A sobering new climate calculator makes it clear that in order to keep the earth from overheating this century, there aren't any quick and easy solutions. Instead, humanity will need everything in our toolbox and then some. Scientists have affirmed that the consequences of a global temperature rise of more than 1.5 degrees Celsius over the pre-industrial levels of the late 19th century would be dire, and now it is up to policy makers and industry to come up with solutions.

MIT Sloan, Ventana Systems, and Climate Interactive developed the En-Roads Climate Solutions Simulator, which allows you to input hypothetical policy actions and see their effects. For example, what would happen if governments heavily incentivized electrification of transportation? You can adjust the incentives using a sliding scale, and see what changes in the current global energy mix, how that affects greenhouse gas emissions, and what temperature increase that translates into for the year 2100.

The simulation tool, with the underlying assumptions built into it by its developers, makes it possible to look at global energy and transportation systems holistically and see how one policy change might set off a series of consequences. For example, the tool assumes that incentivizing nuclear energy might change the mix of renewable energy, but not necessarily convert significantly more energy away from fossil fuels. Among other uses, the simulator can be played as a game.

For business leaders, it makes sense to be ready for the major policy changes that might be on the horizon, whether at the local, state, federal or global level. There are discussions in Congress around legislating a carbon price or tax, and some states participate in carbon credit trading programs. There is already a surprising amount of global dialogue and alignment, around things like shifting cars from combustion engines to hybrid and electric, and energy efficiency for new buildings. For a business, it will be increasingly important to look at energy sources and emissions, including in the supply chain, and plan for more stringent regulations or pressure from customers or investors to go clean. Although the US is in the process of withdrawing from the Paris Agreement on climate change, the rest of the world is negotiating how to structure the global governance called for under that agreement, during climate talks currently taking place in Madrid. The outcome of those talks will likely shape the direction of policy in the US as well.

The MIT group isn't alone in trying to project effects of policy changes on carbon in the atmosphere, and the resulting global temperatures.

Citigroup's Global Perspectives & Solutions research arm also recently published a 165-page volume looking at the path to net zero carbon, humanity's "moonshot for the 21st century." This report, titled "Energy Darwinism III - The Electrifying Path to Net Zero Carbon" traces how much more carbon can be put into the atmosphere, maps out emissions, and suggests a path forward to a zero carbon future. The report highlights key areas to focus on, by fuel, by activity, and by country, and urges electrification of industry and transportation on a grand scale.

And the Center for American Progress, a progressive Washington think tank, put together a "100 Percent Clean Future" analysis looking at how we get to that target by 2050. The authors note that this is the new goal post, if we want to be on track for 1.5 degrees by 2100.

That may sound radical, but already in 2018 the European Union announced a goal to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. The EU is currently figuring out how to dramatically reduce its emissions by 2030, since its current goal of reducing emissions by 40% in 2030 over 1990 levels isn't thought to be ambitious enough.

It's not new to try to map out the best path to carbon neutrality in order to save ourselves from the kinds of disasters scientists are predicting will occur under a business-as-usual scenario. These include sea level rise, ocean acidification, extreme weather events, loss of biodiversity, food shortages, and more climate refugees.

Scientists and others have been sounding the alarm for decades. In recent years, research has focused on detailed impact analysis and concrete solutions. The "Risky Business" project led by Republican former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, with current Democratic presidential candidates Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer, published its research in 2016. The research said it was economically and technically achievable to reduce climate risk by building a clean energy economy through electrification, renewable energy generation, and energy efficiency. Private sector investments of $320 billion a year would be needed through 2050, it said, but they would create over a million new jobs.

The MIT simulator is perhaps the most eye-opening tool to come along so far. At Bloomberg's recent Sustainable Business Summit in New York, MIT Sloan Professor John Sterman led attendees through a simulation exercise. As volunteers chose policy solutions to try, the audience could see the impact on global temperature, versus the impact of a business-as-usual scenario. Pretty soon it became clear what the big takeaway was: as Sterman pointed out, there are no silver bullets. It is still possible for us to limit the global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius and limit the damage to civilization as we know it. But it will take, well, everything we've got.

Published on: Dec 3, 2019
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