A state-of-the-art climate model, funded by the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation and released by the prestigious scientific publisher Springer Nature, offers a roadmap for meeting -- and surpassing -- the targets set by the Paris Climate Agreement, proving that we can solve the global climate crisis with currently available technologies. The book, entitled Achieving the Paris Climate Agreement, was the culmination of a two-year scientific collaboration with 17 leading scientists at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), two institutes at the German Aerospace Center (DLR), and the University of Melbourne’s Climate & Energy College.
As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned in its Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C (SR1.5) released October 2018, the Earth must be kept below the dangerous threshold of 1.5°C in global average temperature rise above pre-industrial levels if we are to avoid a worsening of climate-related impacts. We are already seeing the devastating consequences of the current 1°C global temperature increase, including rising sea levels in many coastal cities, extreme storms, prolonged droughts, and intensified wildfires.
The impacts resulting from a higher 2°C level are almost unimaginable -- the death of the coral reefs in every ocean, the collapse of nearly one-quarter of the world’s agricultural land, dramatically increased heat waves and wildfires, 100 million driven to extreme poverty sparking multiple refugee crises; and more than $11 trillion per year in damages from extreme storms and flooding. Stacked upon each other, these impacts and many more, could undermine the very fabric of life on our planet, greatly challenging the continuation of human civilization as we currently know it.
Up until now, it was assumed to be difficult if not impossible to achieve the carbon budget required to stay below 1.5˚C -- equivalent to approximately 320 billion tonnes (Gt) of net carbon dioxide emissions (CO2) above early 2018 levels*. Humans today release approximately 40 GtCO2 per year, mostly from the burning of fossil fuels – coal, oil, and natural gas. At our current level of emissions, we would only have 7 years to completely cease the use of all fossil fuels, which is clearly not feasible. While many scientists have modeled 1.5°C climate mitigation pathways, to date almost all of them require the use of unproven and potentially dangerous geoengineering strategies like Solar Radiation Management (SRM) or Bio-energy with Carbon Capture & Storage (BECCS).
The One Earth climate model is groundbreaking in that it shows the 1.5°C can be achieved through a rapid transition to 100% renewables by 2050, alongside land restoration efforts on every continent that increase the resilience of natural ecosystems and help to ensure greater food security. These restoration efforts pull carbon out of atmosphere and store that carbon in forests and in the soil, creating approximately 400 GtCO2 of what scientists call “negative emissions” (shown in gold below the zero line), which allow us to stay below the 1.5°C limit.
Lead author and editor Dr. Sven Teske, Research Director of the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) said, “Scientists cannot fully predict the future, but advanced modeling allows us to map the best scenarios for creating a global energy system fit for the 21st century. And with momentum around the Paris Agreement lagging, it’s crucial that decisionmakers around the world can see that we can, in fact, meet global energy demand at a lower cost with clean renewables.”
Some have doubted that a transition to 100% renewables is even possible. To explore the potential, the scientists at UTS created a sophisticated computer model of the world’s electrical grids to date -- with 10 regional and 72 sub-regional energy grids modeled in hourly increments to the year 2050 along with a comprehensive assessment of available renewable resources like wind and solar, minerals required for manufacturing of components, and configurations for meeting projected energy demand and storage most efficiently for all sectors over the next 30 years.
The result of the modeling effort shows that not only is it possible to switch to 100% renewables for all energy uses, but it will cost no more to operate than today’s energy system. Moreover, it will eliminate the toxic pollution associated with the burning of fossil fuels, estimated to be the primary cause of 9 million premature deaths per year. The renewable energy transition will not only improve public health worldwide, it will also drive economic development, providing the 30 million people currently working in the energy sector with permanent, well-paying jobs and creating an additional 12 million new jobs.
