Almost everything you know about climate change solutions is outdated, for several reasons.
First, climate science and climate politics have been moving unexpectedly quickly toward a broad consensus that we need to keep total human-caused global warming as far as possible below 2°C (3.6°F) — and ideally to no more than 1.5°C. This has truly revolutionary implications for climate solutions policy.
Second, key climate solutions — renewables, efficiency, electric cars, and storage — have been advancing considerably faster than anyone expected, much faster than the academic literature anticipated. The synergistic effect of all these light-speed changes is only now beginning to become clear (see, for instance, my recent post, “Why The Renewables Revolution Is Now Unstoppable”.
Third, the media and commentariat have simply not kept up with all these changes and their utterly game-changing implications. As a result we end up with recent articles in such prestige publications as Foreign Affairs and the New York Times that are literally out-of-date the instant they are published, as I’ll discuss below.
That’s why ClimateProgress is committed to staying ahead of this rapidly-moving subject and a key reason why I have begun writing more about climate solutions, the area in which I have the most personal experience and expertise. Indeed, now that there is basically a high-level political consensus around the globe about what the science says should be our temperature target, the need to move quickly on solutions has never been clearer.
World Unanimously Agrees 1.5°C Is The Preferred Global Warming Target To Avoid Catastrophe
Not very long ago, there seemed to still be a debate about whether 2°C total global warming was the appropriate goal for humanity to avoid dangerous human-caused warming (see this October 2014 post, “2°C Or Not 2°C”). Those who had been pushing for a stronger target — such as climatologist James Hansen, the small island nations, and Bill McKibben’s 350.org — appeared to be in the minority.
Yet by December 2015, some two hundred leading nations unanimously committed to an ongoing effort of ratcheting down greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions limits with the goal of keeping total warming “to well below 2°C [3.6°F] above preindustrial levels.” The full text of this Paris Agreement went even further, with all of the member nations of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) agreeing “to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above preindustrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change.”
What happened? In large part, the science of climate change became much more worrisome. For example, most scientists had thought as recently as a few years ago that the world would see very little contribution to sea level rise this century from the melting of the great ice sheets — particularly from the Antarctic ice sheet, which contains some 90 percent of the world’s landlocked ice. But starting around spring of 2014, studies revealed that the West Antarctic ice sheet in particular was disintegrating so fast that it was close to, or perhaps past the point at which, irreversible collapse couldn’t be stopped. And then we quickly learned the Greenland ice sheet was equally unstable.
Within a year, 70 leading climate experts issued a report that the latest science made clear our climate targets were not adequate. The member nations of the UNFCCC had set up a “structured expert dialogue” from 2013 to 2015 to review the adequacy of the 2°C target.
In May, the scientists reported their findings. They simplified their key conclusions into a handful of core messages — but still couldn’t garner much media attention. Some key findings (emphasis in original):
- Message 4: “Significant climate impacts are already occurring at the current level of global warming” (which is about 0.85°C) and so additional “warming will only increase the risk of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts. Therefore, the ‘guardrail’ concept, which implies a warming limit that guarantees full protection from dangerous anthropogenic interference, no longer works.”
- Message 5: “The 2°C limit should be seen as a defence line … that needs to be stringently defended, while less warming would be preferable.”
- Message 10: “While science on the 1.5 °C warming limit is less robust, efforts should be made to push the defence line as low as possible.”
The scientists suggested that the UNFCCC nations explicitly embrace “keeping warming well below 2 °C.” They explained that the benefits from 1.5°C warming instead of 2°C include: “most terrestrial and marine species would be able to follow the speed of climate change; up to half of coral reefs may remain; sea level rise may remain below 1 m [39 inches]; some Arctic sea ice may remain; ocean acidification impacts would stay at moderate levels; and more scope for adaptation would exist, especially in the agricultural sector.”
So it’s entirely understandable that the world’s top nations would unanimously adopt the “well below 2°C” language and prefer 1.5°C as a target — especially given that adaptation in the agricultural sector alone is existentially important as we add 3 billion more mouths to feed to a world with an increasingly inhospitable climate.
Media, Opinion-makers Slow To Grasp The Radical Implications Of The 1.5°C Target
A key reason almost everything you know about climate change solutions is outdated is that the implications for climate policy of staying “well below 2°C” — let alone aiming for 1.5°C — are simply unprecedented. They haven’t been thought through and internalized by even very well-informed people.
For instance, there has been a long-standing, though kind of pointless, “debate” about what kind of balance is needed between deployment of existing clean energy technology and development of breakthrough technologies to avoid catastrophic global warming. Deploying existing efficient, low-carbon technology cuts emissions now — investing in research on better options might be able to cut emissions later. It isn’t really much of a debate, though, because those who favor aggressive deployment (as I do) have always pushed very hard for increased levels of research and development (R&D;) — while those who favor research into breakthrough energy miracles, like Bill Gates, tend to diss various deployment strategies.
