Experts call for urgent changes to limit global warming

Global energy-related carbon emissions must peak by 2020 and fall by more than 70% in the next 35 years to combat global warming 

Experts have warned that we must move much more quickly towards a low-carbon world, if we are to have any chance of limiting global warming to 2oC this century.

Changes in electricity, heat, buildings, industry and transport are needed rapidly and must happen all together, according to researchers at the universities of Manchester, Sussex and Oxford in a new study published in the journal ‘Science’.

To provide a reasonable (66%) chance of limiting global temperature increases to below 2oC, the International Energy Agency and International Renewable Energy Agency suggest that global energy-related carbon emissions must peak by 2020 and fall by more than 70% in the next 35 years. This implies a tripling of the annual rate of energy efficiency improvement, retrofitting the entire building stock, generating 95% of electricity from low-carbon sources by 2050 and shifting almost entirely towards electric cars.

This challenge necessitates the ‘rapid and deep decarbonisation’ of electricity, transport, heat, industrial, forestry and agricultural systems across the world – but despite the recent rapid growth in renewable electricity generation, the rate of progress towards this wider goal remains slow. In addition, many energy and climate researchers remain wedded to approaches that focus on a single area.

The new study explains how the pace of the low-carbon transition can be accelerated using what it describes as ‘key lessons’ – focusing on the big picture rather than individual elements, aligning multiple innovations & systems, offering societal & business support and phasing out existing systems.

Professor Frank Geels from The University of Manchester, lead author of the study, said: “Our ‘big picture’ framework shows that policymakers need to stimulate developments, as well as building political coalitions, enhancing business involvement and engaging with civil society.”

Professor Nick Eyre from the University of Oxford, End Use Energy Demand Champion for the UK Research Councils’ Energy Programme, added: “Accelerating transitions is critical if we are to achieve the goals of decarbonising and saving energy faster, further, and more flexibly. This international quality study shows the importance of whole systems thinking in energy demand research.”

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. Otherwise there can be no hope of reaching a 2 degree target, let alone 1.5 degrees. This piece reveals that the acceleration of transitions across the sociotechnical systems of electricity, heat, buildings, manufacturing, and transport requires new approaches, analyses and research methods.”


The four key lessons

1 – Focus on socio-technical systems rather than individual elements

Rapid and deep decarbonisation requires a transformation of ‘sociotechnical systems’ – the interlinked mix of technologies, infrastructures, organisations, markets, regulations and user practices that together deliver societal functions such as personal mobility.  Previous systems have developed over many decades, and the alignment and co-evolution of their elements makes them resistant to change. Accelerated low-carbon transitions therefore depend on both techno-economic improvements, and social, political and cultural processes, including the development of positive or negative discourses.

2 – Align multiple innovations and systems
Socio-technical transitions gain momentum when multiple innovations are linked together, improving the functionality of each and acting in combination to reconfigure systems.  The shale gas revolution, for instance, accelerated when seismic imaging, horizontal drilling, and hydraulic fracturing were combined.   Likewise, accelerated low-carbon transitions in electricity depend not only on the momentum of renewable energy innovations like wind, solar-PV and bio-energy, but also on complementary innovations including energy storage and demand response.  These need aligned and then linked so that innovations are harmonized.

3 – Offer societal and business support
Public support is crucial for effective transition policies. Low-carbon transitions in mobility, agro-food, heat and buildings will also involve millions of citizens who need to modify their purchase decisions, user practices, beliefs, cultural conventions and skills. To motivate citizens, financial incentives and information about climate change threats need to be complemented by positive discourses about the economic, social and cultural benefits of low-carbon innovations.

Furthermore, business support is essential because the development and deployment of low-carbon innovations depends upon the technical skills, organizational capabilities and financial resources of the private sector. Green industries and supply chains can solidify political coalitions supporting ambitious climate policies and provide a counterweight to incumbents.  Technological progress can drive climate policy by providing solutions or altering economic interests. Shale gas and solar-PV developments, for instance, altered the US and Chinese positions in the international climate negotiations.

4 – Phase out existing systems

Socio-technical transitions can be accelerated by actively phasing out existing technologies, supply chains, and systems that lock-in emissions for decades. For instance, the UK transition to smokeless solid fuels and gas was accelerated by the 1956 Clean Air Act, which allowed cities to create smokeless zones where coal use was banned. Another example is the 2009 European Commission decision to phase-out incandescent light bulbs, which accelerated the shift to compact fluorescents and LEDs. French and UK governments have announced plans to phase-out petrol and diesel cars by 2040. Moreover, the UK intends to phase out unabated coal-fired power generation by 2025 (if feasible alternatives are available).

Phasing out existing systems accelerates transitions by creating space for niche-innovations and removing barriers to their diffusion. The phase-out of carbon-intensive systems is also essential to prevent the bulk of fossil fuel reserves from being burned, which would obliterate the 2oC target. This phase-out will be challenging since it threatens the largest and most powerful global industries (e.g. oil, automobiles, electric utilities, agro-food, steel), which will fight to protect their vested economic and political interests.