Sustainable Energy

What If There Were a Moore’s Law for Reducing Carbon Emissions?

Researchers hope that a simple rule could help governments around the world achieve the goal of zero emissions.

A streamlined set of goals for reducing carbon emissions could simplify the way nations approach the quest to reduce human impact on the planet.

Adoption of renewable energy is certainly headed in the right direction. But critics have warned that countries aren’t adapting quickly or ambitiously enough to meet the emissions reductions required to meet the goals of the Paris climate pact.

Part of the problem is that governments have a hard time marrying present-day governance with the forward-looking policies required to safeguard the planet’s future. Throw in technological shifts and political shake-ups that happen along the way, and it can prove difficult to create targets that are ambitious, consistent, and achievable.

A group of European researchers have a refreshingly straightforward solution that they call a carbon law—or, as the Guardian has coined it, a “Moore’s law for carbon.” The overarching goal is simple: globally, we must halve carbon dioxide emissions every decade.

That’s essentially it. The rule would ideally be applied “to all sectors and countries at all scales,” and would encourage “bold action in the short term.” Dramatic changes would naturally have to occur as a result—from quick wins like carbon taxes and energy efficiency regulations, to longer-term policies like phasing out combustion-engine cars and carbon-neutral building regulations.

If policy makers followed the carbon law, adoption of renewables would continue its current pace of doubling energy production every 5.5 years, and carbon dioxide sequestration technologies would need to ramp up in order for the the planet to reach net-zero emissions by the middle of the century, say the researchers. Along the way, coal use would end as soon as 2030 and oil use by 2040.

There are, clearly, issues with the idea, not least being the prospect of convincing every nation to commit to such a vision. The very simplicity that makes the idea compelling can also be used as a point of criticism: Can such a basic rule ever hope to define practical ideas as to how to change the world’s energy production and consumption?

The thing is, to lean on the Guardian’s analogy a little, it did work for the chip industry: with enough investment, ambition, and scale, the sector was able to keep pace with Moore’s law, at least until recently. Perhaps the same could be true for the climate.

(Read more: Science, The Guardian, “Trump’s Budget Would Mean Catastrophe for U.S. Climate Programs,“ “The Paris Climate Pact Is in Effect, but It’s Not Enough,” “Obama Says the World’s Move Toward Renewables Is 'Irreversible”)

Hear more about climate change at EmTech MIT 2017.

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