Staying the course: Achieving climate change goals in turbulent times

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Apr 04, 2023
Staying the course: Achieving climate change goals in turbulent times
Key takeaways from the XLV (45th) MIT Global Change Forum

At the XLV (45th) MIT Global Change Forum on March 23-24, 2023, about 90 attendees from industry, academia, government and NGOs gathered at the Samberg Conference Center on the MIT campus to explore how the world can continue to pursue and achieve climate change goals amid turbulent times.

“The world is simultaneously confronting multiple and expanding crises: the Covid pandemic; the Russian invasion of Ukraine; stressed energy markets; supply chain disruptions; currency inflation;  climate extremes including West Coast droughts, wildfires and flooding atmospheric rivers, and South African cyclones; and most recently the chaos in our banking and financial institutions,” said MIT Joint Program Director Ronald Prinn, a professor at MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, in his opening remarks. “Despite all this turbulence, the world community must remain committed to achieving the critically needed transitions in our physical and social systems to mitigate dangerous global and regional environmental changes, while keeping our economies buoyant, equitable and sustainable.”

To that end, this year’s Forum presenters addressed climate change challenges and solutions in six sessions focused on climate and energy geopolitics; water security and conflict; impacts on food security/health/equity; decarbonization and energy security; impacts on vulnerable countries; and policy: the path forward.

Facilitated by representatives of the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, each session consisted of the presentation of recent research results or insights on the topic, followed by a moderated, open discussion with all participants. As our Forums adhere to the “Chatham House Rule,” all sessions were off the record, with no press and no attribution of speakers’ comments without permission. Here, with permission from all speakers referenced below, we summarize key points from this year’s Forum presentations.

Climate and energy geopolitics

Citing midcentury projections from the International Energy Agency and the 2021 MIT Global Change Outlook, MIT Joint Program Deputy Director Sergey Paltsev warned that as emissions fall in advanced economies, they are likely to grow in emerging markets and developing economies. He also expressed concern that the vast majority of global production capacity for key electric vehicle battery components is centered in only one country (China), and that fragmented global climate policies could hamstring emissions reduction efforts. To meet long-term climate goals, Paltsev called for a truly global energy transition, increased domestic EV battery production and well-designed border carbon adjustment policies.

With the United States Energy Information Administration Annual Energy Outlook 2023 indicating that by 2030, U.S. energy-related carbon dioxide emissions will fall at most 38% below 2005 levels, the U.S. will need to make more progress on decarbonization to meet its 2030 climate commitment, said James Stock, Professor of Political Economy and Vice Provost for Climate & Sustainability at Harvard University. He predicted that as the U.S. expands natural gas exports, fluctuations in natural gas prices will align with those in global oil prices, resulting in higher gas prices for Americans and lower gas prices elsewhere, potentially expediting the energy transition in the U.S. with uncertain impacts abroad.

Water security and conflict

MIT Joint Program Deputy Director C. Adam Schlosser identified six interconnected concepts of water security and conflict: reliability, quality, quantity, safe and equitable access, environmental provisioning of water, transboundary water resources, and a multitude of metrics. Citing recent research results, he noted that aggressive climate action could reduce the global population exposed to water stress while buying vulnerable nations more time to prepare for unavoidable risks. Schlosser also showed how decision-makers can use the MIT Joint Program’s System for the Triage of Risks from Environmental and Socio-economic Stressors (STRESS) platform to identify water security “hotspots” where risks of flooding, poor water quality, poverty and other stressors compound.

Presenting several case studies, MIT Joint Program Research Scientist Kenneth Strzepek showed how African policymakers must prioritize among multiple potential water uses (e.g., for environmental protection, food production, drinking, industry and hydropower) and constituencies (e.g., urban vs. rural, public vs. private). He also highlighted several conflicts arising from efforts to develop water, energy and food systems in the Zambezi River Basin amid climate uncertainty—disputes over present vs. future costs and benefits, levels of acceptable risk, how much resilience to invest in upfront, and how to obtain regional cooperation. Strzepek emphasized that integrated climate, land, energy and water systems approaches are critical for water security in Africa.

