Framing an energy transition for 2°C

This is a very quick & unpolished post expanding on a conversation of tweets (23 June 2013) between Iain Stewart, various tweet pseudonyms, John Broderick and latterly myself – all relating to how the UK could deliver a low-carbon transition. The discussion was initiated by a recent Horizon documentary Fracking: the new energy rush, presented by Iain.

Iain et al:

All the following comments are premised on taking, at face value, the international community’s repeated commitment: “To hold the increase in global temperature below 2 degrees Celsius, and take action to meet this objective consistent with science and on the basis of equity”.

“To hold … below 2 degrees Celsius” the UK & other Annex 1 nations need to deliver a ~10% p.a. reduction in emissions (“consistent with science”) if any viable emission space is to remain for poorer, non-Annex 1, nations to pursue short-term development (”on the basis of equity”).[1] It is interesting to note that the UK government’s current carbon budgets are premised on a 63% chance of exceeding 2°C (far removed from “to hold below”) and imply a peak in the global emissions from non-Annex 1 nations of around 2018 (far removed from “on the basis of equity”).

Some early work by colleagues and myself suggest using existing technologies alongside behaviour, practice and operational changes could deliver a 60-70% reduction in energy demand in little more than a decade (we acknowledge that though possible, this would be far from easy!). Such changes could begin almost immediately – probably starting with stringent emission standards for a wide range of equipment (i.e. don’t pick technology winners, but set the standards and provide a medium-term signal as to the annual rate at which the standard will be tightened[ 2]; – for example, all cars to meet a minimum emission standard of 100gCO2/km from the start of 2015, with the standard tightened at 8% p.a. for the following decade). Note: for any programme of mitigation to be successful understanding and counterbalancing issues of rebound will be pivotal – this is, in itself, a major challenge.[3]

As the same time as short-to-medium term reductions in energy demand are being pursued, a ‘Marshall plan’ of implementing almost zero carbon energy supply would be necessary. Each nation would need to play to its particular ‘supply’ strengths – so in this regard the UK should focus on renewables – with nuclear (the only alternative ‘zero’-carbon supply option) arguably appropriate for those nations without such a promising renewable regime. Note: for Annex 1 nations carbon capture and storage (CCS) can have no role to play in the energy mix as its life-cycle emissions (even for gas with CCS) are likely to lie somewhere between 50g and 80gCO2/kWh. This is far too high for such technologies to fit within the dramatically reducing 2°C carbon budget of Annex 1 nations.

In conclusion – to deliver on the UK’s 2°C commitments, we need to embark on:
1) reductions in energy demand of around 10% p.a., starting now and continuing until a decarbonised energy supply is in place
2) implement a Marshall plan’ to rapidly transition to ‘zero’ carbon energy supply

… alternatively we be should be honest and openly renege on our 2°C commitment!

In a nutshell the above scribbled notes capture my thoughts – slightly more than a tweet’s 140 characters, but far less than is necessary to really do the arguments justice. Certainly the framing outlined here departs fundamentally from many other analyses proposing low-carbon transitions, however few such analyses maintain a coherent 2°C characterisation of climate change and fewer still attempt to embed any reasoned technical, political or equity context [4][5] – hence the radically different conclusions.

[1] Beyond dangerous climate change – a paper published by the Royal Society that lays out the reasoning behind the ~10% p.a. reduction rates.
[2] Coaxing the mitigation phoenix from the flames of the EUETS – some thoughts on emission standards as an alternative to prices
[3] Understanding energy efficiency rebound – Interview with Steve Sorrel
[4] ERL – talking point: are we heading for 6°C temperature rise
[5] Models guiding climate policy are ‘dangerously optimistic’

For more information see:
EU 2030 decarbonisation targets and UK carbon budgets: why so little science? – commentary providing a little more detail to the arguments underpinning this blog.
Climate change in a myopic world – more thoughts on the misplaced role of economics, or more correctly finance, in describing and ‘solving’ climate change.
A new paradigm for climate change  – a commentary published in Nature Climate Change that sketches the need and opportunity for a radical transition from the status quo.

***Tyndall Centre Radical Emission Reduction conference***
If you’re academic attempting to understand how rapid transitions have, do or could occur, or a practitioner attempting to bring about step-change reductions in energy consumption, the forthcoming Tyndall conference may be of interest. The event is at the Royal Society in London in December 2013 – and the call for abstracts is still open.