100% Clean Energy By 2050: Decarbonization As Denial
By Bill Henderson
23 May, 2015
We are refusing to take climate change seriously.
We're trying to get to a deal in Paris to reduce emissions to stay under 2C. 2C is an almost universally agreed guardrail against dangerous climate change, but if it was 1950 and we had today's climate science we'd do everything to stay below a 1C rise in temperature.
But, practically, 2C is now a mirage, a lie we tell ouselves. David Spratt and Oliver Geden make strong arguments that without emergency action it is too late to stay under 2C and Lord Stern and co, adding up present Paris emission reduction pledges, admit that promised emission reduction does not get us under 2C - more like over 3C.
Instead of action and policies of a scale necessary to stay under 2C (after decades of obfuscation and inaction), we conceptualize climate change in a way that climate mitigation seems to remain possible within our particular, wonderful business as usual (BAU).
Putting a price on carbon - whether a version of a tax or cap and trade - and replacing fossil fuels with renewables are the two prime examples. I have tried to show how ineffectual carbon pricing just wastes precious time when deep emission reduction is needed over the next couple of decades. Pricing carbon is a fundamentally wrong shaped policy hyped by economists, bankers and oil companies, a distraction that keeps us from even considering truly effective action.
Just like carbon pricing I want to try and show you how our framing of decarbonization, of getting to a low carbon economy, wrongfoots. It's not that switching from fossil fuels to renewables isn't a good initiative, it's not that transitioning to a low carbon economy or carbon pricing are bad ideas - of course, they aren't, it's just that they are not the emission reduction mechanisms needed now to protect against dangerous climate change. I hope it gives you a deeper look into our conceptualization of climate danger and possible mitigation
Decarbonization is normally pictured as switching from fossil fuels to 100% renewable energy (solar, wind, nuclear, geothermal, tidal, etc.) by a certain date, usually 2050 because this is an enormous transition and such energy transitions historically have taken many decades. Energy planners model different scenarios for making this transition using integrated assessment models (IAMs) to extrapolate energy demand into the future.
You can find a table of such 'Global Decarbonization Studies' (with links) in the excellent “A critical review of global decarbonization scenarios: what do they tell us about feasibility?”
But switching from fossil fuels to 100% renewables by 2050 is not even close to the same thing as reducing emissions enough to stay under 2C (which is already deep into dangerous climate change territory).
As Guy Dauncey explained in his The 2040 Climate Imperative, the carbon budget science bottom line is that if we don't reduce emissions significantly during the next two decades we will release enough greenhouse gases (GHGs) to exceed 2C, so the real question is 'Can renewables replace fossil fuels fast enough to reduce emissions of a scale needed in the next two decades?'
Look at the decarbonization studies: emission reduction of a scale required with renewables replacing fossil fuels is clearly not possible within the appropriate time frame. It may be possible to go 100% renewable, zero carbon by 2050 (and maybe not) but that is not the real climate mitigation question.
What the present modeling of energy transition is all about is continuing BAU into the far future, not about addressing climate change urgently. The IAMs project our present economy and it's trajectory into the future and planners try and find a transition path within that intended future. Fair enough as economic planning, but profoundly unethical wrongfooting if you take climate change and our kids future seriously.
The hidden curriculum is that energy growth must happen and that we can only transition as fast as we can build new renewable capacity to replace fossil fuels. But obviously, if we take climate change seriously and such a renewables transition cannot reduce emissions of a scale needed in the crucial next two decades, then we must consider ways of reducing fossil energy production without renewable replacement - we must consider ways to power down that reduce fossil fuel use significantly. But this is heretical, not possible within our present socio-economy as it has developed.
For an example, we have enough clothing and housing for everybody in North America to last at least a decade; we could freeze expenditure on these survival basics and realize significant energy reduction but of course even considering such climate action threatens the whole economy, our whole socio-economy, so no one is even looking at such planning.
But North American's (and the rest of the 750 million global middle class) fossil fuel use is what must be reduced if we are to have any chance of staying under 2C. Emissions must be reduced from over 20 tonnes of GHGs per capita per year to around 2 tonnes.
100% renewables by 2050 is a red herring. If we are serious about climate change, we could reconfigure our socio-economy to power down, eliminating vast areas of inefficient energy consumption that aren't really necessary.
We could do it quickly and with nobody left behind and it doesn't have to be eco-fascist or Big Gov't. And it wouldn't be the end of the world or even the end of fun or the end of business. The market economy would just evolve differently.
We could envision a wartime-style effort of a limited duration requiring reconfiguration required by the climate emergency. Not Change Everything; not anti-capitalism, but a realistic and necessary change of direction faced with an accidental byproduct of large scale fossil fuel use that has been allowed to become civilization if not humanity threatening. Effective action would begin with an urgent schedule for winding down all fossil fuel production, dirtiest first.
This rational-comprehensive framework for staying under 2C could also greatly speed up the transition to renewables: when there is a schedule for keeping fossil fuels in the ground the present severe path dependence benefiting fossil fuels begins to evaporate. Thinking ahead, consideration must be given to allocating some portion of the remaining fossil fuel energy to build renewable capacity for the future.
We need to greatly speed up the transition to renewables but urgent emission reduction must be the priority. Here's David Roberts:
First, as evidenced by the fact that I’ve said it a jillion times, I think that the net benefits of transitioning to low-carbon, low-waste, highly networked systems of transportation and power would vastly exceed the net costs, considered at almost any scale and time frame (except perhaps very short time frames). That’s because climate change of 4 degrees C or greater, which is entirely possible on our current trajectory, carries with it a high probability of runaway feedbacks that could render the Earth all but uninhabitable for hundreds, even thousands, of years. Most of our economic models effectively discount to zero the value of the lives of people living far in the future. I think that’s immoral, that screwing up the Earth for all future generations would be a monstrous crime. ...
(C)ommonly used IAMs also underestimate decarbonization costs in key ways, by underestimating the size and speed of carbon reductions necessary. In his talks, scientist Kevin Anderson offers a whole list of these model shenanigans from unrealistically low CO2 emission growth rates to unrealistically early peaks in emissions to unrealistically large availability of negative-carbon options toward the end of the century. In Anderson’s telling, modelers massage these assumptions to produce results that won’t intimidate and overwhelm policymakers."
I hope you take climate change seriously. We need open debate about our real predicament. We need to escape denial and consider real, effective mitigation strategies. Ask yourself: what will our kids look back and think of our present conceptualization of climate danger and our hands tied behind our back ineffectual mitigation?
Bill Henderson is a frequent contributor to Countercurrents on Climate Change
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