I very quickly learned in my management career that if you find a problem best to also find solutions. Climate change is no different and thankfully there are plenty of solutions to the problem. I also learned that solutions start with a good description of the problem. In the following blog I describe the climate change problem, what are the Science Based Targets (SBT) to solve the problem and the Science Based Solutions (SBS) to achieve the SBT.
The climate change problem
Climate change is caused by greenhouse-gases that humans are responsible for and trap heat within the atmosphere (which has already produced about 1°C / 2°F warming).
This trapped heat corresponds to detonating 4 Hiroshima bombs per second, 90% of which has been absorbed by the oceans, with catastrophic consequences (e.g. half of barrier reef coral has died). Longer lasting and more intensive weather events and unchanging weather patterns are a consequence of all this additional energy absorbed by our planet. Thanks to climate change attribution science, scientists are increasingly able to attribute the severity, frequency and duration of individual weather events to climate change. Even extreme cold events such as polar vortexes can be attributed to global warming as the poles warm and do not retain the cold air as well as they used to.
Another important way of describing the problem (as it helps to frame the solution/s) is in terms of a carbon budget which is the amount of carbon dioxide (the greenhouse-gas that accounts for about three-quarters of global warming) we can still emit and still stay within a certain level of global warming. To stay within 2 degrees there is a remaining carbon budget (from 2010 to 2100 ) of 800 Gigatonnes (billion tonnes) of carbon dioxide and that to stay within 1.5 degrees C requires the removal of a further 600 Gigatonnes through human carbon sinks to get back to 200 Gigatonnes. (budget for 1.5 degrees C).
We will get to the other greenhouse-gases such as nitrous oxide and the SLCPs (short-lived climate pollutants) such as methane, halocarbons or CFCs, and black carbon, in due course (they are all included in Project Drawdown’s science based solutions), but there are 4 main reasons why carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuels (and cement production) is so important:
- Account for 2/3 of greenhouse-gas emissions and are concentrated in a small number of producers
- The impact on human health and the environment caused by extracting, transporting, burning and the waste from fossil fuels (includes pollution impacts in addition to carbon dioxide)
- Lasts the longest in the atmosphere (up to thousands of years) but can be quickly removed through carbon sinks
- There are extensively researched science-based solutions to both fossil fuel substitution and carbon dioxide removal
Science based targets (Why 1.5°C? Why not 2°C?)
Thanks to scientific research we understand our world better. In the case of climate change over 97% of climate change scientists, that publish actively, agree it is caused by anthropogenic greenhouse-gas emissions; 61% of the world’s population consider climate change to be a threat to security, at the same level as ISIS. And in its 2018 risk report the World Economic Forum (WEF) has found that four out of five of the highest-impact and likely risks are related to climate change: mitigation and adaptation failure, extreme weather events, natural disasters and water crises. So we know that we cause climate change, that climate change is the biggest threat to humanity and how to contain climate change, but to what level?
Thanks to science the difference between 1.5°C and 2°C warming threat is also better understood (see CarbonBrief infographic below). This is also why 2°C warming is no longer considered an acceptable objective to humankind and that the objective should rather be 1.5°C
There are two key evidence based (scientific) tools available to reduce and avoid emissions. The first comes from economics and the second from climate change scientific research:
- Carbon pricing: Putting a price on pollution and the impact it causes on health, livelihoods and the environment and making the polluter pay is the most economically efficient way of reducing emissions and reallocating resources to non- and less-polluting practices and technologies.
