Climate change has been in the news quite a bit lately, especially in the aftermath of a hurricane season that has left parts of North Carolina and Florida in need of serious rebuilding. The topic was even brought up during a “60 Minutes” interview on CBS with President Trump last Sunday evening.
A lot of the coverage was in response to a report released by the international scientific panel on climate change (otherwise known as the IPCC) two weeks ago, on what to expect with 1.5°C (2.7°F) and 2°C (3.6°F) of warming.
The report finds that limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require “far-reaching” changes to how we power our homes and businesses, grow our food and design our cities. Yet achieving this temperature goal is also essential if we’re to prevent the most disastrous of climate impacts.
Daunting as this might sound, we have the tools we need to meet this challenge—we just need a rapid acceleration in deploying them. “Limiting warming to 1.5°C is possible within the laws of chemistry and physics, but doing so would require unprecedented changes,” said Jim Skea, co-chair of IPCC Working Group III.
The IPCC projects that human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide would need to fall by about 45 percent globally by 2030, and basically go to zero around 2050 in order to limit warming to 1.5°C.
Limiting emissions will require significant decarbonization of the energy sector. Renewables will need to supply 70 to 85 percent of electricity in 2050 in order to prevent warming from overshooting 1.5°C. Coal power plants supplied 28 percent of the energy used around the world in 2015, but renewable energy is on the rise.
In 2016, installed solar energy capacity grew faster than any other fuel. More than 70 gigawatts of solar energy were installed around the world, enough to power 50 million U.S. homes. This promising trend needs to increase exponentially in order to meet the challenge of cutting carbon emissions in half in the next 12 years.
Resource Watch hosts data on solar energy potential, which is estimated by calculating the average solar radiation striking the earth over one year. Using this data with the Global Power Plant Database shows places where solar potential near existing coal power plants.
In the U.S. many coal power plants are being retired as they age. In Washington state, a coal-fired plant responsible for 10 percent of the state’s emissions will be retired by 2025, and the plant and nearby strip mines will be replaced with solar panels.
As the costs of solar energy continue to decline, retiring coal power plants and replacing them with renewables will start to look more attractive.
We can also do the same with wind energy potential, and overlay the map with existing wind plants, to see areas of unlocked potential. WRI updates the Global Power Plant Database every six months.
Planting Trees, Restoring Prairies and Restoring Degraded Soils
I’m sure you’ve heard the old saying that money doesn’t grow on trees, but the more you look into the benefits of trees, the less this adage holds up.
Planting trees and restoring soils can improve water quality, sequester carbon, and provide income to people living in rural areas. Research by WRI’s New Restoration Economy project found that the annual economic benefits of restoring degraded and deforested land globally are an estimated $84 billion.
While we need to rapidly decarbonize the economy, this will no longer be enough to limit warming to 1.5°C. In other words, the world must not just reduce emissions, but pull carbon out of the air. Almost all of the models used in the IPCC report rely on carbon removal to some extent. Restoring landscapes and forests is one of the best, most cost-effective options available to do this.
The restoration opportunity map above shows areas where different types of landscape restoration are possible. In less populated areas, wide-scale restoration is doable where there’s little competition for land. Agriculture and rural housing may be present in more populated areas, where mosaic restoration provides the opportunity for agro-forestry and incorporating trees into other land uses. Remote restoration is possible far from human development, but is typically less feasible because of the difficult-to-access locations. More than 2 billion hectares worldwide offer opportunities for either wide-scale or mosaic-type restoration, an area larger than South America.
On a continental scale, Africa has the greatest area of opportunity for both wide-scale and mosaic restoration. Twenty-seven nations across the continent have now committed to restore 111 million hectares of degraded land as part of the African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative (AFR100). In realizing these commitments, countries will spur climate resilience and economic growth.
The global middle class is growing at a fast pace. Every second, five more people are added to this income group, which is characterized by having expendable income for leisure activities and luxury foods. As the world gets wealthier, demand for meat and dairy – foods with outsized climate impact – is on the rise.
The map below shows new data added to Resource Watch, on the fraction of calories grown on croplands that actually end up on our plates. In the U.S. about two-thirds of the crops grown are fed to livestock, and the conversion from corn to animal product is very inefficient. Only about 12 percent of the calories livestock eat becomes meat, eggs, and dairy.
Shifting wealthier consumers toward plant-rich diets could alleviate demands for land to grow corn, soybeans and other animal feed crops—and also reduce pastureland demand. Switching from beef to chicken or pork has a big carbon benefit, and because cattle convert feed calories so inefficiently, this shift could hypothetically free up enough calories to feed an additional 357 million people.
There is no silver bullet, or a single pressure point to tackle the climate crisis. It will require an army of actors, an array of interventions and a menu of pathways in the right places. Resource Watch can help you explore possible interventions on the global scale and monitor the pulse of human development.
For more climate-related data, check out our topic page.