In a blog post that was picked up by the Huffington post, Bill Gates writes about why we need innovation, not insulation. He sets up the piece as a choice of emphasis between two emissions targets: 30% reduction by 2025, and 80% reduction by 2050. He argues that the latter target is much more important, and hence we should focus on big R&D efforts to innovate our way to zero-carbon energy sources for transportation and power generation. In doing so, he pours scorn on energy conservation efforts, arguing, in effect, that they are a waste of time. Which means Bill Gates didn’t do his homework.
What matters is not some arbitrary target for any given year. What matters is the path we choose to get there. This is a prime example of the communications failure over climate change. Non-scientists don’t bother to learn the basic principles of climate science, and scientists completely fail to get the most important ideas across in a way that helps people make good judgements about strategy.
The key problem in climate change is not the actual emissions in any given year. It’s the cumulative emissions over time. The carbon we emit by burning fossil fuels doesn’t magically disappear. About half is absorbed by the oceans (making them more acidic). The rest cycles back and forth between the atmosphere and the biosphere, for centuries. And there is also tremendous lag in the system. The ocean warms up very slowly, so it take decades for the Earth to reach a new equilibrium temperature once concentrations in the atmosphere stabilize. This means even if we could immediately stop adding CO2 to the atmosphere today, the earth would keep warming for decades, and wouldn’t cool off again for centuries. It’s going to be tough adapting to the warming we’re already committed to. For every additional year that we fail to get emissions under control we compound the problem.
What does this mean for targets? It means that it matters much more how soon we get started on reducing emissions rather than eventual destination at any particular future year. Because any reduction in annual emissions achieved in the next few years means that we save that amount of emissions every year going forward. The longer we take to get the emissions under control, the harder we make the problem.
A picture might help:
The graph shows three different scenarios, each with the same cumulative emissions (i.e. the area under each curve is the same). If we get emissions to peak next year (the green line), it’s a lot easier to keep cumulative emissions under control. If we delay, and allow emissions to continue to rise until 2020, then we can forget about 80% reductions by 2050. We’ll have set ourselves the much tougher task of 100% emissions reductions by 2040!
The thing is, there are plenty of good analyses of how to achieve early emissions reductions by deploying existing technology. Anyone who argues we should put our hopes in some grand future R&D effort to invent new technologies clearly does not understand the climate science. Or perhaps can’t do calculus.