O≠ course, on a warm­ing planet

Voic­ing a ‘dark re­al­ism,’ ex­perts say nations must em­brace in­ten­sive ac­tion on cli­mate change

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY STEVEN MUFSON

In the daunt­ing math of cli­mate ac­tion, peo­ple’s 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 U.S. roads — and it isn’t enough. Even if the world did an un­likely se­ries of about­faces — halt­ing de­for­esta­tion, go­ing veg­e­tar­ian, pay­ing $50-a-ton car­bon taxes, boost­ing en­ergy ef­fi­ciency, dou­bling car mileage, and more — it would not be enough.

“There’s no sil­ver bul­let,” said An­drew Jones, co-founder of the mod­el­ing firm Cli­mate In­ter­ac­tive. “There’s sil­ver buck­shot: many ac­tions in many do­mains.”

As the 24th U.N. con­fer­ence on cli­mate change kicked off in Poland this week, a steady drum­beat of sci­en­tific re­ports have sounded omi­nous alarms. One warned of the need to curb global warm­ing to 1.5 de­grees Cel­sius — 2.7 de­grees Fahren­heit — over prein­dus­trial lev­els in­stead of the widely ac­cepted tar­get of 2 de­grees Cel­sius. An­other warned of the grow­ing gap be­tween the com­mit­ments made at ear­lier U.N. con­fer­ences and what is needed to steer the planet off its cur­rent path to calami­tous global warm­ing. And on Wed­nes­day still an­other said that an­nual emis­sions, which are sup­posed to be head­ing down, rose to the high­est lev­els on record. If it sounds down­beat, that’s be­cause it is. The world has waited so long that pre-

dis­rup­tive cli­mate change re­quires ac­tion “un­prece­dented in scale,” the U.N. In­ter­gov­ern­men­tal Panel on Cli­mate Change (IPCC) 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: “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 re­al­ize that they walk a fine line be­tween jolt­ing con­sumers and pol­i­cy­mak­ers into ac­tion and im­mo­bi­liz­ing them with par­a­lyz­ing pes­simism about the world’s abil­ity to hit cli­mate tar­gets.

“If you’re driv­ing on a high­way and the car in front of you stops short, and you slam on the brakes and re­al­ize that you’re go­ing to hit the guy no mat­ter what, that’s not the time to take your foot off the brake,” said John Ster­man, a pro­fes­sor of man­age­ment at the Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy’s busi­ness school. “And you cer­tainly don’t step on the gas.”

Ster­man said the world has 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 breath­tak­ing ad­vances in en­ergy tech­nol­ogy. The cost of so­lar has plunged 78 per­cent for util­ity-scale projects since 2010. Over the same pe­riod, the cost of wind elec­tric­ity fell nearly a quar­ter; the big­gest tur­bines off­shore now have arms weigh­ing roughly 35 tons each that stretch nearly two foot­ball fields across.

Even China is mak­ing some progress. While its rapidly grow­ing econ­omy keeps emis­sions ris­ing over­all, it is cough­ing out less car­bon diox­ide for ev­ery unit of eco­nomic out­put.

But ef­fec­tive pol­icy is lack­ing. Nord­haus ad­vo­cates a whop­ping car­bon tax, which would kill off most coal, sharply re­duce driv­ing and boost de­mand for more fu­el­ef­fi­cient ve­hi­cles.

Get­ting such a car­bon tax adopted in the United States, how­ever, is hard to imag­ine. Wash­ing­ton state vot­ers in Novem­ber re­jected a $15-a-ton car­bon “fee” af­ter Big Oil com­pa­nies poured more than $31 mil­lion into the state to block the mea­sure. BP, which had en­dorsed a $40-a-ton na­tion­wide tax, gave the most to de­feat the bill.

Congress hasn’t shown any ap­petite for a car­bon tax, ei­ther. A pro­posal to im­pose a $40-a-ton car­bon tax and re­turn the revenue to peo­ple in div­i­dends has not caught fire yet.

In France, Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron had to back away from pro­posed fuel-tax in­creases this week af­ter protests rocked his coun­try.

In an email, Nord­haus said that hit­ting the 2-de­gree tar­get would re­quire global car­bon diox­ide prices of about $250 a ton in 2020, ris­ing rapidly af­ter that. “This as­sumes that all ma­jor coun­tries are on­board 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.”

“Peo­ple free-ride when they jump the turn­stile on the sub­way,” he said. “Nations free-ride in mil­i­tary treaties such as NATO when they en­joy the ben­e­fits of the strong U.S. mil­i­tary to pro­tect them while do­ing lit­tle to pay for the com­mon de­fense.”

And when it comes to cli­mate change, he said, free-rid­ing is “par­tic­u­larly per­ni­cious.”

That’s partly be­cause in­ter­na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tions lack the au­thor­ity to en­force rules on way­ward nations. At the cli­mate con­fer­ence in Poland, sev­eral ma­jor coun­tries will ad­mit to miss­ing the tar­gets they agreed to at the Paris con­fer­ence three years ago. One ex­am­ple is Brazil, whose Pres­i­dent-elect 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 at high rates.

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, or 4.2 bil­lion gal­lons, of oil — up about 2 per­cent from the year be­fore.

Most of that goes into the gas tanks of cars and trucks; there are nearly 270 mil­lion on the road in the United States alone. Those cars last an av­er­age of 11.6 years, ac­cord­ing to the Trans­porta­tion Depart­ment, mean­ing that re­plac- ing the fleet with more-ef­fi­cient or elec­tric ve­hi­cles would take a long time.

