ADAPT-ing to 1.5 Degrees

Earlier this month, the world’s leading climate scientists published a special report warning that the target of limiting global temperature rise to 2C above pre-industrial levels, agreed at the Paris Climate Change Summit of 2015, is almost certainly insufficient for preventing catastrophic climate change. The report concludes that allowing temperatures to rise between 1.5C and 2C would lead to many of the same devastating impacts as a rise above 2C, albeit at a reduced level of severity. The lesson of the latest report is a familiar one: urgent, multilateral action is needed if we are to stave off catastrophic climate change. What is new is the timetable (preventing a rise of 1.5C means achieving by 2030 much of what we initially thought we needed to achieve by 2050), and the fact that this report takes the unprecedented step of including four sets of policy prescriptions, or ‘pathways’, which, if adopted, could help stave off a rise over 1.5C.

One of the principal motivations behind our work at the ADAPT project has always been playing a role in the mixture of policy measures which are needed to transform our economy in the necessary ways to prevent catastrophic climate change. And, indeed, the pathways laid out in the IPCC report make mention of precisely the kind of work that ADAPT is involved in as being an essential component in achieving the target of keeping global temperature rises below 1.5C. The details can be found in section 2.4.3.3 of the report here, but here are some of the important parts relevant to our work:

Transport accounted for 28% of global energy demand and 23% of global energy related CO2 emissions in 2014. Transport related CO2 emissions increased by 2.5% annually between 2010 and 2015 – faster emissions growth than any other sector. Furthermore, 92% of transport final energy demand consists in oil products, making transport among the most entrenchedly oil dependent sectors in the global economy. Not exceeding a global temperature rise of 1.5C means a reduction of at least 15%, and possibly at least 30%, in transport related emissions between 2015 and 2050.

Among the means by which we might achieve that aims are technological and structural changes (increasing the uptake of alternative fuels, for instance), but according to the report, a full 20% of the total necessary cut in Transport emissions needs to come from behavioural change in people’s transport use: either changing their travel to more sustainable modes, or else avoiding travel altogether. That 20% figure includes industrial and freight transport as well as personal transport, but given that light vehicles, such as those used for commuting, make up over a third of total transport emissions (see table 2.8 in the report), and that personal transport is arguably both economically and practically easier to reduce or change than industrial or freight transport, it is likely that the bulk of that 20% will have to come from a reduction in personal transport by fossil fuelled vehicles. This is precisely the kind of demand-side, behaviour change interventions which ADAPT is developing, and which we hope will play some role in achieving the global targets the IPCC report has laid out.