One couldn’t find a better contemporary context for Winston Churchill’s famous words than the climate victory the world celebrated in Paris, when 193 governments signed on to a commitment to reduce the global temperature rise to well under 2 degrees Celsius. While after long years of failed attempts, the smell of fresh ink on this historic document and the noise of fireworks have made it all seem like a finish line, Paris has only marked the end of a long beginning.
Meeting the global climate target requires countries to submit pledges that must add up to driving CO2 emissions to nearly zero by the 2nd half of the century - a reduction needed to avoid the worst consequences of climate change - from extreme draughts to disruptions in food and water supply. Yet the national pledges submitted so far provide little comfort: cumulative contribution of INDCs nudge the world’s trajectory only slightly relative to where we need to be.
According to United Nations Environmental Program, without more ambitious pledges to rein in carbon emissions, temperatures could rise by around 3.4 degrees Celsius.
Have we just gone too far to fix the damage we’ve inflicted on ourselves? Indeed, as difficult as reaching the Paris deal has been, translating intention into action will be a far greater challenge. Why? The short answer is, this is just how heavily dependent we are on fossil fuels.
Since the industrial revolution, fossil fuels have powered economic progress, with carbon emissions going hand in hand with improvements in living standards. With the legitimate aspirations of millions of people to escape poverty and achieve prosperity on an ever-more populous planet, the fundamental challenge of the low-carbon transition is to break the historic link between emissions and economic growth. This link is measured by carbon intensity – how much CO2 is emitted per unit of energy – and energy productivity – how much energy we need for a given output (e.g. a dollar of GDP).
This means the world needs to both learn how to do much more with less energy, and revolutionize the energy system to strip the carbon out of the equation.
[Global Emissions = CO2/unit of energy X energy/unit of GDP X GDP/capita X Population]
Have we signed up for an impossible task?
It may have been a hopeless endeavor, if not for the fact that we are the most technologically gifted generation in history.
In fact, the energy transformation is technologically and economically viable. This is what the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project, a project led by SDSN and IDDRI, has demonstrated across 16 economies which together account for 74% of global GHG emissions. The study had national research teams map out sector-by-sector long-term technology pathways for limiting global warming below 2°C. The pathways modeled in all 16 countries, developed and developing alike, have demonstrated that deep decarbonization is feasible with known technologies, is economically affordable and compatible with other unique national priorities.
Each decarbonization pathway will rest on three pillars: energy efficiency, carbon-free electricity and fuels, and fuel switching. Energy efficiency is essential to save energy we can do without, driving improvements in energy productivity (energy/GDP) by installing smart sensors and appliances that switch off the light we don’t need or replacing incandescent lights with LED lamps. The latter two will get us the deep reductions in carbon intensity (CO2/energy): zero-carbon electricity means introducing some mix of solar, wind, nuclear, hydro or any other carbon-free energy source that by 2050 will need to replace the fossil fuel power generation that dominates today’s power grid. Fuel switching will involve electrifying our heating systems and vehicles: instead of burning gasoline in a combustion engine, our cars will be powered by a low-carbon grid.
The DDPP study has not only laid out the practicalities of decarbonizing every sector but also revealed the importance of long-term planning. While existing technologies may be sufficient to achieve the mid-term targets, they may only create a false sense of security in the absence of long-term roadmap. Only a long-term strategy would, for instance, signal the need to make early investments in technologies that may be essential 30 years from now - it may take decades for these to see a breakthrough in the lab, become prototypes and pass the demonstration stage in the field.
It is also clear that the invisible hand alone will not afford us the energy miracle: the speed and scale of change will require an unprecedented amount of mobilization and coordination among governments, donors, academia and the private sector.
Governments must first and foremost spend more on fundamental science: R&D spending has been an item even rich nations like the US have fallen short on. Sometimes inertia and status quo bias is to blame: as Noam Chomsky has pointed out in 2015, the research agenda of MIT, one of US leading research institutions, is still being focused on Cold War defense issues. It is everyone’s hope that Mission Innovation, which will have 20 governments double their research spending on emerging technologies, will help shift attention where its due.
Businesses will be the ones to navigate the myriad investment opportunities the low-carbon transition offers and help bring these new technologies from the testing ground to the market, where they can be deployed at scale and reap the benefits of the experience curve, just what we have seen solar and wind do in the past decades. Through the forces of technological learning and economies of scale, solar photovoltaics and onshore wind have become 80% and almost 40% cheaper respectively since 2009 - it is equally important that these mature technologies continue seeing adoption on a wider scale.
An upsurge in solar spurred a wave of business model innovation, capturing imagination of corporate CEOs and young social entrepreneurs alike; it created space for experimenting with support programs and incentives, providing governments with their own learning experience in what works and what doesn’t. Policy makers will need to continue working in that direction to ensure that ‘the new species’ today become mainstream tomorrow - to challenge the ‘dinosaurs’ - the cheapest and dirtiest sources of energy that dominate today’s energy landscape.
How the energy mix of the future look like and what the next scientific and engineering breakthroughs that will help us get to climate safety will be - is anyone’s guess. What we do know for certain is that this change will be as successful as the political will, dedication, ingenuity and energy humanity will channel into the fight against climate change. And here we’ve got a great hope - as we just happen to have the largest young generation history has ever known. Young engineers, scientists, social entrepreneurs and activists - have always been the biggest source of enthusiasm, wild imagination and bold ideas. If there is one viable solution you can count on, it is them. Governments and business, take note - and do not forget to put them, too, on your investment agenda.
Young engineers, scientists, social entrepreneurs and activists - have always been the biggest source of enthusiasm, wild imagination and bold ideas. If there is one viable solution you can count on, it is them.
Anastasiya Kostomarova is a Project Officer for Research and Policy at SDSN Youth and the Co-Manager of the Local Pathways Project. All opinions expressed on the blog are the opinion of the authors and not of SDSN Youth.
For more information about Local Pathways, please visit http://localpathways.org/