Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project: Preparing for opportunities

Richard Adamson

Imagine a world where carbon emissions have been held low enough to keep temperatures below the 2˚C limit. Now imagine that same world as one in which foresight and early action have lead to societies that are thriving and prosperous. This vision is at the heart of the Deep Decarbonized Pathways Projects (DDPP) – an international modeling endeavor supported by teams of energy and techno-economic modeling experts from 15 countries.

In Canada, CMC organized a national team to identify practical pathways to a deeply decarbonized energy system. The Interim Report, with chapters from all 15 countries, was issued September 23, 2014 to coincide with the global Climate Leaders’ Summit at the United Nations Summit in New York. The Final Report will be completed in time for the Conference of the Parties, COP21, being held December 2015 in Paris. It is hoped the Final Report will contribute to the structure and content of the COP21 discussions by focusing attention on possible pathways to deep decarbonization and promoting cooperation between nations.

Below, Managing Director Richard Adamson talks about results of the Interim Report and looks ahead to its final phase.

Q:  There’ve been a lot of economic models developed that examine what a low carbon world might look like. Why is this particular project different?

RA: Past economic models have tended to be top down: an organization like IEA (International Energy Agency) out of Paris would develop a global model with projections for what will happen in countries. While this has been useful, DDPP is the first time we’ve had bottom up assessments from within 15 countries representing 70% of global GHG emissions. We can now look at what each country envisions and can identify what market opportunities might arise from a transition to a low carbon economy.

Q: And what did the Interim Report show? Is it possible to deeply decarbonize the world’s energy systems?

RA: We started the modeling process with the assumption that by 2050 the world’s economy has tripled and we are on track for a 2˚ C increase, so about 450 parts per million in atmospheric CO2. And the next level down asked what the per capita emissions would have to be to get there. In Canada today, the average per capita CO2 emissions are 20 tonnes per person per year. The 2050 scenario assumes 1.67 tonnes per person. It’s about a 90% reduction. So this is not small, but it is possible to connect those dots. You can make the economy grow and reduce carbon emissions.

Q: The report also details how countries would move to decarbonizing their energy systems, and the changes are pretty aggressive. But beyond demonstrating what it would take to radically reduce emissions, what are some of the other benefits realized through this bottom-up approach?

RA: To me the real power of this program is to move the conversation from burden sharing to preparation for opportunities. The conversation and the show-stopper on global negotiations around GHG targets is that the conversations largely focus on burden sharing. Whose fault is it? Who is responsible for how much? How do we minimize the amount of responsibility we have?

This gives us an opportunity to take a doorway out of that conversation. We can begin to examine how we position ourselves to thrive in a world that is decarbonizing. It’s a totally different kind of conversation and one that people can participate in without getting into defensive posturing.

Q:  With the Interim Report complete teams are preparing the Final Report for COP21 in Paris in 2015. What will the second phase look like?

RA: In the Final Report we are looking at regulatory levers. What are the different tools and what combination will get us there most effectively with the least pain? We’ll also look at  the boundary conditions between countries, so the things that are in common between countries will be refined. There will be a deeper look at the likely total global market for fossil fuels and possible pricing signals.

We intend to refine the Canadian models in two ways. We’ll meet with groups in each of the regions to test our assumptions and will refine or improve our understanding of the likely approaches that each of the regions in Canada may take. And we’ll look at the major industry sectors to understand how they might develop. There may be technology pathways or approaches that we weren’t aware of when we worked on the Interim Report. So we’ll talk to the industry sectors and our research communities to make sure we have the most reality-based estimates we can.

Q: Industry and governments have typically avoided discussion about climate change and any economic changes it might necessitate. Are there indications they are interested in this work?

RA: We are finding that there are many groups interested in the interim results and the following work. 2050 is outside the regulatory planning horizon of various groups so there’s less sensitivity that by participating governments might be endorsing one particular pathway or another. Governments, regulators, industry participants can play a ‘what if’ game on that longer time horizon without feeling they will be caught offside relative to immediate political decisions.

Q: Your interim results received a lot of positive coverage from media around the world. You must be especially proud of the Canadian team.

RA: I can’t say enough about the group. We very rapidly pulled together a team that not only did a great job with the project, but when they were presenting the material in the joint meetings in Paris they, along with others like the Australians, were able to help many of the countries that had less history with modeling work. Because of the long history and experience of the group they really elevated the level of work of all of the countries.

Q: How does this project link to CMC Research Institutes, Inc. and its plans to develop a series of institutes across Canada.

RA: This team really forms the heart of the low carbon pathways group that CMC is putting together. We have Chris Bataille in Vancouver and Jacqueline Chan in Toronto, both are with Navius Research, and Dave Sawyer with EnviroEconomics in Ottawa and James Meadowcroft at Carleton University. That’s the initial low carbon pathways core group and initially it will be a virtual group, not a full-fledged institute. There’s a whole constellation of techno-economic modeling work or adjacent kinds of activities that fit together in some way and so we are working to define the boundaries of this group and see what other capacities we need to bring on board. CMC has since invited Dave Sawyer to be Development Director for the new Low Carbon Pathways group.