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World’s Engineers: “The Technology Needed to Cut the World’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions by 85% by 2050 Already Exists”

By Joe Romm

"World’s Engineers: “The Technology Needed to Cut the World’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions by 85% by 2050 Already Exists”"

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The technology needed to cut the world’s greenhouse gas emissions by 85% by 2050 already exists, according to a joint statement by eleven of the world’s largest engineering organisations….

The statement says that generating electricity from wind, waves and the sun, growing biofuels sustainably, zero emissions transport, low carbon buildings and energy efficiency technologies have all been demonstrated. However they are not being developed for wide-scale use fast enough and there is a desperate need for financial and legislative support from governments around the world if they are to fulfil their potential.

That’s the news release from the UK’s Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IME), one of the 11 signatory groups.  The groups explicitly call for a peak in global emissions in 2020 and an intensive effort to train workers for green technology jobs.

Dr Colin Brown, Director of Engineering at the IME, says bluntly:

“While the world’s politicians have been locked in talks with no output, engineers across the globe have been busy developing technologies that can bring down emissions and help create a more stable future for the planet.

“We are now overdue for government commitment, with ambitious, concrete emissions targets that give the right signals to industry, so they can be rolled out on a global scale.”

This is really nothing new.  The recent National Academy of Science report calls on nation to “substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions” starting ASAP.  I’ll link to more of the literature below.

It’s worth pointing out that a 50% cut in emissions from current levels is typically considered to be what’s needed for  stabilization at 450 ppm or around 2°C warming (see also “The full global warming solution: How the world can stabilize at 350 to 450 ppm“).  An 85% reduction would be the path for closer to 350 ppm.

Here’s what the engineering organizations call for in their statement:

  • A global commitment at Durban to a peak in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, followed by substantial reductions by 2050;
  • Governments to ensure that green policies do not unfairly and unintentionally act to the detriment of one particular industry or country;
  • Intensive effort to train and retrain workforces to ensure we have the right skills for the new industries that will spring up around green technologies;
  • A heavier emphasis to be placed on boosting energy efficiency, which is the best available measure to bring down emissions in the short and medium term.

Hear!  Hear!  See “Energy efficiency is THE core climate solution, Part 1: The biggest low-carbon resource by far.”

The eleven organisations include the Danish Society of Engineers (IDA), India’s Institution of Engineers (IEI), Germany’s Association of Engineers (VDI), Australia’s Association of Professional Engineers, Scientists and Managers (APESMA) and the UK’s Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE). Collectively they represent over 1.2 million engineers spanning four continents.

Yes, the U.S. is missing.  Go figure.

Technology Review, one of the nation’s leading technology magazines, also argued in a cover story five years ago, “It’s Not Too Late,” that “Catastrophic climate change is not inevitable. We possess the technologies that could forestall global warming.”

In its 2007 synthesis report on the scientific literature, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that using existing technologies and those expected to be commercialized in the foreseeable future:

In 2050, global average macro-economic costs for mitigation towards stabilisation between 710 and 445ppm CO2-eq are between a 1% gain and 5.5% decrease of global GDP. This corresponds to slowing average annual global GDP growth by less than 0.12 percentage points.

So global GDP drops by under 0.12% per year — about one tenth of a penny on the dollar — even in the 445 ppm CO2-eq case (through 2050, see Table SPM.7). And this is for stabilization at 445 ppm CO2-eq, which is stabilization at 350 ppm CO2 (see Table SPM.6).

That’s similar to McKinsey Global Institute’s 2008 Research in Review, which found stabilizing at 450 ppm has a net cost near zero, and “Must-read IEA report explains what must be done to avoid 6 degrees C warming at low net cost.”.  For a longer discussion on cost, see “Introduction to climate economics: Why even strong climate action has such a low total cost.”

The time to act is now.

Deploy, Deploy, Deploy, Research & Develop, Deploy, Deploy, Deploy.

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17 Responses to World’s Engineers: “The Technology Needed to Cut the World’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions by 85% by 2050 Already Exists”

  1. That would be good news. If the Congress hadn’t been already bought by the extraction industry.

  2. Dr.A.Jagadeesh says:

    Good post. Yes. Everything possible needs to be done to reduce Green House Gas Emissions around the Globe.

    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India
    E-mail: anumakonda.jagadeesh@gmail.com

  3. catman306 says:

    The Future is Now 1955 (part 1)

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fr5MTRZsLj0

    Joe always finds the good flicks. They had a time machine when they made this one.

  4. David B. Benson says:

    Yes deploy massively. What we have now is good enough.

  5. Your story regarding the engineers’ statement neglects to mention that in the summary bullet points it says the UK group calls for an energy mix that includes 40% from nuclear power. If that is what they mean by “available technology”, then their point is problematic. It’s not clear that it is even feasible within the time frame, let alone available.

  6. Mike Roddy says:

    Unfortunately, engineers have been a little unreliable here. Not only nuclear, but “sustainable” biofuels, a notion that has been completely discredited.

    Then, they say let’s take it easy until 2020.

    I suppose this is better than nothing, since engineers as a group are politically conservative and fascinated by high tech fixes. But the rest of us can do better.

  7. Hot Rod says:

    I’ve just read the IME release:

    1 No mention of cost

    2 The German Engineers reported that the phasing out of nuclear power in Germany could lead to a doubling in national carbon emissions by 2050, with domestic renewable energy simply unable to fill the gap.

    3 The UK Committee for Climate Change, which is advising the Government on its low carbon strategy, recommends an energy mix of 40% nuclear

    4 The dread phrase ‘sustainable biofuels’, that wonderful oxymoron.

    It’s a very poor press release, whether from the perspective of a climate hawk or the Koch brothers. It makes little sense.