Impacts on food security/health/equity

Dominated by ozone and fine particulate matter (PM2.5), air pollution is the fourth leading risk factor of early death, resulting in an estimated 6.7 million early deaths per year and affecting socioeconomically disadvantaged communities disproportionately, said MIT Joint Program Principal Research Scientist Sebastian Eastham. He noted that while standalone climate mitigation policies can help reduce emissions of air pollutants, combined climate/air pollution reduction policies may lead to compounding benefits to air quality and public health in some regions. To that end, Eastham recently spearheaded the development of a modeling tool that enables rapid design of effective and equitable policy combinations.

Impacted by environmental, economic and food systems, seasonal malnutrition is a common indicator of food crises and potential famine, said Elena Naumova, Professor and Chair of the Division of Nutrition Epidemiology and Data Science at Tufts University School of Nutrition Science and Policy. She observed that while the seasonality of malnutrition and its causes are well-documented, more sophisticated models are needed to project seasonal malnutrition pathways under different global change/climate scenarios and thus enable timely interventions. Naumova called for researchers to develop tools to quantify malnutrition seasonality, detect synchronization patterns, evaluate risks for seasonality amplification, and identify levers for reducing malnutrition and its seasonal peaks.

Investing in agriculture delivers more poverty reduction and food security than investing in other economic sectors, especially for early-stage countries, but it might also expose populations to greater climate risk, said James Thurlow, the Director of Foresight and Policy Modeling at the International Food Policy Research Institute, who used a case study of Malawi to illustrate the point. He outlined three priorities for research on climate and food security: measure climate risks beyond the farm (e.g., transport and energy infrastructure); track policy-relevant outcomes such as poverty and inequality, not just food production; and stress-test policy recommendations under extreme events.

Decarbonization and energy security

Decarbonizing energy systems while strengthening energy security entails expanding the focus of energy security beyond stabilizing the fossil fuel supply, said MIT Joint Program Principal Research Scientist Jennifer Morris. She maintained that it requires increasing energy efficiency; expanding domestic low-carbon energy sources; furthering accessibility and affordability; ensuring a stable supply of critical minerals for renewable technologies, and land, water, biomass and CO2 storage to support negative emissions technologies; considering the role of international offsets; and making domestic energy supplies more resilient to a wide range of disruptions and stressors. Tools that model such stressors, uncertainties and risks to the energy system include the Joint Program’s STRESS platform and IGSM framework.

MIT Joint Program Research Scientist Angelo Gurgel explored the critical importance of land use in securing the bioenergy and carbon sequestration resources needed to meet long-term climate goals. He showed the potential contribution of (1) energy crops, wastes and forest biomass to the future energy supply, and (2) Natural Climate Solutions (NCS)—conservation, restoration and improved land management actions that increase carbon storage or avoid greenhouse gas emissions in landscapes and wetlands across the globe—to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Gurgel recommended the use of socioeconomic-environmental modeling tools such as the IGSM framework to properly evaluate land-use aspects, mitigation potentials and possible consequences and trade-offs between bioenergy and NCS.

Shell Chief Climate Advisor David Hone presented two energy security scenarios— possible futures based on data and models—designed to help the company think about emerging challenges, and help inform decision-making in society-at-large. The Archipelagos scenario prioritizes national energy security over long-term climate security, while Sky 2050 scenario prioritizes long-term climate security. Sky 2050 achieves net-zero emissions sooner than Archipelagos. Both scenarios feature an accelerated energy transition dominated by electrification, with increased deployment of biofuels and hydrogen and land management becoming a global priority. Sky 2050 sees large-scale removal of CO2 from the atmosphere and the emergence of synthetic fuels, with warming in 2100 returned to current levels and falling. 

