Two Degrees and You: Personal Implications for Climate Change Action

By Myron Willson, Sustainability Resource Center

With 2015 upon us, many of us will be making New Years’ resolutions to lose weight, read more, spend more time with family, and other similar commitments. While each of those efforts is valuable (and I have my share), it is becoming increasingly apparent that actions that impact climate change should also make the list. Unfortunately, many of us do not know what it takes to address climate change in a meaningful way.

As the director of the U’s Sustainability Resource Center, climate change is something I consider daily as I work to help the University reach its commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050, as outlined in the Energy and Environmental Stewardship Initiative: 2010 Climate Action Plan. Behind the scenes, the center helps the University create more sustainable buildings; reduce the waste of energy, water and resources; assist in planning a campus that will enhance accessibility while reducing unwanted emissions; and find helpful ways for the campus community to work, eat, and live sustainably.

Drawing from my personal and professional experiences, I want to help readers of this post make resolutions that address climate change, starting today. This is a call to action.

Greenhouse gases are emitted by many daily activities

According to the IPCC, the IEA, and the Global Commission on Climate and the Economy, we need to make cuts in greenhouse gas emissions for the next 20-30 years at about five percent per year. This applies to every one of us, whether student, administrator, faculty, staff or community member. Emissions need to be steadily reduced from all aspects of society; from the very large scale of nation, region, institution, and employer to the small scale of our personal lives. We need to begin immediately to reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions coming from:

  • The food we eat,
  • Our commuting and personal/business travel,
  • The energy used to power, light, heat and cool our homes AND workplaces, and
  • The products we consume.

The longer we wait to tackle climate change imperils our ability to significantly reduce the impact fossil fuels will have on our climate. This is not just something that will impact our grandchildren, but has already begun to cause harm and will escalate over the next couple of decades until we act.

Chances are that you have already heard about the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s most recent report on climate change, released last fall. The report details the consequences of various warming scenarios based on how seriously our society begins to change its “business as usual” practices. The report details the consequences of warming beyond two degrees Celsius and provides a conceptual path to maintain a climate somewhere near what humans have experienced since before the dawn of civilization.

Additional reading:

The problem with in-depth reports is that they are typically too long and complex for those of us not directly involved in the field. Here at the University, most of us have a degree program to run or complete, work to do, a living to make, family and friends to support, and a life to live. We tend to avoid becoming involved with issues that don’t seem to affect us directly.

Lesson 1: Climate change does directly affect us—all of us.

The IPCC report predicts a high risk for global impacts and “substantial species extinction, large risks to global and regional food security, and the combination of high temperature and humidity compromising normal human activities.” So with apologies to the experts on campus who teach climate change and resilience strategies, I will attempt to simplify and clarify just what needs to happen to address climate change. In future posts, the Sustainable Utah blog will provide helpful tips and resources in order to more specifically reduce emissions as called for in the IPCC documents to prevent the “…very high risk of severe, widespread, and irreversible impacts” which “include substantial species extinction, global and regional food insecurity, consequential constraints on common human activities, and limited potential for adaptation in some cases (high confidence).”

Lesson 2: Proposed solutions require immediate action.

Humans have already warmed the planet by nearly one degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels and are on course to increase temperatures by up to five degrees Celsius by 2100. At current rates of consumption, our carbon budget will be used up in about 20 years. If we wish to minimize the consequences mentioned above (e.g. food insecurity, etc.), it will be much easier for society if we begin the process of transitioning to renewable energy and increased efficiency as soon as possible rather than attempt to go “cold-turkey” off fossil fuels at some future date.

The chart below shows the results of carbon emissions from four potential strategies along with the dotted line showing “historical” emissions through 2012. The red path, RCP 8.5 (Representative Carbon Pathways), shows what will likely happen if nothing is changed, or “business as usual”. Notice that the only two pathways that maintain a two-degree limit are the yellow and blue pathways of RCP 2.6 and 4.5 because they begin to curb greenhouse gas emissions immediately and will have peaked by 2040.

caption here

Source: Sanford, T., Frumhoff, P.C., Luers, A., & Gulledge, J. (2014). The climate policy narrative for a dangerously warming world. Nature Climate Change, 4, 164-166.

According to the IPCC, “Delaying additional mitigation to 2030 will substantially increase the challenges associated with limiting warming over the 21st century to below 2°C relative to pre-industrial levels.” By delaying major action 10-20 years, we are pushing the climate further toward increased warming, but more importantly, we are gambling that our future selves will have the ability to put the brakes on greenhouse gas emissions when we were not able to do so at this time. While 2030 seems like a long way off, most people reading this are likely to be impacted by climate change if we do not act quickly.

Lesson 3: Emissions need to be reduced across all sectors.

It is not enough to change commuter habits, light bulbs, or even purchase solar panels and consider our contribution complete. We need to take responsibility in all segments of our lives to reduce fossil fuel use. This includes transportation (commuting and travel), buildings and industry, and agriculture, forestry and other land use (AFOLU). See figure below. We need to address each and every area if we want to maintain the two-degree limit.

We often disassociate our work from our personal lives so that we can give our loved ones the full attention they deserve. However, we should approach our life at home and workplace with the same basic set of values. I met a faculty member recently who had installed solar panels and energy saving devices at home, grew their own vegetables, rode public transportation, and recycled and composted faithfully, but who had never reflected on the implications of energy use in their office, classroom, and laboratory. Upon consideration, we determined that the professor’s work footprint far outweighed the savings made at home (in some cases, the reverse is true). This professor should be applauded for the efforts at home, but it goes to show that each person needs to develop a broader understanding of total carbon footprint by examining all aspects of their lives.

