Part 3: What Does It Take to Realize the 1.5 Degree Scenario

"It always seems impossible until it's done."

Nelson Mandela

This blog series is an effort to present some thoughts on how the U.S. and other nations could limit the increase in global average temperature to 1.5 C. My goal is to spark a conversation on this critical issue.

[updated January 2018]


Parts 1 and 2 discussed what a 1.5 degree scenario would look like. Part 1 summarized why a 2 degree scenario would rely most heavily on energy efficiency programs that accelerate economic development. Part 2 looked at six additional areas not usually included in the studies that show how we get to 2 degrees and discussed how they make the 1.5 degree scenario practical and plausible, and one that will further contribute to economic growth.

What does it take?

The first and most important thing it takes is motivation. If the nation and the world realized, first, the enormity of the threat of climate change, and second, the fact that averting it is possible and even attractive economically, then we could adopt and refine the policies needed to get there. But it won’t happen without understanding and determination.

Much of the political controversy around climate change seems to stem from three misconceptions:       

  • That there is doubt about whether human activity causes climate change;
  • That proponents of limiting climate pollution have a hidden agenda: promoting global government control;
  • That it would require unreasonably intrusive government regulation to solve the problem, if it exists.

This essay, as well as my blog, demonstrates that these ideas are mistaken. Even if one doubted whether science has established that past warming was caused by human intervention, there is no denying that future emissions could cause climate disruption. A conservative approach to a risk is to mitigate it. The solutions to controlling emissions discussed here are all market-based: they encourage competition and innovation. They involve reducing regulation more than adding regulation. And they address economic needs that no other program under discussion seems capable of meeting.

Stopping climate change can proceed more easily, rapidly, and cost-effectively if the public and decision-makers look carefully at what is involved and see that the changes needed will lead to a stronger economy and greater equity. They will also help to reverse long-term elements of decline in the American economy related to failure to innovate in our industries, causing them sometimes to lose out to more up-to-date companies abroad.

It takes the type of programs outlined here, along with a scaling up of policies that advanced states and regions are already undertaking— policies and programs that require no sacrifice, no burdensome regulations or limits, no rationing or large energy price increases—virtually nothing that makes day-to-day life more challenging.

But it will require political support for ambitious expansion of existing programs and funding to allow them to realize their fullest potentials. 

Stopping climate change at 1.5 degrees requires the self-confidence needed to strive for and then reach a goal even if the exact steps to get there after the first few years cannot be spelled out.

More specifically, it takes the type of programs outlined here, along with a scaling up of policies that advanced states and regions are already undertaking. In other words, no sacrificing, no burdensome regulations or limits, no rationing or large energy price increases—virtually nothing that makes day-to-day life more challenging. Instead it takes political support for ambitious expansions of existing programs, along with the funding to allow them to realize their fullest potentials.

But this funding need is offset by eliminating the need to invest trillions of dollars—most likely dozens of trillions of dollars—in old-fashioned energy and energy service infrastructure: oil and gas well, powerplants, gas pipelines, freeway expansions, parking lots, cars that sit idle 95% of the hours in a year, etc. The sooner we stop investing in conventional assets that will become obsolete before their useful life is over, the less assets we risk stranding in soon-to-be-obsolete infrastructure.

There are plenty of examples of people or organizations setting ambitious goals whose means of achievement were beyond the ability of anyone to predict. Occasionally this happens without even trying, such as the creation of mass markets in portable internet-connected computers that work even in remote villages, but other times it comes about because leadership asks its staff for the impossible and they deliver: the Toyota Prius.

Some may argue that such ambitious proposals are unrealistic. But this is a circular argument: if the public and their representatives believed that meeting climate goals is important, then they would certainly enact the needed policies. The problem is that these policies have seldom been laid out before the American public, alongside a quick demonstration that they are indeed technically and economically feasible. That is the motivation of this essay.

The practice of setting performance goals is fundamental to how American business has worked for generations: while we talk in theory about companies maximizing profits, the WAY they do it typically is by setting goals—sales increases, cost reductions, production levels, etc. Adding a climate goal to the mix, especially if it can be company-specific and integrated into management procedures such as is done in Strategic Energy Management (SEM), can itself be a key part of the solution.

Perhaps the strongest example of this in American history is World War II. The bombing of Pearl Harbor came at a time when we were utterly unprepared to fight a war. Yet starting the very next morning, the President committed the nation to fighting and winning the war. This fight disrupted the lives of millions, and involved the government essentially taking over large industries such as automobile production, and rationing civilian use of gasoline.

