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Science

Science

Divestment is MIT’s only carbon-cutting instrument equal to the unequivocal and unparalleled urgency of climate change.

 

The Proportional Response

Divestment from fossil fuel companies is a proportional response to the unprecedented urgency of global climate change. Founded and run by concerned scientists and engineers at MIT, Fossil Free MIT reflects the overwhelming scientific consensus1,2 that global warming is a clear and present danger3.

ScienceHeadlines

In so far as the scientific community ever raises its voice, it is screaming at the top of its lungs for the world to take notice. Fossil Free MIT is our response.

2013′s landmark report1 by Working Group I of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – the authoritative international body on the science of climate change, backed by 193 governments – reinforces the need for swift and sizeable action if we are to limit average global warming to less than the 2 °C guardrail agreed to by nearly every country on Earth4.

2C_Guardrail

 

Getting Off The Curve

In particular, to stay below the 2 °C guardrail, mankind’s annual carbon dioxide emissions have to come down, fast5. Yet ever since the Industrial Revolution our emissions have rocketed at a constant, unremitting exponential rate6, increasing by about 1.8% every year. The most advanced climate models in the world tell us that to avoid 2 °C, these carbon dioxide emissions must peak in the next decade or so and then fall at the same rate that they’ve been rising for two centuries7,8,5,9,10. Getting off the curve will require an energy revolution at least as profound as the one that got us on it11,12.

Guardian_EmissionsCurve

The most advanced climate models in the world tell us that to avoid 2C, our carbon dioxide emissions must peak in the next decade and then fall at the same rate they’ve been rising for two centuries. That’s the ball game. Image: guardian.co.uk

The reason that our carbon dioxide emissions must fall so rapidly is that once in the atmosphere, carbon dioxide sticks around for hundreds of years. It accumulates, and it’s the cumulative carbon dioxide emissions since the Industrial Revolution that determine the level of warming13,14,15,16. This seemingly benign bit of science, internationally recognized by the world’s climate scientists in the latest IPCC report1, has game-changing consequences.

To keep global warming below the 2 °C guardrail, the world needs to set itself an all-time budget on carbon dioxide emissions. We can afford to emit so much carbon dioxide, but after that, no more. Ever. To have at least a 66% chance of meeting the 2 °C target (which we hope you’ll agree is the least you can ask for when you’re talking about the future of our planet), the global budget on carbon dioxide emissions till 2100 is about 1000 billion tonnes (with an uncertainty of roughly 100 billion tonnes)17,15,1,16,5,18. The terrifying math of global warming is that at our current increasing rate of fossil fuel burning we will blow through this budget in about 20 years17 (see the graph below). And by that point we’ll need to have transitioned to a completely carbon-free renewable energy infrastructure11 because all of the oil rigs, coal mines and gas wells will have to be shut down to stay within our budget. (Even the International Energy Agency’s idealized scenario for scale-up of carbon capture and storage technology19 would only extend this budget by about 10%20, so even colossal breakthroughs are extremely unlikely to affect our need to get off the curve).

when-will-we-break-the-carbon-budget-ai v3

This graph draws on the latest best- and worst-case scenarios of carbon dioxide emissions from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and International Energy Agency (IEA). The IPCC’s RCP8.5 scenario is our current ‘business-as-usual’ trajectory and the IEA’s ‘Current Policies’ assumes no implementation of new policies past mid-2012. In contrast, the IPCC’s RCP2.6 forecast is a best case, assuming emissions are halved by 2050 and the IEA’s 450 Scenario is their best case, assuming policy action consistent with limiting global warming to 2 °C. This graph illustrates that on our current path we are likely to exhaust our emissions budget in about 20 years time. Adapted from Carbon Tracker 2013.

 

Unburnable Carbon

Well maybe we’ll have run out of fossil fuels by then anyway? Unfortunately, no. Current fossil fuel reserves (those that we’re at least 90% sure of) amount to16 at least 2860 Gt and we intend to burn it all. We have three times more fossil fuels than we can afford to burn17,21,22. Yet last year the top 200 fossil fuel companies spent $674 billion finding and developing more reserves20; that’s $6.74 trillion over the next decade in wasted capital developing reserves that are unburnable.

Cbudget_reserves

Learn more with Carbon Tracker’s interactive talkie (made by kiln.it)…

We Need An Energy Revolution – And We Can Do It

WeHaveTech

Despite all this doom and gloom, we do have what it takes to dig ourselves out of this hole. But our window of opportunity is almost closed23. As one influential climate science paper put it24:

“Humanity can solve the carbon and climate problem in the first half of this century simply by scaling up what we already know how to do.”

