Ways to meet climate goals: the short list of climate actions that will work

September 29th, 2019 by Michael Barnard, Clean Technica  


I spend a lot of time critiquing solutions for low-carbon transformation, and that leads, inevitably, to people asking me: what works? What should we be doing? Most recently, that came in the form of a question on Quora that was well enough formed to trigger me to write down the solution set: “What exactly is the current scientific consensus on steps to combat climate change?

Image: Zach Shahan | CleanTechnica.com

Consensus is an interesting word. I tend to prefer consilience, where multiple lines of investigation lead to the same conclusions. That said, the following are the solutions or approaches that I see from my investigations and discussions as gaining consensus and consilience. It’s not the how, but the what. There are many paths that lead to these realities. One way to read the following is to consider that it describes the world in 2050.

This list doesn’t necessarily map easily to Project Drawdown because its approach is a cost benefit analysis of CO2e reductions for dollars, while this is a more aggressive transformational vision.

The Short List

Electrify everything

Convert all energy services to work directly from electricity instead of fossil fuels. Transportation, industry, and agriculture. All of it. All gas appliances must go. All road transport must be electric. Most trains and a lot of planes must shift to electric. Electricity creating biofuels or hydrogen for the subset of transportation that can’t be electrified. All heat from electricity. The US throws away two thirds of all primary energy, mostly in the form of waste heat from fossil fuels used in inherently inefficient combustion processes. We only have to replace a third of the actual primary energy we use today to maintain our lifestyle and economy.

Overbuild renewable generation

All other forms of generation with the exception of nuclear were overbuilt, so we’ll do the same with wind and solar, and they are really cheap, so that is not that expensive. Also a bit of geothermal and some biomass. After all, about $3 trillion would provide all primary energy for everything the US does today.

Build continent-scale electrical grids and markets

And improve existing ones. HVDC became much more viable with high-speed hybrid circuit breakers in 2011, and is an essential technology for long-distance, low-loss electrical transmission. It can replace some AC transmission and be buried along existing right-of-ways.

Build a fair amount of hydro storage

And some other storage too. While storage of electricity is an overstated concern given overbuilt renewables and continent-scale grids, some is still required. Pumped hydro resource potential is far greater than the need, is efficient, and uses very stable, known technologies. Shifting existing hydro-electric dams to be passive, on-demand storage as opposed to baseload is also key. Fast response grid storage can be provided by existing lithium-ion technologies, as Tesla has proven in California and Australia. By 2050, we’ll have roughy 20 TWh of batteries on wheels in US cars alone, available both for demand management to reduce peak demand, soak up excess generation, and to provide vehicle-to-grid electricity as needed.

Plant a lot of trees

We have cut down about 50% of the six trillion trees that used to grow on earth. Planting a trillion trees would buy us a lot of time as they sucked about a ton of CO2 from the atmosphere per tree over 40 years.

Change agricultural practices

High-tillage agriculture is a process that keeps releasing carbon captured by the soil back into the atmosphere. Switching to low-tillage farming would buy us a lot of time as the CO2 captured by farmland would stay in the soil a lot longer, and some of it would be permanently sequestered.

Fix concrete

8% of global CO2 emissions come from making Portland cement. It’s absolutely critical to urban densification and industry, so we won’t stop making it. But it’s a huge source of CO2, about half from the energy and half from CO2 that bakes off limestone as it is turned into quicklime. Electrifying that energy flow helps a lot, but capturing that CO2 is one of the few places where mechanical carbon capture makes sense.

Price carbon aggressively

The simplest way to get a lot of people and industries to shift away from emitting lots of CO2 is to make it expensive. That’s what carbon taxes do.

Shut down coal and gas generation aggressively

Getting rid of coal is already happening, but it’s by far the biggest single source of CO2 emissions. Aggressive actions to eliminate burning coal are needed. For gas, the question is how few gas plants can we build, how many of them can we run on biologically sourced methane and how fast can we shut them down.

