Recent studies clash on whether clean technologies and emission cuts can keep the world safely below 1.5°C warming, highlighting how projected climate policy outcomes are shaped by the factors that researchers choose to focus on—and raising questions about the utility of the Paris agreement target.
Stanford University and Colorado State University (CSU) researchers used artificial intelligence to predict warming timelines based on historical temperature observations, instead of previous methods of “extrapolating the recent observed global warming trend or quantifying the time at which different thresholds are reached.” Their projections show the Earth on track to exceed 1.5°C warming above pre-industrial levels by the end of the decade, and there is a 50% chance of warming exceeding 2°C by mid-century, the Guardian reports.
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While the study focused on data from physical climate processes, the Hamburg Climate Outlook, released just days later, assessed 10 social drivers to determine whether the pace of climate action can offset the worst climate outcomes. The researchers concluded that “given our understanding of social dynamics and available empirical evidence, the deep decarbonization scenario is currently not plausible—even though it might still be possible in a technical and physical sense.”
The two studies contrast with other recent projections that point “toward a faster energy transition leading to deeper carbon cuts,” as The Energy Mix reported last week. Even BP’s latest energy outlook study predicts that oil and gas production will fall faster than previously expected, renewable energy will grow more rapidly, and carbon dioxide emissions will fall enough to keep the world in line with the warming limit set in Paris. Meanwhile, BloombergNEF reported that global energy transition investment had exceeded US$1 trillion and equalled the dollars flowing into fossil fuels for the first time, analysts widely predicted a cleantech arms race, and another study by the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) found that fossil use has likely peaked.
All the assessments agree that there is still a lot of ground to cover and that immediate, ambitious action is necessary to rein in climate change. But their sometimes-contrasting outcomes also suggest different future scenarios—hinting at the complexity of the issue and the importance of looking beyond a limited set of factors.
The BP outlook, for instance, focuses on energy sector issues. The report does consider social or political drivers—with notable focus on the Ukraine War and the recently-passed Inflation Reduction Act in the United States—to project future emissions outcomes and renewable energy uptake. As in most modelling studies, only one of its three scenarios is intended to “capture the broad trajectory along which the global energy system is currently travelling”—the other two are aspirational and explore pathways that would result in positive climate outcomes of an energy transition. BP specifies that “the scenarios are not predictions of what is likely to happen or what BP would like to happen,” but are “designed to span a wide range of the outcomes possible out to 2050.”
The RMI study aimed to illuminate the trending rise of renewable energy sources and the fall of fossil fuels, suggesting we are on the precipice of ambitious climate progress as the barriers holding back “the inexorable growth of renewables” are neither “insoluble, immediate, [nor] universal.”
Bloomberg’s reporting on 2022 as “a banner year for money spent on solar and wind projects” evaluated renewables against fossil fossils by comparing investment dollars. The article suggested that more rapid investment would follow—it took eight years to reach the first $1 trillion in renewable investment but “less than four years to reach the next trillion, and a little less than one more year to reach the latest trillion.”
Overall, “one dollar out of every six invested over the last 18 years flowed in 2022.”
However, in the University of Hamburg assessment of social climate action, only seven of ten social drivers were moving in the right direction, none fast enough to achieve the goals of the Paris agreement. Two drivers—corporate responses and global consumption patterns—were actively impairing global climate progress, E&E News says. Researchers also suggested that Russia’s war in Ukraine and the COVID-19 pandemic increased fossil fuel dependence and slowed decarbonization.
“Human agency is strongly shaped by injustices and social inequalities, which inhibit social dynamics toward deep decarbonization by 2050,” they wrote.
But some researchers say the recent conclusion from Stanford and CSU may be too pessimistic. The University of Pennsylvania’s Michael Mann, and Climate Analytics’ Bill Hare and Carl-Friedrich Schleussner, say one rapid decarbonization scenario that wasn’t examined in the study shows the world mostly keeping under the 1.5°C threshold if it can cut emissions in half by 2030, reports the Associated Press. But these scientists’ views are still “essentially in line with the University of Hamburg’s findings: that attitudes and consumption habits, not technical factors, are the main engines pushing global society down its current path toward severe climate disruption,” The Hill says.
While the predictions by BP, Bloomberg, and RMI only claim general climate progress, the outcomes described by the University of Hamburg and by Stanford and CSU come across as pessimistic because they’re framed to identify the likelihood of reaching the specific target of limiting global warming to 1.5°C or 2.0°C.
Believing the world can no longer keep warming below 1.5°C “is a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Mann asserted. “In the end, it’s easy to overinterpret the significance of a precise threshold like 1.5°C warming,” he said. “The challenge is to limit warming as much as possible.”
Last summer, Béatrice Cointe from the Centre for the Sociology of Innovation and Hélène Guillemot from the Centre Alexandre Koyré gave some insight into how the 1.5°C target shapes the “co-dependency” of climate science and policy in an article that dissected the target’s history as a product of diplomacy and politics, rather than from science. They concluded that “political objectives require scientific backing to be legitimate, and research needs to attune to political discussions if it is to remain policy relevant.”
“The question remains whether the exacerbation of contradictions brought by the 1.5°C objective serves the fight against climate change, and whether it is tenable.”
Or, as paraphrased Emma Marris for The Atlantic, “science informs policy. But policy shapes science, too.”
In our decarbonized future Ontario will need at least 1000 giga Watt hours of electric energy per day. This is over twice our current consumption.
Let’s assume that on average 50% of this energy is sourced from wind, solar and storage.
In Ontario there are several multi day events where little wind and solar energy is available. Let’s assume that we have three days with only 25% of average solar and wind energy. This is consistent with observed experience in Ontario.
We can solve part of this shortfall with over provisioning. Let’s say we over provision by a factor of two. The surplus energy on good days can be used for hydrogen and nitrogen fertilizer production etc instead of curtailing.
If we adopt the over provisioning strategy then the deficit over the three days would be reduced to 50% of the average output.
Before over provisioning, the deficit over the three days would be 500*75%*3=1125 gigawatt hours. With over provisioning this is reduced to 562.5 gigawatt hours.
The Manatee lithium ion stored energy project in Florida is expected to have a storage has a capacity of about 900 Mega Watt hours and cost about $300 million US.
The Meaford pumped storage is expected to store eight giga Watt hours of energy at a capital cost of $4.5 billion CDN. Hydrostor suggest that the cost of compressed air energy storage might be about the same as Lithium Ion batteries.
Based on the assumptions I have made we would need the equivalent of about 70 Meaford sized pumped storage facilities.
For comparison, Ontario currently has about 10 gigawatts of natural gas generation. In a day, these generators could generate 240 giga Watt hours of energy. Over three days these generators could easily supply our 562.5 giga Watt hour deficit.
Converting existing natural gas generators to run on green hydrogen which is produced by over provisioning wind and solar, might be practical solution.
Thanks, David. Interesting that you would bring this up — this week I’m following some commentary that raises a series of interesting and provocative concerns about over-reliance on green hydrogen.
The question I always want to ask about the need to double current consumption is how that calculation was made, what it included, and what it may have left out. First and foremost, does it maximize efficiency? Does it maximize suffiency, per Chapter 5 of the IPCC’s mitigation working group report last spring? What provision does it make for distributed renewables, demand response, and other measures that reduce strain on the centralized grid while boosting climate resilience and local autonomy?
I have no doubt that the answers to those questions will tell us we still need a whole bunch of centrally-generated renewables. It may tell us we need twice as much capacity as we have now. But with a challenge this big, I wish I could be confident that grid planners in Ontario and elsewhere are factoring in every available opportunity.