Hervé Le TreutPhysicist, climatologist and director of Institut Pierre Simon Laplace
"We will never reach our targets, or at least get on the right track to doing so, if breakthrough innovations are not produced at some point."
Harnessing Technology to Save the Climate
Keeping the rise in average global temperatures below 2ºC is a very ambitious target, perhaps even too ambitious given the build-up of CO2See Carbon Dioxid in the atmosphere caused by human activity over the past 150 years. In this article, Hervé Le Treut, a climatologist who has taken part in the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)Body established by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) in 1988... , explains what measures must be taken to at least get on the right track.
At the COP21 climate conference, world leaders set a target of keeping the increase in average global temperatures to less than 2ºC above pre-industrial levels by 2100, which was seen as a minimum commitment. To achieve this objective, man-made greenhouse gas (ghg) Gas with physical properties that cause the Earth's atmosphere to warm up. There are a number of naturally occurring greenhouse gases... emissions need to fall to zero “by the end of the century”, according to analyses presented in IPCC reports. Although setting a more precise date is currently impossible, this timescale is extremely restrictive, and the models forecast that slightly longer will be needed. To reduce the CO2 “debt” already accumulated in the atmosphere, we will most likely have to generate negative emissions, which will involve removing carbon dioxide from the air on a very large scale within the next few decades. Today, however, we do not have the capabilities to do this.
The major challenge is returning to the balance of past times, with humankind continuing its development without emitting greenhouse gases, and natural carbon sinks capturing as much of these gases as the planet produces. This is the guiding objective, which may – or may not – be achievable.
To succeed, we need to implement a wide range of initiatives and, in particular, ensure that they are not competing with each other. If we do not explore all avenues, we will never achieve our goal. We have to activate every lever, carefully managing energy consumption, developing new infrastructure and making genuine technological breakthroughs.
Energy savings, which could immediately reduce emissions, are absolutely essential. For any given quantity of CO2 released, half is still present in the atmosphere one hundred years later. Reducing emissions of CO2 and other gases with long lifetimes today therefore means not having to worry about them in the future. Choosing not to take action now, on the other hand, means accepting responsibility for the irreversible consequences.
Infrastructure – for housing and transportation, for example – is a crucial driver, and we should not postpone its transformation. The low annual rate at which housing around the world is renewed makes it urgent to take action in this area. Generally speaking, a wide variety of approaches could help avoid the need for miracle solutions, that is, solutions in which we place all hope but which carry a risk that is hard to quantify. For example, electrifying all cars manufactured in France by 2040 would have a significantly positive effect on health in urban areas, but the wider environmental impactAny change to the environment, whether adverse or beneficial, wholly or partially resulting from human activity... is complex to predict and requires detailed analyses.
The Need for Technological Breakthroughs
New technologies will be an integral part of the solutions. Technological development must be ramped up to maximum levels, yet this urgent need does not receive enough public attention. One example is carbon capture and storage technology, which would be a game-changing solution if it could be made to work. Of course, many economic, technical and geological factors remain unknown, but I have the impression, as an interested citizen, that not enough has been done to assess the technology.
We will never reach our targets, or at least get on the right track to doing so, if breakthrough innovations are not produced at some point. This does not necessarily mean developing new forms of energy, but rather perfecting technologies that bring about a qualitative and quantitative change in the way existing energies are used, transported, stored and more.
Such technological breakthroughs are key to ensuring that emerging countries do not follow in the footsteps of their industrialized counterparts. This is where the biggest challenge currently lies: global emissions have doubled over the past 40 years, and the share of OECDFounded in 1960, the OECD promotes policies that will improve the economic and social well-being of people around the world... member countries in the total has fallen from 60% to around 30%, but emerging countries use the same technologies that caused the build-up of emissions in the first place.
In view of this, there are two fundamental requirements:
- Active research into all possible solutions. This naturally involves assessing their usefulness without, however, pitting them against one another or focusing on miracle solutions.
- Effective public debate. The general public needs to take ownership of these issues, or else insurmountable misunderstandings will prevent the transition. Educating younger generations is absolutely critical to achieving this.
Hervé Le Treut, a graduate of École normale supérieure, is a physicist and climatologist. After a career at the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), he now serves as a professor at the Sorbonne University and École Polytechnique and the director of Institut Pierre Simon Laplace (IPSL), a climate research organization. Hervé Le Treut has been a member of the French Academy of Sciences since 2005. His work on the digital modeling of the climate system and the impacts of climate change has received international acclaim and led him to participate in the various reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) until the 2013 publication. He was a member of the COP21 Steering Committee and co-organizer of the Our Common Future under Climate Change conference, which was held in the lead-up to COP21 at UNESCO and Université Pierre et Marie Curie (UPMC).