World can limit global warming to 1.5C by ‘improving energy efficiency’

It is possible to limit global warming to 1.5C and achieve many of the sustainable development goals without “negative emissions technologies”, a new study finds.

The research suggests that improving energy efficiency – chiefly by saving on everyday energy use – could play a major role in restricting warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, which is the aspirational target of the Paris Agreement.

Emerging technologies, such as multipurpose smartphones and electric autonomous cars, could be key to improving energy efficiency both in the developed world and the global south, the lead author tells Carbon Brief.

The “landmark” study provides policymakers with tools to implement strategies to rapidly increase energy efficiency, another scientist tells Carbon Brief.

Negative emissions

Under the Paris Agreement, countries agreed that warming should be limited to “well below” 2C above pre-industrial levels, with efforts to keep it below 1.5C. Since then, researchers have developed a range of scenarios to explore how this could be achieved.

Until recently, scenarios limiting warming to 1.5C have typically relied on the rapid and widespread deployment of negative emissions technologies (NETs).

NETs are a group of methods – many still in development – that would limit global warming by removing CO2 from the air and storing it on land, underground or in the oceans.

In particular, most 1.5C scenarios assume that the world will develop large-scale bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS). Put simply, BECCS involves burning biomass – such as trees and crops – to generate energy and then capturing the resulting CO2 emissions.

The assumption that BECCS will be needed to reach 1.5C has proved controversial among some groups. This is because BECCS has yet to be demonstrated at a commercial scale and research suggests that deployment would take up large amounts of land, which could threaten food production and wildlife.

In March, Carbon Brief covered research showing, for the first time, how the world could limit warming to 1.5C with “minimal to no” BECCS. The study looked at several pathways for tackling climate change without BECCS, including by adopting low-meat diets, limiting population growth and by increasing crop yields.

However, the new study, published in Nature Energy, describes an alternative scenario where warming is limited to 1.5C by improving energy efficiency, with no use of negative emissions technologies.

Increasing efficiency would also come with significant co-benefits for the developing world, says study lead author Dr Charlie Wilson, a scientist from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research

Smart Grid Bulletin July 2018

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