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Social support required for deep climate decarbonization by 2050, study finds

While current efforts may not be good enough to stave off global climate change, researchers say that continued pressure on governments from protests could help to keep leaders moving in the right direction. File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI
While current efforts may not be good enough to stave off global climate change, researchers say that continued pressure on governments from protests could help to keep leaders moving in the right direction. File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI | License Photo

June 10 (UPI) -- The global response to climate change can't be understood solely through the lenses of economics and politics. The social element is key, too, at least according to one group of researchers at the University of Hamburg, in Germany.

To help stave off catastrophic global warming, several major economies have pledged to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

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Most examinations of these pledges -- and what is needed more broadly to shrink the global economy's carbon footprint -- have taken an exclusively technical-economic perspective.

But the authors of a new report, the Hamburg Climate Futures Outlook, published online Thursday, suggests societal transformation isn't happening fast enough. At current rates of reform, researchers conclude deep decarbonization by 2050 isn't plausible.

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"Which climate futures are plausible is not only a physical question, it is at present especially a social one," Detlef Stammer, Hamburg professor and one of the authors of the new report, said in a press release.

"In the Hamburg Climate Futures Outlook we investigate the transformative power of social processes and have developed a completely new method for doing so. We'll then combine the outcomes with findings from the natural sciences, allowing us to narrow down, step by step, what's plausible," Stammer said.

Because social progress at least partially dictates the political viability of climate change solutions, researchers suggest it's important to study drivers of social change.

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For the study, researchers isolated several key drivers of social progress on climate change: United Nations' climate policy, national climate legislation, protests and social movements, divesting from fossil fuel industries and media coverage.

Scientists found none of the key drivers are producing the momentum necessary to reach deep decarbonization by 2050.

"The majority of the factors we evaluated certainly support the net-zero goal. For example, the factor 'climate policy' has been strengthened by the USA's reentry into the Paris Agreement," report author Anita Engels said in the release.

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"At the same time, the extent to which climate protests can continue to put pressure on governments after COVID-19 will be an important aspect," said Engels, a professor of social sciences at Hamburg.

The new report suggests the cost of extracting and burning fossil fuels is getting more and more expensive as green energy technologies are getting cheaper. As a result, carbon emissions are likely to decline steadily in the coming decades.

Still, researchers argue new technologies and more aggressive social, political and economic reforms are necessary to inspire the kind of rapid and large-scale removal of carbon dioxide that is need to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

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The authors of the new report said they hope other climate scientists and policy makers will be inspired by their work to take a closer look at not just what is technically necessary, but also what is plausible.

"The Hamburg Climate Futures Outlook analyzes which social drivers can enable and motivate the change," Engels said. "We're using this new analytical framework to systematically assess the available data with regard to the necessary decarbonization."

"The social challenge is far greater than many people can imagine," Stammer said. "As such, our findings represent a wake-up call for the political community and society at large."

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