New technologies are alluring. We are a tool-making species that celebrates and rewards innovation. New technologies give us more convenience, pleasure, leisure, and efficiency. They allow us to do things and go places we could not imagine a few generations ago.
So, it's understandable that we hope for a technical fix that will stop global climate change while we go on living and consuming as usual. Unfortunately, we've run out of time to wait. Research on beneficial new technologies should always be underway, but our highest priority this decade should be a dramatic acceleration in using clean-energy technologies that are ready to go now and to focus on technical advances that enable us to use them more widely.
When delegates from around the world meet in Scotland this November for COP26 (the annual conference of nations to plan next steps for stabilizing the climate), they should keep this in mind. The search for "bright shiny objects," as new technologies are sometimes called, should not distract us from the shiny objects we already have.
Although widely promoted as necessary, carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) is an excellent example of how we can waste money and time on a technology designed to perpetuate business as usual. The United States alone has spent a quarter-century and billions of dollars trying to bring the costs of CCS down so power plants and factories could keep burning coal in a carbon-constrained world. It hasn't happened.
The billions of dollars still being spent to chase this idea would be better used to enable the wider use of clean energy technologies that are already cheaper than fossil fuels. Renewable resources like sunlight and hydrogen should produce low-carbon concrete and steel, green hydrogen, and desalinated water, for example. Green hydrogen and better batteries would solve the intermittency problem with solar and wind so they can help us transition to electric economies.
Developed nations must modernize their electric grids to accommodate renewable energy while developing nations need distributed power generation at the scale of individual buildings and communities. Countries should equip transportation routes with recharging stations to enable more use of electric vehicles.
Applied research should reduce the front-end costs of geothermal heating and cooling while governments reduce the "transaction costs" of solar power. In the United States, solar power's so-called "soft costs" such as installation, permitting, and inspections account for 64% of a system's price1.
Governments should give manufacturing plants incentives to replace their inefficient motor systems early with today's high-efficiency versions. Governments should develop building codes and promote net-zero-energy homes and office buildings, something we know how to do. Trade schools should put more resources into helping workers develop the skills to build and support net-zero carbon economies.
Meanwhile, basic energy research should avoid the bright shiny objects that push us into rabbit holes – the technologies that cause problems more new technologies must fix, leading to even more unintended consequences2. Many geoengineering ideas are in this category.
What's the Hurry?
The world's top climate scientists have monitored our growing understanding of global warming since 1988 as participants on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Their periodic reports have been increasingly certain about global warming and increasingly urgent about the need to confront it. While COP26 takes place during the first two weeks of November, the IPCC will put final touches on an updated assessment. In a draft leaked earlier this year, the IPCC concludes "climate change will fundamentally reshape life on Earth in the coming decades, even if humans can tame planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions."3
In other words, the world has waited too long. Our leaders have been told about climate change for the last 50 years, but greenhouse gas pollution is still growing, and governments still spend more than $5 trillion annually to encourage the production and consumption of oil, gas, and coal4. The result is that climate change, which is already evident in the world's extreme weather, will worsen. The question is whether we'll allow it to become catastrophic, unstoppable, and irreversible.
As it stands, the Earth will be much less hospitable by the time a child born today reaches age 30. Millions of species will have gone extinct, rising seas will swamp coastal cities, ecosystems will be collapsing, storms will be stronger, drought will be more common, and so on. Here is what else a variety of sources are saying.
- The rate of global warming (indicated by the average temperature of the Earth's surface) has doubled over the last 40 years. Since 1981, a new record has been set every three years. Climate models indicate that the Earth's average surface temperature will rise 4 °C this century—twice the highest Paris target -- if greenhouse gas pollution continues to increase.
- Global warming is caused by greenhouse gases accumulating in the atmosphere, mainly from fossil fuel pollution. The safe concentration is around 350 parts per million (ppm). In March, it was 417 ppm, higher than any point in the last 800,000 years. Greenhouse gas emissions are expected to rise this year at the second-highest rate ever recorded.
- International experts agree that the carbon-cutting commitments nations made in Paris six years ago are far from sufficient to achieve a net-zero carbon economy by mid-century. In fact, commitments made by the end of last year would result in an emission reduction of less than one percent, the UN says. To keep warming to 1.5 °C, Paris's preferred goal, emissions would have to drop 45% in the next nine years compared to 2010 levels.
- The adverse consequences of climate change are manifesting much more rapidly than scientists thought. New research indicates sea levels are rising faster than even the most pessimistic predictions, affecting the two-fifths of the Earth's population that live near coasts and eroding the value of coastal property. June's temperatures reached the highest levels ever recorded in parts of the United States, Eastern, Western Europe, Russia, Estonia, Belarus, Hungary, and Malta. In many cases, they exceeded 100 degrees Fahrenheit, well above what humans have evolved to tolerate. Temperatures in the Arctic Circle last month climbed close to 90. Farmlands are drying up, biodiversity is declining, the chemistry of the oceans is changing. Climate change is "plundering the planet," as the Environmental Defense Fund puts it.
COPs typically include panel discussions and workshops on the periphery of formal negotiations. The United Nations and the UK, the host of the upcoming conference, should ask nations to arrive prepared to discuss their plans for dramatically speeding up the use of market-ready clean energy technologies, as well as the public policies and late-stage research to enable them.
