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This Is What We Need To Do To Not Burn Up The Planet

The plan won’t look pretty to the business-as-usual crowd.

This Is What We Need To Do To Not Burn Up The Planet
[Image: Abstract via Shutterstock]

What actions do countries need to take in order for the world to stay within “safe” global warming limits?

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That’s the question a new report tries to answer, and the message isn’t palatable to the business-as-usual crowd. If the planet as a whole is to limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius–the level agreed by scientists to be safe–then the medicine may be quite severe.

The report, which recently presented to the United Nations by research institutes in 15 countries, looks at global warming from a different direction than governments approach the problem. Instead of setting some notional target and hoping that economies fall in line over time, it uses a process of “backcasting” to propose what needs to happen by 2050 for countries to meet their responsibilities. The 15 countries each get roadmaps between now and mid-century covering everything from their energy and production systems to their agriculture and land use.

“None of this can be accomplished through aggregate global models and studies, which are not granular enough to present a detailed technical roadmap for policy implementation at the country level,” the report says, making an implicit criticism of international agreement that set future targets without “operational” plans.

The countries studied–the U.S, Australia, Brazil, Britain, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Japan, Mexico, Russia, South Africa, and South Korea–account for 70% of global emissions. Overall, the report says we need to cut collective emissions by 11 gigatons from our present annual output.

The roadmaps vary a lot by country and make some assumptions about future technology. For example, the report says carbon capture and storage technology will be widespread by 2050, even though that currently looks unlikely.

The roadmaps are built on three “pillars”: energy efficiency, low carbon electricity, and “fuel switching” from high- to low-carbon fuels. For the U.S., that means an 86% reduction in energy-related emissions, with electricity generation’s share falling from 40% overall in 2010 to just 16% in 2050. It means a 74% improvement in energy efficiency and a 31% increase in electrification for “end-uses” like transportation (so, more electric vehicles).

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Actually, coal still plays a big part of U.S. energy policy, according to the proposed pathway (and despite the U.S. EPA’s proposed carbon rules). But only if technology to capture and store carbon emissions is part of the picture.

Necessarily, there are a lot of assumptions in the roadmaps, but the main point stands. There’s no point having a target (aside from naked politics), if you don’t propose a way of actually meeting it. This report at least tries to do that. “If countries do not work with a longer time horizon and backcast from this long-term target, they are likely to adopt strategies that fall far short of what is needed to stay below the 2 degrees Celsius limit,” it says. Now they’ve been told.

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About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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