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Shiny, New Innovations Won’t Move Fast Enough to Deliver Deep Carbon Reductions

Even the most promising new emissions reduction innovation would only have a limited impact on the climate crisis if it were introduced today, given the time it would take to scale up, according to a global climate policy simulator profiled yesterday in the Bloomberg Green newsletter.

Whatever that innovation turned out to be, it would only reduce projected carbon pollution in 2050 by 7.5%, when the United Nations Environment Programme is calling for a 7.6% annual emissions reduction through 2030, writes columnist Eric Roston.

“Congratulations, everybody. We did it,” Roston deadpans. “We’ve woken up to discover just sitting there in the garage a boundless zero-carbon technology. What do you think it is? Nuclear fusion? Thorium-fueled reactors? Static generators powered by rubbing balloons on our hair? It doesn’t matter. Whatever it is, we’re finally safe. Innovation works.”

But not as quickly as it would need to, according to the En-ROADS simulator developed by Climate Interactive, Ventana Systems, and MIT Sloan School of Management.

“That’s because it might take a decade to bring this zero-carbon miracle to market, and the better part of another decade to design and build plants,” Roston explains. “What’s worse is this: In the time it takes the new industry to grow, coal and gas plants will continue to be built and last 30 years or more. Even with fusion tomorrow, we’d make it to 2050 without retiring much of the CO2-spewing infrastructure that needs replacement yesterday.”

The scenario also shows access to abundant energy driving up consumption by 6%, taking a chunk out of the potential reductions and helping to keep emissions high.

“What’s true of the new no-carbon technology scenario is true of several other popular approaches” that “take too long to stop emissions now,” Roston adds. Trees can sequester a lot of carbon, but they won’t reach canopy height overnight. Techniques like soil carbon sequestration or direct air capture can bring emissions down by 2100, but not within the 2050 horizon of the Paris Agreement.

“The system is great for showing the lack of silver bullets,” said Glen Peters, research director of the Center for International Climate Research (CICERO) in Oslo.

The problem, added Climate Interactive co-director Andrew Jones, is that “the energy system turns like an ocean liner, not like a sports car.”

The simulator shows higher carbon prices in the range of $100 per tonne driving down CO2 emissions by 36% and health-destroying particulates by 44% by mid-century. But that still has analysts focusing on the immediate, practical solutions that will deliver serious emission reductions over the next 10 to 20 years.

“There is a combination of cheap, variable renewables and natural gas (to fill in the gaps) that works quite well for the next two decades or so,” Zeke Hausfather, director of climate and energy at the Breakthrough Institute, told Roston. [He might also have added massive improvements to the energy efficiency of everything—Ed.]

He calls that approach “the decarbonization workhorse”.