A global carbon law and roadmap to make Paris goals a reality. (Top) A deep decarbonization scenario scientifically consistent with the Paris Agreement and its associated carbon fluxes as computed with a simple carbon cycle and climate model. The “carbon law” scenario of halving emissions every decade is marginally more ambitious than the scenario presented. Meeting the Paris Agreement goals will require bending the global curve of CO2 emissions by 2020 and reaching net-zero emissions by 2050. It furthermore depends on rising anthropogenic carbon sinks, from bioenergy carbon capture and storage (BECCS) engineering (yellow) and land use (orange), as well as sustained natural sinks, to stabilize global temperatures. Graphic: Rockström, et al., 2017 / Science

23 March 2017 (Stockholm Resilience Centre) – An international team of researchers led by centre director Johan Rockström propose a solution for the global economy to rapidly reduce carbon emissions. The authors argue a carbon roadmap, driven by a simple rule of thumb or “carbon law” of halving emissions every decade, could catalyse disruptive innovation. The solution was recently published in the journal Science.

Such a “carbon law”, based on Moore’s Law in the computer industry, applies to cities, nations and industrial sectors.

The authors say fossil-fuel emissions should peak by 2020 at the latest and fall to around zero by 2050 to meet the UN’s Paris Agreement’s climate goal of limiting the global temperature rise to "well below 2°C" from preindustrial times.

Ambitious roll-out of renewables

A “carbon law” approach, they say, ensures that the greatest efforts to reduce emissions happens sooner not later and reduces the risk of blowing the remaining global carbon budget to stay below 2°C.
The researchers say halving emissions every decade should be complemented by equally ambitious, exponential roll-out of renewables. For example, doubling renewables in the energy sector every 5-7 years, ramping up technologies to remove carbon from the atmosphere, and rapidly reducing emissions from agriculture and deforestation.

Inspired by Moore's Law

The authors pinpoint the end of coal in 2030-2035 and oil between 2040-2045 according to their "carbon law". They propose that to remain on this trajectory all sectors of the economy need decadal carbon roadmaps that follow this rule of thumb, modeled on Moore’s Law.

Moore’s Law states that computer processors double in power about every two years. While it is neither a natural nor legal law, this simple rule of thumb or heuristic has been described as a “golden rule” which has held for 50 years and still drives disruptive innovation.

The paper notes that a “carbon law” offers a flexible way to think about reducing carbon emissions. It can be applied across borders and economic sectors, as well as both regional and global scales.

Full decarbonization by 2050

Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, says, "Our civilization needs to reach a socio-economic tipping point soon, and this roadmap shows just how this can happen. In particular, we identify concrete steps towards full decarbonization by 2050. Businesses who try to avoid those steps and keep on tiptoeing will miss the next industrial revolution and thereby their best opportunity for a profitable future."

Co-author Nebojsa Nakicenovic, deputy director general of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) and member of the Earth League, said “Humanity must embark on a decisive transformation towards complete decarbonization. The ‘Carbon law’ is a powerful strategy and roadmap for ramping down emissions to zero so as to stay within the global carbon budget for stabilizing climate to less than 2°C above preindustrial levels."

Joeri Rogelj, also at IIASA, said, “The carbon law outlines a global path towards achieving climate and sustainability goals in broad yet quantitative terms. It sketches a general vision of rapid emission reductions in conjunction with the development of sustainable carbon dioxide removal options. It clearly communicates that no single solution will do the job, and that this deep uncertainty thus implies starting today pursuing multiple options simultaneously.”

Malte Meinshausen, director of the Climate & Energy College at the University of Melbourne, said “Regions that make way for future-proof renewable energy and storage investments will turn a zero-emissions future into an economic opportunity. While for years, we’ve seen the ramp-down of incumbent fossil technologies only as burden, the other side of the coin is now finally visible: lower costs, more jobs and cleaner air.”

Following a “carbon law”, which is based on published energy scenarios, would give the world a 75% chance of keeping Earth below 2°C above pre-industrial temperatures, the target agreed by nations in Paris in 2015.

Curbing emissions with a new "carbon law"

ABSTRACT: Although the Paris Agreement's goals (1) are aligned with science (2) and can, in principle, be technically and economically achieved (3), alarming inconsistencies remain between science-based targets and national commitments. Despite progress during the 2016 Marrakech climate negotiations, long-term goals can be trumped by political short-termism. Following the Agreement, which became international law earlier than expected, several countries published mid-century decarbonization strategies, with more due soon. Model-based decarbonization assessments (4) and scenarios often struggle to capture transformative change and the dynamics associated with it: disruption, innovation, and nonlinear change in human behavior. For example, in just 2 years, China's coal use swung from 3.7% growth in 2013 to a decline of 3.7% in 2015 (5). To harness these dynamics and to calibrate for short-term realpolitik, we propose framing the decarbonization challenge in terms of a global decadal roadmap based on a simple heuristic—a “carbon law”—of halving gross anthropogenic carbon-dioxide (CO2) emissions every decade. Complemented by immediately instigated, scalable carbon removal and efforts to ramp down land-use CO2 emissions, this can lead to net-zero emissions around mid-century, a path necessary to limit warming to well below 2°C.

A roadmap for rapid decarbonization



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