Stop financing and subsidies for fossil fuel

Exploration, extraction, and use, just cut it out. The US alone spends tens of billions of dollars annually on subsidies of various kinds for the fossil fuel industry, and hasn’t done a thing about it since committing to eliminate them in 2009. The G7 and G20 have committed to eliminating subsidies, but progress has been very slow. The World Bank continues to finance coal, oil, and gas projects, despite commitments to end them.

Eliminate HFCs in refrigeration

The Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer targets the unforeseen side effects of displacing ozone-depleting CFCs with high-greenhouse gas HFCs. Project Drawdown puts this at #1 on its ranked list of solutions by cost vs benefit. The US has not ratified this Amendment, although 65 other countries have.

There are some mildly controversial things left out of this list

Nuclear power is too slow to build and too expensive

That’s empirical reality, not an advocacy statement. The conditions for rapid build that existed in a couple of places and times in the past don’t exist today. And we need a lot of clean electricity very quickly. Nuclear need not apply. Keep existing nuclear going, don’t stop new nuclear buildout in China, pretty much the only place building new generation capacity, but don’t expect it to be more than a rounding error in a few decades. New nuclear technologies are decades from commercial deployment at any scale, and we have technologies that are reliable, predictable, cheap, and fast to build, so there will be nothing for them to do once they actually make it out of R&D.

Mechanical carbon capture and sequestration is a mostly dead end

This is an overhyped fig leaf for the fossil fuel industry. Virtually every CCS site is actually an enhanced oil recovery site which recovers oil that couldn’t be pumped out before, typically enough that 2–3 times more CO2 is generated from the oil than was put underground. Exceptions are natural gas wells with too high a concentration of CO2, leading to 25 times the emissions once the natural gas is burned. Expensive, unscalable, and wasteful. As stated, it might be useful for concrete.

Air-to-fuel technologies are dead ends

Solutions such as Carbon Engineering’s direct-air-capture with hydrogen electrolysis to create synthetic fuels is a broken model. It’s vastly more expensive and higher CO2 emitting than electrification or biological pathway fuel synthesis. Any money spent on this would have vastly better results if spent on renewables instead. It’s not an either-or, but in this case policy makers should ignore this and governments shouldn’t fund it.

The military is a hard problem

The military requires vast amounts of high energy fuel in places with no electrical supply chain, often for months at a time. The US military is considered by many to be the single largest CO2 emitting organization in the world. However, eliminating global fossil fuel strategic military actions — which describes virtually everything done in the Middle East for the last 100 years — will diminish the need for the US military substantially. A great deal of its current emissions, which hopefully will start coming to light once the US signs the Paris Accord either in 2021 or 2025 once Trump is gone, are related to the ongoing Middle Eastern deployments. There’s only so much we can do for biofuels, but to be clear, the world has been in a period of diminishing military conflict since the end of WWII. Globalization may have downsides, but the ties of trade and treaties which bind countries together have been highly effective in allowing diplomacy pathways to work, and making the military option increasingly difficult to consider.

Where approaches or recommendations from people or groups diverge from the above, question what lobbying groups are involved, where revenue will be lost or gained and in general what the motivations of the people or organizations involved are. This is all empirically grounded analysis. It’s not rocket science.

We have the solutions. We just need the will to execute, which is being sapped by the losers in this necessary transformation, predominantly the fossil fuel industry.


The Guardian, Sept 2019

Greenhouse gas emissions could be halved in the next decade if a small number of current technologies and behavioral trends are ramped up and adopted more widely, researchers have found, saying strong civil society movements are needed to drive such change.

Solar and wind power, now cheaper than fossil fuels in many regions, must be scaled up rapidly to replace coal-fired generation, and this alone could halve emissions from electricity generation by 2030, according to the Exponential Roadmap report from an international group of experts.

