With weather disasters becoming the rule rather than the exception worldwide, two inconvenient realities are clear. First, the climate is changing faster than scientists and computer models predicted. Rather than exaggerating the threat of global warming, the experts have been too conservative.
Second, the Paris climate agreement is an insufficient response. Worried about stepping on sovereign toes or being heavy-handed, it relies on incremental reductions of greenhouse gas pollution with unenforceable voluntary commitments from each of the world’s nearly 200 nations. It’s as though civilization is packed in a vehicle speeding toward the edge of a cliff, but the passengers only want light taps on the brakes.
We have already crossed the line into irreversible adverse climate impacts with acidification and oxygen levels in the oceans, rising sea levels, decline of the Antarctic Ice sheet, and extreme heat. We are passively witnessing the premature death of the 10,000-year in which a stable and hospitable climate made life as we’ve known it possible. But we lack the urgency and political will to save it.
At the end of this month, nations will convene the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP-26) in Scotland to announce more aggressive plans for reducing their greenhouse gas pollution. But unless they slam on the brakes, the conference will produce too little, too late.
Take the United States, for example. It will return to these climate talks for the first time since Donald Trump became president. President Biden and his team of climate-action veterans hope the U.S. will resume a leadership role. But America is still in the grip of the carbon cartel, where too many politicians are in cahoots with the powerful fossil-fuel lobby, which hopes to continue profiting from oil until the last recoverable drop is gone.
Everyone was taken aback in 2006 when U.S. President George W. Bush, a former Texas oilman, declared “America is addicted to oil.” It turned out Bush was talking about foreign oil. It was a distinction without much meaning since carbon pollution destabilizes the climate without regard to its source. But rather than kicking its addiction, the United States has become its own drug dealer as well as the drug’s victim. It leads the world in oil and gas production. Its carbon pollution is second only to China’s. Fossil fuels provide 80% of America’s energy today.
In his They Knew. The US Federal Government's Fifty-Year Role in Causing the Climate Crisis, James Gustave Speth, one of America’s most distinguished environmental leaders, describes how the seven U.S. presidents before Biden all promoted and enabled fossil energy production despite increasingly urgent warnings from climate scientists. The “drill, baby, drill” energy policies of Republican presidents Reagan, the two Bushes, and Trump were no surprise, but Democrats Carter, Clinton, and Obama also embraced an “all of the above” energy policy that included fossil fuels. Unfortunately, Biden has adopted it, too. He has also embraced some false solutions to carbon pollution, which I’ll describe below.
The current Paris accord calls for transactional change when transformational change is necessary. Unless nations arrive in Scotland with radically stronger carbon-cutting plans and guarantees they will achieve them, the Earth will warm far beyond 1.5 oC and 2 oC goals set in Paris. The Earth’s average surface temperature has already gone up 1.2 oC since industrialization began.
However, the most important metric is the concentration of climate-altering greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The safe level is 350 ppm, last seen in 1988. Today it’s 412 ppm and rising, with almost half the increase occurring since 1980.
“Scientists are observing changes in the Earth’s climate in every region and across the whole climate system,” the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported in August. “Many of the changes observed in the climate are unprecedented in thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of years, and some of the changes already set in motion—such as continued sea-level rise—are irreversible over hundreds to thousands of years.”
Apply the brakes
Imagine for a moment that nations arrived in Scotland ready to turn the Paris pact into a mandate for a rapid shift to zero-carbon renewable energy. What might the new agreement include?
End carbon subsidies
Nations are not only addicted to oil; they also subsidize production and consumption of the drug. G20 countries promised in 2009 to end their “inefficient” fossil-fuel production and consumption subsidies.
In July, Bloomberg NEF issued an assessment of the G20’s progress on eliminating fossil energy subsidies, increasing the transparency of climate risks, and pricing carbon. It found that G20 countries provided $3.3 trillion in direct support to coal, oil, gas, and fossil-fueled power in 2015-19, enough money to fund more than 4,200 new solar power plants. Seven members increased subsidies during that period; five provided more than $1 billion to coal.
At COP-26, all nations should commit to the rapid repeal of fossil energy subsidies. The UN should help countries develop policies to shift support to clean energy development and social programs aligned with the UN’s sustainable development goals.
As carbon-free renewable energy technologies matured, the idea was developing economies could leap-frog over fossil fuels and go directly to clean energy technologies and resources. However, the assumption was that less-developed economies should be exempt from limits on carbon pollution because they needed fossil fuels to grow.
But sufficient zero-carbon energy technologies are available today for developing nations to grow their economies without oil, coal, and gas. Dozens of nations and more than 40 U.S. states have shown economic development can be decoupled from carbon emissions. The IEA found last year that solar power provided the cheapest electricity in history in most major countries, yet only 0.01% of the world’s solar potential is being used. Forbes cites a UK think tank’s conclusion that “solar and wind energy have the potential to meet global electricity demand 100 times over” and could push fossil fuels out of electric markets by 2035. Sooner would be better.
The Paris pact should put much more emphasis on stimulating zero-carbon economic development in poorer nations. The Green Climate Fund should be much larger, fattened not only by stronger contributions from developed countries as they capture revenues from ending fossil-fuel subsidies but also by revenues from new sources such as a tax or fee on currency exchanges and other international monetary transactions.
Make carbon pricing universal
Twelve G20 nations implemented at least one carbon pricing policy, but half the policies were insufficient to cause significant emission reductions. Concessions such as the free allocations of permits to pollute weakened most pricing schemes.
A more aggressive Paris agreement should require carbon pricing in all nations, or create an international pricing regime.
