Imperial College London

Transforming our lives can limit global warming to 1.5C without new technology

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Aerial view of rooftops in a city covered in solar panels

Changes to how we move around, heat our homes and use devices could all limit global warming by reducing our energy demand.

The new study, published today in Nature Energy, is the first to show how the 1.5oC global warming target can be reached without increasing our global energy demand, while at the same time raising living standards in developing countries.

Improved living standards for all need not come with a large increase in energy demand at the expense of the global environment. Dr Joeri Rogelj

The study also shows how embracing new ways to meet our transport, living, and material needs would allow us to reach these goals without unproven technologies, such as bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (CCS), which removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and buries it.

The 1.5oC target, set by the 2015 Paris Agreement, is thought to be the limit for avoiding the worst consequences of global warming. However, to achieve it, simply making our energy generation greener will not be sufficient.

Meeting the world's energy needs

Previous studies have suggested that large amounts of controversial carbon-dioxide removal technologies would be needed. However, if global energy demand is reduced instead, renewable technologies with fewer side-effects can be used to meet a large share of our needs.

This remains challenging, especially as countries in the global South work towards raising their living standards. However, the new study, led by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria and including researchers in Imperial College London, has provided a route for reducing global energy demand while allowing southern countries to meet UN Sustainable Development Goals on living standards.

Dr Joeri Rogelj, from the Grantham Institute – Climate Change and the Environment at Imperial, said: “Improved living standards for all need not come with a large increase in energy demand at the expense of the global environment. Innovations in energy services could allow total global energy demand to decline by more than a third by 2050 from today’s levels.

“In such a world, current rates of renewable and nuclear energy deployment in the future could more than meet the world's energy needs without having to rely on unproven technologies such as CCS.”

Energy innovations

The team identified energy used in transport, in heating and cooling, and in the manufacture of consumer goods as the main areas where dramatic improvements could be made, pointing out current innovations that could make a large impact if adopted into the mainstream.

Our analysis shows how a range of new social, behavioural and technological innovations, combined with strong policy support for energy efficiency and low-carbon development can help reverse the historical trajectory of ever-rising energy demand. Professor Arnulf Grubler

For example, shared and 'on-demand' fleets of more energy efficient electric vehicles with increased occupancy can reduce global energy demand for transport by 60 per cent by 2050.

The digital economy is expected to rise in the next 30 years, but even if the number of devices doubles, energy demand does not necessarily have to rise with it. 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 growth in global energy demand to just 15 per cent by 2050.

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 per cent by 2050. In addition, shifting to a healthier diet with less red meat but similar calorific intake can significantly reduce emissions from agriculture, while increasing forest cover to the equivalent size of Italy and Bangladesh combined by 2050.

Going the distance

Professor Arnulf Grubler, lead author of the study and IIASA acting program director, said: "Our analysis shows how a range of new social, behavioural and technological innovations, combined with strong policy support for energy efficiency and low-carbon development can help reverse the historical trajectory of ever-rising energy demand."

Study co-author Dr Charlie Wilson, from IIASA and also the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia, added: "A rapid down-sizing of the global energy system between now and 2050 makes it much more feasible to transition away from fossil fuels and towards renewables and electricity to provide for development needs while limiting the impacts of climate change."

However, the team emphasizes that making this scenario a reality will require unprecedented efforts by policymakers to tighten standards, by businesses to develop and roll out low-carbon innovations, and by individuals and households to embed new forms of activity into their daily lives.

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A Low Energy Demand Scenario for Meeting the 1.5°C Target and Sustainable Development Goals without Negative Emission Technologies’ by Grubler A, et al is published in Nature Energy.

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Image credit: Felix Mizioznikov/Shutterstock

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Hayley Dunning

Hayley Dunning
Communications and Public Affairs

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Email: h.dunning@imperial.ac.uk

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