Only ‘system change’ can avert catastrophic climate change, warn scientists
By Nafeez Ahmed
If the world is to have a serious chance of limiting global warming to the internationally-agreed 2℃ limit this century, the transition to renewable energy should happen much more rapidly than current efforts, according to a new study in the journal Science.
The study, by scientists at the universities of Manchester, Sussex, and Oxford, and published on September 22, finds that to meet their carbon emission pledges under the Paris Agreement, governments around the world need to trigger rapid, simultaneous changes across key sectors like electricity, transport, heat, industrial, forestry, and agriculture.
Without this “rapid and deep decarbonization,” the paper concludes, we won’t be able to reign in the projected growth in global carbon emissions quickly enough. Scientists agree this would inevitably tip the planet’s climate system into dangerous global warming.
The stakes are high.
A business-as-usual scenario would see an acceleration of extreme weather; the loss of most of the world’s coral reefs; the disappearance of major mountain glaciers; the total loss of the Arctic summer sea-ice, most of the Greenland ice-sheet and the break-up of West Antarctica; acidification and overheating of the oceans; catastrophic sea-level rise swamping major cities from London to New York; the collapse of the Amazon rainforest; and the loss of Arctic permafrost; to name just a few.
A separate new paper in Science Advances also suggests that our current carbon emissions trajectory may trigger a planetary mass extinction event after 2100, which would play out over the ensuing centuries and millenia.
But it doesn’t have to be game over. Under the Paris Agreement, countries have agreed to “pursue efforts” to limit global warming to around 1.5 ℃, which scientists say is a safer target. An earlier study in Nature Geoscience found that we still have time to prevent a rise of 1.5 ℃ — perhaps up to 20 years at current rates of emissions.
Some, such as Breitbart, claimed that the Nature paper means that global warming is not happening as fast as previously thought, giving the impression that we don’t need to limit emissions so quickly. This is false. In reality, the paper concluded that while staying within 1.5°C “is not yet a geophysical impossibility”, it will still require much more political will and faster mitigation efforts. The paper suggests that emissions would need to begin immediately dropping off a cliff, hitting zero by 2080.
The new Science study reinforces this finding with more detail on what exactly needs to be done to achieve this sort of drop: globally, we will need to triple the annual rate of energy efficiency improvement; retrofit entire buildings; shift almost entirely to electric cars; and eventually generate 95 percent of all electricity from low carbon energy sources. All of this by 2050.
This is a Herculean task by any standard. Yet, the new study argues that not only is such a rapid transition technically achievable, it could improve quality of life for millions of people.
The authors warn that current progress has been far too slow. They argue that climate researchers, policymakers, and current models of transition tend to take a far too piecemeal approach, focusing “on a single piece of the low-carbon transition puzzle, yet avoid many crucial real-world elements for accelerated transitions.”
This disjointed approach has left us on a path toward catastrophe. Professor Benjamin K. Sovacool from the University of Sussex, a co-author on the study, said: “Current rates of change are simply not enough. We need to accelerate transitions, deepen their speed and broaden their reach.”
This can only be done with new approaches to decarbonization, which the authors define as four key steps.
Step 1: Change the whole system, not just its parts
The study urges policymakers, investors, and scientists to focus on “sociotechnical systems,” defined as the “interlinked mix of technologies, infrastructures, organisations, markets, regulations and user practices.” These work together to deliver important social needs, such as personal mobility.
The core challenge is that prevailing fossil fuel-dependent “sociotechnical systems” have developed over many decades. They are now resistant to change because their components “coevolved” in a way that was self-reinforcing.
To overcome this, the authors say, requires simultaneous changes at multiple levels. Niche technological innovations in specific sectors, which differ radically from the “dominant existing system,” need to be amplified with greater policy support. This should be combined with efforts to weaken the existing system, align innovations with other key technologies, and cultivate the “social, political and cultural processes” that facilitate their rapid adoption.
The thrust of this argument, though, is not on getting governments to work together. Instead, it’s about trying to get governments that have already signed up to the Paris Agreement to understand that they need a much more ‘big picture’ approach. While this doesn’t bode well if a country like the United States pulls out of the Paris Agreement, it doesn’t stop local states such as California from adopting the study’s approach to spurring rapid changes at their own level.
