The changes needed to get to net-zero emissions in the global energy sector by 2050 require everyone to make choices now that align to our collective goal
– Life is a series of choices. And choices have consequences. When it comes to climate change, some choices have bigger consequences than others, and there’s a startling takeaway: your next “big” decision will play a meaningful role in our collective ability to reach Net-Zero by 2050.
Last month, the International Energy Agency (IEA) published a roadmap describing how the global energy sector can zero-out its emissions by mid-century. In a report that includes many remarkable statements, three stand out. First, behavioral changes, like walking instead of driving, amount to just 4% of the required reductions. Second, more than half of all decarbonization is linked to consumer choices, such as installing low-carbon heating. Third, electricity sector emissions have to nosedive even as electricity demand doubles.
Two conclusions flow from this. If governments and industry follow the IEA roadmap, consumers won’t need to modify their behavior much; the overwhelming majority (96%) of emissions reductions will come from other changes. This may come as a relief to many. But there’s a nuance; the IEA distinguishes behavior from choices. That means – and here’s our second conclusion – every choice each of us makes today that has a long-term climate impact must be made in a way that propels us toward zeroing emissions.
It’s hard to imagine how individual choices can affect long-term global targets; the time frame is too remote, and a collective goal is too abstract. But reverse-engineering the actions required, and understanding how those actions must be spread across society, accelerates and personalizes the importance of today’s choices.
This is because of a concept called committed emissions. Every new ‘thing’ that we build or buy has an expected working life. Understanding the climate impact of a ‘thing’ therefore requires knowing both the rate at which it generates carbon, and how long (in years) it will operate. For example, cars last, on average, 15 years, whilst power plants can run for decades.
That means there are fewer than two generations of cars before 2050, and just one generation of power plant. In fact, the issue is more pressing than that; the IEA’s roadmap requires electric vehicle sales to swell from 5% of today’s market to more than 60% by 2030, and our carbon “budget” for new-build power plants is already compromised because of the longevity of our existing power fleet.
The startling result is that your next big decision will have a meaningful impact on our collective ability to hit Net-Zero by 2050. Put differently, if you are fortunate enough to influence an investment in a new car or power plant, you must have a compelling reason (and there are fewer than you think) to invest in anything other than a zero-emissions-vehicle or zero-carbon-ready power plant.
Why are we focusing on cars and power plants? Shouldn’t we also eat less red meat, and avoid plastic bags? The answer is yes; all of it matters. But – and here’s the crux – some choices have an exponentially bigger climate impact than others. To illustrate, your decision to use reusable bags at the grocery store, while admirable, means little if you drive a gas-guzzling truck to get there.
So which choices have the most impact? Simply put, it’s the choices about machines and appliances that – historically – have involved burning things, and it’s a short list. Power plants and cars are on it. So too are the things that heat our buildings and cook our food. Today, many of these activities involve fire, and that needs to change if we are to reach Net-Zero by 2050.
The challenge with switching out fire for electrons (or other zero-emission technologies) is that history, bias and noise are all against us. History, because past energy transitions have taken time. Bias, because we are prone to favor information that supports pre-existing beliefs. And noise, because we are bombarded with conflicting information on a daily basis.
These challenges are compounded by the fact that many of our “big” choices are made under pressure, e.g. an appliance has failed and we need a new one, NOW. In these circumstances, we routinely rely on heuristics (mental short-cuts to make quicker decisions), which tend to disadvantage new approaches.
In the wild, that normally means a mid-winter failure of a gas furnace will result in a like-for-like replacement, even though the same job could be done by an electric heat pump. Here, no-one can blame the stressed householder. Similarly, it’s tough (but easier) to blame an under-pressure board that continues investing in emission-heavy technologies.
The toxic combination of history, bias, noise and pressure is worsened by information asymmetry, which is to say that a Google search for “replacement furnace” yields more experts in gas heating than heat pumps. And all that is before accounting for price differences between carbon-intensive and low carbon alternatives, which can be significant.
The remedy? Getting ‘climate-smart’ information into decision-makers’ hands. (Note: our biggest challenge is not technology.)
This requires excising historic ‘truths’ that weren’t true in the past, and aren’t true now. It means correcting for bias and noise, and being transparent on the true costs of carbon. It means training our workforce differently, and making low-carbon alternatives cost-competitive at point-of-purchase. For the expanding electricity sector, it means developing a fleet strategy that centers on a timely shift to Net-Zero
Big choices are hard. But they are pressing, and they are critical. Bad choices today amplify tomorrow’s challenges, and each of us bears responsibility for that.
Pete Richardson is a Climate Strategist at Manifest Climate, with a focus on energy, and a drive to effect change at scale.