Why we can’t wait. Why we need to focus now on getting off of fossil fuels, keeping temperature increase to 1.5 C

January 25, 2017

The world can still keep global average temperature rise to 1.5°C above the pre-industrial era and have that be “techno-economically achievable,” but prompt action is needed.  If we had started reducing worldwide emissions in 2005 it would have taken a 3.5% reduction in CO2 every year to keep temperatures to a safe level, given the decades of warming built into long-lived CO2 in the atmosphere.[1]   It is 2015 now though and the rate of CO2 emissions is still increasing.  We have not changed direction yet though, much less prepare for year after year reductions of 6% a year from 2015 out, or 15% per year if we wait until 2020.  This is one of the many reasons the Pope and other religious leaders say we must transition off fossil fuels “without delay”.[2]

There is little time to make the needed shift.  Rapid upscaling and implementation of existing clean energy technologies and best conservation an agricultural practices are needed [3]  Avoiding getting “locked in” to emissions with more (especially long-lived) fossil fuel infrastructure is particularly important.  The costs of the transition are modest, even before taking into account health savings and death prevention, with reduced pollution and increased security.[4]

How does a 1.5 C path differ from 2 C?

A 1.5°C cap reduces the remaining carbon budget for the 21st century to almost half that of the 2°C path.  Carbon neutrality must be achieved 10-20 years earlier.  Faster improvements in energy efficiency are required.[5]  This would make it likely that we could stay under a 2 C upper limit.  Reductions need to be steep to achieve 1.5 C.  Serious individual, community, and economy-wide efforts are needed.

A rapid shift is possible, but we must begin now. The later we start the steeper and faster the transition will have to be completed.  Waiting incurs further costs and runs a serious risk of irreparably damaging the ocean, even if we found a way to remove more CO2 from the atmosphere in the future.[6]  Because of threats like these and drought, agricultural impacts, hunger and disease, and sea level rise, the bulk of the transition off the most-polluting fossil fuels (e.g., coal) will need to occur in the next 10-20 yrs.

Successfully achieving 1.5 C will require major players and the biggest emitters to be more ambitious for the common good.  Clean energy action will benefit their own future economic development as well.  Analysis by the leading economic countries and the Potsdam Institute found that countries current planned GHG emission reduction plans leave too much inefficient and unabated fossil fuel capacity online in 2030 to be coherent even with a 2°C scenario.  This highlights the risks of lock-in to a high carbon trajectory with continued fossil-based mining and investment.  Deeper cuts are needed by all sooner rather than later (next 5-6 years) especially in energy and industry; 88% of coal, globally, will need to be kept in the ground, plus 52% of gas and 35% of oil.  The air can no longer be a free dumping space.

Stanford University research (Jacobson et al.) developed all-sector energy roadmaps for 139 countries of the world, based on 100% clean and renewable wind, water, and sunlight (WWS),[7] demonstrating that the transition is not only possible, it would virtually eliminating air pollution deaths, illness and global warming.  There are roadmaps to net new jobs, more stable energy prices because fuel costs are zero, and reduced conflict over energy, also reducing terrorism risk by significantly decentralizing power.

This transition would save over 27% of the energy needed just due to the greater efficiency of electricity over energy generated by combustion engines.  This would also create 22.8 million 35-year construction jobs and 17.5 million 35-year operation jobs for the energy facilities alone, the total outweighing the 37.3 million jobs lost worldwide, by around 3 million.  Of importance in considering life, health, and well-being, not to mention worker productivity, converting to wind, water, and solar will eliminate in the range of 4.6 (1.3-8.0) million premature air pollution mortalities per year, key to health, productivity and the dignity of life, not to mention tens of trillions per year in global warming costs, plus the suffering and displacement. 

Sources:

Hansen J, Kharecha P, Sato M, Masson-Delmotte V, Ackerman F, et al. (2013) Assessing ‘‘Dangerous Climate Change’’: Required Reduction of Carbon Emissions to Protect Young People, Future Generations and Nature. PLoS

ONE 8(12): e81648. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0081648

Hare, B., Schaeffer M, Serdeczny O. & Friedrich-Schleussner C (2014). “Can global warming be limited to 1.5C?” http://www.rtcc.org/2014/11/24/can-global-warming-be-limited-to-1-5c/#sthash.oGGQVwlw.dpuf

International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, http://www.iiasa.ac.at/web/home/about/news/150521-15-scenarios.html .  Summary Report of the Structure Expert Dialogue, Lima, Peru, 2–3 December 2014, Geneva, Switz, 8–9 Feb  2015.  http://www.climateemergencyinstitute.com/uploads/Summ_report_Expert_UNFCCC_1.pdf.