But the “well below 2°C” target really makes that debate even more pointless than it used to be — since there is no possibility of staying well below 2°C without making a vastly bigger and more accelerated deployment effort the world’s top priority. And yet as recently as the last week, two sophisticated mainstays of the centrist political establishment — the Council on Foreign Relations and the premiere New York Times blogger on climate change Andy Revkin have jumped on the 1.5°C bandwagon while still clinging to out-of-date notions about deployment vs. R&D.; In some sense, Bill Gates has done the same thing, as I explained here.
You may recall that last month the high-profile magazine/journal Foreign Affairs published a long article, “The Clean Energy Revolution: Fighting Climate Change With Innovation” by Varun Sivaram and Teryn Norris. After realizing it was one of those “out-of-date” think pieces, I wrote a lengthy debunking, “We Fact-Checked A High-Profile Article On Climate And Energy. It Wasn’t Pretty.”
Last week one of the authors, Varun Sivaram, responded with over 2,000 words on the Council on Foreign Relations’s “Energy, Security, and Climate” blog. Significantly, Andy Revkin took the fairly unprecedented step of republishing that blog post in its entirety with the headline, “Young Analysts Press the Case for Innovation, and Tolerance, in Pursuing a Post-Carbon Energy Menu.”
As an aside, when I was young analyst in my thirties, I too had a great deal of youthful exuberance about the possibility of breakthrough energy technologies to transform the world. But five years at the U.S. Department of Energy helping to oversee both the R&D; and deployment programs — and the technology reality of the nearly two decades since then — opened my eyes to reality of how slow the technology transition is, how rare true breakthroughs or miracles are, and how vital a focus on deployment is. So I appreciate where the “young analysts” are coming from. I’ll discuss that side of things in Part Two.
In my original post, I pointed out a number of claims made in the Foreign Affairs piece that I did not think would pass a thorough review or fact-checking, such as “trying to create a zero-carbon power grid with only existing technologies would be expensive, complicated, and unpopular.” While one could have made a (weak) argument to that effect maybe five years ago, the key technologies and strategies to make such a grid affordable, straightforward, and wildly popular have been so successfully demonstrated in the market that even the peer-reviewed literature from places like the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration has explained we don’t need any breakthroughs to achieve such a goal.
I flagged one error in particular as so big I was surprised no one caught it in the entire editorial review process: “If the world is to avoid climate calamity, it needs to reduce its carbon emissions by 80 percent by the middle of this century.”
Since that sentence goes to the heart of how fast the energy solutions policy arena is changing, let’s dive into it a little more. As I noted last month, that sentence is simply not accurate for the 2°C target, which is the only target mentioned in the Foreign Affairs piece. For the 2°C target, the correct number is in the range of a 50 to 60 percent cut in carbon emissions.
As I wrote, I hope readers see how absurd it is to assert that the world could plausibly expect to make substantial reductions in CO2 by mid-century — aka 2050 — using technologies that do not exist today. The reality of the climate challenge is that only technologies that can be deployed at trillion-dollar scale in the next three decades can contribute to slashing CO2 by mid-century. But the technology development and deployment cycle is simply far too long for a technology that doesn’t exist today to plausibly make a vital contribution to cutting CO2 by mid-century.
That’s why it’s no surprise the International Energy Agency concludes in its latest Energy Technology Perspectives (ETP) report that “Achieving the ETP 2015 2°C Scenario (2DS) does not depend on the appearance of breakthrough technologies.”
I had asked Foreign Affairs for a reply to my assertion that the 80 percent figure was a mistake. I was expecting a simple acknowledgment of the relative obvious mistake but instead I got an email saying this:
Regarding your claim that Foreign Affairs published a factual error, the authors were referring to the 1.5-degree target, not the 2°C target. According to this Climate Analytics briefing, the 1.5 degree target requires 70%-95% reductions, which the authors simplified as 80%.
I posted that response, expressing skepticism that this was a plausible explanation. In fact, it was obvious it was not a plausible explanation, as any fact-checker who actually went to that source would quickly see, but I didn’t want to make an even bigger deal of it.
But Sivaram — and with Revkin’s help, via the New York Times website — decided to trumpet this error to a very big audience, publishing this:
We answered the factual question immediately after Dr. Romm published his post. Climate models suggest that global GHG emissions must fall by 75–90 percent by 2050, compared with 2010 levels, to provide the best chance of limiting climate change to 1.5 degrees Celsius. This is a warming level above which scientific uncertainty about the effects of climate change increases substantially. As a result, the Paris Agreement reflects an aspiration to meet this target. Dr. Romm did not contest this fact. We do concede, however, that we could have been clearer in explaining the context behind the 80 percent GHG reduction figure.