This scale up will need a Herculean energy revolution12,25 no less monumental than World War II, the Moon race, the Manhattan Project or the Civil Rights movement. We will need solar and wind farms the size of states and countries. We will need ultra energy-efficient homes and vehicles powered by a state-of-the-art energy grid. We will need an end to fossil fuel subsidies and we will need a price on carbon26,27,28,29 to drive these transitions. The thing most people don’t realize is that, at least for the next couple of decades30, we have most of the technologies needed to do this24. Many of them will come from MIT. What we’re lacking is political will and a sense of generational mission.

Einstein said, “Those who have the privilege to know have the duty to act”. At MIT we know plenty. It’s time to act against climate change. Surely a good start is to stop investing in the fossil fuel industry?

AtMITWeKnowPlenty

References
  1. Working Group I Contribution to the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report, Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis (September 2013). [link] [] [] [] []
  2. Oreskes, N. The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change. Science 306, 1686 (2004). [link] []
  3. Dessler, A. E. What We Know About Climate Change. United States Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works Hearing: ‘Review of the President’s Climate Action Plan’ (January 2014). [link] []
  4. United Nations Conference of the Parties Framework Convention on Climate Change, Copenhagen Accord (March 2010). [link] []
  5. Rogelj, J. et al. Emission pathways consistent with a 2 °C global temperature limit. Nature Climate Change 1, 413 (2013). [link] [] [] []
  6. Jarvis, A. J., Leedal, D. T., Hewitt, C. N. Climate–society feedbacks and the avoidance of dangerous climate change. Nature Climate Change 2, 668 (2012). [link] []
  7. Harvey, F. World headed for irreversible climate change in five years, IEA warns. The Guardian (November 2011). [link] []
  8. Stocker, T. F. The Closing Door of Climate Targets. Science 339, 280 (2012). [link] []
  9. Clark, D. Why can’t we quit fossil fuels? The Guardian (April 2013). [link] []
  10. Allen, M. et al. The exit strategy. Nature Climate Change. 3, 57 (2009). [link] []
  11. Hoffert, M. I. et al. Energy implications of future stabilization of atmospheric CO2 content. Nature 395, 881 (1998). [link] [] []
  12. MacKay, D. J. C. Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air. UIT Cambridge, 2008. [link] [] []
  13. Clark, D. UN climate change panel: two graphs that tell the real story of the IPCC report. The Guardian (October 2013). [link] []
  14. www.TrillionthTonne.org [link] []
  15. Allen, M. R. et al. Warming caused by cumulative carbon emissions towards the trillionth tonne. Nature 458, 1163 (2009). [link] [] []
  16. Meinshausen, M. et al. Greenhouse-gas emission targets for limiting global warming to 2 °C. Nature 459, 1158 (2009). [link] [] [] []
  17. What to look for when using carbon budgets? Carbon Tracker Initiative (October 2013). [link] [] [] []
  18. Harvey, F. ‘Carbon budget’ talks urgent, warns Lord Stern. The Guardian (September 2013). [link] []
  19. International Energy Agency, 450 Scenario: Method and Policy Framework (2012). [link] []
  20. Carbon Tracker Initiative, Unburnable Carbon 2013: Wasted capital and stranded assets (2013). [link] [] []
  21. Burners-Lee, M., Clark, D. The Burning Question, 2013. [link] []
  22. International Energy Agency, North America leads shift in global energy balance, IEA says in latest World Energy Outlook (November 2012). [link] []
  23. A draft of the 2014 IPCC Working Group III report concluded that “…another 15 years of failure to limit carbon emissions could make the problem virtually impossible to solve with current technologies.” see Gillis, J. U.N. Says Lag in Confronting Climate Woes Will Be Costly. NY Times (January 2014). [link] []
  24. Pacala, S., Socolow, R. Stabilization Wedges: Solving the Climate Problem for the Next 50 Years with Current Technologies. Science 305, 968 (2004). [link] [] []
  25. Walsh, B. What the Public Doesn’t Get About Climate Change. TIME (October 2008). [link] []
  26. Rogelj, J. et al. Probabilistic cost estimates for climate change mitigation. Nature 493, 79 (2013). [link] []
  27. Hope, C., Hope, M. The social cost of CO2 in a low-growth world. Nature Climate Change 3, 722 (2013). [link] []
  28. Abraham, J., Nuccitelli, D. Recessions make climate change costlier, Hope family research finds. The Guardian (July 2013). [link] []
  29. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The Social Cost of Carbon (2013). [link] []
  30. Knopf, B. et al. Beyond 2020 – Strategies and costs for transforming the European energy system. Climate Change Economics 4, 1, 1340001 (2013). [link 1]. [link 2] []
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