80 percent by 2050

So Hillary has finally joined the bandwagon and called for an 80 percent cut, from 1990 levels, in fossil-fuel emissions by 2050, joining Edwards and Obama, Bill McKibben and most of the environmental movement. William "Stoat" McConnelly is skeptical. As well we should be. I am, of course, highly skeptical as well. But is that response sufficient and appropriate?

There are lots of reasons to treat such a goal as wildly unrealistic. According to the latest report from the International Energy Association, "if governments around the world stick with current policies ... the world's energy needs would be well over 50% higher in 2030 than today." And that means GHG emissions 57 higher. So how on Earth are we supposed to reduce our needs when demand is growing so fast?

I don't have a solution. Those that do raise more problems. The Institute for Public Policy Research in the UK suggests:

  • Switching to low-carbon technologies in the electricity sector through investing in wind power, biomass, hydro-electric and other renewables alongside a roll out of new Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) technologies.
  • Reducing emissions from the production of heat through a programme of energy efficiency and moving to the use of low-carbon electricity for heating.
  • Improvements to surface transport emissions by greatly increased vehicle efficiency and moving towards use of advanced biofuels derived from sustainable sources.
  • Significantly constraining the growth in aviation.

George Monbiot proposes a raft of similar projects in his book Heat, and concludes it is possible, at least in theory, to cut our emissions by 80 or even 90 percent as early as the 2030s!

There are any number of objections that can be made. William notes that the IPPR report's proposal "corresponds to a wind farm 1 km thick all the way around the coastline of the UK." Yikes.

Carbon capture and storage/sequestration (CCS) is also one of those technological fixes that has yet to be demonstrated on a commercial and energy-efficient scale, and most experts say we're at least 15 years away from introducing such schemes, which is too late to make a serious contribution to the problem.

How are we supposed to reduce aviation travel, when billions are being invested now on new jets and bigger airports?

And it is becoming increasingly obvious that relying on biofuels to contribute much more than a small fraction of clean fuel alternatives is a fool's errand, what with continued growing demand for food competing for scarce croplands.

But of course, no one really wants to build a wall of turbines all the way around any island nation. CCS will eventually play a role, if not soon, and there are feasible alternatives to jet travel. Airships may be slow, but could be a serious contender if wanted to do something about the aviation problem. And yes, ethanol is an ethical and environmental nightmare but switchgrass could a great alternative source of biofuel if we would just get serious about the research required.

And so on. Sure, finding answers to the dilemma will be difficult. But how difficult will it be? Impossible? I don't think so. I am regularly reminded of the adage that any scientist who says something is impossible is almost certainly wrong. Converting the industrial economy of a modern nation state isn't easy, but it has been done before, with spectacular success, when the U.S. decided to start making aircraft rather than cars during the Second World War. Production quotas were exceeded by several times.

The real question is not, can we do it, but should we try? Having all the frontrunning Democratic presidential candidates call for massive cuts in emissions by 2050 is great. I remain unconvinced that any of them are really serious about it or understand that 80 % by 2050 probably isn't sufficient to forestall catastrophic climate change. But if we can find the political leadership required at the top, maybe, just maybe, changes will trickle down percolate thruogh the body politic to the average consumer and the more aggressive cuts that really are required (probably closer to Monbiot's schedule) might actually become feasible.

I don't see a reasonable alternative to setting an ambitious (if insufficient) goal. It may not work, but it's better than doing nothing more than writing skeptical blog posts.


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It may not work is a word short: it may not be work. Setting goals costs nothing - I don't see much sign of anyone doing anyting serious to deliver on them.

I'm suspicious of the intentions of the IPPR; there have been far better (meaning more constructive) papers on reducing emissions, such as Pascal and Socolow's wedges paper. The very dubiousness of the IPPR's 'solutions' makes me think the report may be more intended to demonstrate the impossibility of meeting ambitious goals through renewables, possibly as part of the current reselling of nuclear ('don't mention nuclear, but make it clear that nothing else will work ok?'). That would be consistent with the intentions of its political masters: IPPR is a very closely Labour-aligned think-tank, only nominally independent, and it has a history of issuing reports which coincidentally arrive at conclusions which are consistent with controversial government-proposed policy.