First off, I am delighted that the Council on Foreign Relations — and Andy Revkin — have so strongly embraced a 1.5°C target as the best target “to avoid climate calamity.” For many years now I have been trying to get Revkin to publicly state what target he believes is needed to avoid catastrophe for the very reason that any defensible target entirely ends the deployment vs. R&D; debate everyone has been having. The fact that he republished this whole piece without any disclaimer on this target — and in fact urges both Sivaram and Norris to “Keep it up” sends a very strong signal that he agrees with them. And that means the debate is effectively over.
Back to the error. You may have noticed the switcheroo. The Foreign Affairs article says, “If the world is to avoid climate calamity, it needs to reduce its carbon emissions by 80 percent by the middle of this century.” But Sivaram (along with Revkin) now talks about the how some climate models show that to meet the 1.5 C “global GHG emissions must fall by 75–90 percent by 2050” which is “the context behind the 80 percent GHG reduction figure.”
1.5°C Changes Everything
Here is how fast climate policy has changed, though. In scenarios that model the kind of deep and rapid cuts needed for hitting the 1.5°C goal, the target for the GHG cut in 2050 is often substantially different from (and weaker than) the target for carbon reductions.
The source that Sivaram and Revkin cite — “Feasibility of limiting warming to 1.5°C and 2°C” by Climate Analytics — could not be clearer on this point. On the top of page 12 is “Table 1: Key characteristics of 1.5 °C scenarios and comparison with 2 °C scenarios.” The top lines explains:
1.5°C-consistent scenarios reach global net carbon neutrality by mid century….
At the bottom of the page, right below the line that says the 1.5°C target requires global GHGs in 2050 to be 70-95 percent below 2010 levels, the report again states clearly that in the 1.5°C scenario:
Global energy and industry CO2 emissions reach zero around 2050.
So this source doesn’t support the statement in the original piece, “If the world is to avoid climate calamity, it needs to reduce its carbon emissions by 80 percent by the middle of this century.”
NOTE: Foreign Affairs declined to comment when I asked them if they were aware that the citation they sent me does not actually support the sentence in their article — and instead they referred me to Sivaram’s blog post.
What’s more important for readers is that if indeed Sivaram and Revkin are joining all the nations of the world in acknowledging that 1.5°C is the preferred target for humanity, then we are in a “hair on fire” moment. Yes, R&D; remains as important as it always has been in providing options for the post-2050 world (which must go carbon-negative to achieved stabilization of 1.5°C).
But as the Climate Analytics paper makes clear, in the 1.5°C case, the sine qua non of climate policy must be to divert substantial investments toward urgent, hyper-rapid deployment of carbon-free technologies — focusing first on the power sector. This underscores the central point climatologist Ken Caldeira made in 2012: “Globally, deployment costs will be in the trillions of dollars, while R&D; costs might be in the tens of billions.”
If you truly accept the idea that “If the world is to avoid climate calamity” we must get on the 1.5°C pathway ASAP, then you would never, as the authors of the Foreign Affairs piece do, diss some of our most effective near-term deployment policies:
Indeed, government intervention can sometimes be counterproductive. Many current clean energy policies, such as state mandates for utilities to obtain a certain percentage of their power from renewable energy and federal tax credits for solar and wind power installations, implicitly support already-mature technologies.
In the 1.5C case, we really need to get power-sector emissions to zero before 2050. Fortunately, contrary to what Sivaram and Norris wrote, this is quite straightforward using technologies that are commercial today and can be scaled to the trillion dollar level over the next two decades. And that means successful deployment policies such as utility mandates for renewables are vital, not counterproductive.
It is terrific that the authors devoted a sentence in their long piece to endorsing one crucial CO2 deployment policy: “Fighting climate change successfully will certainly require sensible government policies to level the economic playing field between clean and dirty energy, such as putting a price on carbon dioxide emissions.” That’s more than Bill Gates was willing to do.
But in the 1.5C case, in fact, government policies must do much more than “level the economic playing field between clean and dirty energy.” In the 1.5C case, the playing field must be rendered free of dirty energy ASAP. So government policies must enable an orderly but rapid shutdown of coal plants (and then gas plants) while simultaneously replacing them with a combination of renewables, nuclear power, and energy efficiency. So, you can’t just have any CO2 price — you need one that starts out at a moderate to high level and rises quite rapidly.
Again, in the 1.5C case, most discussions about what must be done that you’ve read are wildly out of date. More on that in Part 2.