Keynote - Responding to the Climate Threat: Essays on Humanity’s Greatest Challenge

MIT Joint Program Founding Co-Director Emeritus Henry Jacoby shared highlights from a recently released book he co-authored with three other climate researchers on communicating to the general public about climate science and policy, and the challenges and potential solutions. Featuring 33 essays and largely focused on the United States, the book seeks to overcome the lack of trust in the scientific enterprise, and fill gaps in the communication of technical information and the role of uncertainty to the layperson. Jacoby and his co-authors stress the need to describe the nature, urgency and stakes of the climate challenge in accessible terms.

Impacts on vulnerable countries

Urvashi Narain, Lead Economist for Environment, Natural Resources and Blue Economy at the World Bank, introduced the World Bank Group’s new Country Climate and Development Report (CCDR), which aims to identify targeted policy, institutional reforms and investments to boost climate mitigation and adaptation in low/middle-income countries. Malawi’s CCDR shows that climate change could result in up to a 16-percent reduction in GDP by 2050 and an additional two million people in poverty in the next decade. Accelerating development, as described in Malawi’s Vision 2063, provides a strong basis for strengthening resilience. Additional adaptation measures will nonetheless be needed to significantly reduce losses to GDP by 2050.

BRAC USA President and CEO Donella Rapier described BRAC as “a global leader in developing and implementing cost-effective, evidence-based programs to assist the most marginalized people in extremely poor, conflict-prone, and post-disaster settings.” The only organization of its scale from the Global South, BRAC uses locally-led approaches and partnerships to address climate change in some of the world’s most vulnerable countries. A case in point is BRAC’s partnership with MIT in Climate Resilience Early Warning System Network (CREWSnet), an MIT Climate Grand Challenges flagship project, which will provide localized, forecasting technology and empower communities to interpret local risk and plan for their futures.

Policy: The path forward

Joseph Aldy, Professor of the Practice of Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, framed the climate change component of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA)—a set of measures likely to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 (10 percent shy of its Paris Agreement Nationally Defined Contribution)—as indicative of evolving U.S. climate change policy. He noted that the IRA focus on clean energy subsidies (nearly $400B over 10 years) emphasizes domestic manufacturing and unionized labor as well as environmental justice. The law includes $270B in tax expenditures for the power sector, transportation (fuels and vehicles), residential building upgrades and clean energy manufacturing.

In India, coal accounts for 49 percent of the power sector, energy consumption is skyrocketing along with the population, and fossil fuels account for 75 percent of energy used for transportation and factories, said Siddharth Aryan, Director of Climate, Energy and Sustainability at the US India Strategic Partnership Forum. To decarbonize its energy sector, India aims to have solar match coal’s share of the nation’s power sector by 2030, increase natural gas’s share of its energy mix from 6 to 15 percent, shift more vehicles from gas to electric, and increase production of biofuels and green hydrogen. The U.S. and India are currently collaborating on a strategic clean energy partnership.

Vicky Pollard, Head of Unit: Foresight, Economic Analysis and Modelling at the Directorate General for Climate Action of the European Commission, described different components of the European Green Deal, a roadmap for making the European Union’s economy sustainable. One key component is the EU’s Green Deal Industrial Plan, which aims to bring regulatory certainty through the Net-Zero Industrial Act (to scale up net-zero technology manufacturing in the EU), critical raw materials regulation, communication on the European Hydrogen Bank, and reform of electricity market design. Another key component, the European Climate Law, mandates that the Commission propose a more ambitious 2040 climate target by the spring of 2024.

Claudia Octaviano, General Coordinator for Climate Change Mitigation at the National Institute for Ecology and Climate Change, Federal Government of Mexico, highlighted climate change issues in Latin American Countries (LAC). Characterizing the region as prone to frequent extreme weather events and significant migration, she noted that LAC emissions account for about 10 percent of global emissions. Climate policies in place for the area’s largest emitting countries, Brazil and Mexico, will be critical, along with adaptation, to addressing climate change challenges in the region, she said. New measures to increase climate ambition in LACs include increased renewables installed capacity, green bonds and an emissions trading scheme.

Photo: The XLV (45th) MIT Global Change Forum explored how decision-makers can stay on course in achieving climate change goals as the world confronts multiple and expanding crises. (Source: NASA)

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