A Massive Renewable Energy Push Is Needed to Avoid Catastrophic Climate Change

Keeping the planet from warming beyond 2 degrees Celsius will require a global effort to rely on renewable energy.

A new report suggests that the goal of the Paris Climate Agreement to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius (or less) above pre-industrial temperatures is well within reach - but only if half of the world's energy supply is sourced from renewables by 2060.

The analysis, based on a previously published model developed by the University of Maryland, is detailed in a new book, "Paris Climate Agreement: Beacon of Hope."

"We've developed an empirical model of global climate that we use to forecast future temperature out to the year 2100," Timothy Canty, a research professor in atmospheric and oceanic science at Maryland and a co-author of the book, said in a statement. "This is a model that ingests massive amounts of observational data."

The 195 countries that signed the Paris treaty in 2015 agreed to non-binding actions that would lead to reduced CO2 emissions. Those pledges, referred to as "intended nationally determined contributions," or INDCs, are extended to the year 2030.

This is too short of a timeline, according to the Maryland researchers.

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"Our research shows that if the Paris Climate Agreement is met, it will put us on [a pathway that will lead to no more than 2 degrees Celsius], but this can only happen if two important things occur," said Walter Tribett, a research scientist in atmospheric and oceanic science at Maryland and a co-author of the book. "One, all conditional and unconditional INDCs must be met. Two, the mitigation of greenhouse gases needed to meet the Paris goal must be propagated out to 2060."

The recommendations are based on energy demand and CO2 emission projections from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), which extend to 2040 and pushing them out to 2060.

But how realistic is the goal of producing half our global energy needs with renewables?

"The longer we wait to put plans in place to achieve the magic number of 50 percent by 2060, the more and more it begins to look like a moonshot," said Ross Salawitch, a professor of chemistry and atmospheric and oceanic science at Maryland and another co-author of the book. "Unfortunately, the inexpensive availability of natural gas via fracking is making it less likely that the U.S. could attain 50 percent by 2060."

The authors aren't bullish on nuclear power, which they say the world has shied away from following with Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant accident. They also point out other, less obvious hurdles that must be overcome to meet the goals of the Paris treaty.

"Slowing the growth of [atmospheric methane] is as challenging, if not more challenging, than slowing the growth of atmospheric CO2," Salawitch said, and would require keeping flooded soil from releasing methane, control of the gas at landfills, fixing leaks related to fossil fuels - and perhaps most unlikely - "a shift away from the consumption of beef."

In addition, the developing world will have great renewable energy needs over the next century, but meeting those needs will demand a global effort to manage them sustainably.

"This will require large-scale transfer of technology and capital from the developed to the developing world," Salawitch said. "And at the same time this is happening, the developed world must reduce its own dependence on dependence on fossil fuels - not a little bit, but massively - by 2060."

The report was released in the same week that new research from the University of Houston explains why increasingly powerful storms are occurring more frequently due to climate change. The study used decades of satellite-based observations to address the underlying connection between a warming planet and dangerous storms from an energy standpoint.

Earth's changing atmosphere over the past four decades has driven more destructive storms in areas where potential energy is converted to kinetic energy, which drives atmospheric movement. This energy conversion creates the potential for more destructive storms where it occurs, and was pronounced in the southern hemisphere and over parts of Asia.

"The efficiency of Earth's global atmosphere as a heat engine increased during the past 35 years," the researchers wrote.

The result is a recipe for more powerful storms in the future if the planet continues to warm unabated.

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