Going, Going, Gone? A Blueprint for Decreasing Emissions and Increasing Optimism

This year’s Climate and Society class is out in the field (or lab or office) completing a summer internship or thesis. They’ll be documenting their experiences one blog post at a time. Read on to see what they’re up to.

By Tim Bushman, ’16

We are surrounded by numbers throughout our daily lives. Some, you’ll recognize easily.

24: the number of hours in one day. 365: the number of days in one year (except for leap years). $100: roughly the amount of money in my bank account at the moment.

But what about 406.95 parts per million (ppm)? If you’re not a climate geek, you’re probably not familiar with it, but you really should be since it’s an incredibly important number for our planet.

That was the recorded concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere measured by the Keeling Curve at Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii on June 19, 2016. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration noted that the measured CO2 concentration grew by a staggering 3.05 ppm during 2015, which was the largest annual increase in 56 years of record keeping and the fourth straight year that CO2 grew by more than 2 ppm. Climate Central recently reported that the CO2 levels in Antarctica hit 400 ppm for the first time in 4 million years. In fact, current CO2 levels are the highest they have been in at least the last 800,000 years. Yikes! We seem to be setting records for all the wrong reasons.

Credit: National Renewable Energy Laboratory

Credit: National Renewable Energy Laboratory

But before you despair, consider these other equally important numbers:

All those numbers mean that the renewable energy industry is booming, which is great news for our efforts to decrease CO2 emissions. But how do we plan our energy transition to a low-carbon global economy?

This summer I conducted my internship at the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), which is an organization that works to “promote practical problem solving for sustainable development.” While working toward the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the SDSN has played an instrumental role in developing long-term national climate change mitigation goals by charting decarbonization blueprints for the 16 countries responsible for 74% of global emissions.

The Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project (DDPP), developed in partnership with the SDSN, Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations (IDDRI), and local research teams in each participating country, detailed how these countries can achieve rapid and targeted emissions reductions through the year 2050 to keep with the pledges made as part of the Paris Agreement and the hope to stay below the 2°C limit. Since preventing a global average temperature increase to no more than 2°C equates to a CO2 concentration of approximately 450 ppm, we must act urgently considering the current CO2 concentration of roughly 406.95 ppm.

The DDPP can play a central role in the adoption of national and international climate policy to help guide countries toward a low-carbon energy future and remain below the 2°C limit. Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the SDSN, underscored the importance of such planning earlier this year in May at the Climate Action 2016 Conference:

“So everything we’re doing needs to aim for decarbonization, for getting out of the net emissions world. Many countries have announced such targets, or close to them, but almost nobody has made a realistic assessment of how to do this. And the main point that I want to emphasize is that this cannot be done without significant planning.”

Initiatives such as the DDPP can serve as a vital tool for long-term decarbonization planning at the national level to keep with the pledges made in Paris. However, the DDPP framework can also be used for more specific regional-level decarbonization planning to aid in this broader effort.

Most recently I have worked with the SDSN to conduct an extensive literature review and preliminary analysis for creating a regional decarbonization plan specific to the northeastern U.S. The project included an assessment of current energy and regulatory policies in addition to an overview of offshore wind, hydropower, and transmission opportunities that could be considered for such a plan. The outlook seems promising.

Credit: National Renewable Energy Laboratory

Credit: National Renewable Energy Laboratory

There is an abundance of offshore wind resources off the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic coasts, as well as a large amount of hydropower resources in Quebec, Canada. To accommodate these renewable energy technologies, regional transmission installations and upgrades will be necessary and are luckily feasible.

Decarbonization planning will also need to become a common practice in countries and regions throughout the world. Professor Sachs added:

“Now what’s interesting and not really understood yet is that in Paris, a very important clause was put in, Article 4, paragraph 19, it calls on all countries to have long-term, low-emission development strategies that go out to 2050. I want to emphasize to you that without these long-term, low-emission strategies, we cannot succeed.”

This historic Paris Agreement is an important step for taking action on climate change at the international level. However, the ultimate challenge still lies ahead. With the global agreement in place, it is now time to direct attention and resources toward the implementation of stated goals and accelerate the shift toward low-carbon energy systems. Decarbonization planning can help inform this transition and increase optimism that we can create the conditions for a safe climate and livable planet for current and future generations.

Now when you see 406.95 ppm (or a similar number), simply recognize that it means immediate action is needed to decrease global emissions, and decarbonization planning through tools such as the DDPP can be a part of the solution!

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