In Novem­ber, the num­ber of elec­tric ve­hi­cles in the United States hit the 1 mil­lion mark. But that was three years later than Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s tar­get, first is­sued in 2009. And that makes only a small dent in the na­tion’s green­house gas emis­sions. Thanks to the growth in the car mar­ket, in 2016 there were nearly 12 mil­lion more cars with in­ter­nal com­bus­tion en­gines emit­ting green­house gases than there were in 2008.

The math on coal is just as grim. Global coal con­sump­tion is run­ning at more than 5 bil­lion tons an­nu­ally. In the United States alone, coal fills 4.4 mil­lion rail cars ev­ery year. Closing down U.S. and Euro­pean coal-fired power plants, which are 40 years old on av­er­age, could hap­pen, but the av­er­age age of coal plants in Asia is just 11 years, thus lock­ing in Asian coal use for decades.

A pro­ject off the coast of Bel­gium pro­vides a good ex­am­ple of the need to run to stand still.

In Novem­ber, a joint ven­ture of Ves­tas, the world’s largest maker of wind tur­bines, and MHI, a unit of Mit­subishi, an­nounced that 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 in 2017.

Royal Dutch Shell chief ex­ec­u­tive Ben van Beur­den noted in 2014 that so­lar and wind pro­vide about 1 per­cent of the world’s en­ergy. “How on earth do we think that 1 per­cent is go­ing to be­come 90 per­cent of a sys­tem twice as big as what it is by the mid­dle of the cen­tury?” he asked. “It won’t hap­pen.”

Even with large ad­vances in re­new­able en­ergy, he said, the share of world en­ergy met by oil and gas would de­cline from 85 per­cent to 75 per­cent by the mid­dle of the cen­tury, a time when the IPCC said net car­bon diox­ide emis­sions should drop to zero.

“I think the real chal­lenge is not so much how do we ac­cel­er­ate re­new­ables but more about how do we de­car­bonize the sys­tem we have,” van Beur­den said.

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 large sub­si­dies or a car­bon tax large enough to make cap­ture worth it.

“Like a mar­ried cou­ple that has put off sav­ing for the fu­ture for too long, at some point it be­comes nearly im­pos­si­ble to re­tire com­fort­ably,” Nigel Purvis, co-founder of the ad­vo­cacy group Cli­mate Ad­vis­ers, wrote in 2015. “Given where global emis­sions are to­day and the ur­gency of re­duc­ing emis­sions, we just don’t have time for a sys­tem that grad­u­ally in­creases cli­mate am­bi­tion ev­ery five years — the num­bers sim­ply don’t work.”

While Obama had called the Paris deal “a turn­ing point,” the U.N. En­vi­ron­ment Pro­gram re­ported in Novem­ber that seven ma­jor coun­tries, in­clud­ing the United States, are fall­ing short of the ac­tions they pledged to take.

The UNEP re­port also says that af­ter three years of rel­a­tively sta­ble emis­sions, global green­house emis­sions were up 1.2 per­cent in 2017.

Purvis now says his views haven’t changed. But, he pleaded, “don’t cast me as a pes­simist.”

He said: “I am an op­ti­mist by na­ture, and I am blown away by progress in cer­tain sec­tors. If you had told me 10 years ago that wind or so­lar would be as cheap as they are, I wouldn’t have be­lieved you.”

His as­sess­ment hasn’t dis­cour­aged peo­ple who say that the world needs — and will in­evitably de­velop — a break­through tech­nol­ogy. They fall into a long tra­di­tion of peo­ple who place their faith in Amer­i­can in­ven­tive­ness and know-how.

“We need the ba­sic re­search, but we have to pair that with peo­ple will­ing to fund high-risk break­through en­ergy com­pa­nies,” said Mi­crosoft co-founder Bill Gates on the web­site of Break­through En­ergy Ven­tures, a $1 bil­lion pri­vate fund in which he has in­vested. He said “that’s what gives us the chance of hav­ing a so­lu­tion that re­ally lets us not hav­ing to give up en­ergy usage and yet not dam­age the en­vi­ron­ment. I am op­ti­mistic.”

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. Their 50-year sce­nario was pos­i­tive: “Hu­man­ity al­ready pos­sesses the fun­da­men­tal sci­en­tific, tech­ni­cal and in­dus­trial know-how to solve the car­bon and cli­mate prob­lem for the next half-cen­tury,” they wrote. They said that no break­through was nec­es­sary.

In their model, a se­ries of “wedges” could al­ter the tra­jec­tory of ris­ing tem­per­a­tures. The wedges in­cluded things such as: scal­ing up wind ca­pac­ity ten­fold; cover­ing an area the size of New Jersey 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 United States.

“I like to say that we de­com­posed a heroic chal­lenge into a lim­ited set of mon­u­men­tal tasks,” So­colow later wrote.

In 2011, So­colow wrote that the num­ber of wedges needed had in­creased from seven to nine. In an in­ter­view, he said it is now ap­proach­ing 10.

He 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.

The 2-de­gree tar­get, he hopes, won’t set peo­ple up for an in­evitable let­down. “My worry is that peo­ple will start talk­ing about game over and a line be­ing crossed over ir­repara­bly. Cli­mate change is not like that.”


Smoke and steam bil­low from Europe’s largest coal-fired power plant Wed­nes­day near Belcha­tow, Poland. As the 24th U.N. con­fer­ence on cli­mate change be­gan in Poland this week, a pa­rade of sci­en­tific re­ports sounded alarms over the global com­mit­ment to curb­ing emis­sions.


Fish­er­men float next to a pho­to­voltaic power sta­tion built on top of fish ponds in Yangzhou, China.


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