An international team of researchers writing in the journal Science have proposed a solution for encouraging the global economy to transition to a low-carbon economy, a “carbon law” which works much the same as computing’s “Moore’s Law.”
In 1965, Intel co-founder Gordon Moore noticed that the number of transistors per square inch on dense integrated circuits doubled each year. A year later, he revised the statement to every two years, but the concept has remained — though, Moore’s law today is approximately a doubling every 18 months. An international team of researchers, led by Stockholm Resilience Centre director Johan Rockström, have proposed a similar method be used to help rapidly decrease the carbon intensity of the global economy. In an article recently published in the journal Science, Rockström and co. posited the idea of a “carbon law” which would, as a general rule of thumb, encourage the global economy to halve emissions every decade.
According to the Science article, A roadmap for rapid decarbonization, “Although the Paris Agreement’s goals (1) are aligned with science (2) and can, in principle, be technically and economically achieved (3), alarming inconsistencies remain between science-based targets and national commitments.” The issue is, according to the authors, “Model-based decarbonization assessment and scenarios often struggle to capture transformative change and the dynamics associated with it” — such as the disruption, innovation, and non-linear change in human behavior.
One example of this is the arguably-unpredictable swing in China’s coal use in recent years. It was only earlier this decade that China’s coal consumption was growing at around 3.7% annually. Fast-forward to today, however, and it was only earlier this month that China’s own National Bureau of Statistics published figures which showed its coal consumption had declined by 4.7% — following several years of similar declines.
The reason that China’s coal consumption decline was “arguably-unpredictable” was because many of us had not envisioned China would not only be willing but able to enact such dramatic and effective policies regarding its energy usage. As the authors noted, models are reliant upon existing trends, and can’t easily predict or take into account “transformative change” such as dramatic u-turns in policy. The solution then, according to the authors of the article, is:
“To harness these dynamics and to calibrate for short-term realpolitik, we propose framing the decarbonization challenge in terms of a global decadal roadmap based on a simple heuristic — a “carbon law” — of halving gross anthropogenic carbon-dioxide (CO2) emissions every decade.”
Such a law would take the form of, for example, doubling renewable energy capacity every 5 to 7 years, ramping up the development and deployment of technologies to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and rapidly reducing emissions from agriculture and deforestation. And the good news, according to the authors of the study, is that this is not an inherently unfeasible goal.
“We are already at the start of this trajectory. In the last decade, the share of renewables in the energy sector has doubled every 5.5 years,” said Johan Rockström, who was lead author of the study. “If doubling continues at this pace fossil fuels will exit the energy sector well before 2050.”
The idea of modelling the new proposal on Moore’s Law comes in part from its longevity and ability to accurately predict the future while still driving disruptive innovation. For the authors, a “carbon law” “offers a flexible way to think about reducing carbon emissions. It can be applied across borders and economic sectors, as well as both regional and global scales” and could see the end of coal in 2030-2035, and the end of oil between 2040-2045.
“Humanity must embark on a decisive transformation towards complete decarbonization,” said Co-author Nebojsa Nakicenovic, deputy director general of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA). “The ‘Carbon law’ is a powerful strategy and roadmap for ramping down emissions to zero so as to stay within the global carbon budget for stabilizing climate to less than 2°C above preindustrial levels.”
“The carbon law outlines a global path towards achieving climate and sustainability goals in broad yet quantitative terms,” added Joeri Rogelj, also at IIASA. “It sketches a general vision of rapid emission reductions in conjunction with the development of sustainable carbon dioxide removal options. It clearly communicates that no single solution will do the job, and that this deep uncertainty thus implies starting today pursuing multiple options simultaneously.”
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