Climate Action

3 climate change scenarios as we head to COP26 - by a 'futurist' on the Radio Davos podcast

climate change A hand holding a sign saying 'There is no Planet B'

We are already in a period of climate change, with extreme weather experienced around the world in recent months. Image: Unsplash/ Markus Spiske

Kate Whiting
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  • Scenario planner and futurist Peter Schwartz describes the three most plausible scenarios for the future of climate change.
  • He explains the biggest steps we need to take to prevent the worst-case scenario.
  • And offers examples of solutions that are coming over the horizon, including better battery technology.
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“One of the best pieces of advice I got as a young man was, ‘If it doesn't take 50 years, it isn't worth doing’,” says futurist and author Peter Schwartz.

He’s talking about climate change, which is “a big problem” he’s been scenario planning for since 1977, but one that humanity can deal with, he believes.

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“It takes a decade or more to redirect the world in a better direction. So I'm actually fairly optimistic. I'm not troubled by the fact that it takes a while for us to come to agreement, to act and to implement the solutions.

“Do I wish it were faster and easier? Of course, but that's not how the real world works.”

Schwartz is Senior Vice President of Strategic Planning for Salesforce, where he also leads the Salesforce Futures LAB, which works with companies and governments on strategies for the future. He has written books, including The Art of the Long View (1991), considered the seminal work on scenario planning, and has consulted on scripts for films including Minority Report and WarGames.

In an interview for the World Economic Forum’s Radio Davos podcast, he described the three most plausible scenarios for the future of climate change - and what needs to happen to limit global warming.

climate change The IPCC’s emissions scenarios and the resulting radiative forcing levels for the Representative Concentration Pathways.
The IPCC’s emissions scenarios and the resulting radiative forcing levels for the Representative Concentration Pathways. Image: IPCC

What is the worst-case scenario for the future of climate change?

We are already in a period of climate change. We see it in the kind of extreme weather that we've been experiencing around the world in recent months: massive forest fires, huge floods, and big storms are all symptoms of climate change. The first scenario is that we are not very effective in dealing with it, and preventing it. And what we see is that the current pattern continues to grow. We will see gradually average temperatures rising. But more importantly, we'll see significant variation around the trend, weather extremes will be ever more extreme and more common. So we'll have more severe storms, more floods, more droughts, more winter freezes, that will be more extreme, because while the trend is going up, on average, it's still the swings around that trend - it can actually get colder at times, as well.

That's where we're going right now, that is the scenario we're headed toward. A century from now the average temperature will have gone up about three degrees centigrade, almost six degrees Fahrenheit. It’s a catastrophic scenario.

What about if we take action to mitigate climate change?

The second scenario is where many of the mitigation measures that we're doing now actually begin to work. We reduce the emissions of human industry and society, we reduce the amount of CO2 and other greenhouse gases, like methane, that we're putting into the atmosphere. We do a pretty good job of it, and gradually slow the rate of climate change enough that the world can adapt more effectively to it. So we have a bit less extreme [weather] and a little less climb in average temperature. It’s more like a one and a half to two degrees centigrade rise, or four degrees Fahrenheit. This is an ‘adaptability’ scenario, where in effect, we're good enough to slow it down, but we still have significant climate change. It’s not a great scenario, but it's not catastrophic.


What’s the World Economic Forum doing about climate change?

What’s the best-case scenario?

The third scenario, and the best case, is where we actually go negative on greenhouse gases. Over the next 20 or 30 years, we begin to figure out how to radically reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere and we do a great job of reforestation of the planet, for example. We move to electric vehicles, we radically reduce the amount of carbon dioxide from coal and other fossil fuel burning and so on. And then we go negative in greenhouse gases, that's where we actually draw down the CO2 and we begin to actually reduce the impact of climate change. So in a century from now, century and a half, we will have got the Earth back on a much more benign climate trajectory. The climate changes all the time, but we don't mind if it changes slowly, over many, many centuries. What we don't like is if it changes really fast in undesirable directions. Over a short period of time, the climate will evolve, but it will be the natural normal, many centuries cycles of climate change.


What needs to happen so we can achieve scenario three?

The biggest thing is how much we are impacting the climate. Number one is all the stuff we're putting into the atmosphere. The three big sources of greenhouse gases are burning fossil fuels, natural gas production, and the emissions from agriculture. If we can make a big impact on all three of those, then we have a really huge effect on the climate.

With fossil fuels, the things to do are obvious. The one that is controversial is nuclear power. I believe that nuclear power is a good idea, because climate change is much worse than any of the risks of nuclear. But that's a very controversial position and the truth is that wind and solar are getting much better. Then electrifying everything, so vehicles move from burning gasoline to being able to use solar power. I have an electric car in my garage, which is powered by solar on my roof that goes into batteries that recharge my car. We need to use no fossil fuels at all.

We also need to radically improve how we produce natural gas - [some pipelines] tend to leak a lot of natural gas and that's a very potent greenhouse gas. The harder one is agriculture. We produce a lot of natural gas in a variety of agriculture, particularly beef production. So we need to either eat less beef or change what we feed the cattle or the genetics of that cattle. Both of those are being worked on: cattle feed that reduces methane production and genetic modification of cattle so they produce less methane.

Are there other solutions on the horizon people might not be aware of yet?

Some are very obvious, like the cost of batteries, for example, which makes a huge difference for renewables, both for storing energy in the grid, and for our vehicles at our homes. They're going to come down dramatically in cost and improve in performance, as the materials that we use change. Today, we use lithium ion, but there are new formulations coming along that will be cheaper, with less environmental impact, and produce much better storage capacity.

The next big one in energy is going to be fuel cells. That is the ability to use a variety of sources of gas, mostly hydrogen to power a fuel cell, for vehicles, for buildings, for communities, and so on. That's a way of taking hydrogen, for example, and turning it into electricity. If you use solar power to create hydrogen, put it in a vehicle, suddenly you've got a bus running around producing zero pollution.

We just had a major breakthrough in fusion power, the ability to use giant lasers to compress hydrogen, but that's still decades away from actually producing a useful product. If we could produce fusion energy - the same energy that's in the sun, the ultimate solar power - that would be a huge gain.

Another thing will be a huge reinvention in how we build our homes. We are very inefficient in the design of buildings and the sprawl in cities. I think we're going to move toward much more walk-friendly cities,that make it easier to get around. Many of the older European cities were like that, where you had good transit trolleys and buses and it was easy to walk. I think that's where we're headed in the future. We're redesigning how we live to be much, much more environmentally benign.


Also on this episode of Radio Davos:

US Special Presidential Envoy on Climate, CEO of shipping line Maersk Soren Skou and CEO of cement maker Holcim Jan Jenisch in a discussion that can be heard in full on the Agenda Dialogues podcast or watched here.

'60-second climate voices' with Joshua Amponsem of the Green Africa Youth Organization (GAYO) in Ghana.

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