Countdown to zero?

By Nebojsa Nakicenovic, IIASA Deputy Director General/Deputy Chief Executive Officer (originally published in UNA-UK’s report: Climate 2020: Facing the Future)

Zero net global greenhouse gas emissions must become a reality before the end of the century if humankind is to stave off the worst effects of climate change. How can this be achieved?

This is a big year for embarking on transformational change towards a sustainable future for planet Earth. Three major global events are taking place, on financing and investments in Addis Ababa, sustainable development in New York and climate mitigation in Paris.

Energy futures are a major challenge on the way forward. In September the UN General Assembly in New York will focus on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which emphasise an enabling environment and economy for human development.

According to Kandeh Yumkella, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Sustainable Energy for All (SE4All), the proposed SDG 7 on energy (‘Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all’) is “the golden thread that links poverty eradication, equitable economic growth and a healthy environment”.

SE4All calls for universal access to energy services, doubling the rate of energy intensity improvement and doubling the share of renewable energy, all by 2030. These goals are based on the Global Energy Assessment (GEA), coordinated by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) and the result of five years’ work by 500 experts worldwide.

The Paris climate meeting in December aims for a major climate agreement. What will it take? Photo Credit: Moyan Brenn via Flickr

The Paris climate meeting in December aims for a major climate agreement. What will it take? Photo Credit: Moyan Brenn via Flickr

The world is also going to have to introduce a workable, implementable scheme to stave off the possibility of runaway climate change, one with the objective of keeping the average global surface temperature increase to within 2°C over the pre-industrial average. It’s doable, but requires a high level of ambition to achieve immediate and vigorous emissions reductions.

The UN Climate Change Conference in Paris in December 2015 is aiming for – and will hopefully get – a climate agreement based on the 2°C limit that will be legally binding on every nation. To come near to achieving this target will require addressing energy systems, which is central to greenhouse gas emissions mitigation – 80 per cent of global energy is derived from fossil fuels. Limiting emissions will involve a major transformation of energy systems toward full decarbonization.

Stabilization scenarios
But we need to move urgently. IIASA research has shown that to meet the 2°C target and avoid dangerous climate change, emissions will need to peak by 2020. By 2050, they will have to be reduced by 30 to 70 per cent compared to today’s levels, and then they will need to go down to zero well before the end of the century.

The reason is that the amount of carbon that can be emitted in the future is limited if we are to restrict climate change to any given level. For example, to meet the 2°C target, humanity has a total carbon budget of some thousand billion tons of carbon dioxide.

This budget needs to be allocated along possible emissions pathways, which explains the need for achieving a peak as soon as possible followed by a decline to zero emissions. Should the emissions peak be late or decline rate too slow, humanity is likely to exceed the cumulative carbon budget. If this occurs, negative emissions would be required: namely, carbon removal from the atmosphere, so that excess emissions are offset rendering stabilization at 2°C possible despite an emissions overshoot.

The question is how could this be done. In stabilization scenarios, the negative emissions are achieved, for instance, by combining combustion of sustainable sources of biomass with carbon capture and storage (CCS). Both technologies are difficult from the current perspective and would require further development and vigorous deployment to reduce the costs and improve their performance.

CCS will presumably be developed anyway to decarbonize fossil fuels in those parts of the world where a transformation toward renewable, and possibly also nuclear, energy is delayed.

So we can decarbonize fossil fuels or switch to a higher percentage of carbon-free energy sources, such as many forms of renewable energy, to reduce and eventually eliminate emissions. What else can we do? GEA findings show that emissions could be reduced by up to half by efficiency improvements in energy, especially in end-use. This means looking at reducing emissions from areas such as transport, buildings, heating and cooling, urbanisation and electric appliances. It means changing mindsets, getting people and policymakers engaged in the emissions-reduction process.

Not all emissions come from sources that are judged to be a sign of development. In many developing countries, cooking over smoky fires burning traditional biomass (or coal) causes small particle pollution that adversely affects the health of women and children. IIASA research is analyzing how to introduce clean modern energy for cooking to millions of people and to cut indoor and outdoor pollution from these sources.

