As they have done every year for a quarter century, leaders from government, industry, academia, and civil society will soon convene in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, for the 27th Conference of the Parties — COP27. Negotiators will finesse the details of global agreements behind closed doors while heads of state, CEOs, and other high-level leaders announce new climate pledges and initiatives. Experts will share findings from new research. Civil society will advocate, promote, and protest. The media will interpret and amplify for those following around the world.
And, most probably, after everyone jets home, greenhouse gas emissions will continue to climb before COP28 to record levels, as they have done every year, having already increased 60% from the first COP until now.
There are some bright spots. Wind and solar energy, for example, is expected to increase by another 8% this year, surpassing 5% of global energy demand, up from virtually zero two decades ago, and more than matching another carbon-free energy source: nuclear. Prices for wind and solar have reached record lows as a result of significant scaling. Governments and the private sector are investing heavily in zero-carbon energy. The U.S. just enacted the Inflation Reduction Act, which provides $369 billion in incentives for the rapid deployment of clean energy over the next ten years.
Some countries like the United Arab Emirates are showing that new nuclear energy, which is clean, reliable, and always on, can be built on time and at declining cost. The hydrogen industry is ramping up and planned carbon capture capacity additions have increased by more than 40% year-on-year.
But, as fast as we are investing in low- and zero-carbon energy and carbon abatement technologies, we are adding unabated fossil fuels faster. In 2021, unabated fossil energy use grew five times faster than renewable energy use. And the percentage of unabated fossil energy in the global energy mix has remained stubbornly constant since 1980 at about 80%, while the absolute total has grown. As a result, many climate advocates are beginning to quietly despair that the Paris Agreement target of 1.5 degrees Celsius, or even 2 degrees, is rapidly receding in the rear-view mirror. We are experiencing in climate management what the economist Colin Hay once called, in another context, “catastrophic equilibrium.” Staying the course won’t cut it.
So, what is to be done?
I propose three basic principles for COP27 and beyond:
- Respect the urgency of the problem but also its size, and plan for the long game
- Consider messy realities rather than blindly following the outputs of simplified economic black box models
- Embrace multiple and diverse options to hedge uncertainty and risk
Scale and speed, and playing the long game
Let’s start by recognizing the staggering size of the challenge. It took 150 years to construct the carbon-intensive energy system we have today. To meet the most stringent targets, we must completely replace it in a matter of decades with all non-emitting energy and double it in size to accommodate growth in the developing world — where 700 million people still lack electricity and billions more have only limited and unreliable access to modern energy. On top of that, we may need substantial energy growth to power new and emerging demand sources like carbon removal, data centers, and mineral extraction for clean energy technology. Many of the key models ignore potential big demand drivers. For example, last month’s IEA analysis charting a fossil fuel peak in 2025 and then a steady decline is based on an assumption that even in 2050 the developing world consumes only a small fraction of energy per capita as citizens of the OECD.
At least two things flow from this realization. First, we need to throw every plausible zero-carbon management strategy we have at the problem now. Every molecule of carbon mitigated now slows the rate of warming and delays the catastrophic effects of climate change. Sectarian wars between modern renewable energy and nuclear energy or carbon capture, unfortunately all too common in the climate mitigation discourse, are an unnecessary fight between two zero-carbon underdogs that together service only 10% of global energy demand and are therefore completely counterproductive — distracting us from the central challenge of eliminating carbon as soon as possible.
Second, we have a long century ahead of us, and the world doesn’t end in 2035 or 2050 as demand and population continue to grow. Even if we deploy today’s commercially robust clean energy solutions as fast as we can (and we should) and clamp down on the emissions that turbocharge global warming like methane, we will still need to incubate, demonstrate, and commercialize a variety of technologies to complete the ensemble of strategies we need for the long term. Just because a technology — like advanced fission or carbon capture or superhot rock energy or fusion energy — will not achieve substantial commercial scale in the next decade doesn’t mean it should be shunned. Just the opposite: It provides even more reason to accelerate progress. If we had taken the short view on modern renewables three decades ago, we would never have put in place the scaling policies that drove the downward cost curves that we have seen since. The lesson we should be learning from the success of wind and solar is not that it’s our only path to global decarbonization. It’s that we need to seed similar successes across as many sectors and technologies as possible.
Moving beyond techno-economic models to more complex reality
Energy transition discourse and policy has, to a very large extent, been heavily informed by mathematical models that supposedly optimize to net-zero emission solutions by 2035 or 2050, using economic cost as the primary consideration and representing the future with unsystematic and nonrepresentative scenarios. While these models could serve as useful thought experiments and prompts to explore pathways, they are too often taken as oracles dispensing truth.
To take one example, many of the scenarios that have achieved the greatest attention by media and policymakers are those which assume that wind, solar, and storage will provide the vast majority or nearly all of world energy in 2050 — not only electricity, but the synthesis of all liquid and gaseous fuels. The models achieve this result by assuming that nearly all end uses can be electrified, that massive areas of land can be taken up for electric generation and transmission, that we can lower demand multiple times faster than we ever have before in the developed world, and that demand can be frequently shifted to meet renewable energy supply patterns.
