When the United Nations’ climate scientists recently updated their forecast, it featured a devastating reveal: we have until 2030 to reduce our global CO2 emissions by about 50% in order to avert the worst consequences of a warming climate ‒ and that’s just phase one. By 2070, the global economy must operate at net-zero carbon…in perpetuity. The good news: at least now we know. The bad news: no one at the UN attached a coherent plan to that update.
But some very intelligent people just published a strategy that can get us there by 2030. We’ll call it the 50 x 30 plan for short. Hal Harvey, Robbie Orvis and Jeffrey Rissman – all climate and energy experts in this space – have co-authored a book called Designing Climate Solutions that takes a pragmatic and tactical approach to achieving significant carbon reductions. Think of it as climate triage.
Crucially, there are just 20 countries that account for 75% of all CO2 emissions. Those top 20 emitters are our target – the other 168 can stay in the hunt but are not going to move the needle very much. That’s not a judgment – just a fact.
Now that we’re focused on the most concentrated 75% of CO2 emissions, our goal is to apply pressure and influence to seek reductions of 67% over 12 years. Within that timeframe it’s possible to decarbonize by 67% using existing technology and capital ‒ here’s how:
- Generating electricity is responsible for 25% of CO2 and we can reduce this by 80% by switching to renewables like wind and solar, which are already cheaper to operate than coal, nuclear and natural gas. So that’s 20 points of the 67% savings we need.
- Transportation contributes 15% of CO2 emissions so if we electrify our vehicle fleet we can bring this number down to at least 5%. That’s 10 more points of our 67% goal.
- Commercial buildings are about 8% of emissions, most of which comes from consuming 40% of our electricity. By making improvements in lighting, heating and cooling, and safely transitioning from HFL coolants in A/Cs that are 1,900x more potent than CO2, new buildings can approach net-zero carbon. There’s a retrofit issue for older buildings, so we’ll assume we can halve emissions to 4% of total. Savings now: 34 points toward our 67% goal.
- The bulk of what remains comes from the industry category – roughly 38% of our emissions are from manufacturing, agriculture and waste. Smarter energy use, better farm/ranch management, and capturing more methane – a greenhouse gas 30x more potent than CO2 that escapes our landfills and pipelines ‒ gets us a 75% reduction and bumps our CO2 savings to 60%.
- The rest comes from the remaining 14% of our economy.
50 x 30 is doable but difficult. What we need in greatest measure is a willingness to come together in a new spirit of altruism. The time to get started was yesterday.