It’s time for action, but, what action?

Dear Fridays For Future activists,

I am writing to you as a member of a research group from a Spanish University that has been working on issues of sustainability, energy and climate change for more than ten years.

I am doing this because I think that, as you say, it is time for action in the face of the climatic emergency, but I also think that it is necessary to be very clear about what kind of action is necessary.

And so, in that sense, there is one thing that worries me. In your speeches on climate change you can find demands for very ambitious decarbonization objectives proposing, for example, the replacement of all fossil fuels by 2050 or 2100. According to my knowledge and according to the studies we are making in our group, such ambitious goals as these would require very drastic measures which go far beyond the usual proposals such as investment in renewable energy, electric vehicles or energy saving and efficiency.

Therefore, I think we have to be very realistic about the decarbonization objectives and the measures we demand in order to achieve them. If we do not, our leaders can happily silence the protests, by using exclusively technological cosmetic measures that do not solve anything, and the hopes of many young people with good intentions may be frustrated.

The research group which I belong to, although collaborating with the IPCC, is different from other scientific teams which study climate change because we try to address the problems much more systemically than is usual. Not only do we study, for example, greenhouse gas emissions, but also the energy model and the economic system that generate them. We also study the consequences of the transition to renewable energies on the economy and the biosphere because we think all feedback is extremely important and we must not forget that everything is connected.

Four years ago we started working on a European project that aimed to build a model that could advise EU policy makers on the energy transition. The result of the project is the MEDEAS model, which very clearly shows the interactions that arise when trying to make the transition to renewable energy. With the MEDEAS model we can see, for example, what it would take to get world transport emissions to be what the IPCC estimates we need in order to have a 66% chance of keeping the temperature below 2ºC (it requires that emissions in 2050 be 30% of the current ones).

In figure 1 you can see the results we get when we try to achieve these objectives with different scenarios. The “Current Trends” scenario is based on letting things continue as before, the “EV-high” is a radical commitment to the electric vehicle that would make practically all private cars electric in 2050, but would not be able to electrify ships or aeroplanes, and trucks only partially, due to obvious technical difficulties. The “E-bike” scenario is based on a radical replacement of private cars with bicycles and very light electric motorcycles, so that the evolution of private vehicles would be the one seen in Figure 2; a really huge change in the way of moving around.