Improving air quality in cities with ground-level ozone, or smog (which results from chemical reactions between polluting compounds in the presence of sunlight), has clear synergies for human health, reducing cardiac, pulmonary and other diseases. It can increase human capital, too. One line of IIASA research shows that implementing a stringent climate policy could reduce globally aggregated lives lost due to indoor and regional air pollution by up to four million.

Sectoral interdependencies with respect to emissions are increasing. For example, reducing carbon and particle emissions to keep climate change in check has enormous implications for the food and water supply. Staggering amounts of water are needed to grow food but are also needed for sustaining energy systems. The productivity of land areas depends on climate and soil conditions. California is entering its fourth year of severe drought, raising concerns for agriculture and wildlife. Unsustainable water use in the state is draining aquifers containing ancient water that will take centuries to replenish.

All water systems – not simply those in traditionally arid or developing areas – are vulnerable to the changing climate. Reducing water use immediately reduces demand for electricity, as well as the fuels required to generate electricity. Water is needed to grow crops for biofuels, but fuel transport costs can be reduced by co-locating biofuel cultivation close to the communities that use them – another IIASA research result. Water can also produce plenty of hydroelectricity. Renewable energy technologies can be utilised to provide heat and electricity needs for water desalination. Water and energy use have almost boundless synergies and have to be analysed from an integrated perspective, which is why at IIASA examining the energy-water nexus is such a priority.

Complex problems
Stringent emission-reduction policies can also help to bolster the energy security goals of individual countries and regions. Such policies promote energy efficiency, the diversification of the energy supply mix and the increased utilisation of domestically available renewable energy sources. The result would be energy systems that are more resilient and simultaneously have a higher degree of sovereignty, especially compared to those so reliant on imports of fossil energy commodities, such as North America, Europe, Japan and, increasingly, China.

The international community has also woken up to the significance of climate-relevant emissions from deforestation and land degradation. The UN’s REDD+ initiative (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation) is one of the more promising areas of agreement in global climate negotiations. Felling a tree always releases carbon, stored over its lifetime in its roots, leaves and branches. Large-scale deforestation therefore is a major contributor to carbon emissions. Nitrogen emissions from agriculture, wastewater management and industrial processes are also produced by human activities and need to be mitigated.

 Felling a tree always releases carbon, stored over its lifetime in its roots, leaves and branches. Large-scale deforestation therefore is a major contributor to carbon emissions.  Photo Credit: Curt Carnemark / World Bank

Felling a tree always releases carbon, stored over its lifetime in its roots, leaves and branches. Large-scale deforestation therefore is a major contributor to carbon emissions. Photo Credit: Curt Carnemark / World Bank

These are complex problems and huge investments are needed to solve the energy challenges society faces today. The ostensibly single aim of reducing emissions will, in fact, require a multiple paradigm shift affecting every domain simultaneously. There are many golden threads, and they are very entangled.

To fund the transformation to sustainable energy services for all, including the three billion ‘left behind’ without access and living at or below the poverty line, the Third International Conference on Financing for Development in Addis Ababa in July will need to dig very deep into its collective pockets. To transform the global energy system, the volume of investment will have to almost double over the next three to five decades, from about $1.3 trillion to some $2.5 trillion.

The money is available. Insurance and pension funds control $50 trillion. Governments can help catalyse other kinds of private investment by providing research and development and early deployment, and by helping to de-risk investment. The cost savings of these climate policy synergies are potentially enormous: $100-600 billion annually by 2030 in reduced pollution control and energy security expenditures (0.1-0.7 % of GDP) could be achieved by combining climate mitigation with combating air pollution rather than pursuing the two goals independently.

For emission reductions to be successful, these practical and financial considerations will need to be supported by a new ethical awareness that will temper our relationship with each other and our planet. Sustainability in every aspect of human life means a shift to equity and inclusion.

With the fast-growing population and the need for universal development, the requirement to control emissions is extremely urgent. The golden thread described by Yumkella with respect to the energy sustainable development goal encompasses the notions of both opportunity and fragility, but it binds us all.

