Pope Francis and the IPCC: can technology mitigate climate change?

There is much talk about the Pope’s recent encyclical on climate change and for good reason; yet again the Pope has proven capable of reconciling the Church with contentious contemporary issues. But another assessment, of greater length and detail, got much less attention from the public – the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report on Climate Change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is a transnational body established by the United Nations, which compiles scientific papers on climate change to inform policymakers of potential impacts and mitigation options. The IPCC published its Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) in November 2014. Both AR5 and the Pope’s encyclical stress the importance of technology in mitigating climate change, yet also warn that technological innovation will not be enough to prevent the consequences of climate change without corresponding social and political impetus.

Technological Innovation

The Pope and AR5 agree that substantial mitigation can come from technological innovation. The Pope shows a surprising command of technical knowledge in calling on world leaders to promote energy efficient industrial production, transportation systems that reduce pollution, and sustainable agriculture. The IPCC echoes the same message but is more quantitative in its approach.

AR5 finds that renewable energy accounted for half of the new electricity-generating capacity added globally in 2012, led by wind, hydro, and solar power. This impact is significant considering that the energy supply sector is the largest contributor to global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions at 35 percent of total anthropogenic emissions. In the transport sector, which accounts for 23 percent of total energy-related CO2 emissions, innovations such as biofuels, hydrogen fuels, and electricity produced from low-carbon sources are expected to improve medium-term energy efficiency and vehicle performance by 30-50 percent. Lastly, building technology, which accounted for 32 percent of total global final energy use in 2010 and 19 percent of GHG emissions, shows the most promise.

AR5 finds that innovative design and construction, as well as energy efficient appliances and lighting, could result in a twofold to tenfold reduction in energy requirements of new buildings. What is more, the retrofitting of existing buildings promises a twofold to fourfold reduction in energy requirements at possibly negative net costs. The IPCC notes that there is “high agreement and much evidence that all stabilization levels assessed can be achieved by deployment of a portfolio of technologies that are either currently available or expected to be commercialized in coming decades.”

Population Growth

However, Pope Francis does not have an unequivocally positive view of technological innovation. He mentions in his encyclical that “technical solutions run the risk of addressing symptoms and not the more serious underlying problems.” The Pope arrives at this point from a religious perspective, emphasizing that the protection of “our common home” requires the unification of the whole human family. The IPCC report contains a similar warning. AR5 notes that per capita GDP growth and population growth are major drivers of increasing GHG emissions. While technological innovations have led to decreases in carbon and energy intensity, these reductions have been insufficient to offset increased global energy use and GDP growth.

Rebound Effects

The Pope also asserts that technology “sometimes solves one problem only to create others.” On this point, the Pope keyed in on a nuance known as “rebound effects”. Formally defined, rebound effects are behavioral responses to technological innovations that diminish the potential gains from increased efficiency. Rebound effects can be direct, as in the case of someone leaving the lights on longer once they have installed energy efficient light bulbs. Rebound effects can also be indirect if an individual spends the money saved from energy efficient products on a different polluting activity. Some argue that rebound effects result in one step backwards for every two steps forward from technological innovation.

Both the Pope and the IPCC invoke collective responsibility in their arguments. On the one hand, the Pope aims to create solidarity at the individual level through religious and ethical appeals. On the other hand, the IPCC attempts to unify the masses by influencing governments and the United Nations to set regulations and encourage innovation. Though their means are different, their ends are certainly the same; considering all possible solutions, the Pope affirms that “Truly, much can be done!” 

Joseph Schuman contributed to this post