People often present two timeframes that we should have as goals for CO2 reduction—30% (off of some baseline) by 2020 and 80% by 2050.
I believe the key one to achieve is 80% by 2050.
But we tend to focus on the first one since it is much more concrete. We don’t focus nearly enough on the things that put you on a path to making the 80% goal by 2050. To make the 80% goal by 2050 we are going to have to reduce emissions from transportation and electrical production in participating countries down to near zero.
You will still have emissions from other activities including domestic animals, making fertilizer, and decay processes.
There will still be countries that are too poor to participate.
If the goal is to get the transportation and electrical sectors down to zero emissions you clearly need innovation that leads to entirely new approaches to generating power.
While it is all well and good to insulate houses and turn off lights, to really solve this problem we need to spend more time on accelerating innovation.
If addressing climate change only requires us to get to the 2020 goal, then efficiency would be the key thing.
Unfortunately, you can never insulate your way to anything close to zero. But because 2020 is too soon for innovation to be completed and widely deployed, behavior change and efficiency still matter.
Still, the amount of CO2 avoided by these kinds of modest reduction efforts will not be the key to what happens with climate change in the long run.
In fact it is doubtful that any such efforts in the rich countries will even offset the increase coming from richer lifestyles in places like China, India, Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, etc.
Innovation in transportation and electricity will be the key factor.
One of the reasons I bring this up is that I hear a lot of climate change experts focus totally on 2020 or talk about how great it is that there is so much low hanging fruit that will make a difference.
This mostly focuses on saving a little bit of energy, which by itself is simply not enough. The need to get close to zero emissions in key sectors almost never gets mentioned. The danger is people will think they just need to do a little bit and things will be fine.
If CO2 reduction is important, we need to make it clear to people what really matters—getting close to zero.
With that kind of clarity, people will understand the need for the goal to be zero and begin to grasp the scope and scale of innovation that is needed.
However all the talk about renewable portfolios, efficiency, and cap and trade tends to obscure the specific things that need to be done.
To achieve the kinds of innovations that will be required I think a distributed system of R&D with economic rewards for innovators and strong government encouragement is the key. There just isn’t enough work going on today to get us to where we need to go.
My point is not to denigrate efficiency. Slowing the growth of CO2 ppm is of course a good thing. And there are lots of cheap—and in many cases self-funding—efficiency gains to be made.
We should at the least fix market barriers and dysfunctions that prevent these gains from being realized. That’s just being smart.
But it’s not enough to slow the growth of CO2 given the strength of demand driven by the poor who need to get access energy.
No amount of insulation will get us there; only innovating our way to what is essentially zero carbon energy technology will do it. If we focus on just efficiency to the exclusion of innovation, or imagine that we can worry about efficiency first and worry about energy innovation later, we won’t get there.
The world is distracted from what counts on this issue in a big way.