The proposed energy transition outlined in the One Earth climate model will require an investment globally of approximately $1.7 trillion per year. This sounds like a lot, but it pales in comparison to the vast subsidies governments currently provide to prop up the ailing fossil fuel industry, estimated at more than $5 trillion per year by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Taxpayers are unwittingly funding the climate crisis, and that needs to stop. The research tells us that we could be creating the clean energy future we so desperately need for less than one-third of what we’re spending now, and in so doing improve energy access in the developing world.
Leonardo DiCaprio, Founder of LDF, said, “With the pace of urgent climate warnings now increasing, it’s clear that our planet cannot wait for meaningful action. This ambitious and necessary pathway shows that a transition to 100% renewable energy and strong measures to protect and restore our natural ecosystems, taken together, can deliver a more stable climate within a single generation.”
There are five major components to the renewable energy transition. First is increased capacity to generate electricity mostly through solar and wind power, enabling the electrification of all energy uses including power, heating, transportation, and even industrial uses. Second is increased storage capacity in the form of battery arrays and pumped hydroelectric (which uses excess generation to pump water up to a reservoir releasing the energy when needed). Third is energy efficiency – decreasing overall energy consumption, especially in the developed world, by making buildings, cities, and vehicles more efficient. Fourth involves repurposing the existing gas pipeline and storage infrastructure to deliver hydrogen produced by renewable sources. And fifth is a gradual retraining of the energy workforce to participate in the burgeoning green economy.
The sixth major component of the climate model is land restoration. “Citing a growing body of research, we show that using land restoration efforts to meet negative emissions requirements, along with a transition to 100% renewable energy by 2050, give the world a good chance of staying below the 1.5°C target,” said Malte Meinshausen, co-author, Founding Director of the Climate and Energy College at the University of Melbourne and Potsdam Institute Fellow.
Natural Climate Solutions (NCS) include everything from restoring natural forests, grasslands, and wetlands to improving soil fertility through regenerative agricultural practices like agroforestry, silvopasture, and cover crops. These solutions not only absorb carbon, they also dramatically increase sustainable livelihoods in the developing world, offering improved water supplies, reduced soil erosion, and higher quality crop yields.
The One Earth model shows just how important our natural ecosystems are. Justin Winters, Executive Director of the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, said, “Nature is the missing key. While the renewable energy transition is imperative to solving the climate crisis, it isn’t enough. Currently wildlands and oceans absorb one-half of all our CO2 emissions. As this climate model shows, in order to keep global temperature rise to no more than 1.5°C, we have to keep our natural carbon sinks intact, scale up restoration efforts and shift to regenerative agriculture. Without them we have no future.”
The land use sector should be a big part of the climate solution. Unfortunately, because of rampant deforestation and unsustainable industrial agriculture and livestock practices, it is a net emitter of greenhouse gas pollution. Many efforts, like the New York Declaration on Forests, is working to halt deforestation, and UN Sustainable Development Goal 15 calls for an end to this destructive practice by 2030. The climate model shows that by protecting natural ecosystems and completely phasing out deforestation in the 2030’s, we can maintain the integrity of the carbon sinks that are so vital to rebalancing our global climate system.
The newly released climate model is part of the larger One Earth initiative, launched by the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation in 2017. The initiative builds upon the latest science to create a vision for the world that is possible in 2050, a world in which humanity and nature can coexist and thrive together. The vision is based upon three pillars of action – 100% renewable energy, protection and restoration of 50% of the world’s lands and oceans, and a transition to regenerative agriculture, all by 2050. Together, these pillars of action give us a global roadmap to tackle the climate crisis and to ensure a sustainable future for all of Earth’s inhabitants.
*The SR1.5 report calls for a carbon budget of 420 GtCO2 to achieve a good (66%) chance of staying below the threshold of 1.5˚C in global average temperature rise. The OE climate model estimates 100 GtCO2 of additional biosphere feedbacks resulting from an increase of 0.5˚C above current levels of warming. This figure is subtracted from the total budget to establish 320 GtCO2 in net emissions as the limit.