Read the full publication: Climate 2020: Facing the future (PDF). 

How do you operationalize the water-energy nexus?

By Paul Yillia,  Guest Research Scholar, IIASA Water Program

Sunday March 22 2015, was World Water Day. I woke up on that beautiful spring morning in Vienna to the rising sunshine through a slit in the curtains and the lovely humming of birds returning from their winter hideouts some thousands of kilometers away. It was clear to me: winter has ended and spring is here. But there was another thing on my mind that beautiful Sunday morning: the theme of 2014 World Water Day, the water-energy nexus. How can anyone operationalize this concept?

The Water-Energy Nexus has been a hot topic in the water community this year - but how can this concept be turned to action? Poster courtesy UN Water Program

The Water-Energy Nexus has been a hot topic in the water community this year – but how can this concept be turned to action? Poster courtesy UN Water Program

The nexus refers to the notion that global systems are strongly intertwined and heavily interdependent; that systems thinking and planning is required to address persistent global challenges in an integrated way. It is a beautiful concept, no doubt, but what do we do with it?

I joked in my travels and engagements on nexus issues last year that 2014 in my view was the most nexus year. Much has been achieved in 2014: raising awareness of the linkages between water and energy ; demonstrating  that integrated approaches and solutions to water-energy issues can achieve greater economic and social impacts; identifying policy formulation and capacity development issues through which the international development community, in particular the UN system can contribute; and identifying key stakeholders and actively engaging them in the discussion on the post-2015 development agenda.

But so far, much of the work on the nexus has been on advocacy, to galvanize interests and mobilize support at the global level. As a result, the concept received widespread global attention and acceptance. The real question now is: How can we transform those commitments and interests into operational frameworks for programs and initiatives? I woke up thinking of three areas:

  1. Supporting nexus assessment to understand the interactions between various nexus dimensions as countries review and roll out new policies. The objective will be to inspect the performance of current policies in terms of resource use efficiency and productivity in order to facilitate the technical interventions that will be required.
  2. Strengthening consultations and engagement among relevant sectors for various nexus dimensions. This will help decision makers anticipate, plan, and manage interventions collectively and to re-think policies and strategies to deal effectively with a range of complex interactions that are interlinked and interdependent.
  3. Reinforcing the enabling environment to facilitate the transitions that are required. This will require action to support key institutions, policy transitions and facilitating public/private funding mechanisms and investment frameworks that are required for nexus interventions.

How do we do this? First, we need to understand the interactions for a given unit of management. It could a country, a river basin, a municipality, a region or sub-region. Then we need to get various spheres of interest engaged in constructive dialogue, both in planning and in resource allocation and utilization. And probably even more importantly we need to provide the institutional, financial, and human capacity requirements to turn ideas into actions.

The challenges are huge in some regions but progress can be achieved with significant multiple gains if we get the assessments right, if we can get key sector actors to continuously talk to each other, and if are able to strengthen the enabling environment to facilitate actions. We need to act before the interest we have generated in the last couple of years diminishes.

Water and energy are inextricably linked - the

Water and energy are inextricably linked – the “water-energy nexus.” Yillia and other researchers in IIASA’s Water program aim to bring a holistic view to the subject. Photo Credit: Kali Gandaki dam, Asian Development Bank

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.

Interview: Outside the castle walls

Fabian Wagner is a researcher in IIASA’s Mitigation of Air Pollution and Greenhouse Gases (MAG) Program. He is currently on sabbatical as a visiting professor at Princeton University.

Fabian Wagner Credit: Princeton University

Fabian Wagner
Credit: Princeton University

What’s your role at Princeton?
I have a joint appointment with two institutions within the university, and one of my roles is to improve the communication between these: I am a visiting professor at the relatively young Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment (ACEE), and a visiting lecturer at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs (WWS). The ACEE is part of the engineering school, so there I mostly interact with engineers, while the WWS mostly hosts economics, lawyers, and political scientists. At WWS I am part of the Science, Technology and Environmental Policy (STEP) Program.

