Study: Keeping warming to 1.5C is doable, even without 'negative emissions'

led bulb warm light
CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 Green Energy Futures

We've already seen home energy use bottoming out, and utilities freaking out. But energy efficiency—which often gets short shrift compared to renewables or electrified transportation—could be key to limiting climate change to only 1.5C of warming.

That's the finding of a study led by Dr Charlie Wilson of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research—published over at Nature Energy, and reported on by Carbon Brief—which lays out an achievable if aggressive scenario for achieving the 1.5C limit, driven primarily by limiting energy demand.

Interestingly, the study's authors are not relying on virtue-driven behavior change. Instead, they are positing that services like shared, electrified and autonomous transportation—and digitization of many consumer goods and services—could deliver better, cheaper and more attractive results for consumers while significantly driving down energy demand. (Energy demand related mobility could fall 60% in the North, 59% in the Global South—even as activity levels increase by 29% and 122% respectively.) The study projects that under this "low demand" scenario, emissions could drop rapidly between 2030 and 2100, eventually entering the 'net negative' territory toward the end of the century.

Now, to be clear, while efficiency and conservation are the primary engine behind such impressive figures, they are not being looked at in isolation. The authors also project a slight global decline in consumption of red meat—driven in large part by consumer health concerns and pro-climate policy signals. (Cutting back on meat and dairy is, after all, one of the single biggest things we can do for the climate.) The scenario outlined also includes an increase in forest cover of 300m hectares by 2100, thanks in large part to organized afforestation efforts.

Of course, it's dangerous to read too much into any one study. Nobody knows how unpredictable climate feedback loops may skew our progress toward 1.5 degrees, for example—and it's a fair bet that there are new technologies and social trends coming (both positive and negative) that none of us have predicted yet. But what this study shows is that limiting demand is one of the surest strategies we have in minimizing the negative impacts of climate change, not least because it will make the job of cleaning up our energy grids significantly easier too.

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