Let’s not be arrogant about climate change adaptation

By Marina Andrijevic, researcher in the IIASA Energy, Climate, and Environment Program

Marina Andrijevic tackles some inconvenient but fundamental issues around climate change adaptation.

© Lio2012 | Dreamstime.com

Anyone who followed climate-related headlines this summer would have noticed a more than usual amount of talk on climate change adaptation. As it goes with sudden epiphanies in aftermaths of humanitarian disasters in our Western realities, this time we’ve come to realize that we need to seriously think about doing some adaptation.

To be fair, the realization that adaptation is inevitable has for a long time been somewhat of a taboo in the “woke” climate policy and activist circles (the author of this blog is a millennial and would like to acknowledge that the reader’s idea of a long time in climate policy might be different). Admitting that there might be no other option but to adapt to whatever the locked-in effects of climate change are, is arguably defeatist and gives in to the notion that mitigation alone won’t cut it.

While this might be yet another depressing but accurate reflection of the reality under climate change, portraying adaptation and mitigation as different but equally urgent actions could set a dangerous trap if it produces ideas such as: if we adapt enough, perhaps our economies and energy systems won’t need to change so much.

Even if it would be enough (which it wouldn’t), adaptation will not necessarily just happen once we recognize it needs to be done, because the needs and abilities for it operate on different time horizons and geographical scales. Many parts of the world that need adaptation will not necessarily be able to take action, so we have to be very careful when we count on it as a solution to climate change.

This is where we must tackle some inconvenient but fundamental issues about adaptation. Climate change research, especially the areas positioned at the “interface” with policy, could play a crucial role here. In this role, it must be very prudent and avoid doing a disservice to decision makers, and even worse, to people affected by those decisions. In other words, the scientific assessments need to be careful when assuming for whom, where, and how adaptation can reasonably be expected.

We tried to illustrate why this matters in our recent paper that looks at the capacity of populations to adapt to heat stress. We used air-conditioning as a popular, albeit not (yet) climate-friendly adaptation option. My coauthors and I understand that air conditioning could well be maladaptation, meaning that it causes more harm than good in the long-run. Adaptation practices, however, it turns out, are quite difficult to measure, while installed air conditioners can literally be counted, which makes them handy for plugging into our statistical models. We contend with access to air conditioning currently being a good enough example of access to adaptation and promise to assess more options in the future.

Our paper shows how the capacities to protect against heat stress vary widely around the world. Like with many other unjust manifestations of climate change, people in the world’s hottest areas also have the least means to adapt. We found that countries with more income, more urban areas, and less income inequality, are also the ones where more people have access to air conditioning.

This does not come as the world’s biggest revelation, but it conveniently allows us to make informed guesses on how access to air conditioning might change in 2050 or 2100. This is possible because the research community has already engaged in a group effort to propose five different futures with regard to GDP, urbanization, and income distribution (in climate jargon: the Shared Socioeconomic Pathways or SSPs).

Coupling the potential rates of air conditioning with the people exposed to heat stress based on projections of climate models, lets us calculate the cooling gap – the difference between people exposed to heat stress and people who can protect themselves against it with the use of air conditioning.

Depending on whether we find ourselves in the best- or the worst-case scenario of socioeconomic development could mean anywhere between two billion and five billion people globally unable to protect themselves against heat stress with air conditioning in 2050. This range only grows with longer time horizons, with Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia being the areas of the world where these differences are the starkest.

We hope that our paper will motivate further investigations of potential gaps in adaptation that point to insufficient adaptive capacity and help to identify the areas and populations most at risk, as well as what additional work needs to be done in terms of socioeconomic improvements before we can reasonably expect adaptation to take place. Our findings on the importance of factors beyond just GDP, suggest that helping communities to build their adaptive capacity doesn’t mean only throwing money at them (although that would make for a decent start!), but international efforts must focus on issues such as eradicating inequalities, supporting smart urban development, strengthening institutions, and providing education.

So, let’s not take it for granted that we will all be able to adapt either now or in the future. Eliminating the causes of climate change must remain the number one policy objective that will help to reduce the need for adaptation in the first place. But number two could be helping communities that have no option but to cope with what’s already coming at them. Highlighting in our research what the implications of different adaptive capacities are for preservation of livelihoods, is a small step towards achieving this.

