A recent report is adding frightening detail to one of humanity's two great existential threats. One of them, nuclear war, can end our world with a bang. The other, global climate change, can end our world with a whimper. The new report addresses the whimper.
Many issues of science, economics, ecology, and morality are in play with climate change. Does this generation care enough about future generations to save them from the hellish world we in the developed world have set in motion? Do we care about horrible consequences we won't be alive to suffer? The answer so far is that we do not.
Scientists have known for more than a century that carbon dioxide (CO2) and several other gases linger in the atmosphere, some for thousands of years, to form a blanket around the planet. It keeps some of the sun's energy from reflecting into space, and that warms the Earth's surface. As the warming increases, it changes the weather, mostly in dangerous ways. Seas expand and rise, rainfalls intensify and cause floods, drought sets the stage for horrific wildfires, heat becomes fatal, and so on.
The report warns that if we don't stop these emissions, the planet's extremes will exceed what human evolution has equipped us to tolerate. Parts of the Earth will become unlivable for our species as well as many other species of plants and animals.
Unfortunately, these warnings do not seem to motivate the body politic in sufficient numbers to force change, even though the changes would be appealing. Trading fossil fuels for sunlight and wind, for example, clears our lungs and skies; avoids the environmental degradation caused by drilling, mining, and wastes; and disentangles us from fickle oil markets, whose vicissitudes of supply and price destabilize economies. Clean resources and the technologies to use them are available now.
Next, we should accelerate the regeneration and conservation of nature's "sinks," the forests, grasslands, wetlands, and fertile soils that absorb and store carbon. Each performs a variety of valuable services beyond carbon sequestration. We should think of nature as a partner rather than a victim. Those measures are readily available, too.
Nevertheless, nations remain addicted to oil, coal, and natural gas. When addicts do not or cannot liberate themselves from their drugs, they hit rock bottom where they either change or die. Our dependence on fossil fuels, the inertia of the fossil energy era, the carbon "drug" pushers, and our reluctance to go through the inconveniences and disruptions of recovery are part of the fossil-energy syndrome. The problem of hitting rock bottom here is that there will be no way out. We know these things. What's alarming in the report is that we are much closer to rock bottom than we think, and we have much less time than we assumed to do something about it. We can no longer afford the incremental retirement of fossil fuels. We need an exceptionally rapid transformation of how we fuel our economies. The price of inaction is a violent "Hothouse Earth" whose collapse is linear, self-sustaining, and irreversible, Drawing upon research from around the world, co-authors Ian Dunlop and David Spratt at Australia's Breakthrough – National Centre for Climate Restoration, conclude that:
We will reach 1.5 oC of warming within nine years, no matter what we do. In 2015 after 40 years of discussions, 195 nations agreed in Paris to keep warming to between 1.5 oC and 2.0 oC above pre-industrial levels. Dunlop and Spratt warn that we will reach 1.5 oC by 2030. At our current rate of carbon emissions, global warming can reach 2 oC before 2050, 3 oC by 2060, and 5 oC before the end of the century. Even a 3 oC increase would mean insufficient food production to feed the world's population.
Even if nations exceeded their Paris promises, we might already have lost the opportunity to prevent the climate from reaching "a state it hasn't seen in tens of millions of years" and "a world for which Homo sapiens did not evolve."
This dystopian world is not yet inevitable, but it will be unless preventing it becomes the No. 1 priority of all nations. At the same time, we should not rush into technical fixes that might cause unintended consequences, that offer false hopes, or that waste time and money.
Despite ever-more-dire warnings like these, nations are making things worse. Rather than a rapid transformation to carbon-free economies, governments are paying oil, coal, and gas companies to produce more. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimated that in 2017, governments gave fossil energy companies about $500 billion annually in tax breaks and other production incentives. That money could be redirected toward the $3.8 trillion in annual investments the world must make in clean energy production every year until 2050, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
However, incentives for producing more fossil fuels are minuscule compared to the indirect costs the fuels impose on society and the environment. When we count those we can quantify, direct and indirect subsidies came to more than $5 trillion in 2017, the IMF reports. In other words, nations can avoid trillions of dollars in social and environmental damages by transitioning to clean energy.
The good news is that market forces and national policies are getting behind carbon-free energy. The bad news is that market forces and public policies are not pushing hard enough while fossil energy spending is not retreating rapidly enough. The world’s investments in fossil energy far exceed those in renewable energy.
Extraordinary times, extraordinary measures
Nations will meet again in November to discuss progress under the Paris Agreement. They are likely to find that none of the world's wealthiest nations are close to achieving their own goals let alone those in the agreement, which are themselves insufficient.
