THE PAIN OF BEATING CLIMATE CHANGE
It is too late to halt global warming without huge disruption to our way of life, say some experts
IN THE daunting maths of climate action, individual choices and government policies aren’t adding up.
Solar panels are being nailed to rooftops, colossal wind turbines bestride the plains and oceans, and a million electric vehicles are on US roads – and it isn’t enough. Even if the world did an unlikely series of about-faces – halting deforestation, going vegetarian, paying huge carbon taxes, boosting energy efficiency – it would not be enough. As the 24th UN conference on climate change started this week, a steady drumbeat of scientific reports have sounded warnings about current climate trajectories. One warned of the need to curb global warming to 1.5°C over preindustrial levels instead of the widely accepted target of 2°C. Another warned of the growing gap between the commitments made at earlier UN conferences and what is needed to steer the planet off its current path to calamitous global warming.
The world has waited so long that preventing disruptive climate change requires action “unprecedented in scale”, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said in an October report.
William Nordhaus, the Yale University professor who just won the Nobel Prize for his work on the economics of climate change, recently described his outlook like this: “I never use the word ‘pessimism’; I always use the word ‘realism,’ but I’d say it’s a kind of dark realism today.” Climate scientists and policy experts realise that they walk a fine line between jolting consumers and policymakers into action and immobilising them with paralysing pessimism about the world’s ability to hit climate targets.
John Sterman, a professor of management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s business school, said the world had missed the chance to contain warming without huge disruptions.
“Now, it’s technically possible to do that, but we don’t have the policies in place,” he said. “That’s discouraging. But that just means we have to redouble our efforts.” It’s not that corporations and governments haven’t attacked the problem or made advances in energy technology. But effective policy is lacking. Nordhaus advocates a whopping carbon tax, which the Climate Interactive model shows would kill off most coal, sharply reduce driving and boost purchases of more fuel-efficient vehicles.
He said that hitting the 2°C target would require global carbon dioxide prices of about $250 (R3 500) a ton in 2020, and rising rapidly after that. “This assumes that all major countries are on board and that economies can handle a large fiscal and trade shock in which energy expenditures rise by about $2 trillion in a few years.”
Nordhaus has blamed the lack of climate policy progress on the strong incentive for what economists call “free-riding”. And when it comes to climate change, he said, free-riding was “particularly pernicious”.That’s partly because international organisations lack the authority to enforce rules on wayward nations. In Poland, several major countries are expected to admit to missing the targets they agreed to at the Paris conference three years ago. One example is Brazil, whose new president Jair Bolsonaro, the “tropical Trump”, has talked about clearing part of the Amazon for roads and development. That would damage the world’s lungs – the trees that absorb carbon dioxide and pump out oxygen.
There’s lots of carbon to absorb. The world will need to sustain consumers’ habits and living standards while replacing the energy industry’s massive infrastructure. Every day, the world burns about 100 million barrels, of oil – up about 2% from the year before.
Most of that goes into the petrol tanks of cars and trucks. Replacing them with more fuel-efficient or electric vehicles will take a long time. In November, the number of electric vehicles in the US hit the 1 million mark. But that makes only a small dent in the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Global coal consumption is running at more than 5 billion tons annually. A project off the coast of Belgium provides a good example of the need to run to stand still. In November, MHI Vestas, the world’s largest maker of wind turbines, announced it would provide 23 of its new biggest turbines to a project in the Belgian North Sea. The massive turbines can power 137 471 German homes, the company said. Yet the number of German dwellings grew by 245 000 last year.
Royal Dutch Shell chief executive Ben van Beurden noted in 2014 that solar and wind provide about 1% of the world’s energy. “How on earth do we think that 1% is going to become 90% of a system twice as big as what it is by the middle of the century?” he asked. “Whether you like it or not, it won’t happen.
“That might be a gloom-and-doomtype picture,” van Beurden added. “But the real challenge is not so much how do we accelerate renewables but more about how do we decarbonise the system we have.”
Yet taking carbon out of the system means coming up with technology – and a carbon price to cover the costs. Companies already know how to take carbon dioxide from the air and stuff it below the Earth’s surface. But it’s expensive, and unless it’s used for enhanced oil recovery, it makes no economic sense without a carbon price.
On November 27, the UN Environment Programme issued a report saying that the gap between countries’ action pledges and the measures to limit warming is getting larger. The report also says that after three years of relatively stable emissions, global greenhouse emissions were up 1.2% in 2017. But all this hasn’t discouraged people who say that the world needs – and will inevitably develop – a breakthrough technology. Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates is one of them. He has invested in Breakthrough Energy Ventures, a $1 billion private investment fund, to fund researchers.
One of the earliest climate change models was drawn up in 2004 by a pair of Princeton University professors – Robert Socolow, an engineer, and Stephen Pacala, an ecologist. In their model, a series of “wedges” could alter the trajectory of rising temperatures. The wedges included things such as: increasing wind capacity tenfold; covering huge areas with solar panels; doubling the fuel efficiency of all cars; tripling the world’s capacity of nuclear power; halting global deforestation; or planting new forests over an area the size of the lower 48 states of the US.
Socolow now prefers to call climate action a horse race. At the moment, wind and solar are running ahead faster than expected, while nuclear power and carbon capture are trailing behind. He says he worries that the 2°C target is setting people up for an inevitable letdown.
“My worry is that people will start talking about game over,” Socolow said. “Climate change is not like that.”
PEDESTRIANS and motorists cross a road as buildings stand shrouded in haze in Beijing, China.