If there is one thing nearly everyone should agree on regarding climate change, it's that time is running out to get it under control. The Earth's temperature is rising twice as fast as before 1981. The ten warmest years in recorded history have occurred since 2010. And the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) blanketing the planet keeps rising as nations fall short of the emission-cutting goals established under the Paris climate agreement.
It has been 65 years since science confirmed the relationship between global warming and fossil fuel pollution and 35 years since the United Nations and the World Meteorological Organization created the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), where the world's foremost climate scientists track and report the likely consequences of global warming.
Climate change would have been easier to mitigate if we had started all those years ago, but we didn't. We have allowed it to become an existential crisis, and the fossil fuel industry is largely to blame. We might have hoped it would see the emerging science as a signal to invest in solar, wind, geothermal, and other technologies that provide energy without pollution. That's what all industries must do to survive technological and market changes.
But rather than adapting to climate change, major oil and gas industries first denied it was real, then tried to discredit climate scientists and underplay the consequences of inaction. In the United States, the oil industry spent millions of dollars on television and social media ads that associated fossil fuel production with pristine natural settings, a practice known as "nature-rinsing." They invested heavily in the political campaigns of deniers.
When governments and other industries rallied around the goal of net-zero carbon by 2050, major oil companies prominently announced they were jumping on board. But with oil prices higher in the last two years, many companies have withdrawn their net-zero pledges and focused on making record profits. It was always naïve to hope the oil giants would join the crusade against greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. They assume correctly that their greed would not cost them their social license to operate. But there are still trillions of dollars of fossil fuels underground. By one estimate, there's enough coal to last another 139 years, enough oil for another 57 years, and sufficient natural gas for 49 more years at current consumption rates, assuming the industry does not find more. There was no way the industry and its shareholders would allow that wealth to remain buried.
So, with climate change no longer deniable and all those profits beckoning the industry's real strategy is to find a way to keep burning fossil fuels while avoiding CO2 emissions. The most prominent method is a technology called carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). Theoretically, it would trap CO2 in the smokestacks of power plants and factories before the gas can escape into the atmosphere. The power plant would then send the gas to a place for burial deep underground.
The IPCC enthusiastically supports CCS, which considers it essential to control global warming. The United States has invested billions of dollars in research and demonstration plants since 1997. Bloomberg New Energy Finance says the world has spent over $83 billion on CCS, although the technology reduced carbon emissions by only -0.1 percent. Even if CCS were effective, Bloomberg says it would cost $4.5 trillion in this decade to deploy it at sufficient scale to help achieve net-zero carbon emissions by mid-century, There are at least two other significant problems not often mentioned by CCS advocates. First, the electricity produced by CCS power plants would be costly. The technology requires bigger plants, energy-intensive processing to transport the gas, and pipelines to sequestration sites. Even if CCS became reliable, its electricity would be unable to compete with solar, wind, hydroelectric, or nuclear power. They produce no CO2. Solar and wind power are already less expensive than fossil fuels. Without enormous taxpayer subsidies, CCS would be a commercial non-starter.
The second issue illustrates how CCS and its advocates have tunnel vision. What happens at the power plant is only part of the process. CO2 pollution and environmental damages would result at every stage of the technology's value chain -- extraction, processing, transportation, and waste handling.
In the meantime, the trillions of dollars spent to deploy CCS could be invested instead in the simpler and cleaner family of renewable energy technologies. And the fossil-fuel sector would do what failing industries often do: refuse to change with the times. They would pass up one of history's largest market opportunities: The necessary global transition to clean energy.
The UN says the world must invest $4 trillion annually in renewables until 2030 to reach the net-zero goal by 2050. That is not out of the question. According to the International Monetary Fund, governments, consumers, and society spend about $7 trillion annually to subsidize fossil fuel production and consumption. Diverting that investment to renewable energy would save the world more than $4 trillion annually by 2030, according to the UN.
With the world leaning toward all-electric economies, the UN says the goal would be to raise renewable energy's contribution to power generation from 29 percent today to 60 percent or more in the next eight years. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres concludes, "Without renewables, there can be no future." "Renewables are the only path to real energy security, stable power prices, and sustainable employment opportunities," he says. "Shifting subsidies from fossil fuels to renewable energy not only cuts emissions, it also contributes to sustainable economic growth, job creation, better public health, and more equality, particularly for the poor and most vulnerable communities around the world."
Unfortunately, some scientists and policymakers say it is "one of the world's last best hopes to limit dangerous warming."
Also, because the world has waited so long to confront climate change and countries are falling short of their promises to stop emitting CO2 by 2050, there is no more time to waste to prevent climate change from becoming catastrophic and unstoppable. We can build utility-scale wind and solar farms much more quickly than CCS power plants and pipelines. Solar and wind are proven technologies that require no significant water, produce no waste, emit no CO2, and provide new income for the landowners who host them.
We will likely hear a lot of enthusiasm about CCS at COP-28, especially with hundreds of fossil-fuel lobbyists in attendance. But CCS is a case study of how policymakers and special interests have tunnel vision. Every cost and benefit of our choices must be considered, from the moment the drill or bulldozer bites the soil to the long-term maintenance of the ash dump, the leaks in gas pipelines, the cost of treating asthma and lung cancer, the waste of fresh water, and so on.
When we look at our options through a long-range, wide-angle lens and consider all costs, human and otherwise, it makes far more sense to invest in clean rather than polluting energy, inexhaustible rather than finite resources, domestic rather than imported fuels, and the energy that has always been around us, free and waiting to be harvested.