Sergey Paltsev

Deputy Director, MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change

Mapping complex pathways to global decarbonization

Mapping complex pathways to global decarbonization

Sergey Paltsev, Deputy Director of the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, helps decision makers meet aggressive decarbonization goals.

By: Kris Bierfelt

The world has to decarbonize. “There is no question,” says Sergey Paltsev, deputy director of the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, senior research scientist at MIT Energy Initiative, and director of the Energy at Scale Center. What is currently debated is not whether decarbonization is necessary, but how do we get there and how quickly?

Dynamic modeling for deeply interconnected systems

To help answer those questions, Paltsev and his colleagues have the next best thing to a crystal ball: the Joint Program’s Integrated Global System Modeling (IGSM) Framework. The IGSM incorporates vigorous Earth system and human system models to deliver a comprehensive analysis of the effects of a given policy scenario. “We have a very elaborate energy economic model which covers the whole globe,” he explains, with an underlying dataset of 141 countries and 65 economic sectors that can be aggregated for particular needs.

Energy use impacts many interlinked human systems like food production, agriculture, forestry, transportation, and land use. Looking at these systems in isolation doesn’t provide a full picture for decision makers. With the ISGM framework, “we are trying to capture all these interlinkages,” he says. “We can quantify risk based on the knowledge we currently have, and this is very actionable information.”

 “Despite all of the efforts, emissions keep rising and rising and rising. There is nothing magical that is going to change those emissions.”

This work is not only about climate change, Paltsev emphasizes, but global change. That means modeling the ways in which society is evolving, figuring out how to bring electricity and energy to regions where these resources are scarce, accelerating economic development, and considering “distributional aspects [of decarbonization] where rich and poor are paying their fair share or getting a subsidy if needed.”

Helping countries make good on their promises

Though greenhouse gas emissions are a global problem, decarbonization solutions must be region-specific. Consider it on a smaller scale: a state that has committed to halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Homeowners in one area may be well positioned to add solar to their energy mix and incentivized by tax credits to do so. In another town it may be easier for residents to increase their use of public transportation, so investment in hybrid buses is justified. The pathways differ, but the common goal is achievable with a targeted mix of solutions.

Paltsev and his colleagues recently worked with individual countries in Southeast Asia and Latin America to analyze the gaps between their Paris Agreement plans and what their current policies can actually achieve. “We specifically look at technological pathways and policy pathways to speed up the decarbonization process and make sure that what is promised is going to materialize,” he says. The group presented their findings at the 2019 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Madrid, known as COP25.

Each of the 195 signatories to the Paris Agreement determines its own contribution to a global reduction in carbon emissions and drafts its own plan for reaching that goal. Some countries are exceeding their promises, but, historically, “emissions keep rising and rising and rising,” Paltsev says, “and nothing magical is going to dramatically change that." Countries need to implement policies that are both aggressive and wise.

[Editor’s note: This interview took place just before the novel coronavirus pandemic radically altered human behavior worldwide, at least temporarily. “It’s not magical,” Paltsev noted later, “but coronavirus will have an impact on global carbon emissions. This challenging and unprecedented situation with COVID-19 reminds us that risks, including climate change risks, might be much higher and the impacts can be felt much quicker than we anticipate. To me, it is a sound warning that the world has to be much more serious in averting climate change disasters.”]

Sergey Paltsev
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Balancing economic and environmental risk

Corporations also consult with the Joint Program to understand how they can decarbonize while staying competitive. “After all, we are trying to create a pathway which is going to increase the welfare of nations and of citizens.” An economically disastrous policy can end up doing more harm. This means identifying tradeoffs and managing risks, the greatest of which is uncertainty. Some policies designed to cut emissions will take a generation to yield significant results, while in the US, the national political agenda can shift every four years.

It’s not only a matter of being aligned with governmental policy. The financial and investment community increasingly demands that companies show how exposed they will be if the rate of decarbonization finally starts dramatically improving globally. “They are saying, ‘Show us that you have a plan B, that you are not going to be crashed in the low-carbon economy.’”

Companies themselves understand that they need to minimize the risk to shareholders. They also want to protect their infrastructure and physical assets from things like extreme temperatures or increasing wind speeds. And engineers are increasingly designing for zero carbon as a way to future proof their work. For Paltsev, these trends are positive signs that progress will happen with or without accelerated actions from policy makers.

“I want to resolve this problem as quickly as possible, but I also want to make sure that I have realistic projections and a realistic story to tell, not some rosy picture that we are going to decarbonize in five years.”

Critics often suggest that MIT should refuse to work with companies who are heavily invested in fossil fuels. Paltsev disagrees. If fossil fuel companies don’t also invest in decarbonization, he says, “it will be a more difficult path and a more expensive path, probably a not-so-pleasant path to the future.” One major traditional energy company is working with the Joint Program to analyze plans to become carbon neutral within 50 years. “That is already a huge change in attitude,” he says. “Even those companies who were slow at the beginning, they now realize they cannot do business as usual anymore.”

Delivering a tricky message

Mitigating the climate crisis—especially at the aggressive pace that’s needed to preserve the Earth—will not be easy, nor will it be inexpensive. For consumers, there will be lifestyle costs. For elected officials, there may be political costs. For all of us, there will be economic costs.

Paltsev emphasizes the importance of delivering an objective message. There is little value in modeling scenarios where the world has miraculously switched to 100 percent renewable energy in the next decade, for example. It’s dangerously optimistic thinking, he says, because it suggests that the problem will eventually take care of itself as the costs of wind and solar power come down. “At some point we will realize, no, we need to do much more.”

At the same time, a scenario that is too pessimistic can deter a policymaker from taking dramatic action. He imagines a politician weighing their options: “Oh, the cost of that is very high and I’m in office only for four years, so I don’t want to impose that cost because I don’t want to be blamed for it.”

Corporations and government stakeholders trust the objectivity that Paltsev and his colleagues in the Joint Program bring to the conversation. “I want to resolve this problem as quickly as possible,” he says, “but I also want to make sure that I have realistic projections and a realistic story to tell the company, not some rosy picture that we are going to decarbonize in five years, because that’s not going to happen.”

Though the pace of positive change is often agonizingly slow, Paltsev is encouraged to see that more and more industry leaders are taking climate mitigation concerns seriously. “It’s no longer cheap talk, it’s really action,” he says. “We are trying to help them make decisions in the best way to speed up that action and preserve our Earth.”

Sergey Paltsev
Sergey Paltsev, Deputy Director, MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change