Reference:

Andrijevic, M., Byers, E., Mastrucci, A., Smits, J., & Fuss, S. (2021). Future cooling gap in shared socioeconomic pathways. Environmental Research Letters 16 (9) e094053. [pure.iiasa.ac.at/17411]

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Paris Agreement politics at play: the case for carbon dioxide removal

By Neema Tavakolian, 2021 IIASA Science Communication Fellow 

Ever wonder why countries can never agree on issues related to climate change and the environment? Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) participant Felix Schenuit dives into the politics and challenges surrounding carbon dioxide removal in international climate negotiations.

The Paris Agreement has been lauded as a landmark effort to address climate change and has been signed by nearly every country in the world. The agreement sets out ambitious goals such as reaching temperature targets, setting net-zero carbon targets, and providing financial, technical, and capacity building support to those countries that need it.

One topic that has been receiving increasing attention since the adoption of the agreement is carbon dioxide removal, or CDR – which comprises man made processes involving the direct removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and sequestering it somewhere else, usually underground or under the sea floor. Since it was first proposed, CDR has been discussed on many platforms including critical comments, journals, and studies. 2021 IIASA YSSP participant Felix Schenuit studies how the debate, which has been largely ignored by policymakers until the Paris Agreement, is evolving, and how CDR is being taken up in climate policymaking.

© Felix Schenuit

Felix Schenuit comes from a background of political science and public policy. It was during his employment at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) that he became fascinated by CDR and the political debates surrounding the impacts it can have on the fight against climate change. This is when he decided to combine his newfound interest with his background and experiences in international relations and public policy to pursue a PhD at the University of Hamburg comparing CDR policymaking in different countries and the role scientific knowledge has on its implementation.

Building on a previous study comparing CDR governance among nine Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) cases, Schenuit is now focusing on the role of scientific knowledge surrounding CDR in Brazil, China, India, and Russia. These countries account for a significant portion of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions due to their rapid industrialization and expanding economies. China and India are especially significant due to their great influence in ongoing international climate negotiations regarding the Paris Agreement.

Schenuit uses integrated assessment models to gather information and data about the role of CDR in different countries in decarbonization pathways.

“These models help us to understand what amount of CDR we are likely to need to achieve Paris Agreement targets. Case studies on specific countries are an important second step to explore facts on the ground about different policy initiatives, emerging CDR facilities, and efforts in each region. We reach out to country experts and build interdisciplinary bridges to investigate how CDR is addressed politically, what amounts are available and politically feasible, as well as relevant knowledge gaps,” he explains.

One of the biggest challenges remaining for CDR is limited knowledge about different CDR methods, both in science and policy circles. There are many ways one can remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, ranging from afforestation, to soil carbon sequestration, ocean fertilization, direct CO2 capture from the air, and the use of biochar, among others.

Reforestation on hill at Bao Loc mountain pass, Vietnam © Hoxuanhuong | Dreamstime.com

“When it comes to methods, many policymakers are unaware of the portfolio of available methods. Each method has different tradeoffs, both environmentally and politically. For example, in Germany, carbon capture and storage (CCS) is very contested and most policymakers are hesitant to even address CDR. Thus, in Germany one may need a different set of methods than in the UK, for example, where CCS-based CDR methods are pursued proactively,” Schenuit says.

Many predict that the role of international politics in CDR governance under the Paris Agreement is going to be difficult and tricky to navigate. Schenuit argues that it is still a bit too early in the debate for predictions as policymakers have only recently been directly addressing CDR. He does however agree that there is already strong evidence of politics at play and alliances are forming.

The study on Brazil, China, India, and Russia will yield fascinating results, as it will give us an idea about future disputes and questions regarding the carbon in our atmosphere. Questions like where we will be removing carbon and who is going to pay for it. One thing is for certain, however. Time is running out to meet the targets of the Paris Agreement, and international cooperation is desperately needed.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Using the COVID-19 pandemic to transform the energy sector

By Husam Ibrahim, International Science Council (ISC)

The IIASA-ISC Rethinking Energy Solutions Report identifies the negative and positive lessons learnt from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic in relation to energy consumption and demand, and recommends several immediate actions.