If the rapid uptake of electric vehicles in some parts of the world could be sustained, the vehicles could make up 90% of the market by 2030, vastly reducing emissions from transport, it said.

Avoiding deforestation and improving land management could reduce emissions by the equivalent of about 9bn tonnes of carbon dioxide a year by 2030, according to the report, but contradictory subsidies, poor planning and vested interests could stop this from happening.

Key to any transition will be the growing social movements that are pressing for urgent action on climate breakdown. By driving behavioural change, such as moving away from the overconsumption of meat and putting pressure on governments and companies, civil movements have the power to drive the transformation needed in the next decade, say the report’s authors.

Christiana Figueres, a former top climate official at the UN, said: “I see all evidence that social and economic tipping points are aligning. We can now say the next decade has the potential to see the fastest economic transition in history.”

Christiana Figueres
 Christiana Figueres, a former top climate official at the UN. Photograph: Julien Paquin

The experts identified 36 developments that would produce the emission cuts needed, from renewable energy to changes in food production, the design of cities, and international transport, such as shipping. All of them are judged possible to achieve by 2030.

“While the scale of transformation is unprecedented, the speed is not,” said Johan Rockström, the director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. “This is now a race against time, but businesses and even entire industries have made many significant transitions in less than 10 years.”

Social movements will be a top priority because consumers can put pressure on the companies whose goods they buy, and public support makes it possible for political leaders to adopt bolder policies. Countries including the UK, France, Sweden and Norway have adopted a net-zero-carbon target for 2050.

Owen Gaffney, the director of strategy at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, a co-author of the report, called on digital platforms such as Facebook, Amazon and Google to play a part.

“Given that [these platforms] are now mediating behaviour and consumption, they might do more to support societal goals, for example around advertising and the promotion of high-carbon [activities]. Governments might look here too as a place for policy innovation.”

He said governments also needed to do more to support behavioral change, from dietary choices to making public transport more available.

However, the detailed policy measures required to meet 2050 net-zero-carbon targets have yet to be worked out by national governments. The report’s authors believe they can demonstrate that taking action now across sectors such as energy generation, buildings, transport and food production and consumption will make it possible. Putting off taking action will result in higher costs and make more rapid change necessary in the future, they say.

The report did not examine the potential costs but Gaffney pointed to a study last year by the New Climate Economy that estimated the economic benefit of a lower-carbon future at $26tn (£21tn) by 2030. The UK’s Committee on Climate Change has estimated the cost of reaching net zero at 1-2% of GDP by 2050.

The need to move to net zero carbon by 2050 – effectively reducing most of the world’s output of carbon dioxide emissions, and increasing the absorption of carbon by vegetation and other means – is based on the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

In its report last year, the body of leading climate scientists found there would be dire effects if temperatures were to exceed 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, and found reducing carbon to near zero by mid-century was the best way to avoid this.

The organisations behind the Exponential Roadmap report included academic institutes, green campaigning groups and private sector companies.


On 19 September we published two reports. The 2019 Exponential Roadmap covers how to accelerate the 36 solutions required to slash greenhouse gas emissions 50% by 2030. The Meeting the 1.5°C Climate Ambition report makes the case for action sooner rather than later

Roadmap Provides 36 Solutions to Cut Greenhouse Gas Emissions 50% by 2030 Worldwide

  • Low cost solar, wind, and battery technologies are on profitable, exponential trajectories that if sustained, will be enough to halve emissions from electricity generation by 2030.
  • Electric vehicle growth has the potential to reach a 90% market share by 2030 if sustained, but only if strong policies support this direction.
  • Digital technology remains a wild card. It could support a rapid transformation of our economic systems or could drive emissions higher.
  • Four drivers for rapid transformation are converging: growing social movements, the rise in the number of countries discussing a target of net-zero by 2050, the economic logic of rapid transition and the speed of technological innovation.