What’s a typical day for you at Princeton?
Over the year I am teaching a fair amount, more than the average Princeton faculty. That is, I am not doing a sabbatical in the usual sense of the word. I am basically constantly preparing lectures for courses I am teaching on energy technologies, the energy and water nexus, and energy policy. I am also supervising undergraduate and graduate students on their theses. During the semester there are more seminars, brown bag lunches and breakfasts than one can realistically attend.

How does your work at the university differ from your work at IIASA?
Here the projects I am involved in do not have strict deadlines: The next deadline is always the next lecture. The exceptions are the days by which grades need to be submitted. As a professor I advise students, but they go away and do their research themselves. It is fascinating to see how smart they are and how quickly they absorb ideas and can apply them. Oh, and I have no supervisor who guides what I do.

What do you miss about IIASA?
I miss the team spirit of the MAG group, and the more international outlook on issues. What I do not miss is the long commute from Vienna to Laxenburg—here I live on campus and can walk to either one of my offices in three minutes.

Credit: Princeton University

Princeton University campus. Credit: Princeton University

What are you doing at a university that you would  not normally do at IIASA?
I attend a lot more seminars, and in general – because the work here is less funding-driven – there is a great deal of room for intellectual curiosity.  I also work with corporate partners of the university. While at Princeton, I’m working with a local energy utility on a project to model the future electricity system and electricity market in New Jersey and neighboring states to support the further development of their Energy Master Plan.

Here I have a lot of freedom in deciding what projects to engage in and how to spend my time. In my experience Princeton is very open to cross-cutting activities. IIASA is small, so the number of approaches, methods and modes of thinking are limited. On the other hand, much of the work at Princeton is not so holistic and integrated as IIASA’s work, and some activities here lack a critical mass and long-term engagement.

When you come back to IIASA, what would you want to bring with you from your experience at Princeton?
The courses that I teach here are more on the turf of IIASA’s energy and water programs, so I hope to be able to interact with them more in the future. Also, in addition to the specific things I am learning I also hope to bring back some inspiration to IIASA colleagues to think about the value of changing perspectives from time to time, and about the space of possible career moves.

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

Charting connections: the next challenge for systems analysis

At IIASA in Laxenburg this week, renowned mathematician Don Saari laid out a challenge for the Institute’s scientists:  to better understand complex systems, he said, researchers must find better ways to model the interactions between different factors.

“In a large number of models, we use climate change or other factors as a variable. What we’re doing is throwing in these variables, rather than representing interactions—like how does energy affect population?” said Saari, a longtime IIASA collaborator and council member, and newly elected IIASA Council Chair, a position he will take up in November. “The great challenge of systems analysis is figuring out how to connect all the parts.”

“Whenever you take any type of system and look at parts and how you combine parts, you’re looking at a reductionist philosophy. We all do that in this room,” said Saari. “It is the obvious way to address a complex problem: to break it down into solvable parts.”

rubiks cube on a blue backgroundThe danger of reductionism, Saari said, is that it can turn out completely incorrect solutions—without any indication that they are incorrect.  He said, “The whole may be completely different than the sum of its parts.”

Take a Rubik’s cube as an example: Saari said “If you try to solve it by first doing the red side, then the green, then the blue, you will end up with a mess. What happens on one side is influenced by what’s happening on all the other sides.”

In the same way, the world’s great systems of energy, water, climate all influence each other. During the discussions, IIASA Deputy Director Nebojsa Nakicenovic noted that current work to extend the findings of the Global Energy Assessment to include water resources could narrow the potential number of sustainable scenarios identified for energy futures by more than half.

Saari pointed out that many of the world’s great scientists—including Nobel Prize winner Tom Schelling and Kyoto prize winner Simon Levin, both IIASA alumni—reached their groundbreaking ideas by elucidating the connections between two different fields.

It may sound like a simple solution to a methodological challenge. However, understanding the connections and influences between complex systems is far from simple. As researcher Tatjana Ermoliova pointed out in the discussion, “In physical systems you can hope to observe and discover the linkages.” But between human, economic, and global environmental systems those linkages are elusive and fraught with uncertainty.

