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Thursday, July 17, 2014

Want to limit global warming? Bring cash

By Marianne Lavelle, The Daily Climate
The world lacks not only the will, but the technology to achieve the deep carbon cuts needed to avert catastrophic climate change, according to a report presented to the United Nations today by leading research institutions in 15 countries.

The scientists maintain that limiting global warming to 2° Celsius above pre-industrial levels is still achievable – just barely – but will require an international multi-billion dollar commitment to research, development, demonstration, and diffusion of low-carbon technology.

"The deep transformation that is required depends on technology that is not yet operating at scale ... and for which scalability is not yet proven," said Jeffrey Sachs, director of Columbia University's Earth Institute and the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), which coordinated the report.

Involving scientists from 30 institutions in 15 countries that together account for 70 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, the report is the first global cooperative effort to identify practical pathways to achieving a low-carbon economy 2050, SDSN said.

The group considers its work an interim document, which it posted publicly for comment this morning after a briefing for United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon.

In a statement, Ban praised the effort, saying the report "shows what's possible."

Sobering message

But the document's key message is sobering. Sachs said the research indicates that commitments for emissions cuts are necessary but alone are insufficient to address the climate crisis. Nations also need to commit to investment in the scientific research that will be needed to carry out any of those pledges.

World carbon emissions, which today average 5 tons per person per year, should be reduced to 1.6 tons per person by the middle of the century, the report concluded. That's the carbon footprint of a typical citizen of Senegal today, according to the World Resources Institute's climate data explorer.

Americans average about 18 tons per person in energy-related greenhouse gas emissions, the report said.

Five key areas

To bring emissions down dramatically, the report singled out five key areas where major scientific advances are needed to ensure technology was affordable and widely available: carbon capture and storage (CCS), energy storage and grid management, advanced nuclear energy, vehicles and advanced biofuels, and so-called "negative" emissions technologies. Major advances are also needed in industrial processes like cement- and steel-making, the authors said.

"The world has been very gimmicky in making announcements [on carbon cuts], but what matters is the carbon arithmetic on this," said Sachs. Negotiators, he added, "have spent 99 percent of their time arguing on allocations" – how much each country should cut emissions – "and only 1 percent of their time talking about 99 percent of the issue" – the practical means for achieving such cuts.

The potential pathways to deep decarbonization mapped out in the report are different for each country, and the technological challenges vary and are greater in some nations than in others.

Nothing exotic

Jim Williams, chief scientist at the San Francisco-based consulting firm Energy + Environmental Economics (E3), led the development of scenarios for the United States. He said his team made a point of sticking to technologies that already were commercialized or nearly commercial. "We tried to demonstrate that achieving this doesn't necessarily require anything exotic," he said. "These pathways show national and local policymakers, from presidents to mayors, what it takes to decarbonize their economies."

For instance, four potential pathways allow the U.S. to achieve an 85 percent emissions reduction with strong economic growth, his team found. With high deployment of either renewable or nuclear energy, technologies like CCS that are not yet commercialized would not be needed. 

In other countries, though, Williams said that the need for technological advances is more urgently felt. 

'Transformative technologies'

For example, Canada can achieve a 90 percent reduction in emissions while tripling the size of its economy by 2050. That scenario assumes continued expansion of the oil sands, primarily for export to other countries. But the report said that will require "transformative technologies that are not yet commercially available" for mitigating greenhouse gases at every stage of the process, including extraction, processing, and end-use.

Scientists plan to put dollar figures on how much investment is needed in technology research in their final report, due next year. Sachs guessed that the scale of effort needed on just one technology – carbon capture and storage – would approach $50 billion over five to ten years, shared among several nations and public and private sectors. "The real question for CCS is, 'Could China depend on it on large scale? Could India depend on it? Could the United States?' "

Sachs said the climate crisis requires a scientific research effort on the scale of the sequencing of the human genome, the moon shot or the Manhattan Project.

"The U.S. now invests $30 billion in biomedical research through [the National Institutes of Health] but one-tenth of that in low-carbon technology. It's almost absurd, given the stakes."

Marianne Lavelle is a staff writer for The Daily Climate, an independent news service covering energy, the environment and climate change.