    And as for engineers suggesting we eat less meat, words fail me.

    • Anne van der Bom says:

      “The German Engineers reported that the phasing out of nuclear power in Germany could lead to a doubling in national carbon emissions by 2050, with domestic renewable energy simply unable to fill the gap”

      A doubling compared to?

  8. Lewis Cleverdon says:

    I’ve yet to see how ‘stabilization’ at any particular level of CO2ppmv can be achieved without first controlling the interactive mega-feedbacks that are now accelerating their CO2e outputs. Does this report simply ignore the widespread scientific observations of those feedbacks ? Or does it blithely assume, but fail to mention, that effective Geo-E will be deployed to control the excess heat now driving the feedbacks’ acceleration ?

    I guess that the former is the case, since they also ignore the science showing that the present warming is the timelagged effect of around 335ppmv CO2 in the mid-’70s – and their proposal is for stabilization at a higher CO2 level than that – which is already causing catastrophic local and regional damage, and which threatens global damage in terms of crop failure.

    It is possible that ‘stabilization’ is actually adopted jargon that is meant to imply ‘peak’, but this would seem a strange further incompetence for a profession for whom precision is a critical value.

    In reality the stabilization of airborne CO2 is not available at any level capable of driving a significant warming feedback. The earliest observed feedback I know of is that of the microbial decay of peat under elevated CO2 levels raising the DOC (dissolved organic carbon) in outflow streams, from which it outgasses as CO2. This rise in DOC was first observed in ’62, with CO2 at ~312ppmv, and was found to be a worldwide phenomena. Since then it has risen exponentially at ~6%/yr, with the microbial ecology link finally identified by one Dr Foreman of Aberystwyth Uni in 2003. As he reported in ‘Nature’, if the trend is not controlled then by 2064 it would yield an annual outgassing equal to the entire anthro-CO2 output of 2003. This implies if the rising CO2 trend holds, then by around 2050 the DOC feedback will be enough – by itself – to exceed the natural carbon sinks and establish uncontrollable multi-feedback acceleration.

    Given that the major feedbacks of permafrost melt, wildfire and cryosphere decline were first awoken in the late ’70s and ’80s, off the timelagged warming of the ’40s and ’50s, the 312ppmv of ’62 at which the DOC loop was first observed is evidently a dangerously unstable level. It follows that we lack evidence of any reliable stabilization level significantly above the pre-industrial 275ppmv.

    It might theoretically be possible to maintain a level of 350ppmv by continuous permanent geo-engineering to prevent excess warmth driving feedbacks, but that would seem to me inherently unstable and highly undesirable. We need to adopt and promote the objective of restoring the pre-industrial balance of the atmosphere, using the two forms of Geo-E only as an essential aid to that goal.

    To this end I’d amend Joe’s bottom line to read:

    Deploy, sign Climate Treaty, deploy, sign Geo-E Protocol, deploy, research, develop, deploy, research, develop, deploy, research, develop, deploy . . .

    Regards,

    Lewis

    • Anne van der Bom says:

      I may have missed something, but where exactly are they talking about stabilization of co2 levels? AFAIK they only talk about a reduction of CO2 emissions.

      • Lewis Cleverdon says:

        The 2050 goal that was formally adopted as the international target at UNFCCC and that the engineers have adopted directly reflects the intention of stabilization, as is made clear in Joe’s quote from the IPCC, whose mandate is to provide scientific advice to the conference.

        Regards,

        Lewis

  9. Chris Winter says:

    Except for one each in Japan and Honduras, these engineering organizations are all in Europe — and northern Europe at that. Also, to the extent that engineering branches can be identified in their names, they represent civil and mechanical engineering. This is significant since, in my understanding, those tend to be the more conservative branches of engineering.

    Since many engineers doubt the urgency of climate change, this may help change their minds. The statement is only a few days old. Let’s see what U.S. engineering societies do. I have some hope that the IEEE will at least comment favorably; its journal Spectrum is edited by Bill Sweet, who is on record as favoring a reduction in CO2 emissions:

    http://www.chris-winter.com/Erudition/Reviews/W_Sweet/Kick_Carbon.html

  10. pete best says:

    Deployment globally on the scales required is a tough ask, not impossible but implausable but even if it was by 2100 that will do otherwise we are looking down the barrel of a gun.

    If peak fossil fuels is real then we can eliminate that threat, eliminate a lot of the dommsday ACC issues but not all of them and implement the precautionary principle just in case.

    The only issue is politics and economics. All of those oil, gas and coal companies do it so well that doing something else might not be their thing, couple that to vested interests, lobbying and human nature and it will take a lot of persuasion to get in made real.

    It can be done but so far very little but we can start by 2020 if we mobilise the resources to do it but its a big ask even without the ecomomic and political issues.

    Gotta do it though

  11. David B. Benson says:

    According to Mother Jones, the US spends $1200 billion per year on defense. Half of that, diverted to climate solutions, is plenty.

  12. Zach says:

    I’m sick of our politicians in the U.S. not taking this issue seriously. Most of America wants this problem fixed, so let’s do it already. Meager investments and subsidies in clean tech are not cutting it. We need some kind of program to speed this along. Probably the most politically and economically attractive way is by following the Rocky Mountain Institute’s peer-reviewed plan that says we can get off of oil completely by 2050 through an incentives program. WHY ARE WE NOT DOING THIS?

  13. It’s also not like we’re going to stop innovating between now and 2050 and just sit on the available technologies. With the right price signals in the market innovation will speed up. We’re clever monkeys! Let’s overlap some of that research and develop with the deploys.