Jacobson, et al., Sector by Sector Wind, Water, and Solar Power Analyses and Transition Plans for 139 Countries.” Aug. 2015. See summary paper, xlsx-spreadsheets, % of 2050 WWS installed as of 2014, Wind installed as of 2014, PV installed as of 2014, CSP installed as of 2014,Hydro installed as of 2014, Geothermal installed as of 2014, Tidal installed as of 2014. Sectors and infrastructure addressed include electricity, transportation, heating/cooling, industry, and agriculture/forestry/fishing.

References:

Hansen J, Kharecha P, Sato M, Masson-Delmotte V, Ackerman F, et al. (2013) Assessing ‘‘Dangerous Climate Change’’: Required Reduction of Carbon Emissions to Protect Young People, Future Generations and Nature. PLoS

ONE 8(12): e81648. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0081648

Luderer G, Bertram C, Calvin K, et al. (2013) Implications of weak near-term climate policies on long-term mitigation pathways. Clim. Change online.

Rogelj J, McCollum DL, O’Neill BC, Riahi K (2013a) 2020 emissions levels required to limit warming to below 2 °C. Nat Clim Chang 3:405–412. doi: 10.1038/nclimate1758

Rogelj J, McCollum DL, Reisinger A, et al. (2013b) Probabilistic cost estimates for climate change mitigation. Nature 493:79–83. doi: 10.1038/nature11787

Rogelj J, Luderer G, Pietzcker RC, Kriegler E, Schaeffer M, Krey V, Riahi K. (2015). Energy system transformations for limiting end-of-century warming to below 1.5°C. Nature Climate Change. 21 May 2015. DOI: 10.1038/NCLIMATE2572http://phys.org/news/2015-05-limit-climate.html

Schaeffer M, Hare W, Rahmstorf S, Vermeer M (2012) Long-term sea-level rise implied by 1.5 °C and 2 °C warming levels. Nat Clim Chang 3–6. doi: 10.1038/nclimate1584

Science Daily, (2015) “Two degree Celsius climate change target ‘utterly inadequate’.” 27 March 2015.

Tschakert, P. (2015) 1.5°C or 2°C: a conduit’s view from the science-policy interface at COP20 in Lima, Peru. Climate Change Responses  2:3 DOI 10.1186/s40665-015-0010-z

UNEP (2014) Emissions gap report. Literature on 1.5C scenarios. Opportunities lost every decade emissions rise.

World Bank (2014), “Turn Down the Heat: Confronting the New Climate Normal”.

[1] Hansen J, Kharecha P, Sato M, Masson-Delmotte V, Ackerman F, et al. (2013) Assessing ‘‘Dangerous Climate Change’’: Required Reduction of Carbon Emissions to Protect Young People, Future Generations and Nature. PLoS

ONE 8(12): e81648. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0081648

[2] Pope Francis, (2015) Laudato Si’: On Care of Our Common Home, paragraph #165. w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html

[3] IPCC Report (2014), WGIII SPM page 17.

[4] Luderer et al., 2013b; Rogelj et al., 2013a; Rogelj et al., 2013b. When action is delayed, various options to achieve stringent levels of climate protection are increasingly lost

[5] Joeri Rogelj, Gunnar Luderer, Robert C. Pietzcker, Elmar Kriegler, Michiel Schaeffer, Volker Krey, Keywan Riahi. Energy system transformations for limiting end-of-century warming to below 1.5 °CNature Climate Change, 2015; 5 (6): 519 DOI: 10.1038/NCLIMATE2572

[6] The oceans have absorbed 93% of the global warming that has occurred to date.  Researchers have found that even if humanity had a way of removing CO2 from the atmosphere in the future (outside of slow removal by trees and intact grasslands), if emissions continue, warming and CO2 and the associated reduced oxygen, reduced circulation, and acidified water will kill many species. See:https://www.awi.de/nc/en/about-us/service/press/press-release/the-oceans-cant-take-any-more-researchers-fear-a-fundamental-change-in-the-oceans-even-if-gr.html.  “Greenhouse gases’ millennia-long ocean legacy.” ScienceDaily. 3 August 2015. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/08/150803155059.htm

[7] Jacobson, MZ et al., 2015. See summary paper, xlsx-spreadsheets, % of 2050 WWS installed as of 2014, Wind installed as of 2014, PV installed as of 2014, CSP installed as of 2014,Hydro installed as of 2014, Geothermal installed as of 2014, Tidal installed as of 2014 http://web.stanford.edu/group/efmh/jacobson/Articles/I/CountriesWWS.pdf