PublicationJournal Article Recalibrating climate prospects

December 2, 2019
Publication Type:
Journal Article
Associated Projects:

IPC­C’s 2018 Spe­cial Report is a stark and brac­ing reminder of cli­mate threats. Yet lit­er­a­ture, reportage, and pub­lic dis­course reflect imbal­anced risk and oppor­tu­ni­ty. Cli­mate sci­ence often under­states changes’ speed and non­lin­ear­i­ty, but Inte­grat­ed Assess­ment Mod­els (IAMs) and sim­i­lar stud­ies often under­state real­is­tic mit­i­ga­tion options. Since ~2010, glob­al mit­i­ga­tion of fos­sil CO2—includ­ing by often-uncount­ed mod­ern renew­able heat com­pa­ra­ble to solar-plus-wind electricity—has accel­er­at­ed to about the pace (if sus­tained) need­ed for a 2 °C tra­jec­to­ry. Mit­i­ga­tion has uncer­tain­ties, emer­gent prop­er­ties, fea­si­bil­i­ty thresh­olds, and non­lin­ear­i­ties at least com­pa­ra­ble to cli­mate’s, cre­at­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties for aggres­sive action. Renew­able elec­tric­i­ty’s swift uptake can now be echoed as proven inte­gra­tive design can make end-use effi­cien­cy sev­er­al­fold larg­er and cheap­er, often with increas­ing returns (low­er cost with ris­ing quan­ti­ty). Saved energy—the world’s largest decar­boniz­er and ener­gy ‘source’ (big­ger than oil)—can then poten­ti­ate renew­ables and cut sup­ply invest­ments, as a few recent effi­cien­cy-cen­tric IAMs con­firm. Opti­miz­ing choic­es, com­bi­na­tions, tim­ing, and sequenc­ing of tech­nolo­gies, urban form, behav­ioral shifts, etc could save still more ener­gy, mon­ey, and time. Some rig­or­ous engi­neer­ing-based nation­al stud­ies out­side stan­dard cli­mate lit­er­a­ture even imply poten­tial 1.5 °C glob­al tra­jec­to­ries cheap­er than busi­ness-as-usu­al. A com­ple­men­tary opportunity—rapidly and durably abat­ing hydro­car­bon indus­tries’ delib­er­ate upstream CH4 releas­es from flares and engi­neered vents, by any large oper­a­tor’s prof­itably abat­ing its own and oth­ers’ emissions—could sta­bi­lize (or more) the glob­al methane cycle and buy time to abate more CO2. Togeth­er, these find­ings jus­ti­fy sober recal­i­bra­tion of the prospects for a fair­er, health­i­er, cool­er, and safer world. Sup­port­ed by oth­er dis­ci­plines, improved IAMs can illu­mi­nate this poten­tial and sup­port its refine­ment. Ambi­tious poli­cies and aggres­sive mar­ket­place and soci­etal adop­tion of prof­itable new abate­ment oppor­tu­ni­ties need not wait for bet­ter mod­els, but bet­ter mod­els would help them to attract mer­it­ed atten­tion, scale faster, and turn numb­ing despair into col­lec­tive­ly pow­er­ful applied hope.

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