We can enjoy a high standard of living while decreasing greenhouse gas emissions, reports a paper published online this week in Nature Energy. The catch? Use innovation to reduce rather than increase energy demand. If things were to proceed this way, researchers envision a future in 2050 when energy demand is reduced to 245 EJ — around 40% lower than today despite rising population, income, and activity.
If we’re to avoid catastrophic runaway climate change, we ought to limit global warming to no more than 1.5°C above the global average recorded the start of the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century. This is the stated end-goal of the Paris Agreement — the international non-binding pact that brings all nations into a common cause to undertake ambitious efforts to combat climate change (all nations apart from the United States, that is, since President Trump signed an executive order pulling the country out of the Paris Agreement).
The target is a highly ambitious one. Just consider that the world is now emitting more greenhouse gases than it ever has, the population is growing, and rising living standards in developing countries are driving higher per capita emissions. Some say that we’ve already locked-in 1°C of warming, which leaves us with only 0.5°C of leeway. Bearing this in mind, it seems almost impossible to imagine how this goal could be achieved unless we make sacrifices in terms of energy use.
Not so fast!
According to a team of researchers led by Arnulf Grubler, acting program director at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria, it’s possible to meet ambitious climate goals through a rapid downsizing of the global energy system.
Although energy consumption has long been linked to improved living standards, the two can be decoupled. The researchers examined various technological innovations that are currently making their way into the mainstream and analyzed their potential impact on energy demand. Examples of such innovations include sharing economies or digital services, as well as by-now entrenched technologies like smartphones that not only serve telecommunication functions but also double as TVs or computers.
In this scenario, which the researchers called Low Energy Demand or ‘LED’, people transition from owning goods and services to merely accessing them, making energy generation decentralized and cheap, and daily life digitalized by sensors that efficientize routines, among other things. With this scenario in mind, it’s possible to obtain a 2- to 4-fold reduction potential in the amount of energy that we require to sustain our way of life.
“Awareness on importance of energy end-use and demand, and high energy use does not associate with higher welfare. Rather good quality services provided with little energy inputs contribute to welfare,” Grubler told ZME Science.
Shared and ‘on-demand’ fleets of more energy efficient electric vehicles with increased occupancy can reduce global energy demand for transport by 60% by 2050 while reducing the number of vehicles (on congestion) on the road.
Single digital devices such as smartphones serving a wide range of functions combined with younger generations’ preferences for accessing services instead of owning goods can limit the otherwise explosive growth in global energy demand to a mere 15% by 2050 for a digital economy with over twice the number of devices than are in use today.
Strict standards for the energy performance of new buildings as well as renovations of existing buildings can reduce energy demand from heating and cooling by 75% by 2050.
“Changes in the ways that we as the final users of energy go about our daily lives have knock-on effects on the ways that goods are manufactured and transported around, offices and malls are built, and food is grown. It is us as energy users who ultimately define the potential for transforming our energy system to meet climate targets,” said Grubler in a statement.
The study concludes that global energy demand can be reduced by 40% by 2050 in this scenario. If this happens, current rates of renewable energy deployment projected into the future could meet our energy needs and keep global warming at 1.5°C, all without having to rely on unproven technologies like carbon capture and sequestration (CCS).
“Not only does our scenario show how to meet the 1.5°C climate target based on evidence on what is already possible, it also shows how this dramatic reversal in global emission trends supports a wide range of development objectives in the global South, from rising living standards to cleaner air and improved health,” said Charlie Wilson, from IIASA and also the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at
the University of East Anglia, UK.
Such a scenario might sound like a fairy tale, but in an email, Grubler told me that previous climate mitigation studies lack imagination “on how demand for energy and resources could be shaped in future with new business, technological and social innovations.”
Of course, for LED to become reality, unprecedented efforts on behalf of all stakeholders is required, such as policymakers, the business sector, civil society, etc.
“The global community from world leaders and multinational corporations down to individual consumers and citizens need to act in concert to avoid dangerous climate change while improving human wellbeing. Our scenario offers a roadmap as to how this can be achieved,” says Grubler.
Tibi is a science journalist and co-founder of ZME Science. He writes mainly about emerging tech, physics, climate, and space. In his spare time, Tibi likes to make weird music on his computer and groom felines.