At the end of the lecture, IIASA Director & CEO Prof. Dr. Pavel Kabat turned the challenge towards IIASA scientists, and we now extend it also to our readers: How can scientists better model the connections between systems, and what needs to change in our thinking in order to do so?

Poverty eradication and climate change: Is there a conflict?

By Narasimha D. Rao, IIASA Energy Program

Many people associate raising living standards in developing countries with increases in greenhouse gas emissions. But would improving access to basic needs—such as water supply and nutrition to poor households in Africa—have the same impact on climate change as increasing affluence—people moving to the suburbs, buying bigger homes, and buying cars?

New research that we published this week shows that in fact, it may take fewer emissions to raise the poor’s basic living standards than it does to grow affluence. If this is the case, then progressive development policies may well support climate mitigation. Our new study suggests that climate research needs to focus on how countries’ emissions growth relates to the services people are provide. This could change how we think about development, and influence how we approach the Paris climate negotiations in 2015­ – a milestone many view as the last chance for international cooperation to guide humanity onto a safe path of climate stabilization.

Usripur, India. Photo Credit: Rajashree Khalap

There are many reasons why researchers have stumbled when thinking about poverty eradication and climate change mitigation. First, poverty is itself a debated concept. Much of the development community has moved beyond thinking of poverty just as income. We now include measures of other deprivations for example food, health, and education. But metrics abound, many of which are hard to quantify and aggregate. Second, the climate research community has yet to catch up on this shift when linking growth to human-induced greenhouse gases.  Countries’ growth pathways in climate scenarios are still represented solely in terms of GDP, which doesn’t say much about how that wealth is distributed or access to basic living standards. Third, data on the multiple dimensions of poverty are hard to come by, particularly for poor countries where they are needed most.

In our new study, we used available data on well-recognized poverty indicators – adequate nourishment, water supply and sanitation and electricity access – to relate countries’ growth over time to these indicators and to emissions. We found that while countries’ GDP has grown largely in proportion to emissions, access to these basic needs has grown in the majority of developing countries without proportionate emissions increases. Furthermore, in a handful of countries (such as Costa Rica, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, and others) over 90% of the population have access to these basic needs with total emissions of less than five tons of CO2 equivalent per capita, which is well below the world average of 6.3 tons per capita.

A new study shows that raising the poor's basic living standards could lead to fewer greenhouse gas emissions than similar gains in already affluent populations. (Photo Credit: Dave Wilson via Flickr)

Hyderabad, India. Photo Credit: Dave Wilson via Flickr

Much more research is needed before we can assess whether other countries can raise living standards with low carbon emissions growth. Indeed, increased energy access is a primary driver of greenhouse gas growth, and the energy needs of basic human development aren’t well understood, although we have begun to characterize economy-wide energy needs besides providing modern energy to homes. Countries with different fuel endowments and climate may require different energy and emissions to achieve the same progress in human development.

Understanding the climate impacts of poverty alleviation can be useful for international climate policy. One can identify opportunities and challenges for basic human development within the limited carbon space available if we are to keep global average temperature rise within 2-3 degrees C. Second, it can offer a way to differentiate mitigation efforts among developing countries by recognizing and quantifying emissions associated with basic needs. The lack of a successful agreement on other efforts-sharing regimes over the last twenty years gives cause to chart new directions.

References

Rao, ND, Riahi K, and Grubler A. 2014. Climate impacts of poverty eradication. Nature Climate Change. 4,749–751 doi:10.1038/nclimate2340

Rao, ND, P. Baer. 2012, Decent living emissions: a conceptual framework. Sustainability 4 (4), 656-681. doi:10.3390/su4040656

Rao, ND. 2013. International and intranational equity in burden-sharing agreements for climate change mitigation. International Environmental Agreements: Politics, Law and Diplomacy, Volume 14, Issue 2, pp 129-146. doi:10.1007/s10784-013-9212-7

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.