A group of climate-action organizations reported in March that 60 of the world’s largest commercial and investment banks put $3.8 trillion into fossil fuels from 2016 to 2020, the five years immediately after nations agreed to the Paris accord.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) expects $2 trillion in worldwide energy investments this year, with much too little dedicated to clean energy, especially in emerging markets and developing countries.
International spending for Covid relief was a golden opportunity to boost clean energy technologies, but G20 nations sent $170 billion to fossil-fuel-intensive sectors, and G7 countries gave more than half their funds to fossil fuels, most with no requirements to cut carbon emissions.
When these investments lead to more fossil-energy infrastructure, investors expect it to operate for decades to earn a return on their money. That locks in the world’s use of carbon fuels.
In August, after meeting with G7 leaders and the heads of Multilateral Development Banks (MDBs), the U.S. Treasury Department established guidance for MDBs to giving highest priority to clean energy development and to support fossil fuels only when less carbon-intensive options are unavailable. The Treasury Department said it would oppose new oil- and coal-based investments and give only conditional support for natural gas. The Paris agreement should include the same policies for all nations.
Sanction insufficient progress
Delegates at COP-26 should redefine voluntary climate actions – the so-called National Determined Contributions (NDCs) each nation submits to do its part for global emission reductions. An improved Paris agreement could include standards for adequate reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, perhaps measured by carbon intensity. Carbon-cutting goals would no longer be voluntary, but the means to achieve them would be.
Burst greenwashing balloons
Faced with incontrovertible evidence they are causing climate change, fossil energy companies have moved from denial to bargaining. But they are bargaining in bad faith. They support technologies and plans that appear to reduce carbon pollution, but actually keep fossil fuels in the world’s energy mix.
Net-zero carbon, also known as carbon neutrality, is an example. The UK-based Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit reported in March that 21% of the world’s 2,000 largest public companies, 61% of nations, 9% of states and regions in the largest-emitting nations, and 13% of cities with more than 500,000 people have all embraced the net-zero goal.
But as net-zero is presently defined, fossil energy companies could claim they’ve achieved it not by cutting emissions, but by purchasing carbon credits or investing in questionable carbon-removal technologies and projects. This invites greenwashing and does nothing about the many other environmental, public health, and social costs of fossil energy. It assumes carbon-cutting opportunities are unlimited and always successful, but they are neither.
“There aren’t enough trees in the world to offset society’s carbon emissions, and there never will be,” writes Bonnie Waring, an ecologist at Imperial College London. “If we absolutely maximized the amount of vegetation all land on Earth could hold, we’d sequester enough carbon to offset about ten years of greenhouse gas emissions at current rates. After that, there could be no further increase in carbon capture.”
Carbon-removal technologies are often conceptual or badly conceived. For example, Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS), is a process advocated by the IEA and supported by President Biden. It also is supported by the Treasury Department’s new MDB guidelines. But it’s likely that CCS power plants will never be able to compete in energy markets. CCS requires larger power plants, more water consumption, and more energy use and carbon emissions from the conversion process. The processed carbon must be transported to places where it can be injected underground and remain there permanently. This involves more energy consumption, prosperity-rights issues, and liability questions.
If it is ever ready for prime time, CCS would be unable to compete with more straightforward and less expensive alternatives such as wind and solar energy. In the meantime, CCS is an excuse to keep producing fossil fuels. It would allow utilities and fossil-energy producers to shift the cost of pollution onto higher consumer electric bills.
“We have arrived at the painful realization that the idea of net-zero has licensed a recklessly cavalier ‘burn now, pay later’ approach which has seen carbon emissions continue to soar,” researchers from the UK and Sweden conclude1. “The only way to keep humanity safe is the immediate and sustained radical cuts to greenhouse gas emissions in a socially just way.”
An amended Paris agreement should make clear that the only acceptable goal is absolute zero-carbon, not net-zero.
Create solar parachutes
A revised Paris pact should include proactive national programs to train former fossil energy workers in the skills required in clean energy economies, as well as other transition assistance. Several countries have experience in this. For example, the U.S. government operates a Trade Adjustment Assistance Programs to help workers displaced by trade policies, as well as a Redevelopment Assistance Programs for communities where military bases are closed.
End legal bribery
One discussion at COP-26 should be how to end the stranglehold fossil energy companies apply to public policies. Under current law in the U.S., the carbon cartel can bribe elected officials with campaign cash. During the 2017-2018 campaign season, political spending by fossil fuel interests exceeded renewables by more than 13 to 1. “Every year, the world's five largest publicly owned oil and gas companies spend approximately $200 million on lobbying designed to control, delay or block binding climate-motivated policy,” Forbes observed in 2019. In effect, the carbon cartel uses its wealth and political influence to leverage policies that keep oil addicts addicted.
Untangle the knot
The world’s response to climate change, including the current Paris agreement, is like the fabled Gordian knot. It was drawn so tight and was so complicated that nobody could untie it. Alexander the Great was willing to try because an oracle predicted that anyone who could succeed would rule all of Asia.
Alexander struggled with the knot for some time. Then he simply drew his sword and sliced it in half. Similarly, world leaders must cut through the knot of worries about national sovereignty special interests, and deceptive schemes that would allow fossil-energy companies to continue business as usual.
We have the technologies for all nations to prosper without fossil fuels. We know how to help people and communities disrupted by the transformation of the global. But first, we must slam on the breaks of the fossil fuel era before it’s too late. As a recovering addict might say, it’s time to go “cold-turkey” on fossil fuels.
1 Climate scientists: concept of net zero is a dangerous trap, James Dyke, University of Exeter; Robert Watson, University of East Anglia; and Wolfgang Knorr, Lund University. April 22, 2021.