It's time for brutal honesty about this. The global community needs an emergency action plan. Here are what some of its features could be:
- Mandatory and enforceable national commitments to cut carbon pollution, rather than the current voluntary pledges without sanctions.
- Mandatory and enforceable national commitments to end fossil energy subsidies. Forty-four rich and emerging countries increased their subsidies 38% in 2019, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The United States and China were the most generous, with subsidies of $ 649 billion and $551 billion. Nations could invest retained tax revenues in their economies, other types of tax incentives, social programs, or green development. As a bonus, they would save trillions of dollars in environmental and social costs.
- Reconsideration of mitigation investments. Countries are dumping money into technologies meant to placate fossil energy companies rather than to draw down carbon emissions. In my opinion, Carbon Capture and Sequestration, or CCS, is a case in point. It would require larger plants, more energy and water consumption, transportation of the carbon to sequestration sites, and inevitable disputes over property rights and liability. With the price of renewable electric generation and storage falling rapidly, CCS may not be able to compete with renewable generation technologies. Besides, CCS does nothing about carbon pollution when fossil fuels are extracted, processed, and transported.
- Countries would know this if they used full-cost life-cycle accounting. Their failure to count all direct and indirect costs of fossil fuels over their lifetimes produces suboptimal investments that miss significant carbon pollution and its consequences. For example, indirect costs should include the ecosystems and services lost to fossil fuel production and transportation. "By overlooking the role nature plays in economic activity, economists underestimate the risks for environmental damage to growth and human welfare," researchers at Cambridge University point out.
Carbon pricing regimes overlook carbon pollution when they only consider emissions when fossil fuels are burned. Researchers at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace say up to 38% of carbon emissions remain uncounted and unmitigated when the tax does not reflect emissions from production, processing, and transportation. Also, different oil and coal types contain different levels of carbon. Carbon prices should reflect the differences. In short, we should count everything because everything counts.
- The assumption that natural gas is a good transition fuel has the perverse effect of reducing the urgency of replacing carbon-based with zero-carbon energy. This assumption also raises the risk of stranded infrastructure investments or the "lock-in" of gas production until investors get their expected returns. Investments in LNG export terminals (as much as $196 billion in 2019) are examples. Also, the direct and indirect costs of natural gas production, distribution, and use could undermine its reputation as a relatively clean fossil fuel. The costs include water consumption, the risk of water contamination, the social and environmental impacts of pipelines, and methane leaks all along the value chain, from the wellhead to the point of consumption. Energy investments would be better spent on electrifying the economy with renewable resources and protecting the power system from cyberattacks, violent weather, and other dangers.
- National and international fiscal policies, including those of lending institutions, should stop financing fossil-energy projects and dramatically increase the financing of energy projects that produce no carbon emissions.
- Developed nations should fully honor their commitments to the Green Climate Fund, which helps developing countries grow clean-energy economies. Wealthy nations should provide more money, perhaps by levying a small tax on financial transactions, including the sale or purchase of stocks, bonds, derivatives, and other financial products. In the United States, a tax of 0.1% would produce $777 billion in revenues over 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Internationally, a 0.005% tax on foreign currency exchanges reportedly would produce between $6 trillion and $7 trillion annually.
- Because of the acute planetary emergency, nations will give more urgent consideration to geoengineering technologies. They should not adopt them without rigorous systems analysis to identify the risks of unintended environmental and social consequences.
- Nations should supplement the Paris Agreement with their own bilateral agreements, especially with advanced countries that can share technical knowledge and strategies for the market deployment of clean energy and carbon capture technologies.
- While individual nations measure progress by pounds or percentages of carbon emission reductions, they should remember that they are still pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The most important metric is the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and the goal of lowering them to 350 ppm.
Climate change is the biosphere's cancer. If we don't stop injecting carcinogens into the atmosphere, the cancer will metastasize and become terminal. Fossil fuels and those who produced them deserve enormous credit for helping the developed world develop, but their pollution is now carcinogenic.
Energy transitions are not new. Over time, we progressed from wood to coal to oil and gas and nuclear power. Similarly, the energy that powers this century need not and should not be the energy that powered the last one.
Economic disruption is not new either. Robust economies are continuously changing and causing disruption, often because of new and better technologies. It's how they evolve. With help for the people and communities disrupted most, we can handle this one.
To be clear, a stable climate will not produce a perfectly peaceful planet. Nature can be as cruel as it is beautiful. That’s beyond our control. But we can prevent irreversible and self-sustaining cruelty. Either way, for better or worse, we will get the planet we deserve.