Credit: Adam Islaam – IIASA

As a result of the pandemic’s confinement and containment policies, energy demand and resulting energy-related carbon emissions declined by an estimated 2.4 billion tonnes in 2020 – a record drop according to researchers at Future Earth’s Global Carbon Project. However, the reduction is likely to be short-lived if structural changes do not occur.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused foreseeable positive and negative disruptions to the global energy sector. This has revealed opportunities that can be learnt from to meet Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Agreement pledges, with the positive disruptions showing us the possibility of a more sustainable and resilient future.

The IIASA-ISC Rethinking Energy Solutions Report recommends actions based on the opportunities and vulnerabilities in energy systems that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to light.

“The pandemic is a threat, but also an opportunity, because it showed that the system we have spent a lot of money and resources on is not working the way it should, so the crisis should be used to draw up new budgets, take new actions, and rebuild society.”

– Behnam Zakeri, Research Scholar, IIASA

The report highlights that solutions previously thought to be out of reach are far more possible than expected. One such positive outcome is the digitalization of physical activities, such as attending work, schools, conferences, and other gatherings online. This has resulted in short-term lifestyle changes — introducing and normalizing digital solutions for a mass audience — which the report recommends capitalizing on in a post-COVID society.

Some companies, like Spotify, a music streaming service, have announced that they will let their employees work remotely from anywhere after the pandemic. The report suggests that more companies and governments should do the same, as digitalization offers opportunities to use resources more efficiently, and so has the potential to make consumption more sustainable and to reduce carbon footprints.

Efforts to digitalize and reduce the population’s carbon footprint work hand-in-hand with the need to reinvent urban spaces to reach the SDGs and combat climate change.

Cities consume 60-80% of global energy and produce more than 70% of carbon emissions. What’s more, 70% of the world’s population is projected to live in urban areas by 2050.

The report proposes that cities should be redesigned into more sustainable ‘urban villages’ so that they are optimized for energy efficiency. One way to do this would be to redesign cities into compact neighborhoods where all amenities (shops, offices, schools, etc.) are within walking distance. Paris, France, for example, promotes self-sufficient neighborhoods, with all the essential amenities placed within a 15-minute radius. Several other cities like Melbourne, Australia, with its “20-minute neighborhoods” and the Nordhavn “5-minute neighborhood” in Copenhagen, Denmark, are promoting this new standard for the use of space and sustainable mobility.

Another key approach to reinventing urban spaces is prioritizing nature-based solutions by using parks, green roofs, green walls, and blue infrastructure to combat climate change and connect the population back to nature. This also means centering public spaces around people, by converting street spaces from car use to sidewalks and bike lanes, and enhancing the quality and safety of walking and biking infrastructures.

The report also recommends that cities be rebuilt to incorporate renewable energy. The costs for renewable technologies are declining quite fast, but Zakeri explained that the problem with moving to renewable energy is not the cost but a lack of understanding. Consumers, experts, and governments lack the knowledge to distribute, access and install these technologies. However, in recent times, scientists and other experts have brought more awareness to them and are helping the trend move forward.

The report states the importance of developing net zero-energy communities that have a holistic approach to energy-efficient building renovation and construction of new buildings. The net zero-energy design must consider the energy interactions between individual buildings and the broader energy system on a local level.

These recommended actions aren’t just about energy efficiency but about creating a more fulfilling life for all.

“Rebuilding cities to be more sustainable and resilient [to future crises] not only has the potential to reduce energy consumption but also create a more joyful lifestyle that improves the wellbeing and experience of people living in a city.”

– Behnam Zakeri, Research Scholar, IIASA

For more information on rebuilding urban spaces, and addressing energy lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic read the IIASA-ISC Rethinking Energy Solutions Report.

You can also watch the discussion on Rethinking Energy Solutions as part of the launch event for the Bouncing Forward Sustainably: Pathways to a post-COVID World, which explores the key themes of Sustainable Energy, Governance for Sustainability, Strengthening Science Systems and Resilient Food Systems.

 

This blog post was first published on the website of the International Science Council. Read the original article here.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Exploring co-benefits of green cooling in China

By Xu Wang, IIASA Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) alumnus and Assistant Professor at Beijing University of Technology and Pallav Purohit, researcher in the IIASA Air Quality and Greenhouse Gases Program.

