Remedying the technology deficit needs to take precedence over efforts to cut carbon
Politicians are gathering in Poland for a climate summit being billed as the most important conference since the Paris treaty was signed in 2015. Around the world the chattering classes have declared that more political willpower is needed to solve global warming. This is deluded: it ignores the privileged place climate change has among all of humanity’s challenges and misses the real reasons for our failure.
Across the past quartercentury climate change has received more attention — and generated more prophesies of doom — from political and religious leaders, celebrities and royalty than any other issue.
It is given so much attention that it is sacrilegious to even point out that we face other vast, complex, expensive challenges including war and domestic violence, super-killers such as tuberculosis and HIV, hunger and a lack of clean drinking water, gender inequality — and the list goes on. Many of these global challenges have a greater cost and have policy responses that are better understood, more easily implemented and will help humanity much more than our current response to climate change.
Climate change is real but it’s not our only problem — and it’s not the apocalypse painted in the media. The IPCC’s last major planetary survey calculated the global effects of unstopped climate change. The scientists established that globally the effect of climate change will be similar to a single recession. It will mean the average person forgoes benefits equivalent to between 0.2 per cent and 2 per cent of income in the 2070s.
Bear in mind that by then incomes will have increased by at least 300 per cent to 400 per cent.
But what about the natural disasters that the media constantly equates with global warming? A little-reported finding in the recently published IPCC report is that there is little basis for claiming that droughts, floods and hurricanes have increased, much less that they have increased because of carbon emissions.
Yet we are being told once again that we have one slim last opportunity to save the planet. How familiar. Nearly 40 years ago the UN environment chief warned we faced environmental disaster “as final as nuclear war” by 2000.
In 2009 British prime minister Gordon Brown was among those claiming we were at doom’s door: if no climate deal was struck that year, it would be “irretrievably too late”. (No climate deal was struck that year.)
There have been 23 annual UN-convened summits attracting the great and the good. In Paris in 2015, world leaders signed a treaty to cut carbon emissions. This loose collection of national carboncutting promises until 2030 (with vague promises after that) is not backed by any
repercussions for failing or quitting. Despite the clear likelihood that nothing would change once everyone got home, the leaders heartily slapped each other on the back and environmentalists cheered.
Even at the time, the wishful thinking seemed bizarre. One climate analysis group gained attention for finding that the Paris Agreement could result in a significant temperature reduction of 0.9C. This came not from analysis of the promises up until 2030 but from assuming there would be much stronger climate policies after the Paris agreement: 98 per cent of the expected reductions came from actions after 2030.
Activist group 350.org was even giddier, declaring the date of the treaty’s signature marked “the end of the era of fossil fuels”. That same group today says: “Staying under 1.5C is now only a matter of political will.” It was utterly wrong in 2015 and it is still wrong today.
The IPCC itself sets out a string of highly implausible, incredibly expensive, technologically complex actions that are all required together to have any hope of cutting carbon enough to keep temperature rises under 1.5C. We need to hit peak carbon dioxide emissions within just a few years, stop using coal entirely, shut a string of natural gas-fired power plants, massively expand carbon capture technology and increase our reliance on nuclear energy. An area between one million square kilometres (all of France plus all of Germany) and seven million square kilometres (three-quarters the size of the US or all of Australia) needs to be dedicated to growing crops for energy, in a way that doesn’t displace food crops, otherwise more people will go hungry.
The truth is that keeping rises under 1.5C in any realistic sense is impossible. The newest Nobel laureate in climate economics points out that even 2C is unrealistic: “2C appears to be infeasible with reasonably accessible technologies even with very ambitious abatement strategies.”
In 2013 the IPCC estimated that the world could make only 400 gigatonnes of emissions before the world would go over 1.5C. Conveniently, it is now rather magically more than doubling this figure. Key IPCC author Jim Skea came close to admitting that all this is completely far-fetched, saying: “Limiting warming to 1.5 degrees is possible within the laws of chemistry and physics but doing so would require unprecedented changes.”
To achieve what the IPCC sets out, what is needed is not political willpower, it’s a string of miracles. Wilful wishful thinking may make us feel warm and fuzzy but it is extremely dangerous to use as a policy guide when spending trillions of dollars.
As a reality check, this is where we are today: the International Energy Agency estimates that globally we get less than 1 per cent of our energy needs from solar and wind, and even in 2040, doing everything promised in the Paris Agreement, we’ll get 3.6 per cent. The IEA estimates that optimistically we’ll go from about two million electric cars today to 300 million in 2040. This will reduce global emissions by less than 1 per cent as these cars still will get half their electricity from fossil fuels and as oil will become cheaper and used more elsewhere as demand from cars reduces.
The reason we are failing isn’t because people aren’t willing to take action. It’s because green energy sources are not yet competitive enough to take over from fossil fuels for all of our energy needs. Our policy approach puts the cart before the horse by trying to force or entice people to make the switch to less efficient, more expensive technology.
This has a huge societal cost because less efficient, more expensive energy means less growth, especially for the world’s poor. This, of course, also could help the many other challenges still facing the world. The meagre Paris Agreement alone will cost us all more than $1 trillion a year.
We need to ensure green energy is the smart, costeffective choice. We should abandon the failed promise-tocut-carbon experiment and focus on the technology deficit.
Copenhagen Consensus analysis shows a green energy research and development budget worth about $100 billion a year would be the most effective climate policy.
We should abandon wishful thinking and over-the-top rhetoric, and focus on tackling all of humanity’s challenges, including with smart, effective and workable solutions to climate change.