(Inside Science) -- The latest UN Emissions Gap report gave a bleak outlook for the future of the planet’s climate. In 2018, global greenhouse gas emissions reached 55 billion metric tons in CO2 equivalent, up from 46 billion metric tons in 2010. In other words, instead of slamming on the brakes, we have stepped on the gas pedal and are likely accelerating toward a massive climate upheaval.
So far, international negotiations and meetings have not led to massive or consistent reductions in emissions that would limit the impact of human-caused climate change. However, the top-down approach of explicitly limiting carbon emissions by nation is only one pathway to solving the problem.
The authors of two new papers from the journals Nature Climate Change and Nature Energy suggest we need to approach the problem from different, and sometimes overlooked, angles.
A self-reinforcing trap
In the first paper, published in Nature Climate Change in November, political scientists Steven Bernstein and Mathew Hoffman from the University of Toronto argue that international cooperation will not be enough to stop climate change.
“It's nice to have international agreements. But it’s not enough to just think about it as just a big cooperation problem,” said Bernstein.
Modern society, he and Hoffman argue, is caught in a carbon trap. Individual actors across levels, from individual nations to individual people, are all incentivized to continue consuming fossil fuels due to existing cultural, technological, political and economic structures.
Imagine that you have just been offered a job, but the company is located in a suburb only accessible by car. The company chose the location due to government policies on land use such as zoning ordinances and parking minimums. There is also no public transit option available. So, you are left with no option but to purchase a car, and because electric cars are still out of your price range, you are stuck with an old beater that gets 20 miles to the gallon.
This is an example of the multilayered nature of carbon lock-in, where every participant, from the federal government to individual citizens, from the technological sector to the cultural, all contribute inertia to keeping the status quo.
A fractal pattern
Bernstein and Hoffman describe the lock-in patterns using the mathematical concept of fractal systems, in which a geometrical pattern looks the same whether you zoom in or out on it.
“Fractal systems are self-similar, and interdependent across levels,” said Hoffman. “We are locked into the use of fossil energy because cities are and provinces are and because nation-states are, up and down those lines.”
The multilevel carbon lock-in trap makes it difficult for individual nations or citizens to break out from it. According to Bernstein and Hoffman, current international agreements tend to focus on carbon budget negotiation, in which nations bargain to maximize their share of allowable carbon emissions. Without a dedicated focus to replace fossil fuels as the main energy source, these agreements are only tackling one facet of the problem, they say.
“We have lots of different actors working to try and disrupt carbon lock-in and dependence on fossil fuels. But there is a lack of some sort of coherent guiding vision for how that works,” said Hoffman. “We need to think about this systematically and coherently, in terms of how, through what pathways, we can generate the kind of transformation we need.”
Hoffman argues we should judge a policy by looking at its “ability to cause changes and disruptions to spread and become stickier and entrenched,” and “on the impact it has on our dependence on fossil fuel, not just emissions reductions.”
“We need the fractal interdependence to work for us instead of against us,” he said.
Bernstein pointed to Amsterdam as a positive example for successful multilevel transformation. Many of the city’s residents now bike to work instead of driving, thanks to a multitude of self-reinforcing changes, from a change in cultural attitudes to the public investment in transport infrastructure for bicycles.
“If you look at a picture of Amsterdam in the 1950s or ’60s, it looks just like any American city, with streets filled with cars,” said Bernstein. “Then came a very deliberate effort to make the city bike-friendly. And now if you go to Amsterdam, there are relatively few cars and people get around on bikes. It’s possible to find ways to do this for both better economic viability and lifestyles.”
The example of Amsterdam provides some hope that big changes are possible. However, different cities and countries will each need its own blueprint for success.
Another paper from Nature Energy illustrates how even the energy required for a basic standard of living can significantly differ from place to place. This means different nations and localities may need to tackle climate change in different ways, including both the demand for and supply of energy.
The bare minimum
“In addition to supply-side concerns, which is how we can decarbonize the economy, we also need to be concerned on the demand side -- where's the demand for energy and what purpose is it serving, and whether or not we can meet our most basic needs and basic living standards,” said Narasimha Rao, an energy system expert from Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.
His research team calculated the minimum energy required for three different nations to provide decent living standards for their citizens.
Instead of comparing current countrywide carbon footprints or quantifying living standards using an individual’s income, the researchers summed up the energy required to provide a long list of basic necessities, including items such as adequate nutrition, comfortable living conditions, access to clean water and food storage, and access to transportation.
They were surprised to find drastic differences among the three countries -- India, Brazil and South Africa. They attributed the differences to a multitude of factors, including existing transport infrastructure and culinary traditions.
The main driving force
According to Rao, the energy required to give a Brazilian decent mobility is significantly more than that of an Indian, because Brazil relies more heavily on cars than India does.
“The biggest impact is in transport, by far,” said Rao. “Cars are the most energy-intensive form of transport compared to bus and rail. They have a much higher carbon footprint after being calibrated for the same living standard.”
The researchers calculated that decent mobility in Brazil requires at least 14 gigajoules of energy per person per year, out of the total 24 required for the individual to have a decent living standard. For comparison, the same number for an Indian is only 7 gigajoules, out of a total of 14. South Africa fell in the middle, with 12 gigajoules of energy required per person for transportation.
We are what we eat
Food production and cooking together makes up the next largest sector of energy requirement according to the Nature Energy paper, constituting roughly a quarter of the total.
With a strong tradition of vegetarianism, India boasts one of the lowest meat consumption rates per capita in the world. In contrast, the diet of Brazilians is relatively meat-heavy. Since meat takes a lot of energy to produce, this distinction in diets explains the significant difference in the minimum energy requirement for food between the two nations, said Rao.
After transport and food, the provision of health care, education, entertainment, and housing, which includes things such as heating and cooling, make up the rest of the energy requirement, amounting to roughly a fifth of the total.
“There will be some differences in heating and cooling requirements for different countries, but it should still be a very small share,” said Rao. He is currently working on the same analysis for other countries, including those in colder climates.
A sea change
In part, both lines of research show how it can be hard for individuals to reduce their carbon footprint if cultural attitudes and the physical infrastructure of society are not geared toward more climate-friendly ways of living.
Earlier this month, teen climate activist Greta Thunberg arrived in Spain for the annual international climate summit known as COP25 after the meeting was relocated from Chile. She refuses to travel by plane due to the heavy carbon footprint, and instead hitched a ride across the Atlantic on a 48-foot sailboat.
"I am not traveling like this because I want everyone to do so," Thunberg said during an interview with the Associated Press. "I'm doing this to sort of send the message that it is impossible to live sustainable today, and that needs to change. It needs to become much easier."
Hoffman is cautiously optimistic that society can bring about the radical changes necessary to overcome the climate crisis.
“Throughout history, we have been through many large-scale technological changes -- the Digital Revolution, the Industrial Revolution. The same is true for social changes -- you can look at the end of slavery and the rise of LGBT rights,” said Hoffman. “But a little bit scary about climate change is that we have to bring together technological changes, economic changes and social changes.”
Is it possible to make these radical changes a win-win situation for our planet’s climate future and our planet’s current marketplace and political sphere?
“That's the million, no, trillion-dollar question,” said Hoffman.