Xu Wang and Pallav Purohit write about their recent study in which they found that accelerating the transition to climate-friendly and energy-efficient air conditioning in the Chinese residential building sector could expedite building a low-carbon society in China.

© Shao-chun Wang | Dreamstime.com

China saw the fastest growth worldwide in energy demand for space cooling in buildings over the last two decades, increasing at 13% per year since 2000 and reaching nearly 400 terawatt-hours (TWh) of electricity consumption in 2017. This growth was largely driven by increasing income and growing demand for thermal comfort. As a result, space cooling accounted for more than 10% of total electricity growth in China since 2010 and around 16% of peak electricity load in 2017. That share can reach as much as 50% of peak electricity demand on extremely hot days, as seen in recent summers. Cooling-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from electricity consumption consequently increased fivefold between 2000 and 2017, given the strong reliance on coal-fired power generation in China [1].

In our recent publication in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, we used a bottom-up modeling approach to predict the penetration rate of room air conditioners in the residential building sector of China at the provincial level, taking urban-rural heterogeneity into account. Our results reveal that increasing income, growing demand for thermal comfort, and warmer climatic conditions, could drive an increase in the stock of room air conditioners in China from 568 million units in 2015 to 997 million units in 2030, and 1.1 billion units in 2050. In urban China, room air conditioner ownership per 100 households is expected to increase from 114 units in 2015 to 219 units in 2030, and 225 units in 2050, with slow growth after 2040 due to the saturation of room air conditioners in the country’s urban households. Ownership of room air conditioners per 100 households in rural China could increase from 48 units in 2015 to 147 units in 2030 and 208 units in 2050 [2].

The Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer will help protect the climate by phasing down high global warming potential (GWP) hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which are commonly used as refrigerants in cooling technologies [3]. Promoting energy efficiency of cooling technologies together with HFC phase-down under the amendment can significantly increase those climate co-benefits. It is in this context that we assessed the co-benefits associated with enhanced energy efficiency improvement of room air conditioners (e.g., using efficient compressors, heat exchangers, valves, etc.) and the adoption of low-GWP refrigerants in air conditioning systems. The annual electricity saving from switching to more efficient room air conditioners using low-GWP refrigerants is estimated at almost 1000 TWh in 2050 when taking account of the full technical energy efficiency potential. This is equivalent to approximately 4% of the expected total energy consumption in the Chinese building sector in 2050, or the avoidance of 284 new coal-fired power plants of 500 MW each.

Our results indicate that the cumulative greenhouse gas mitigation associated with both the electricity savings and the substitution of high-GWP refrigerants makes up 2.6% of total business-as-usual CO2 equivalent emissions in China over the period 2020 to 2050. Therefore, the transition towards the uptake of low-GWP refrigerants is as vital as the energy efficiency improvement of new room air conditioners, which can help and accelerate the ultimate objective of building a low-carbon society in China. The findings further show that reduced electricity consumption could mean lower air pollution emissions in the power sector, estimated at about 8.8% for sulfur dioxide (SO2), 9.4% for nitrogen oxides (NOx), and 9% for fine particulate matter (PM2.5) emissions by 2050 compared with a pre-Kigali baseline.

China can deliver significant energy savings and associated reductions in greenhouse gas and air pollution emissions in the building sector by developing and implementing a comprehensive national policy framework, including legislation and regulation, information programs, and incentives for industry. Energy efficiency and refrigerant standards for room air conditioning systems should be an integral part of such a framework. Training and awareness raising can also ensure proper installation, operation, and maintenance of air conditioning equipment and systems, and mandatory good practice with leakage control of the refrigerant during the use and end-of-life recovery. Improved data collection, research, and cooperation with manufacturers can equally help to identify emerging trends, technology needs, and energy efficiency opportunities that enable sustainable cooling.

References:

[1] IEA (2019). The Future of Cooling in China: Delivering on Action Plans for Sustainable Air Conditioning, International Energy agency (IEA), Paris.

