The Challenge: Zero Emissions by 2050
First, let’s be real about the challenge.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), carbon emissions must peak by 2020 then fall to zero by mid-century in order to avoid catastrophic consequences. (If you already know the grim details and just want solutions, feel free to skip this section.)
If carbon emissions peak by 2020, we’re still committed to an estimated 1.5 degF rise in global temperatures (scenario RCP2.6 in the images below). Make no mistake — this will be devastating. The average temperature difference between today and the last ice age is 4 deg F. A change of 1.5 degrees means the melting of vast portions of Antarctica and Greenland; sea level rise of 10+ feet, which threatens the most populous cities in the world; more extreme heat and more severe droughts — which in turn mean declining crop yields and shortages of food and water —; and an increase in powerful hurricanes, deadly heat waves, and other extreme weather events. But even so, 1.5 degrees is likely manageable, or at least survivable, and over the ensuing centuries the climate would slowly return to its previous state.
On the other hand, if carbon emissions continue to rise beyond 2020, things get really scary. Global temperatures will continue to rise beyond the 2-degree threshold that scientists have identified as the upper limit for a livable planet — perhaps as high as 4.9 degrees F by the century’s end. We run the risk of pushing the climate out of the stable state that has supported human civilization for the past 10,000 years. In these scenarios, the models show the global temperature continuing to rise for the foreseeable future, even if carbon emissions decline.
In the face of this, Trump has threatened to pull out of the Paris climate accord, cancel the Clean Power Plan, remove barriers to fossil fuel development, and put a climate denier in charge of the EPA. He will be able to rapidly undo decades of work. So, is this game over? What can we do to make change at the scale required?
Where Should we Focus?
To understand how to make a difference, we need to understand where greenhouse gas emissions come from.
Global greenhouse gas emissions roughly break down this way:
- Buildings (electricity consumed + fuel for heating) = about 18%
- Agriculture (deforestation impacts + emissions from livestock) = about 25%
- Transportation (primarily oil) = about 14%
- Industry (electricity + on-site fuel) = about 32%
In the US, this is more heavily weighted toward buildings (~34%) and transportation (~26%) and less toward agriculture.
So if we do the following we can have a major impact:
- Radically improve building energy efficiency. This can happen faster than you might think: in the next 30 years, three quarters of the built environment will be new or renovated, and architects are regularly designing buildings that use 90% less energy than conventional construction.
- Adjust our diet. Avoiding just the worst culprits can have a big impact on the Agriculture sector.
- Electrify transportation. Create the infrastructure to support electric vehicles.
- Generate electricity with renewable energy instead of fossil fuels.
The good news is that the trends are on our side. Buildings are getting rapidly more efficient. Solar and wind prices are dropping. Electric cars are finally on the market and are getting better each year. But we need to accelerate the change.
Here’s how we can do it.
Six Ways We Can Bend the Arc of History
1. Get our cities to Net Zero Energy. Cities are responsible for a majority of transportation-and building-related emissions — and they can act unilaterally to curb them. Programs like 2030 Districts, Mayors for Climate and Energy, and New York City’s 80 by 50 initiative — targeting 80% reduction in greenhouse gasses by 2050 — show us that cities can have a huge impact. Cities that sign on to programs like these develop a variety of strategies to meet their goals, from improved building energy codes to incentives for renewable energy. Most likely there are already people in your city working on programs like these — find them and get involved.
2. Divest from fossil fuel companies. Divest individually, and lobby institutions of which you’re a part (universities, cities, religious organizations, pension funds) to do the same. Already institutions worldwide have moved $3.4 trillion away from fossil fuel companies as part of the Fossil Free divestment campaign. This puts more wind in the sails of renewable energy, and sends a clear signal to the market.
3. Block new fossil fuel development. Work locally, via groups like 350.org, to oppose new fossil fuel extraction projects and power plants. These local efforts, multiplied across the country and world, have proved effective at keeping carbon in the ground. We will lose some fights — but we will have made it slower, harder, and more costly to extract and burn fossil fuels, which will give investors pause and buy us time to build up the alternatives.
4. Avoid palm oil and beef. Palm oil and beef cultivation are two of the leading causes of rainforest deforestation; and methane from cattle is a significant portion of agricultural emissions. This means that even if you replace beef with chicken or pork, you’ve done the climate a big favor. Palm oil is often labeled as “vegetable oil” in food, so you have to be careful. The Union of Concerned Scientists has put together a handy scorecard for major brands. These may seem like small steps, but they target two massive problems: deforestation and methane emissions, which together account for ~60% of agricultural emissions (or ~15% of global carbon emissions).
5. Buy renewable energy from your utility. In most states you can purchase 100% renewable energy from your utility or an alternate provider — and in many cases it’s cost competitive, thanks to the rapidly dropping prices of solar and wind energy. This further incentivizes renewable development and sends another signal to the market. The Department of Energy has put together a handy guide for finding options in your state.
6. Engage in conversation. Talk to your friends and family, especially those who may be climate skeptics. Listen to them. Try to understand their skepticism. Share your position. You probably won’t change anyone’s mind overnight — that type of change takes a sustained dialogue. But starting the dialogue is critical. We must make this a regular part of our national discourse.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the climate crisis — by its scale, its scope, its seeming inevitability. But now is the time for action. Now is our last best chance to reorient our society away from disaster and toward a livable future.
If we can make our buildings and cities radically more efficient (already underway), reduce our food’s footprint, and continue to push for renewables and against fossil fuels, we stand a fighting chance.
Now, let’s get it done.