a lot of their fossil fuels, energy savings carry higher macroeconomic value.
For Germany, and for many OECD countries with similar circumstances, all or most of the proven technology path creates positive macroeconomic value. In countries with high costs of capital, such as Brazil, India, and South Africa, higher interest payments on investment-heavy emissions reduction measures crowd out the benefits from energy savings. Countries with cheap domestic fossil resources, such as South Africa and Russia, do not save GDP-deflating imports. Russia is in a particularly tough spot regarding climate investments; capital is expensive, and even potentially large energy savings have little economic value while fossil fuels are domestically ubiquitous. Nonetheless, all of the countries we analyzed can create economic growth by moving closer to their 2°C target.
Although realizing the proven technology path will be hard, traveling the last mile to 2°C emission levels will be tougher still. To reach its 2°C GHG reduction target of 93% by 2050, Germany, for example, would need to eliminate entirely the emissions from all but two of its economic sectors (process industry and agriculture). It would be forced to employ persistently unpopular CCS to remove process emissions from steel, cement, and ammonia production. It would need to import about 340 terawatt hours (TWh) of expensive renewable synthetic fuels for emission-free flexible power backup, high-temperature industrial heat, and air traffic and shipping, and replace all fossil fuels in road freight transport and passenger cars. Finally, unless meat and cheese consumption patterns change, it would even need to reduce natural emissions from its cattle population, potentially by using methane-suppressing food additives (“methane pills”). (Agriculture would still remain Germany’s largest emitter, by a wide margin.)
A challenging problem for all countries is that costs rise in nonlinear fashion as measures become more far-reaching. To close the final quarter of their gaps to a 2°C path, the seven countries we analyzed would collectively need to step up investments by another 60% (to $45 trillion in total through 2050). Globally, this translates into a $75 trillion challenge, or 2% to 6% of countries’ annual GDPs.
The additional investment burden would vary among countries. Most would need to spend less than an additional 1% of their GDP, but South Africa (at 1.6% more) and Russia (3.9% more) would be hit particularly hard.
For this last mile, it is difficult for countries to act without broader international consensus, at least at the G20 level. With such consensus in place, however, even very ambitious mitigation efforts in many countries would not be detrimental to economic growth. Such efforts might also offer a softer landing for some of the world’s fossil fuel-based economies as the world inevitably moves toward renewables. (See “The Oil Exporter Paradox.”)
If the results of our study are correct, emission reduction efforts should accelerate on a global scale thanks to environmental and economic incentives. This creates a strategic trilemma for major fossil fuel exporting economies: whether to resist, adapt, or embrace decarbonization.
If the world (or—out of self-interest—many of its major emitters) were to adopt an accelerated climate change agenda based on proven technologies, investments in efficiency and renewable technologies would duly displace all types of fossil fuels. Moreover, coal would be replaced by natural gas, liquefied natural gas, and biomass in the power and industrial sectors. Such a path would significantly challenge the business model of all fossil fuel exporting economies as the following dynamics take hold:
On the other hand, many current hydrocarbon exporters (those that can combine existing infrastructure with strong wind and solar conditions) have a clear advantage for producing synthetic fuels. If global demand for such fuels picks up—which would be necessary to meet the 2°C target—their revenues could partially compensate for the falling sales of fossil fuels. As a result, a globally coordinated and ambitious 2°C effort could actually offer a softer landing for energy-exporting countries and oil and gas majors because it avoids the low-demand, low-price scenario that they might otherwise face. (See the exhibit.)
To shoulder the investments needed, some countries will need help. Dedicated, low-interest financing and risk-reduction measures for companies making climate mitigation investments could enable many countries to accelerate their emissions reduction while safeguarding GDP growth. Current financing volumes, however, would need to rise significantly to have an impact.
One frequent recommendation—putting a global price on emissions—could convert what are now vague political ambitions into tangible investment incentives (and help alleviate the competitive imbalances that might arise in sectors where some countries move faster than others). Another widely touted instrument, global emissions trading, has some potential to increase economic efficiency by enabling developed countries with high abatement costs to pay for cheaper measures in less developed nations. In our judgment, however, this mechanism has limitations.
First, the notion that cheap mitigation measures should be implemented before expensive ones—the idea that underpins the emissions trading concept—begins to crumble in the face of ambitious reduction targets. If countries need to eliminate most of their emissions, there is greater economic benefit from implementing both cheaper and more costly measures from the start, because many involve durable capital goods with long replacement cycles. For example, if space-heat generation needs to be emission-free by 2050, an oil-fueled boiler with a 25-year lifespan that is replaced in the next decade should be switched to a non-emitting technology, even if cheaper short-term alternatives for emissions reduction exist. Even under a global emissions trading scheme, corresponding national regulation will be required to reach national targets efficiently.
Second, in their early phases, many technologies (electric vehicles, CCS, and synthetic fuels, for example) will be more expensive than mature mitigation alternatives. The cost of such technologies will fall over time, but they need to be deployed early, so that learning and scale can enable cost reductions.
Third, the ability to shift the emissions burden among countries has clear limitations, since many countries with lower reduction targets have no long-run incentive to trade. In principle, developed economies need to invest in more expensive abatement measures sooner, while countries such as China and India can continue to implement less expensive measures for a number of years.
Even an effective carbon trading scheme would therefore need to be accompanied by a range of global and national policy instruments, including low-interest financing support, research funding, and market ramp-up support for immature technologies that are required to reach the 2°C path, as well as new regulations (designed to increase energy efficiency and phase out inefficient fuel subsidies) at the sector level.
All in all, countries should—and will—accelerate emissions reduction. In many sectors (power generation and transport, for example), the shift toward climate-friendly technologies is already under way. As these technologies mature, their markets will grow, especially if governments around the world start pursuing more ambitious emissions mitigation agendas. The results of our study suggest that many will.
Policymakers have a clear case for more decisive unilateral action to reduce national emissions. Most countries can make significant progress toward their Paris accord targets without triggering any first-mover disadvantages, and many even stand to benefit economically. Moreover, global leadership in many new technologies is still up for grabs, and early movers can establish footholds in strongly growing markets. Given these benefits, policymakers should develop economically optimized mitigation agendas and implement thoughtful policies that incentivize companies (and individuals) to act and help them overcome the investment hurdle.
For their part, companies need to prepare for a world that moves far beyond current emissions policies and adopt much more ambitious emissions reduction in their strategies and planning. Leaders should start moving their business portfolios toward low-emission solutions and prepare for declining fossil fuel consumption. They should also enter into active dialogue with their respective governments to encourage policies that help address investment hurdles. The transition will likely be faster than expected. Early movers stand to benefit.
Limiting global warming is one of humanity’s defining challenges in the 21st century. Although the odds of reaching the 2°C goal remain challenging, comprehensive national action can help achieve a much-needed change in direction—and close a substantial portion of the gap while safeguarding economic growth.
The BCG Henderson Institute is Boston Consulting Group’s strategy think tank, dedicated to exploring and developing valuable new insights from business, technology, and science by embracing the powerful technology of ideas. The Institute engages leaders in provocative discussion and experimentation to expand the boundaries of business theory and practice and to translate innovative ideas from within and beyond business. For more ideas and inspiration from the Institute, please visit Featured Insights.