[2] Wang X, Purohit P, Höglund Isaksson L, Zhang S, Fang H (2020). Co-benefits of energy-efficient air conditioners in the residential building sector of China, Environmental Science & Technology, 54 (20): 13217–13227 [pure.iiasa.ac.at/16823]

[3] Purohit P, Höglund-Isaksson L, Dulac J, Shah N, Wei M, Rafaj P, Schöpp W (2020). Electricity savings and greenhouse gas emission reductions from global phase-down of hydrofluorocarbons, Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, 20 (19): 11305-11327 [pure.iiasa.ac.at/16768]

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA).

EGU2020 – a virtual experience of a first-time conference visit

Jarmo Kikstra, a research assistant in the IIASA Energy Program, shares his experience at EGU2020: Sharing Geosciences Online.

© Freepik

When our abstract for the 2020 General Assembly of the European Geosciences Union (EGU2020) was accepted, I was very excited as this would be my first scientific conference. EGU2020 was a few weeks ago and took place completely virtually for the first time due to COVID-19. Let’s reflect upon what this experience was like.

As an early career researcher, I was very much looking forward to presenting the research I have worked on for many months. While I had presented preliminary results of this and other research before, both at my university and at my research department, these presentations had been internal or small-scale. EGU2020 was the first time presenting my research to the public, with experts from various fields being able to see the work and provide their input. It felt to me, like a first step into entering the pubic academic debate, an important step into becoming part of a research community.

But clearly, with the ongoing COVID pandemic, the conference was quite different to what I had expected my first conference to be like. EGU2020 became “EGU2020: Sharing Geoscience Online”. With 16,273 scientists participating last year, clearly a big effort took place to move such an event online, and with 26,219 individual online registrations in the online chat system, it seems to have been a success. But of course, not all registrations are equal, and participation numbers are not the only thing that count. So, how was this virtual EGU2020 experience for me?

© Jarmo Kikstra

First, my experience was much shorter than originally envisaged. While this is largely a matter of choice, I, and many other participants, participated in fewer sessions than we would have done during a physical conference. The simple fact of not being ‘out of office’ contributed to me continuing to work on other ongoing tasks for large parts of the week.

However, the chat session and oral presentation session I joined,  were surprisingly intense. Many presentations (that would have normally been poster presentations) were discussed in a plenary chat or oral session, and there was little time (~6 min) available for each presentation, meaning that content was very dense, and discussed at breakneck speed. In this way, a snapshot of the current state of research in my field was provided openly with everyone seeing all comments and all presentations in the session. Something that was missing that could have been useful, by complementing the main chat box, were separate channels for each presentation. This could have made follow-up discussions in the chat sessions easier, without interrupting main discussions on the current presentations, and therewith stimulating one of the most important parts of conferences – feedback on the work you have presented.

Proponents of virtual events will argue that doing this will greatly reduce the environmental footprint of science, as (air) travel is the biggest chunk of GHG emissions of many scientists. In fact, a central debate at EGU2020 discussed this topic, and the first question of the Cercedilla Manifesto reads: “Is a physical meeting necessary?”. Opponents however point to the current impossibilities of replacing the benefits of meeting in-person, including higher engagement, getting an academic network, unexpected (group) discussions, social encounters and events, and the possibility for live feedback, etc. Especially for early career scientists, it is often said that attending conferences is very beneficial.

Networking virtually will never be exactly the same as in person, and I don’t think this is something to aim for. Networking can happen in many different formats; however, it is clear to me now that we can still take quite a few steps into increasing the effectiveness of virtual networking during such events. For instance, I did not ‘meet’ new people, whereas that would have surely happened during a physical meeting, even if I would not have actively made an effort. So perhaps when organizers are putting together a virtual event, it may pay off to be creative in providing virtual networking opportunities.

Many argue that an online event is also much more conducive to opening up science, with an enormous potential for increasing the accessibility to science and scientific discussions and stimulating the development of knowledge. The great success of EGU2020 is probably already in its name: “Sharing Geoscience Online”. On the EGU2020 website you can find thousands of presentations, on all topics that are related to geosciences, with many contributions from IIASA. In other words, a lot of research content has been uploaded to one place, open to everyone; thereby turning this scientific event into a great resource for sharing, learning, asking questions and providing feedback. Discussions on this platform will be ongoing until the end of the month. So, take advantage of this opportunity and have a look!

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.