We must start dramatically increasing decarbonisation now - not ten years from now, or even a month from now. We have arrived at the last moment where we can shift global energy infrastructure without passing a 1.5C - 2.0C temperature rise. We still have the opportunity to address climate change in a way that will make the future better. In the household sector, there's no need to wait for new technologies - solar, batteries, electric vehicles, and efficient appliances can begin an accelerated roll out today at scale.
We still have the opportunity to address climate change in a way that will make the future better.
The 2016 Paris Agreement committed signatories to avert climate crisis by keeping global temperature rise this century to 2.0C above pre--industrial levels while pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase even further, to 1.5C. The targets 1.5C and 2.0C were political as much as they were technical, and in some respects chosen because they are round numbers. The choice to express climate change in Celsius has been a challenge - a narrative problem that persists in the U.S. where a few degrees Fahrenheit doesn't sound too bad.
Even with the emissions targets championed in these agreements, we have significant chances of not hitting the climate stabilization we would like. In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a United Nations group of scientists who summarized the worldwide findings on climate change, concluded that meeting the Paris target of 1.5C would be possible, but would require ``rapid, far--reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.''
The report predicted that ``we have 12 years.'' The report was issued in 2018 but we did not really do anything to improve the situation in 2019 and 2020, so now we have 10 years to halve human emissions by 2030 to stay on schedule. The IPCC warned that even a warming of 1.5C - already an ambitious goal - would result in large-scale drought, famine, species die-off, the loss of entire ecosystems and the loss of habitable land, throwing more than 100 million people into poverty, particularly in the Middle East and Africa.
That is especially true because the IPCC report relied on humanity developing ``negative emissions'' technologies, such as carbon sequestration, to reach that goal. But at the moment, while those technologies would be nice, they don't yet exist on a workable scale, and there are strong arguments that they will never be cost effective. We can't rely on fantasy technologies to reach our climate goal (or to argue that we can continue to burn fossil fuels because someday we may be able to suck the CO2 out of the air). We must aim to hit 2.0 with technology that works today - which we have, and will do the job, if we employ it right away.
The more we learn, the more that the tipping points look sooner and more drastic.
If we exceed our emissions targets, we will face irreversible tipping points in climate change where we won’t be able to stabilize the climate at all. As Timothy Lenton and his colleagues highlight in their recent paper, the more we learn, the more that the tipping points look sooner and more drastic. Given what we know about climate feedback and sensitivities, such as more rapidly melting glaciers, the effects of deforestation of the Amazon, methane emissions from Arctic tundra, and carbon releases from fires, we are already precariously close to such a tipping point. Some scientists argue that we've already lost Greenland's ice sheet.
Every year we wait - whether hoping for a political revolution or a technological miracle - has dire consequences to the timeline and the health of our planet. This climate response emergency is expressed best in the analysis and charts of Zeke Hausfather and Robbie Andrew which we redraw in below.
Here we present a breakdown of what this chart shows. If we had started this grand project in the year 2000, we could have hit our 1.5C target by reducing emissions at the rate of 4% per year. If we started in 2020, we have to reduce at a phenomenal rate - something like 10% per year. If we wait four more years, we use up half the remaining carbon budget. Eight years, and it's gone completely. We simply must start yesterday, or as Saul's friend Jonathan Koomey says we should think about it, we must ``halve emissions every decade.'' We think we should do even better.
The notion that we have ten years also fails to recognize ``committed emissions,'' those that are locked in because we have already invested in a piece of infrastructure that will emit carbon dioxide throughout its useful life. An example is the car sitting in your driveway that burns gasoline but is too new to trade in for an electric vehicle. Fossil-fueled power plants built today will emit CO2 for 50 years or more unless we shut them down. A gasoline-powered car or gas furnace purchased yesterday will probably discharge CO2 for 20 more years. These committed emissions already take us past 1.5C of warming and closer to the edge of 2.0C. That should sober us up, because it means that even if we made perfect climate decisions on every purchase from now on we will shoot past our 1.5C target.
