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UC researchers present 10 scalable solutions for climate change

Credit: University of California

Renowned atmospheric scientist V. Ramanathan of UC San Diego's Scripps Institution of Oceanography explains how the state of California and the UC system together can lead the charge through the Carbon Neutrality Initiative and ‘bend the curve’ in global warming.

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University of California climate experts today (Oct. 27) announced 10 scalable solutions for moving the world towards carbon neutrality, a practical framework that outlines both immediate and longer-term actions for staving off catastrophic climate change.

Gov. Jerry Brown, who joined UC President Janet Napolitano at the UC Carbon and Climate Neutrality Summit at UC San Diego, said the solutions from the UC Climate Solutions Group could help shape talks among global leaders at the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Paris from Nov. 30-Dec. 11. 

“This is a call to action. If we put all our best minds together in California with the research integrity and capacity of the University of California, that is a very formidable force, and nothing less than that is required,” said Brown.

Napolitano and more than 30 UC faculty experts and students are joining Brown and other state leaders as part of California's contingent at the Paris conference.

The urgency of action

The effects of global warming already are beginning to wreak havoc around the world, with direct impact on human lives. Napolitano called it one of the greatest security challenges the world faces.

“Climate change impacts issues as varied as disease management, food security, the preservation of water resources, the stability of fragile governments, and transportation infrastructure,” Napolitano said. “Addressing these challenges, and reducing our carbon footprint, is a moral imperative.”

The UC Climate Solutions Group, composed of 50 top experts from all 10 UC campuses and the associated national laboratories, also stressed the moral implications of climate change in the executive summary of their report, "Bending the Curve: Ten scalable solutions for carbon neutrality and climate stability," highlighting that the people most at risk are the world’s 3 billion poorest people, while the majority of pollution is created by the wealthiest 1 billion.

“15 percent of us contribute 60 percent of the pollution. We’re leaving behind a planet of uncertain future for our children, grandchildren and generations unborn,” said Veerabhadran Ramanathan, chair of the UC Climate Solutions Group.

Actions we can take now

The summary report emphasizes that action on climate change is urgently needed, and that we already have the tools to slow global warming in the short-term. Taking immediate action will afford us the time needed to put in place the emerging technologies and make the cultural shifts that will allow the world to transition to a carbon-neutral future.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) remains the single largest contributor to climate change, but for a quick win the group focused on the strategy of curbing short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs): methane, black carbon, HFCs and ozone. Whereas CO2 remains in the atmosphere for decades to centuries, SLCPs have much stronger global warming potential but remain for much shorter periods of time – some for just days or weeks.

“The good news is that because they have such short lifetimes, you can ameliorate their actions in the earth’s atmosphere very quickly,” said William Collins, director of the Climate & Ecosystem Sciences Division at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

SLCP emissions can be cut back quickly using existing technology and regulatory mechanisms that have proven effective for other climate pollutants. Globally, if methane emissions are cut by 50 percent, black carbon by 90 percent and HFCs fully eliminated by 2030, global warming will be cut in half by 2050 – and there are additional side benefits.

“Mitigating SLCPs buys you lower climate forcing, buys you reduced sea level rise, buys you major public health benefits, buys you higher crop yields, buys you a more vibrant economy – there’s really no downside,” said Collins.

The report also emphasizes the need to scale up the use of existing carbon-neutral technologies as quickly as possible. Solar and wind power, electric light-duty vehicles, and efficient devices, particularly for lighting, air conditioning and industrial processes, are ready for widespread use now and the barriers to their adoption need to be lowered.

Saving human lives

While there are longer-term economic and ecological impacts of climate change, the report points out that many of the immediate effects already are impacting human lives.

The harmful effects of climate change, including sea level rise and increased heat waves, droughts and drinking water shortages, will only get worse under “business as usual” scenarios, as will loss of life and food crops due to air pollution.

“Indoor and outdoor pollution is now one of the leading causes of death worldwide, causing over 7 million premature deaths annually,” said Helena Molin Valdés, head of the Secretariat, Climate and Clean Air Coalition, United Nations Environment Program.

Societal solutions

Recognizing that climate change is not merely a technical challenge, the 10 solutions in the report also address the societal, regulatory and moral angles to the war on climate change as well as the difficulty of communicating the urgency to the public.

Because fundamental changes in attitudes and behaviors are critical, the group is urging researchers and scholars to come together with community and religious leaders to create a culture of climate action to take concrete steps toward solving our shared climate crisis.

California as a model

Of the 10 solutions proposed by the group, the report points out that seven have been or are in the process of being enacted in California, including recent efforts on SLCP mitigation.

Highlighting California’s economic growth and success with governance, regulations and market-based instruments, as well as technologies developed by UC and tested in living laboratories throughout the state, the group suggested that subnational efforts like those in California can show the way forward for other parts of the world. 

“California has a long tradition of imagination and leadership and looking over the horizon,” Brown said.