The U has committed to reduce emissions to net zero by 2050. The 2010 document will be updated this year, and we will be looking to tap into faculty, student, and staff expertise and creativity to make the best plan possible.

IPCC Introductory Chapter Greenhouse Gas Emissions by Economic Sectors

Source: Victor D.G., Zhou, D., Ahmed, E.H.M., Dadhich, P.K., Olivier, J.G.H., Rogner, H-H, Sheikho, K. & Yamaguchi, M. (2014). Introductory chapter. In O. Edenhofer et al. (Ed.), Climate change 2014: Mitigation of climate change. Contribution of Working Group III to the fifth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (pp. 111-150). Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA: Cambridge University Press.

Lesson 4: Emissions need to be reduced at about 5-6 percent per year – STARTING IMMEDIATELY.

According to International Energy Administration (IEA), the transition to carbon-free economy is feasible, but it will require a fundamental transformation of the global energy system. While we are waiting for the transition to renewable energy and carbon capture and sequestration strategies, it is critical to also look for ways to use our existing resources more efficiently by reducing waste and increasing efficiency. These conservation and efficiency measures need to total five to six percent per year at a minimum across all sectors of society, including home, campus, community, and globally .

The good news is that the first reductions (up to 20-25 percent) tend to be easier than the last 50 percent. Conservation measures like turning the thermostat down and eliminating impulse car trips can be effective at reducing emissions by 10-20 percent. When those savings are leveraged to invest in additional efficiency measures (e.g. more efficient furnace or higher-mileage vehicle), the Global Commission on Climate and the Economy believes the changes can be made at no net economic cost.

Many of these reductions in emissions will actually provide complementary benefits. For example, a commitment to reduce automobile emissions might lead to a healthier lifestyle and weight loss through increased walking or bicycling. Local and fresh food (oftentimes with a smaller emissions footprint) tastes much better than products shipped days and weeks before they are ripe. A more energy efficient home and office are nearly always more comfortable—efficiency measures reduce drafts and temperature extremes.

It’s important to note that we can’t grow our way out of this problem—if we add new devices or buildings we are increasing the production of greenhouse gases, even if the new space or device is more efficient than the previous model. If your plans involve a new device, car, or house (or workplace for that matter), make sure the shiny new object uses less fuel (in absolute terms) than the old model. If you are serious about making an impact on climate change, look for ways to reduce total carbon emissions in a steady and consistent way for the next few years.

Lesson 5: Savings alone will not prevent climate change

Energy conservation and energy efficiency measures will not be enough to prevent warming of more than two degrees. As stated in the IPCC headline document, “An integrated approach that combines measures to reduce energy use and the GHG intensity of end-use sectors, decarbonize energy supply, reduce net emissions and enhance carbon sinks in land-based sectors” will be needed to limit warming to below two degrees.

CFL vs Incandescent

There is no unified consensus about what “decarbonizing” the energy supply looks like. It might include nuclear power, wind turbines, major transmission lines across potentially sensitive lands, smart meters, carbon sequestration, and other strategies about which there is not a clear consensus. The good news is that we can begin the journey over the next decade by working as hard as we can to reduce energy use and to increase energy productivity in every aspect possible. Every pound of greenhouse gas avoided now means fewer hard decisions in the future.

Lesson 6: Use the power of persuasion to change your organization

Once you’re on the path to reduce personal greenhouse gas emissions, it is important to share your convictions about climate change mitigation, especially with those around you. Oftentimes, we fail to share our concerns and convictions with our professors, department chairs, colleagues, administrators, supervisors, and elected officials. The result is that we continue to operate within a “business as usual” framework because leadership or peers don’t realize that there are others around who share an interest in responding to climate change issues. Please speak up and make a difference.

If you do choose to share your ideas and concerns with colleagues and your boss or supervisor, remember to frame your comments in a positive way—be careful to avoid pronouncements and incrimination. I recommend a new publication, “Connecting on Climate: A Guide to Effective Climate Change Communication,” for anyone looking to maximize influence within an organization.

*   *   *

Two-degrees warming is the universally agreed-upon target to minimize serious risks to the economy, society, and future livability of the planet. Instead of wringing our hands while waiting for our government, corporations, and institutions to act, we can and should make a New Year’s resolution to act individually and within organizations to reduce emissions and dependence on fossil fuels. Failure to do so only increases the risks associated with climate change and deepens the difficulty we place on ourselves in 10-20 years.

While this task may seem overwhelming at first glance, we need to remember that much progress has already been made. In less than 20 years, commuting to campus by car has been reduced by more than 30 percent and in less than 10 years the University has reduced air-pollution causing NOx emissions by more than 45 percent. Together, we have the ability to change ourselves and our communities.

Myron Willson is the director of the Sustainability Resource Center
at the University of Utah.

Note: Information in this article is compiled from the most recent IPCC report and the following articles from the Carbon Brief website: Two Degrees: The History of Climate Change’s ‘Speed Limit’; Two Degrees: Will We Avoid Dangerous Climate Change?, and What Happens if We Overshoot the Two Degree Target for Limiting Global Warming?

2 responses to “Two Degrees and You: Personal Implications for Climate Change Action

  1. Pingback: Sustainability Leadership and David Orr’s Fierce Urgency of Hope | sustainableUTAH·

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