These exercises typically fail to take into account complex real world factors, such as the moral imperative and practical reality that the developing world will increase its energy use by multiples; the difficulties of swift electrification of portions of heavy industry and freight at reasonable cost; the economic and technical challenge of managing an industrial grid only or mainly on weather-dependent generation (not to mention the potential chaotic impact of climate change on those resources); limited land area; social acceptance barriers; geopolitics, energy security, and the implications of emerging deglobalization trends; minerals and other supply chain constraints; and how conflicts and crises can get in the way. The resulting policy scenarios are therefore techno-economically feasible in a vacuum, but are highly vulnerable and exposed to a great deal of risk.
Models also significantly simplify interconnected and temporally relevant event sequencing, resulting in unrealistic outcomes. For example, when model results expand renewables or nuclear or carbon capture or hydrogen rapidly, they do so without accounting for the significant associated infrastructure, such as pipeline and storage networks; social acceptance; complicated supply chains; and the need for significant business model transformation (in the case of nuclear, the need to develop a normal manufacturing, commoditization, and delivery model that can scale).
The point is not to criticize models per se — they can be especially useful for revealing certain internal energy system cost dynamics — but to recognize that some of the most important factors in decarbonization strategy may well be ”off model.” A specific recent example of this was CATF’s interrogation and spatial mapping of California’s modeled decarbonization pathways, identifying land use as a critical choke point for clean energy infrastructure. This led us to recently issue a report calling for approaches to remove land friction by deliberate planning and clarification of authority.
It is worth especially calling out further one of these “off model” realities that is obvious from recent events in Europe and the region’s scramble to secure global hydrocarbons: Immediate geopolitical and economic security can interrupt the best laid plans for decarbonization. Governments will not hesitate to prioritize energy reliability and cost. This is even more so in the developing world, where energy access remains low. The developing world’s quest for much more energy faster needs to be respected as a fact, and a long-term climate strategy is going to have to account for multispeed climate responses that will vary by region and probably will not proceed in a straight line.
Let’s stop debating theoretically perfect decarbonization pathways, move on multiple technology fronts simultaneously, and get on with figuring out what we can accomplish in the real world, and how.
Honoring uncertainty and risk
Finally, we must recognize the huge uncertainty and risk inherent in the decarbonization challenge by embracing multiple strategies. There has been no shortage of single-solution advocates. Energy history geeks will recall the confident predictions in the 1970’s of an all-nuclear future, an all-solar future, or a world run half on biomass energy, which were taken seriously at the time by many but look laughable in hindsight. The concept of a diversified portfolio of strategies is no doubt a cliché, but it is also undeniably a time-honored and proven strategy. (For the consequences of the opposite approach, look no further than Germany’s current predicament.) No one can predict the future course of a complex techno-economic-behavioral system, and diversity engenders resilience. Technological monoculture does not.
Just as we need a diversity of technological options, we also need diversity of thought. In a challenge this complex, groupthink is not likely to lead to resilient strategies. Managing climate change is about the hardest, “wicked” problem one can imagine precisely because it isn’t really a “problem” in the conventional sense subject to a definitive solution, but a chronic condition that will require constant monitoring and astute awareness.
Moreover, as with most wicked problems, there is no single agreed-to objective, many of the proposed objectives in fact compete with one another (i.e., decarbonization at all costs as soon as possible, decentralization of energy production, minimal land impact, narrow technology preferences, elimination of corporate sector participation, more fundamental social transformation, lifestyle change) and there is no universally agreed endpoint of what “success” would look like, not to mention no global authority or legal mandate. The best we can do is to clarify multiple objectives, face up to the tensions, and do our best to square environmental, economic, and human development imperatives. The transition to zero is likely to be messy and live up to no one’s ideal scenario, and require adaptations that inform not one but multiple scenarios. That is the nature of the issue.
It’s time we change the global mindset on managing climate change to a more plural and risk-informed approach, and COP27 is a good place to start. Our team at CATF will be in Egypt to accelerate the discussion by teasing out the complexities of the climate challenge. Our Zero-Carbon Future pavilion will host more than 40 in-depth presentations and panel discussions with the world’s leading climate and energy experts. We’ll convene dozens of offsite meetings with major stakeholders. And we’ll continue ongoing engagements with leaders from civil society, government, industry, and academia.
Whatever their hype level, COPs are also important touch points for the global community of people working to understand and address the issue. At a point of ongoing tensions and uncertainty, COP27 can set the stage for new understanding, and increased ambition and action. CATF will bring fresh thinking and new constructive analysis to the table, fueling the development of a more robust set of ideas that can catalyze solutions faster.
Because catastrophic equilibrium is not a good place for the planet to be.