- Today 6% of global emissions are covered by some form of carbon price
- $5.3 trillion were paid (or not charged) to consume fossil fuels in 2016 (that’s $100/tonne of emissions, 6.5% of GDP or 730$/capita paid to polluters when it should be the exact opposite)
- Science Based Targets: Emissions reduction targets are science based if they follow evidence-based pathways to stay within 1.5°C to 2°C warming:
- Rockstrom et al’s « Carbon Law » halving emissions every decade from 2020 to reach net zero by 2050
- Jacobson et al’s 100% renewable electrification to reach carbon zero by 2050
- Project Drawdown’s objective to remove 590m tonnes of emissions by 2050
- Science Based Targets initiative over 340 companies representing about 5% of global emissions
- Carbon Tracker’s Unburnable Carbon that up to 80% of fossil fuel reserves need to stay in the ground to stay within 2°C
- Thomson Reuters Global 500 reports emission reduction rates from 2010 baseline
The decade from 2010 is being lost in containing climate change. A yearly reduction of 1.4% from 2010 would most likely have been sufficient to stay within 2°C. Now the decrease rate has increased to about 5% per year from 2020 and subsequent decades (according to the Carbon Law, corresponds to halving every decade from 2020 to 2050).
Science Based Solutions
Underpinning the Science Based Targets are Science Based Solutions. The most comprehensive set of science-based solutions to climate change are the one hundred solutions that come to us from Project Drawdown and from Professor Jacobson et al. from Stanford University. These solutions are further described below in an extract from a blog I wrote at The Economist Intelligence Unit
Project Drawdown takes a somewhat different and complementary approach (…to the Carbon Law….) by focussing on solutions that can achieve “Drawdown”, which refers to the reversal in rising concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The book, Drawdown, describes 100 technologies and practises that can together reverse global warming. Based on ongoing collaborative research of over 200 individuals who are mapping, measuring, and modelling these solutions, the top 80 “are already in place, well understood, analysed, based on peer-reviewed science, and are expanding around the world,” says Drawdown’s editor Paul Hawken. Twenty solutions are profiled as “coming attractions”, not yet ready for implementation, but when they come online their impact could advance progress towards Drawdown substantially.
For the 80 existing solutions, emissions avoided, net cost and net savings are forecast over 30 years (the coming attractions do not have sufficient data yet to do so). There are three increasingly ambitious scenarios (plausible, Drawdown and optimal). The scenarios focus only on the direct greenhouse-gas (GHG) and financial impacts of the solutions, leaving aside other impacts—such as savings associated with human lives and health, as well as incentives that drive implementation, for example a carbon price—to their next phase of research. The results are, nonetheless, outstanding and, most importantly, fully realisable, with the right incentives.
For the plausible scenario cost savings would be 2.7 times total net costs (costs and/or savings could not be estimated for all 80 solutions) and the total amount of carbon dioxide avoided and sequestered would be a staggering 1,051 gigatonnes.
If you remove the plausible scenario’s conservative bias and factor in a more ambitious growth for all solutions, including 100% renewable energy by 2050 (albeit, regrettably, including biomass, landfill methane, nuclear and waste-to-energy), a net 590m tonnes are removed from the atmosphere by 2050. This is the Drawdown scenario.
100% Renewables and 100% Electrification by 2050
Mark Jacobson from Stanford University argues that 100% renewable wind, water and sun (WWS) and 100% electrification of all sectors by 2050 requires 42.5% less energy and produces zero emissions. Zero emissions would prevent 4-7m lives being lost prematurely and stop hundreds of millions from becoming ill due to air pollution. About 24m net jobs would be created and energy would be around US$0.1/kWh, which is cheaper, more stable (because fuel costs are zero) and more easily accessed (due to decentralisation) than business as usual. About US$23trn/year in costs from 2050 air pollution would be saved by 2050 as would about US$28.5trn/year in climate costs, while warming would be limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Marc Jacobson et al. have developed roadmaps to transform the “all-purpose energy infrastructures (electricity, transportation, heating/cooling, industry, agriculture/forestry/fishing)” of 139 countries to ones powered by WWS.
Science based solutions exist to climate change and their implementation would enable the world to stay within a level of global warming of 1.5 degrees C. These science based solutions should be implemented even if you believe that climate change is a hoax as they will save millions of lives, create millions of jobs, reduce costs and damages to environment by $trillions and provide cheaper and cleaner energy that is more accessible to all. However, the world needs a level playing field between those that pollute our air and water and those that do not (or do so to a much lesser extent) by charging the cost of that pollution (on our health, livelihoods and the environment) to polluters instead of subsidising pollution as we do today.