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Q&A with Owen Gaffney, Exponential Climate Action Roadmap co-author

A report launched September 13, 2018 shows the potential for all sectors of global economy – energy, food and agriculture, industry, buildings and transport – to halve greenhouse gas emissions by around 2030. Stronger policies, the digital revolution and greater climate leadership are necessary to accelerate the economic transformation, say the authors.  


The report, launched by Christiana Figueres and global sustainability researcher Johan Rockström, to open the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco, concludes that the energy transformation in the next decade could occur much faster than many forecasts as the price of renewables drops low enough to outcompete fossil fuels. But keeping up the pace will require sharper policies to push out fossil fuels. Other sectors, however, are off track.


“Right now, it is easier to imagine a global climate catastrophe than a rapid economic transformation, yet the next decade could see the fastest energy transition in history,” says co-lead author Owen Gaffney from Future Earth and the Stockholm Resilience Centre.


Read the full press release here.


We spoke further with Gaffney about the Exponential Climate Action Roadmap and its launch today in San Francisco.


Future Earth: You’re launching an Exponential Road Map for Climate Action at GCAS in San Francisco this September. What is it and who should be using it?


Owen Gaffney: Yes, it is actually a deep dive into what needs to be done by 2030. Greenhouse gas emissions need to peak by 2020 and fall very rapidly – as a rule of thumb emissions should halve every decade, that is the kind of ballpark figure we are now contending with. The roadmap will outline the 30 scalable solutions that have the potential to put the world in that ballpark.   


Technology alone will not solve the climate challenge so the roadmap focuses on policy and behavioral change to accelerate existing technology diffusion. We need to talk about diet, lowering meat consumption, food waste, reforestation and building efficiencies – at global scales.


One new aspect of this roadmap is that it explores how existing general technology platforms, for example search engines, social media and eCommerce – which increasingly influence the behavior of 3+ billion people –  can contribute to behavioral change.


FE: What’s the backstory of the Roadmap?


OG: The story of the Road Map goes back to a scientific paper published in Science in 2017. It proposed a general rule of thumb of halving global greenhouse gas emissions every decade as being consistent with the Paris Agreement. This is an exponential trajectory and so they called it the Carbon Law after Moore’s Law in the tech sector. The Carbon Law provides a guide to the kind of pace the world needs to adopt. The paper was entitled a Roadmap for Rapid Decarbonization and it provided a few broad decadal brushstrokes of what is required. There’s a good summary on Vox. The GCAS roadmap is a more detailed analysis of the road to 2030.


What’s unique about the Road Map is its emphasis on the scale and speed required of all of us. It goes into detail on the how of those things. This is what the Paris Agreement didn’t articulate. This is what everyone has been waiting to hear.


Within weeks of publication of the paper, Project Drawdown published the top 100 solutions to reduce emissions dramatically. This was a perfect complement to our work: We provided the pace and Project Drawdown provided both technical and behavioral solutions from phasing out HFCs as refrigerants to reducing meat consumption. Since then, several other scenarios have been published outlining ways to meet the Paris Agreement’s most ambitious target through, for example, much reduced energy demand through greater efficiencies.  


Finally, some of the scientists from the original 2017 Carbon Law paper published the Hothouse Earth paper this summer which went viral. Timing could not have been better: it landed in the midst of unprecedented heatwaves across the globe, creating even more demand for an action agenda that is immediately usable. The media ‘congratulated’ the scientists for their timing.


FE: How was it created? Who was involved?


OG: We got started in earnest earlier this year with the support of Finland’s Sitra Foundation.


In April, we started discussing the roadmap project with analysts and researchers at Ericsson, Telia, Mission 2020, KTH, WWF, Salesforce and a bunch of other collaborators, including Project Drawdown. The Sitra Foundation has a track record of producing well-grounded roadmaps and they were keen to partner with us. We put together the team based at Future Earth’s offices in Stockholm.


The roadmap project has been running in parallel with efforts to develop a high-ambition declaration for the summit, coordinated by Salesforce and Mission 2020 and related initiatives coming out of the summit.


Our natural first choice of partner was the tech sector: With over three billion people now connected to devices, and 100 billion devices predicted to be connected by 2030, many decisions made every day will increasingly be mediated by the major technology platforms. These platforms, for example, Google or Alibaba or Amazon, can influence whether the future stabilizes below 2°C or moves far beyond to a 4°C world.


As we scoped out the project further though, we decided to broaden the focus beyond technology because to accelerate the pace will require more commitment from policymakers, new policies and greater climate leadership from companies and cities – we call this planetary stewardship.


FE: GCAS will feature a lot of major business actors who are all, in their own ways, implementing bespoke decarbonisation strategies. Is your Road Map a benchmarking tool for those companies, or is it more like a “Plan of Action” for the Paris Agreement?


OG: It is both. It is a benchmarking tool. The Carbon Law of halving emissions every decade is a useful heuristic for movements and networks like “We’re Still In” or Science Based Targets. It provides a very simple framework that can work at any scale and provides the necessary pace and scale to act. We will show in the roadmap that many companies and cities can go much faster than halving every decade. The roadmap will be launched alongside a digital platform developed by MapLauncher to allow countries (and companies) to track solutions and policies to implement them. Sweden is now using the tool to track its national strategy to become carbon neutral by 2045.


But it is also a plan of action. It will give the proof points that show it is possible to halve emissions rapidly in all sectors of the economy.


FE: If I’m the CEO of a big company in China, let’s say, how can I translate the road map for my business strategy? Is your team providing support to individuals and companies who might need some guidance to use the road map?


The Carbon Law trajectory can be applied to any business and has three key benefits:

  • It is simple
  • It turns a long-term goal into a short-term target
  • It applies at all scales – from individuals to companies to cities to countries

The roadmap will challenge companies to become climate leaders – or planetary stewards – and provide the essential support to help their customers change behavior and reduce emissions.


Finally, the roadmap will push companies to go beyond switching to renewable energy, which of course is essential. We want to shift the conversation into other areas that need immediate attention: efficiencies, food waste, refrigerant management and more.


FE: What happens after GCAS? Will there be a road show to take the road map to other actors and countries? Who will fund such efforts?


OG: We plan to present the roadmap at key events in 2018 and 2019 for example at the climate summit COP24 in Poland, but also at business and technology events. We want this to spark a conversation about exponential thinking around climate solutions.


The roadmap will be launched with the MapLauncher data platform. We are developing this so it can be applied at any scale. It is already getting a lot of interest. After the summit we plan to expand this rapidly. We have a vision that the roadmap is the first of many, perhaps published every 18-24 months, to showcase the frontrunners and highlight solutions to keep up with the rapid pace. It would be great to develop an accelerator or think tank to drive this agenda. That is our long-term goal.