April 1, 2017, by Tim Radford
Goodbye to coal: Germany’s former Prosper-Haniel mine is now a hydro reservoir helping to power 400,000+ homes.
Image: Goseteufel via Wikimedia Commons
Leading scientists say a carbon law requiring CO2 emissions to be halved every decade could drastically cut global warming – and is feasible.
LONDON, 1 April, 2017 – By 2020, fossil fuels will no longer be subsidised by the taxpayer, anywhere in the world. And by then, carbon dioxide emissions worldwide will have started to fall.
By 2030, coal will no longer be mined or burned. The construction industry will be carbon neutral. So will some of the world’s great cities, lit up by renewable energy, the traffic powered by hydrogen, or by carbon neutral biofuels.
And by 2040, crude oil will no longer be an energy source. Europe will be the first continent with zero carbon emissions, and by 2050, the entire global economy will be carbon neutral: those who do still rely on fossil fuel combustion will also by then have found ways to remove the carbon dioxide they have released.
That’s the ambition. In the current political climate it may seem improbable. But scientists within a number of great organisations think it can be done, and explain how it can be done in the journal Science.
Just make a simple rule, they say: halve carbon emissions every decade. And that would be enough to give the world a 75% chance of containing global warming to “well below” 2°C above pre-industrial temperatures, a target agreed by almost all the world’s nations in Paris in 2015.
The scientists – all of them leaders of research institutions that have demonstrated repeatedly that failure to achieve zero emissions would be by far the most expensive option, sabotaging economies, eroding coastlines and displacing tens of millions – choose as their template for action the so-called Moore’s Law that seems to govern computer development, the rule of thumb that predicts a doubling of computer processing every two years.
The Carbon Law, their climate analogue and guideline for action, is that if anthropogenic carbon emissions are halved every 10 years, the 197 nations that agreed to contain global climate change could actually do so, and gain from the decision.
Their argument is that action needs to be firm, and rapid, and that the pledges made so far will not deliver the Paris promise. But determined action by nations, civic authorities and big corporations could achieve the goals.
“Our civilisation needs to reach a socio-economic tipping point soon, and this roadmap shows just how this can happen”
The scientists’ roadmap foresees renewable energy technologies doubling every five to seven years. They look for new and ambitious technologies to remove carbon from the atmosphere. And they see agriculture and forestry rapidly reducing emissions, in step with the city-dwelling world.
“We are already at the start of this trajectory. In the last decade, the share of renewables in the energy sector has doubled every 5.5 years. If doubling continues at this pace fossil fuels will exit the energy sector well before 2050,” said Johan Rockström, director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University.
And his co-author Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Germany, said: “Our civilisation needs to reach a socio-economic tipping point soon, and this roadmap shows just how this can happen.
“In particular, we identify concrete steps towards full decarbonisation by 2050. Businesses who try to avoid those steps and keep on tiptoeing will miss the next industrial revolution and thereby their best opportunity for a profitable future.”
The scientists – many of whom have led the field of climate science for decades – don’t see their prescription of a carbon law as an expense, more as an economic opportunity that will deliver rewards in lower costs, more employment and a better environment.
They stress the role of innovation, institutions, infrastructure and investment in steps towards making the zero emissions economy “an inevitability, rather than wishful thinking.”
They don’t believe there is time to waste: in 2016, the warmest year ever recorded, the planet was already 1.1°C warmer than the pre-industrial average.
“The carbon law outlines a global path towards achieving climate and sustainability goals in broad yet quantitative terms. It sketches a general vision of rapid emission reductions in conjunction with the development of sustainable carbon dioxide removal options,” said Joeri Rogelj of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria, another of the co-signatories.
“It clearly communicates that no single solution will do the job, and that this deep uncertainty thus implies starting today pursuing multiple options simultaneously.” – Climate News Network
Tim Radford, a founding editor of Climate News Network, worked for The Guardian for 32 years, for most of that time as science editor. He has been covering climate change since 1988.