STOCKHOLM, Sept 19 – In advance of the 2019 United Nations Climate Summit in New York City, an international group of experts have published the Exponential Roadmap: the 36 most viable solutions to halve greenhouse gas emissions globally by 2030. The solutions – ranging from solar and wind to electric bikes, commercial shipping and reduced red meat consumption – have the potential to scale rapidly. 

Stabilizing Earth’s temperature to significantly reduce risks to societies now requires greenhouse gas emissions to reach net zero by 2050. This translates to cutting greenhouse gases by about 50% by 2030 alongside significant removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. 

“While this scale of transformation is unprecedented, the speed is not,” says report author Johan Rockström, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Germany and co-chair of Future Earth, an international research programme. 

“This is now a race against time, but businesses and even entire industries have made many significant transitions in less than 10 years,” he adds.  

Christiana Figueres, former head of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and Convenor of Mission 2020, a partner organisation in the roadmap, says, “I see all evidence that social and economic tipping points are aligning. We can now say the next decade has the potential to see the fastest economic transition in history. The 2019 Exponential Roadmap is an excellent guide for the necessary journey to net-zero emissions.” 

Manuel Pugal-Vidal, leader of the climate and energy practice at WWF, a partner of the report said, “Governments must introduce national targets to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 with targets to cut emissions 50% by 2030. Immediate removal of fossil-fuel subsidies is a priority. Yet policies must be equitable and fair or risk failure.”

“Developed nations with significant historic emissions also have a responsibility to reduce emissions faster. Cities and states – not only countries – will also be important change makers,” he adds. 

The report highlights four approaching tipping points that combined will accelerate the transformation: 

  • Growing social movements (for example, Fridays for Future) changing the public conversation in parallel with companies and cities stepping up climate action.
  • Emerging political support for more ambitious targets, for example countries such as the UK, France, Norway and Sweden adopting laws to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 or earlier.
  • Solar and wind energy have reached a tipping point and are now cheaper than fossil fuels in many places. Tumbling costs and rapid innovation of low-emissions technology including battery storage and electric vehicles makes a very rapid transformation almost inevitable. 
  • Digitalisation and global communications allow more rapid scaling than previous transformations. 

“This roadmap uniquely focuses on three things. The immediate priorities – reaching peak emissions in 2020 and racing to cut emissions in half by 2030. How we scale the new solutions exponentially. And how we need to think in terms of systems transformation of the whole economy,” says Johan Falk, an expert in exponential strategies, co-lead author and a fellow at Stockholm Resilience Centre and Future Earth, Sweden. 

The authors see the circular economy as one of the most significant ways for industries to reduce emissions. “An immediate priority is to build the policy environment for a circular economy. This could provide half of the emissions reductions we need by 2030 from key industry,” says Falk.  

The report is a collaboration between academia, business, and civil society groups solutions in six sectors: energy, industry, transport, buildings, food consumption, and nature-based solutions. In the energy sector, the authors conclude the world has reached a tipping point. 

”Low cost solar, wind and battery technologies are on profitable, exponential trajectories that will be enough to halve emissions from electricity generation by 2030,” says Tomas Kåberger, lead author of the energy chapter from Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden. “In some less developed markets, however, support is still needed to ensure these scale,” he adds. However, the report also warns fossil-fuel subsidies remain barriers to exponential growth of renewables and continued investment in fossil-fuel infrastructure is not compatible with the 1.5°C climate target. 

In transport, electric vehicles have the potential to reach a 90% market share by 2030, but only if strong policies support this direction. Even shipping is able to reduce emissions 50% with modifications to routes, speed, and fuel types. The world’s largest container shipping company, Maersk, for example, has now committed to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. 

The new roadmap includes findings from several major academic assessments on food system transformation that have been published in the past year, including the EAT-Lancet Commission on Healthy Diets from Sustainable Food Systems and the IPCC climate change and land report. 

