Children solar panels
Credit: BlackRockSolar/flickr

Climate change: For big emissions reductions, we need to think small

"Big new infrastructure costing billions is not the best way to accelerate decarbonization"

Small-scale clean energy and low carbon technologies—such as solar panels, smart appliances and electric bicycles—are more likely to push society toward meeting climate goals than large-scale technologies, according to a new study from a team of international researchers.


The findings, published today in Science, suggest governments and investors around the world should prioritize small-scale, low carbon technologies in policy design and research development in order to reduce emissions responsible for climate change in a more efficient and just way.

The study authors make their case for small-scale climate change solutions.

For years, scientists have issued stark warnings that, without drastic cuts to greenhouse gas emissions, we will further warm the planet and increasingly experience "substantial" consequences—wildfires, droughts, flooding, coral reef die-offs, food shortages. A groundbreaking 2018 study from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that the planet is on a trajectory to warm by as much as 2.7-degrees Fahrenheit (compared to pre-industrial temperatures) by 2040.

The message from climate scientists has been clear and consistent—we have to act fast.

In the new study, researchers examined how to best attack the problem with available technologies. They collected information on a wide assortment of energy technologies and examined their viability to help push countries toward meeting international climate change goals, defined in the study as needing to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half within the next decade and to net-zero by 2050.

They tested how well each technology performed in cost, innovation, accessibility, social return, equality of access, investment risk and other characteristics.

The team divided technologies into two categories: "lumpy" technologies such as nuclear power, carbon capture, high speed transit, whole building retrofits; and "granular" technologies such as solar panels, electricity storage batteries, heat pumps, smart thermostats, electric bikes, and shared taxis.

They found the granular options "can help drive faster and fairer progress towards climate targets," said lead author Charlie Wilson, a researcher at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia, in a statement.

"Big new infrastructure costing billions is not the best way to accelerate decarbonization," Wilson said. "Governments, firms, investors, and citizens should instead prioritize smaller-scale solutions, which deploy faster. This means directing funding, policies, incentives, and opportunities for experimentation away from the few big and towards the many small."

Wilson and colleagues wrote the granular tech was "associated with faster diffusion, lower investment risk, faster learning, more opportunities to escape lock-in, more equitable access, more job creation, and higher social returns on innovation investment."

They cautioned that small-scale technology is not always the answer—for example, there are no alternatives for planes or industrial plants.

"Smaller scale innovations are not a panacea," said co-author Nuno Bento, a researcher at the University Institute of Lisbon, in a statement.

However, these smaller technologies are, in general, quicker to get to market and less complex. This accessibility means more jobs—which makes them an easier sell for policymakers crafting climate change plans.

"Large 'silver bullet' technologies like nuclear power or carbon capture storage are politically seductive," said co-author Arnulf Brubler, a researcher at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, in a statement.

"But larger scale technologies and infrastructures absorb large shares of available public resources without delivering the rapid decarbonization we need."

See the full study here.

"Climate change is not something to ignore"

Eighth graders reflect on the state of the planet.

HOUSTON — This week EHN is publishing letters from eighth grade students at YES Prep Northbrook Middle School in the Houston-area neighborhood of Spring Branch, Texas.

Keep reading...Show less
Senator Whitehouse & climate change

Senator Whitehouse puts climate change on budget committee’s agenda

For more than a decade, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse gave daily warnings about the mounting threat of climate change. Now he has a powerful new perch.
Amid LNG’s Gulf Coast expansion, community hopes to stand in its way
Coast Guard inspects Cameron LNG Facility in preparation for first LNG export in 2019. (Credit: Coast Guard News)

Amid LNG’s Gulf Coast expansion, community hopes to stand in its way

This 2-part series was co-produced by Environmental Health News and the journalism non-profit Economic Hardship Reporting Project. See part 1 here.Este ensayo también está disponible en español
Keep reading...Show less
sargassum
Credit: Jacques Dijon/RCI Guadeloupe

Biden announces $7 billion for solar energy in low-income communities

President Biden's new initiative allocates $7 billion to support solar energy in underprivileged areas, aiming to reduce energy costs and emissions.

Syris Valentine reports for Grist.

Keep reading...Show less

New global discussions focus on halting plastic pollution

Thousands gather in Ottawa to draft a legally-binding treaty aimed at halting the surge of plastic pollution worldwide. Will it protect the environment and human health?

Jennifer McDermott reports for the Associated Press.

Keep reading...Show less
human rights climate ruling
Credit: Stefan Müller /Flickr

Opinion: European court's climate ruling holds lessons for action on plastic pollution

A recent landmark decision by the European Court of Human Rights held Switzerland accountable for inadequate climate policies, specifically highlighting the increased risk of heatwave-related deaths among older women. Plastic production is another case where governments have failed to protect vulnerable groups.

Sian Sutherland writes for Euronews.

Keep reading...Show less
sargassum
Foto por Jacques Dijon | RCI Guadeloupe
From our Newsroom
sargassum

After 13 years, no end in sight for Caribbean sargassum invasion

Thousands of people were hurt by sargassum blooms last year in the Caribbean.

youth climate change

“We should take care of what is precious to us"

Eighth graders reflect on the state of the planet.

earth day 2024

Earth Day reflections from the next generation

This week we're featuring essays from Houston-area eighth graders to hear what the youth think about the state of our planet.

New EPA regulations mean a closer eye on the nation’s petrochemical hub

New EPA regulations mean a closer eye on the nation’s petrochemical hub

Houston’s fenceline communities welcome stricter federal rules on chemical plant emissions but worry about state compliance.

plastic composting

Bioplastics create a composting conundrum

Biodegradable food packaging is a step in the right direction, experts say, but when composted carries risks of microplastic and chemical contamination.

Stay informed: sign up for The Daily Climate newsletter
Top news on climate impacts, solutions, politics, drivers. Delivered to your inbox week days.