Policy ForumCLIMATE POLICY

A roadmap for rapid decarbonization

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Science  24 Mar 2017:
Vol. 355, Issue 6331, pp. 1269-1271
DOI: 10.1126/science.aah3443

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Summary

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.