Let’s reflect on what we have just learned for a moment: We have left this fight so late in the game that now every time we retire a fossil fuel--burning machine, it must be replaced with a decarbonized machine. Everything that uses energy, by everyone, everywhere, whether an individual, a power company, or a corporation, must be a decarbonized solution. In theory this calculus would change a little if you retired the heaviest-emitting coal plants before their end of life, but it does not substantively change the fact that we need to eliminate ALL fossil fuel burning machines as soon as possible.
This scenario of replacing everything that uses energy with a zero-carbon solution when it's retired is called a 100% adoption rate. Today when a car reaches retirement age, there is only a small chance the replacement will be electric. If one in ten people buy an EV, then we say the adoption rate is 10%. Because machines like your car have long lifetimes, we can't afford those slow adoption rates anymore. We need everyone buying electrical vehicles. We need everyone purchasing a power plant to choose solar instead of natural gas and wind instead of coal.
Fortunately, we are further along with this project than you might expect. In 2018, 66% of new power plants globally were renewables or carbon free! This is good, but not quite enough - across the board we now need adoption rates of 100%. This perfect execution level of adoption rate is what we mean when we say we are now playing end-game decarbonization. While that sounds dramatic, it doesn't mean you have to run out to buy a new EV today. It means that the next time you need to retire a machine, it should be replaced with a solution that doesn't emit CO2.
When your car finally dies, you have to replace it with an electric one. Consumer Reports says the average life expectancy of a new car is 8 years and 250,000km of travel. The same logic applies to your water heater, your room heaters, your stove, and your roof. Water heaters last 10 years. Refrigerators, 12; clothes dryers, 13; rooftops, 15; air-conditioning, 18; cars and trucks, 20; thermostats, 35; power plants, 50. Source.
No matter how effectively we may sway the market to buy green technology, we are unlikely to decarbonize faster than the curve dictated by the natural replacement lifetime of existing machines. That's why we'll need incentives such as buy-back programs and subsidies to swap out fossil fuel-burning machines for electric ones as soon as possible. We can buy ourselves a little extra time if we shut down the most polluting infrastructure before it ends its natural life. This is why people advocate for early retirement of fossil fuel power plants, particularly those that burn coal. But consumers, utilities, and other organizations will require extreme motivation to retire their fossil-dependent infrastructure early because of their sunk costs. You aren't going to give up your gasoline-burning car unless there are enough incentives out there to make it easy for you to replace it with a new electric vehicle.
A 100% adoption rate is only achieved by mandate. It more typically takes decades for a new technology to become dominant by market forces alone as it slowly increases its market share each year. Electric cars still only represented 2% of sales of U.S. vehicles in 2018, though 5% in California in 2019 - 15 years after Tesla was founded and 20 years after GM shut down the production of its first electric car, the EV1. We need electric or emissions-free vehicles to be 100% of vehicle sales as soon as is physically, and industrially, possible.
The challenge of 100% adoption presents a giant conflict that we need to address right up front: the ``free market'' as we know it is not up to the task of keeping us below 2.0C and has absolutely no chance of 1.5C. It may sound like this is a giant screed for government intervention; it is not! This is merely stating what is technically necessary. If your toilet was broken and you called your friend and asked them what to do, they wouldn't tell you ``the free market will fix that,'' they'd tell you to call a plumber. That is where we're at on climate change: no amount of hope in free market solutions can change the fact that it is now too late to rely on the free market to act fast enough.
We need to call the plumbers (and electricians, and engineers, and manufacturers) to fix our infrastructure now. This is not to say that businesses and the market don't have roles; they are critical. But in emergencies, ideologies must be put aside. When Mother Nature arm--wrestles with the invisible hand, she will always win. As Saul's friend and economist Skip Laitner says, the free market needs an invisible foot to give it a swift kick in the ass now and then. The conclusion of this urgency is that we need every player to act and do their bit. Individuals, governments, businesses and the market - we need every tool in the box, and we need them working together.