Global warming can be limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius by improving the energy efficiency of our everyday activities such as travel, indoor heating and device use, according to a study.
Published in the journal Nature Energy, the study shows that dramatic improvements in the energy efficiency of everyday activities can raise living standards in the global South to meet UN Sustainable Development Goals while also remaining within the 1.5 degrees Celsius target set by the 2015 Paris Agreement.
Improved living standards for all need not come with a large increase in energy demand at the expense of the global environment, said researchers from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Austria.
The study is also the first ever to show how the 1.5 degrees Celsius target can be reached without relying on unproven technologies such as bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (CCS) which remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and bury it.
"Our analysis shows how a range of new social, behavioral and technological innovations, combined with strong policy support for energy efficiency and low-carbon development, can help reverse the historical trajectory of ever-rising energy demand," said Arnulf Grubler, lead author of the study.
"A rapid downsizing of the global energy system between now and 2050 makes it much more feasible to transition away from fossil fuels and towards renewables and electricity to provide for development needs while limiting the impacts of climate change," said Charlie Wilson from IIASA and also the University of East Anglia in the UK.
The team examined a wide range of innovations at the fringes of current markets that could help reduce emissions if they became mainstream.
Drawing on detailed studies of energy used in transport, in homes and offices, and in the manufacture of consumer goods, they found evidence of two- to four-fold reductions in the amount of energy required to move people and goods around, to provide comfort in buildings, and to meet the material needs of growing populations, particularly in the global South.
They identified a number of key innovations, for example, shared and 'on-demand' fleets of more energy efficient electric vehicles with increased occupancy can reduce global energy demand for transport by 60 percent by 2050 while reducing the number of vehicles on the road.
Single digital devices such as smartphones serving a wide range of functions combined with younger generations' preferences for accessing services instead of owning goods can limit the otherwise explosive growth in global energy demand to a mere 15 percent by 2050 for a digital economy with over twice the number of devices than are in use today.
Strict standards for the energy performance of new buildings as well as renovations of existing buildings can reduce energy demand from heating and cooling by 75 percent by 2050, researchers said.
In addition, shifting to a healthier diet with less red meat but similar calorific intake can significantly reduce emissions from agriculture, while increasing forest cover by 2050 equivalent to the size of Italy and Bangladesh combined, they said.
"Changes in the ways that we as the final users of energy go about our daily lives have knock-on effects on the ways that goods are manufactured and transported around, offices and malls are built, and food is grown. It is us as energy users who ultimately define the potential for transforming our energy system to meet climate targets," said Grubler.
The study found that if the total global energy demand is reduced by 40 percent by 2050, with a strong emphasis on electrification, current rates of renewable energy deployment projected on into the future could more than meet the world's energy needs without having to rely on unproven technologies such as CCS to capture and store greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels or plant matter.