Wind turbines

Credit: Roy Kaltschmidt / LBNL

Bending the Curve

Bending the Curve: Ten scalable solutions for carbon neutrality and climate stability

The University of California Summit on Pathways to Carbon and Climate Neutrality: California and the World was held on Oct. 26-27 at UC San Diego. The summit focused on scalable solutions for achieving significant greenhouse gas reductions and included California Gov. Jerry Brown; Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nations Environment Program; Nobel laureate Mario Molina; Ellen Williams, U.S. Department of Energy and director of ARPA-E; UC President Janet Napolitano and more.

California Gov. Jerry Brown, University of California President Janet Napolitano, politicians, industry leaders and UC’s top climate experts descended on San Diego at the end of October with a shared sense of urgency. The goal: to emerge with a practical and scalable blueprint for tackling climate change that can be applied to California and the world.

With the Carbon Neutrality Initiative announced by President Napolitano in 2013, the University of California pledged to become carbon neutral by 2025 and the first major university to reach that goal. The state of California has its own ambitious climate targets: Reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels, shift California’s electricity production to at least 50 percent renewable sources, and increase building energy efficiency by 50 percent – all by 2030.

“The challenge for us is to imagine the likely extreme outcomes of climate change and take actions now to prevent it,” said Brown, addressing the United Nations Foundation in September.

A group of 50 academics and researchers from across UC’s 10 campuses are rising to this challenge on behalf of the university and the state. Spearheaded by renowned climate scientist Veerabhadran "Ram" Ramanathan of Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, who in 1975 discovered the greenhouse effect of chlorofluorocarbons in the Earth’s atmosphere, the group convened over the summer with the aim of settling on a set of actionable solutions for curbing climate change to be presented and refined at the UC Summit on Carbon and Climate Neutrality, Oct. 26–27 at UC San Diego.

Recognizing that climate disruption is as much a technical challenge as it is a cultural, political and communications challenge, UC has pulled together experts from a broad spectrum of fields ranging from climate science to ethics, economics, ecology, energy, environmental justice, political science and religion.

“Such diversity could have been a deterrent to working together,” said Ramanathan. “The binding glue is our understanding of the reality and seriousness of the climate change problem, as well as the strong belief that there is still time to mitigate the most disastrous of the predicted changes.”

Bending the curve

Ramanathan and colleagues are concentrating their efforts on the best ways to “bend the curve,” i.e., finding the most efficient and practicable ways to minimize the Earth’s temperature increase due to emissions of greenhouse agents. Under the current “business as usual” practices, the planet is on target to exceed a 2 degrees Celsius increase relative to the pre-industrial average by 2050 and a 4 degrees Celsius increase by 2100, triggering serious large-scale problems including droughts, forest fires and sea level rise from 1.5–2 meters by the end of the century. Mitigating CO2 and short-lived climate pollutants like methane and black carbon can significantly reduce global warming and avert climate disruptions and eco system destruction — but only if real action is taken soon. The sooner emissions are reduced, the greater the effect on cumulative emissions.

With a group of 50 experts, there will be at least 51 opinions on the best course of action. “But there is one thing we all agree on,” said Ramanathan, “that we have to slow arctic warming and we have to do it immediately to avert extreme climatic events that are becoming more and more common, and are disproportionately affecting the world’s most vulnerable people.”

Starting in California

Local changes are the fastest to implement, and can help kick-start global action by lowering the barriers to change. The experience of UC and California can serve as a roadmap for other parts of the world.

Under legislation signed by Gov. Brown on Oct. 7, California must get 50 percent or more of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030. UC campuses already are on their way to this goal and will get a boost at the end of 2016 when UC's historic purchase of solar energy comes online.

UC also has been making big strides on the research front with improvements to market-ready technologies such as photovoltaics and energy-efficient lighting, as well as emerging technologies for energy storage and microgrids that will enable a transition to renewable energy, fuel cells and compressed air energy storage, and biodigesters that trap food waste emissions and turn them into energy, among many more. UC Davis’ West Village is serving as a living laboratory for many of these technologies, and is currently 82 percent of its way toward the goal of reaching zero net energy.

“The University of California is committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2025,” said Napolitano. “As we make the changes necessary to achieve this goal, hundreds of thousands of faculty, students and staff across our 10 campuses will be learning and sharing with the world how we can bend the curves of greenhouse gas emissions and stop global warming through taking pragmatic steps and lowering the barriers for others to follow.”

To Paris via San Diego

The 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference is being held Nov. 30-Dec. 11 in Paris, and the UC San Diego summit aims to arm participants with the strongest set of solutions to get the globe on the right path. Napolitano and more than 30 UC faculty experts and student researchers join Gov. Brown and California's contingent to the Paris conference.

“Many climate change solutions are emerging out of our own research in the University of California and we will be sharing them with the world at the upcoming global climate summit in Paris,” Napolitano said. “Together, we can present an inspiring, pragmatic path forward to counter the doom and gloom and the equivocating that stop us from taking action.”

“It’s going to be a long march to transition the entire modern world to a decarbonized future,” said Brown upon signing into law the climate bill setting the state’s renewable power targets. “It’s big, it’s important, and we’re doing it in California.”