A hierarchy of action for the planet

| 7 March 2017
Biodiversity loss, Blog & Articles | Tags: Plant, Warming

By Preventable Surprises Board Member Rich Pancost

As if the challenge of limiting global warming weren’t daunting enough, the broad range of opinions on how to tackle the job has slowed progress. The actions we must take comprise a diverse cocktail of behaviour changes and technological innovation, some simple and others complex, but not all equal. A hierarchy of priorities must be developed to accelerate our response to the climate crisis that is unfolding.

To contextualize this hierarchy, it is worth stepping back. The world agreed in Paris to limit global warming to “well below 2C.” Business as usual, however, will likely lead to global warming of 4°C to 5.5°C by the end of this century. We also know that, due to the cumulative nature of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, limiting global warming will eventually require the near-complete decarbonization of society. Decreasing emissions without addressing this more fundamental objective merely delays warming.

As such, some disagreements over what is realistically achievable are moot. We know that:

  1. strong action is essential if warming far beyond any agreed limit is to be avoided; and
  2. we must eventually decarbonize all sectors.

The only question is how quickly these actions can be taken. We propose that a more productive starting point would be to recognize the hierarchy of social and technological adaptations and innovations that we must take to move society along a decarbonization pathway, and then install the mechanisms that move us along this pathway as quickly as possible.

As with any social transformation, every step is challenging as it requires either fundamentally new technology or disruption of established behaviours. Nonetheless, some steps are currently in hand, at a price, others not yet. With respect to decarbonization, the first stage is technologically straight-forward. It includes energy efficiency measures, as well as upgrading/decarbonizing the grid. The latter will be neither cheap nor easy as it requires not just a commitment to new renewable electricity provision but also infrastructure investment in electricity transfer and storage.

The second stage of transformation comprises those changes that are also technologically and financially feasible but dependent on stage one. These include electrification of transport and residential heating in areas where district heating solutions are not possible. These changes are perhaps more challenging because they will require significant individual action, investment, and behaviour change, each of which requires confidence in how economic and structural support systems will evolve.

The third stage will entail the decarbonization of sectors for which we do not yet have technological solutions, i.e. aviation, global shipping, heavy manufacturing and much of our agriculture. We can decrease our dependencies on these but we cannot eliminate them, and so innovations such as carbon-free planes and sail-assisted ships will be necessary.

Failure to deliver any of these is effectively business as usual, with end-of-century warming near 4°C to 5.5°C. Achieving only some portion of the first and second tiers yields warming of approximately 3°C (by end of century, more afterwards). All three must be achieved—and relatively quickly—to meet targets set in the Paris Agreement. It is for these reasons that Preventable Surprises is simultaneously challenging industries to transition in a manner that achieves a <2°C warmer world while also demanding that they be adaptable to a >3°C warmer world.

While simplistic, this hierarchy also guides decision-making and comparison of competing proposals. For example, it is highly problematic to propose that we can deploy undeveloped carbon capture and sequestration technology in some uncertain future when we can already invest in proven and rapidly growing renewable energy. However, it is appropriate to tension CCS technology against other nascent technology, such as carbon-free aviation. In both cases, significant new innovations will be required.

This hierarchy provides guidance for where action must occur now:

  • We must rapidly decarbonize the grid because this can be done now to decrease emissions permanently and because it enables subsequent decarbonization efforts.
  • We must initiate policies that enable exploitation of a carbon-free grid (including not only electrification of transport but also, and critically, expansion of the grid’s capacity).
  • We must invest now in innovations that will yield implementation-ready solutions in 20 to 30 years.

By extension, this guides us to those institutions that must be challenged to act now. It is not enough to challenge only the extraction industries—all industries must take appropriate actions. Consequently, at Preventable Surprises we have expanded our remit to include the utility sector, which is poised to reap the low-hanging fruit of replacing carbon-dense power sources with renewables.

Pancost is director of the University of Bristol Cabot Institute, which conducts world-leading research on the challenges arising from how we live with, depend on and affect our planet.