Step 2: Link up technologies to make them stronger
Building on this theme, the study shows that when different technological innovations align to create a new way of doing things, they also improve each separate technology. The authors call for greater alignment between technologies which generate power from renewable energy sources, like solar photovoltaics (PV) and wind turbines, and complementary technologies in energy storage, demand management, smart grids, and the like.
Vehicle-to-grid configurations, for instance, could allow electric vehicle (EV) car batteries to connect to the grid, send it electricity, and adapt their charging rates depending on demand. This could alleviate the intermittency problem of wind and solar (the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine) through ‘load balancing’: while EVs are connected to the grid, they would store excess electricity during low demand periods, and release them as demand rises.
In May of 2016, Nissan and Enel launched a pilot vehicle-to-grid project in the UK, proving that while the concept is still at a small-scale, business interest exists. The study suggests that projects like this could scale rapidly if governments, businesses and civil society work more closely together to overcome barriers to adoption.
Step 3: Wake up people and businesses
Accelerated transition is impossible without widespread social acceptance, the study acknowledges. That means waking people up to the massive social, economic, and cultural benefits of a low carbon transition.
Unfortunately, in practical terms, this is one area where progress appears almost non-existent. Last year, a Pew survey found that the number of Americans who believe human activity is causing climate change was in a minority at 48 percent — virtually unchanged from six years ago.
The study offers few specific policy recommendations for how policymakers or other stakeholders can improve this dire state of affairs. One tangible idea the study recommends is for emerging “green” industries to work more cohesively to form political coalitions that can provide lobbying counterweights to oil, gas, and coal interests.
The study also concludes that a rapid transition requires businesses to wake up to the stupendous financial risks posed by refusing to clean up their fossil fuel-dependent supply chains. We may have better luck here. Oil, gas, and coal companies are already being sued in court for their roles in denying and exacerbating the massive damages caused by climate change.
As noted recently by Professor Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University, this is a taste of things to come, and Big Oil could go the way of Big Tobacco.
Step 4: Phase out the old
The biggest finding of the study is that policymakers at local, state, and national levels need to step up. Governments should be more proactive in backing up their pledges with concrete legislation.
Policymakers can compel old, dangerous technologies to be phased out using uncompromising policy measures. In the UK, for example, the 1956 Clean Air Act led cities to create smokeless zones where coal use was banned.
The study touted recent announcements by the French and UK governments to phase out petrol and diesel cars by 2040 — a powerful example of how quickly these changes could catch on.
The ultimate takeaway is that avoiding dangerous global warming is still possible. If humanity rises to the challenge, we could simultaneously avert disaster and create a better world for all.
Yet that needs much more than simply signing up to ambitious emissions pledges. To actually meet those pledges, governments, investors, businesses, and communities who grasp the scale of the challenge will have to work together to change the way our entire “sociotechnical systems” operate.
Dr. Nafeez Ahmed is an award-winning 16-year investigative journalist and creator of INSURGE intelligence, a crowdfunded public interest investigative journalism project. He is ‘System Shift’ columnist at VICE’s Motherboard.
His work has been published in The Guardian, VICE, Independent on Sunday, The Independent, The Scotsman, Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, Foreign Policy, The Atlantic, Quartz, New York Observer, The New Statesman, Prospect, Le Monde diplomatique, Raw Story, New Internationalist, Huffington Post UK, Al-Arabiya English, AlterNet, The Ecologist, and Asia Times, among other places.
Nafeez has twice been featured in the Evening Standard’s ‘Top 1,000’ list of most influential people in London and was awarded the Project Censored Award for Outstanding Investigative Journalism in 2015, the Routledge-GCSP Essay Prize in 2010, and the Premio Napoli (Naples Prize — Italy’s most prestigious literary award created by decree of the President) in 2003.
His latest book, Failing States, Collapsing Systems: BioPhysical Triggers of Political Violence (Springer, 2017) is a scientific study of how climate, energy, food and economic crises are driving state failures around the world.