A similar example occurred in the UK a year and a half earlier.

Limiting climate change will be nowhere near as disruptive as preparing to fight a war, thus the fact that America could prepare for the war and launch a major invasion across the ocean in just 2 ½ years shows that we can change our economy quickly when we realize the importance of doing so.

I have found, in the year and a half since I began presenting this radical optimism in public, that the audiences react very favorably, and are energized to work harder at protecting climate stability and developing equitable and sustainable economic growth.

A global perspective

Much of the world is still mired in poverty. What about the argument that their emissions must grow in order to provide a middle class lifestyle to citizens that are now poor?

This argument is based on the false assumption that energy use must grow in proportion to income. If richer countries are going to reduce emissions, meaning even greater reductions in per-capita emissions, then the level of energy that an aspiring middle class African must reach is much lower. Already we are seeing high-end buildings being built with essentially no extra costs that consume zero energy on net. If we can do this for wealthy office workers in Seattle, and wealthy homeowners in Austria, we assuredly can do it for formerly poor families in Africa or India or China.

When we look at industrial energy in other countries, we need to recall that industrial energy is consumed to produce products that serve mainly consumer needs, such as housing, shopping, schools, etc. In fast-urbanizing China, over 20% of industrial energy goes to provide building materials to the home and commercial buildings sector. As China’s population stabilizes, the need for new construction will drop dramatically. This will also occur everywhere that population stabilizes: a key component of emissions will be to produce stuff that is no longer needed in anything like the temporary quantities needed to house the urbanizing population. And in countries that are still urbanizing, we can find ways to reduce the energy and emissions impacts of construction.

And the process can be enhanced by making choices to reduce supply chain energy as part of the SEM efforts (which are global: the U.S. is not the farthest along in implementing the International Standards for SEM). Developing countries can reduce emissions by using cleaner fuels, more efficient (and thus more productive and competitive) industrial processes and operating protocols, and by making design choices that rely on less emissions-intensive materials.

We also need to note the globalization of business and its consequences on other countries if the United States meets an advanced emissions reduction goal. Most energy-using products are sold into global markets: air conditioners, motors, pumps, fans, light bulbs, TVs, etc. Efficiency in one country tends to spread everywhere, just to reduce the difficulty of making different products for different regions. Many buildings in any given country are owned by real estate firms with properties around the world—good experiences with deep retrofits or zero net energy buildings in one country will spread to other places even without policy.

One of the biggest problems faced by many developing countries is weak rule of law: the government may try to require efficient products and clean energy sources, but is too weak to assure that they are implemented. Some of this may be overcome as global markets harmonize on more efficient and cleaner products. Many countries have civil society organizations that work to strengthen rule of law, or to implement standards and policies in collaboration with government, and the climate imperative may add to their success, especially as less-developed country stakeholder recognize that their countries suffer disproportionately from climate change.

Closing Observations

Suppose we learned tomorrow that there were previously unsuspected dire consequences of warming beyond 1.5 degrees.  We would solve the problem because there was no choice, by whatever lawful means necessary, even if the measures were draconian, just as we have done in fighting wars. Fortunately, the geophysics may not be that dire. If we have more time, we can encourage the moderate form of these measures--the form discussed here--through the use of mostly carrots rather than sticks, and save almost as much emissions a little slower but a lot cheaper and with increases in economic freedom.

Can we really limit climate change to 1.5 degrees? The real answer to this question has three parts:

  1. If we DON’T set a goal this ambitious, we surely WON’T meet it. We won’t meet it in part because we won’t have allocated the budgets needed to meet it.
  2. If we DO set the goal, we just might meet it. It is technically possible. At worst, we may find that some of the final pieces are too expensive, or will not be done for political reasons, so we delay them. Or we might find alternative emission savings that we didn’t plan for.
  3. If we don’t meet the goal, we will come far closer than we would have had we not set the goal.

Let’s make climate change a focus of of American global leadership and renewed patriotic commitment—a commitment that brings the world together to focus on constructive competition for mutual benefit.

We can meet the most ambitious climate goals in a way that strengthens our country and any other country that does so, in ways that offer economic opportunity to everyone, including those left behind in the last 45 years. In the process, we will be leaving our children and grandchildren a more secure, prosperous, sustainable, and equitable world.

About the Authors

David B. Goldstein

Energy Co-Director, Climate & Clean Energy Program

Join Us

When you sign up you'll become a member of NRDC's Activist Network. We will keep you informed with the latest alerts and progress reports.