“Food and agriculture is the dark horse in the fight against climate change. It may be the hardest sector to rapidly halve emissions,” says Brent Loken from the EAT Foundation and lead author of the chapters on food consumption and nature-based solutions. 

It will require a dietary transition from high consumption of red meat and ultra-processed foods to a more healthy diet with plenty of fruit, legumes and vegetables. In addition, the roll out globally of more sustainable farming practices. Barriers include poor land-use planning, contradictory subsidies, focus on quick profits, regulatory barriers, insufficient funding, lack of knowledge, and vested interests could slow progress.

But avoiding deforestation, in addition to reforestation and improved land management is a significant opportunity to reduce and sequester greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The authors estimate nature-based solutions could be used to sequester around 9 billion tonnes of CO2 annually by 2030. 

The building sector also requires profound changes. Reducing greenhouse gases 50% can be delivered through greater efficiencies in use of building space alongside energy efficient refurbishment and net zero-emission construction.

The second in its series, the 2019 Exponential Roadmap is complemented with a high-ambition narrative, Meeting the 1.5°C Ambition, that presents why the world must aim to hold global average temperature increase to just 1.5°C. Each new roadmap updates solutions that have proven potential to scale and charts progress towards exponential scaling, using exponential strategies needed to cut emissions 50 percent by 2030 or earlier, then doing it again by 2040 and again by 2050. The first was published in 2018 at the Global Climate Action Summit. 

Since the first roadmap, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its special report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels. The report concluded that the economic and humanitarian risks of a 2°C world are significantly higher than one at 1.5°C. Yet if emissions continue at current rates, within ten to fifteen years we will lose the chance to remain in a world at only 1.5°C. 

Additional Quotes

“Ericsson believes leveraging technologies, such as digitalization and 5G, will be fundamental to halving emissions every decade.  We have through the exponential roadmap demonstrated that existing solutions are enough to make this transition. Now other companies and policy-makers must act to scale existing solutions to enable exponential reduction of carbon emissions globally.” – Börje Ekholm, CEO, Ericsson 

“All universities have a responsibility to support exponential climate work. KTH Royal Institute of Technology do this through leadership in research, in education and in cooperation with other parts of society. Thus, we are dedicated to stimulating new ways of thinking about society and about how those can support climate targets and the SDGs.” – Sigbritt Karlsson, President of KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm.


The roadmap was compiled by 55 authors from across academia, industry, policy and consultancy. 

The report is a collaboration between:

Lead partners: WWF, Future Earth, the Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University, PIK, Ericsson, M2020, KTH Royal Institute of Technology, and Internet of Planet.  

Supporting partners:

DrawDown, Fossil-free Sweden, Telia Company, Swedish Energy Agency, ClimateView, and Scania.  

The roadmap is based on A Roadmap for Rapid Decarbonization – a scientific paper published in 2017, the first to propose that halving carbon dioxide emissions every decade to 2050 is consistent with the Paris Agreement’s aim to keep global average temperatures well below +2°C and aiming for +1.5°C. 


Alistair Scrutton, Future Earth (Europe)

Kelsey Simpkins, Future Earth (North America)

Owen Gaffney, 
Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Stockholm Resilience Centre
Tel: +46734604833

Johan Falk,
Stockholm Resilience Center and Future Earth

Food systems and nature-based solutions
Brent Loken

Exponential Roadmap Breakfast: 36 Solutions to Halve Emissions by 2030

Sun, September 22, 2019
7:30 AM – 9:30 AM EDTRegister

Keynote speakers:

  • Professor Dr. Johan Rockström, Director, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research
  • Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, Leader of World Wide Fund for Nature’s Global Climate and Energy Practice
  • Heather Johnson, Head of Sustainability & Corporate Responsibility, Ericsson
  • Henrik Henriksson, CEO, Scania
  • Johan Falk, Lead Author, Stockholm Resilience Centre, Future Earth
  • Owen Gaffney, Lead Author, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Stockholm Resilience Centre