Is The 12 Year Target For Zero Emissions A Hard Target?

Let’s talk about time. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) wrote a special report on what will happen if global average temperature rises above 1.5C. They say that if we don’t get to zero emissions by 2050… well let’s let them say it and let’s start with the good-ish news:

Limiting warming to 1.5°C implies reaching net zero CO2 emissions globally around 2050 and concurrent deep reductions in emissions of non-CO2 forcers, particularly methane (high confidence). Such mitigation pathways are characterized by energy demand reductions, decarbonization of electricity and other fuels, electrification of energy end use, deep reductions in agricultural emissions, and some form of CDR with carbon storage on land or sequestration in geological reservoirs. Low energy demand and low demand for land- and GHG-intensive consumption goods facilitate limiting warming to as close as possible to 1.5°C.”

2050? Hey, that’s an extra 20 years, isn’t it? Well, not quite: “This increased action would need to achieve net zero CO2 emissions in less than 15 years. Even if this is achieved, temperatures would only be expected to remain below the 1.5°C threshold if the actual geophysical response ends up being towards the low end of the currently estimated uncertainty range. Transition challenges as well as identified trade-offs can be reduced if global emissions peak before 2030 and marked emissions reductions compared to today are already achieved by 2030.”

Early reductions count more than later ones, as CO2 emissions between now and 2030 will stick around, long past 2050 even. So the fewer the better.

But with regards to the Green New Deal, the news is worse. We’re all writing and talking about doing this all in 12 years. But as we write this in April of 2019, 2030 is no longer 12 years away. And if we’re all waiting for government to lead the way, our current administration doesn’t seem inclined to participate, so the next chance of getting a favorable team in the White House and Congress is, gulp, 2021. That’s only nine years of effective action from our elected officials and agencies such as the EPA.

That means that for the next year and a half, it’s up to us as individuals and communities to do what our leaders will not. Fortunately, despite despairing comments that individual action will not change anything, there is a lot we can do. As this blog develops, we will spend an inordinate amount of time talking about just that.

And equally fortunately, there is some wiggle room for us. First, we’re not doomed if temperatures rise to 1.6C instead of 1.5C. The original line in the sand for temperature rises was 2C–we’re aiming for 1.5C to give the planet a safety margin. Second, if we don’t achieve zero net emissions until 2055 instead of 2050, we’re again–not doomed, for the same reason.

So are we playing with an artificial deadline? Well, yes and no, but mostly no. If we put in our best efforts and miss by a couple of years and can’t get to absolute zero emissions, Nature will probably forgive us. But if we use that assumption as a get out of jail free card, an excuse to be less than diligent in our efforts, and if the result is that 2075 rolls around and we’ve only cut emissions by 30% or 40%, then we face real trouble from a changing climate. By that we mean that there is a good chance that climate change will have fairly serious negative effects on storms, storm surge, agriculture, precipitation, sea level rise and more. It won’t be the end of civilization, but it will be difficult for all and dangerous for many, and most dangerous for those least able to defend themselves against it.

Far better that we summon the discipline and political will to take serious action now.

And there’s one other very important fact to keep in mind. If we succeed, we will have reduced global emissions by only 15% or so–we’re the number two emitter, but there is the rest of the world out there, and energy consumption and emissions are growing very quickly in the developing world. The overarching goal of our efforts to eliminate emissions has to be that we learn by doing and then help the rest of the world follow our example. That’s the only way the Green New Deal makes real sense.

Tip of the Day: Every light in your house should be an LED. Do it tomorrow, if not today. Replace your lights with LEDs.

Watts used60W10W
No. of bulbs needed for 25,000 hours of use211
Total purchase price of bulbs over 23 years$21$8
Total cost of electricity used (25,000 hours at $0.12 per kWh)$180$30

Or, as Energy Star puts it,

LED is a highly energy efficient lighting technology, and has the potential to fundamentally change the future of lighting in the United States.  Residential LEDs — especially ENERGY STAR rated products — use at least 75% less energy, and last 25 times longer, than incandescent lighting.

Widespread use of LED lighting has the greatest potential impact on energy savings in the United States. By 2027, widespread use of LEDs could save about 348 TWh (compared to no LED use) of electricity: This is the equivalent annual electrical output of 44 large electric power plants (1000 megawatts each), and a total savings of more than $30 billion at today’s electricity prices.

Learn more about how energy-efficient lightbulbs compare with traditional incandescents.


4 thoughts on “Is The 12 Year Target For Zero Emissions A Hard Target?”

  1. I’m curious- what evidence do you have that, if they win the election in 2020, Democrats will shut down all fossil fuel use in the following nine years?
    As a follow up- since you seem convinced of this, isn’t it reasonable for the election campaign to highlight what many of us feel would be extraordinarily bad policy? Shouldn’t the Democrats should fully embrace this policy rather than pretend they didn’t write it down (like AOC did with the GND) , and shouldn’t we have a full-on debate based on the premise that Democrats actually will raise the cost of energy exponentially, shut down the $300 billion+ a year domestic oil industry and put it’s 1 million + workers on unemployment lines, end air travel and hamburger- all because “we must”?
    Let’s have that debate! Surely you would agree.


    1. Hiya Jeff! I have no evidence that they will shut down all fossil fuels in the succeeding nine years. In fact I don’t think they will. Remember the ‘climate’ goal for zero emissions is 2050. I do think it will be curtailed and be perceived much as coal is now. As for job losses, hey, wait until we start looking at insurance back offices, right? Disruption there will be in abundance. I hope I deal with it in several future posts…


      1. Hi Tom, I look forward to the future posts. To step back a bit, I think the fracking revolution was real and is now a fact on the ground that will drive global policy for the next several decades. It also happened on Obama’s watch, so can’t be waved off politically in the US.

        One of my big pet peeves with the GND for example is how tone deaf or ignorant it is of energy, there are literally hundreds of billions of dollars being spent right now on pipelines, rigs, refineries, etc. to create the infrastructure to handle this new reality. A “plan” that says scrap it all isn’t even a plan. The climate concerned will have to compete with it rather than wish it away, and that means focusing on cost and reliability.

        Secondly, the globalization revolution is real. The US and Europe will need to compete with China and India (which produce just as much computer code as they do cheap consumer goods). Europe will need to do that with a higher social welfare cost than the US. How much money can Europe really throw at renewables? How much can they throw at any alternative while every COP gives free passes to emissions growth to China and India (and still mumbles non-sense about Europe and America giving them $100 billion a year)? Germany will keep it’s free health car and generous welfare state, and it will have to sell a whole lot of cars and industrial equipment made in Germany in order to do it. Those will have to be price competitive with cars and equipment made in Korea, China, India, South Carolina, Mexico etc etc.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. One element of the debate we will have–you write that we will ‘raise the cost of energy exponentially…’ I would modify that to say that we will raise the cost of energy based on fossil fuels dramatically. I think the only way this whole thing works is if in fact we live up to my cornucopian dream of real live reductions in the costs of renewable energy.


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