In addition, the UK and UN should invite the world's big lending institutions to attend and explain why they are still investing in carbon energy and what their plans are to stop. The 60 largest banks reportedly have invested nearly $4 trillion in fossil fuels since the Paris agreement5.
The UK should also invite national and local governments to hold workshops on their progress on building and modernizing infrastructure, including their power and transportation systems.
Biting the bullet
It took the international community more than 20 years to agree on reducing climate-altering pollution. The stumbling blocks included equitable commitments from developed versus developing countries and nations' resistance to interferences in their sovereignty. But to achieve the Paris goals, governments will have to accept more ambitious goals and more accountability.
- While the UN characterizes the Paris accord as "legally binding," progress depends on voluntary, self-determined actions by each nation. At COP26, governments should agree on enforcement mechanisms. An example might be border taxes against goods exported by countries that are not taking sufficient steps to transition to clean energy or are enabling fossil energy use at home or abroad.
- The world's seven biggest economies (the G7) have agreed to stop international financing of coal projects by the end of 2021; phase out support for all fossil energy projects; accelerate their deployment of zero-emission vehicles, and decarbonize their power sectors in the 2030s. President Biden's climate envoy, John Kerry, has urged the world's 20 largest economies to do the same. The G7 agreed in 2009 to stop "inefficient" fossil fuel subsidies; in 2016, they set 2025 as the goal.
But these promises ring hollow. The money nations allocated to reboot their economies after Covid-19 was a golden opportunity to invest in clean energy. Instead, the G7 reportedly committed $190 billion to support oil, coal, and natural gas. By last November, G20 nations committed more than $230 billion for fossil fuels as part of Covid recovery, compared to less than $150 billion for clean energy.
Although the International Energy Agency (IEA) expects the overall global energy investment to reach nearly $2 trillion this year, the share going to clean energy is far short of what's needed to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. The IEA expects worldwide coal demand will rise by 60% more than the demand for all renewable energy resources combined.
In Scotland, world leaders should discuss how to put teeth into their commitments.
- Developed nations should make a special point of explaining and promoting the technical assistance they already offer for clean energy for less-developed countries. For example, the US Department of Energy (DOE) announced several new international collaborations earlier this year; it operates nearly 30 programs to help developing countries with clean energy policies and deployment. The Biden Administration should ensure that those programs are robust, proactive, and fully funded.
- Because direct and indirect fossil energy subsidies are often deeply embedded in the fiscal policies of industrialized and rapidly industrializing nations, the UN or the International Energy Agency should offer to help countries identify their direct and indirect incentives for fossil energy production and use. Nations probably would not welcome outside "audits," so alternatively, the UN should offer training for countries to conduct their own and to do it transparently.
- In other side events, expert groups should conduct training on climate litigation, a growing trend worldwide. In some cases, climate-action activists and organizations are suing governments to force more aggressive goals. In other cases, litigants are suing fossil energy companies for climate-related damages and adaptation costs. Court decisions are setting precedents. But the groups bringing these lawsuits are not always aware of precedents or emerging science that can help their cases. For example, "attribution science" can identify the role that climate change plays in weather disasters6. Research on the current and projected effects of climate change is advancing, too.
- Nearly 2 billion people between the ages of 10 and 24 are live today. They are said to be the largest youth generation in history. Organizations that mobilize young people for climate activism should hold side events to share the strategies and lessons they've learned. The World Forum for Democracy will have something to add: During COP26, it will wrap up a year-long series of events that explored the topic, "Can Democracy Save the Environment?"
- The UN and UK should invite side events and exhibits on the latest market-ready clean energy technologies and designs.
One more topic should be featured at COP26, and it doesn't have to do with money or technology. Technology is only part of the solution to this crisis. As the IPCC's upcoming report says, "we must redefine our way of life and consumption" with "transformational change operating on processes and behaviours at all levels: individual, communities, business, institutions, and governments."
The most crucial long-term tool to prevent climate change is a change in attitudes and values. Now that we know how to ruin the planet, our quality of life, if not our survival, requires that we adopt an entirely new ethic about our relationship with the rest of the biosphere.
1 "Soft costs" are the non-hardware expenses of renewable energy technologies such as permitting, financing, installation, training, and customer acquisition. Although the costs of solar and wind energy equipment have fallen significantly, soft costs are reportedly growing. Municipalities, lawmakers, and utilities do not have uniform requirements for solar installation, for example. Red tape and permitting take inordinate amounts of time in many jurisdictions, serving as a disincentive to deployment.
2 For more on this, see Elizabeth Kolbert's new book Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future, Simon and Schuster, February 2021. See the Guardian's review for a summary.
3 As described by Agence France-Presse, which obtained a draft of the report. The final report is expected in February 2022.
4 According to the International Monetary Fund.
5 Banking on Climate Chaos, Rainforest Action Network, March 23, 2021.
6 See Rupert Stuart-Smith et al., How attribution can fill the evidence' gap' in climate litigation, Carbon Brief, June 28, 2021. With the slow pace of climate action by policymakers, climate activists have turned to litigation. As of May 2021, plaintiffs filed 1,375 lawsuits seeking in the United States and 425 in other countries to seek relief from climate change, according to the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law.