“Two degrees Celsius.”
This term is often mentioned in discussions of climate change. That’s because experts say that the goal of preventing warming over 2 degrees Celsius about pre-industrial levels as being necessary to prevent cataclysmic repercussions of climate change.
However, attempts to express how we can reach that goal haven’t been so clear, until a proposal was published last Thursday in the journal Science.
The proposal introduced a new term: “carbon law”.
According to the researchers, if global carbon emissions were to be halved every decade, then we’ll almost be at net-zero emissions by 2050.
We’ll keep global temperatures within 2 degrees of pre-industrial levels.
“The carbon law is an effort of translating what science says is necessary for us to do to deliver the Paris agreement for a safe climate future for humanity,” lead author of the paper Johan Rockström, director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre at Stockholm University, explains in a phone interview with The Christian Science Monitor. “And the carbon law translates into halving the emissions of carbon dioxide every decade.”
When Dr. Rockström and his colleagues went deeper into the numbers behind possible paths to achieving the 2-degree goal set in the Paris agreement, they realized that carbon dioxide emissions will need to go down quickly.
Their framework is inspired by the computer industry’s Moore’s Law, which predicts that the number of transistors in an integrated circuit will double every two years or so. Similarly, the 40 billion metric tons (gigatons) of carbon dioxide being emitted each year must be halved to 20 gigatons by 2030, 10 gigatons by 2040, and 5 gigatons by 2050.
“It’s simply putting dots along the very complex global science scenarios that takes us to Paris. It’s just putting dots along the curve that can take us under 2 degrees Celsius,” Rockström says.
This carbon law can be used at any scale, he points out. It isn’t just for global emissions. Nations, cities, and companies can also use the guideline of halving emissions to build carbon-cutting plans. Even an individual person could apply this framework to their own personal carbon emissions.
The law can be an incentive for innovation
The law isn’t just a framework to think about carbon, the atmosphere and climate change.
Rockström and his colleagues have outlined a roadmap for reducing our reliance on coal and oil, which they say needs to be phased out in exchange for renewable energy sources.
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Renewable energy sources have already been doubling every five and a half years globally. Continuing at this rate means the entire energy sector could be totally decarbonized by the middle of the century.
This means coal use would end around 2030 to 2035 and oil use ends around 2040 to 2045.
“That law, we hope, can become an incentive for innovation and a journey towards a more attractive and prosperous future,” Rockström says.
Adil Najam, dean of the school of global studies at Boston University, agrees:
“We have the technology, we have the economic framework, we have the reduction in cost of the alternative energies, we have the range of different types of alternative energy, and we have the momentum that can make this happen.”
Do we have the political will?
Although we have the ability to meet this challenge, the question is whether individuals will be motivated enough to show the political will.
Carbon reduction is a very difficult challenge, and while the incentives are in place for us to reduce our carbon emission (humans need a planet to live on), many changes are needed in how we produce energy and construct our economies.
A number of experts fear that the cost of shifting to a carbon-free economy will be great. Until one country actually undertakes significant carbon reduction without impacting their standard of living, we’re likely to be living in a great start of uncertainty about the future of the planet without actually making much difference in carbon emissions.
For developing countries such as India and China, there are deeper fears that changes to a carbon-reliant economy may derail growth.
The way forward is with business
The key to showing that changes to a carbon economy can be made may need to come from the world’s top companies. They have a freedom of action that isn’t as available to governments.
If the top companies in many sectors adopt it as a business strategy and prove that such efforts can create jobs and enable growth, this may provide an example for governments and individuals to follow suit.
As for carbon law roadmap creating a new framework of thinking similar to Moore’s Law, it’s been well received by international policy makers seeking to create an international set of rules that will provide the right incentives to governments and companies around the world.
Christiana Figueres, who was influential in brokering the Paris agreement as the then- climate chief of the United Nation, has given it her stamp of approval.
“I don’t think it’s wishful thinking. I think it’s visionary thinking,” she told Reuters.