Jun 22 2020

A Green Recovery

I don’t like the headline of this article: World has six months to avert climate crisis, says energy expert. It’s accurate – a climate scientist does indeed say that, but it is focusing on an extreme end of expert opinion, and is misleading without context. I know, headlines are attention grabbers and often not written by the author of the article, I just find it all annoying.

In any case – what is this guy, Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency, talking about? His point, which is an interesting one, is that the pandemic provides an opportunity to accelerate reduction in carbon emissions. This is because the world is set to spend “$9tn (£7.2tn) globally” on the economic recovery, much of it focused on job preservation and creation. What if we spend some of that money on job creation in the green energy sector? That is where the “six months” comes from. It is not based on science, on when we spend our carbon budget or when getting to a climate tipping point becomes inevitable. Rather, it is the time frame of determining how those trillions of economic recovery dollars will be spent. Birol argues this is our last realistic chance, from this political perspective, to make the dramatic changes to our economic and energy infrastructure that averting the worst of climate change requires.

He does have a point, although I would argue that it is never theoretically too late. At any point the world could muster the political will to deal properly with climate change. Sometimes we do reach inflection points in public opinion. But the pessimistic view is that this is unlikely to happen with climate change. The political will probably will not manifest until after it is too late.

There are several reasons for my pessimism. One is that the effects of climate change will not generally be felt until years after the carbon release that causes it. We are already, arguably, feeling the effects of climate change, but not in a way that is overwhelmingly undeniable, at least to enough people to make a difference. Further, there are vested interests in the status who that spend a lot of money on disinformation and political lobbying. They don’t have to “win” the argument in the end, only cause enough fear and doubt to delay action.

These two causes for delay are critical because effectively dealing with climate change requires massive infrastructure change that requires decades to accomplish. It’s pretty clear that individual behavior, something that can change rather quickly, will not be enough to have a significant impact of carbon release. Individuals are “statistically blameless” (which is not to say that it isn’t still a good idea to pay attention to your carbon footprint). Effective change requires collaboration between governments and corporations.

Significantly reducing carbon release requires infrastructure change. We need to phase out fossil fuels as quickly as possible, so we need to replace those coal-fired plants with wind, solar, geothermal, hydroelectric, and nuclear plants, and probably augment with some grid storage. The industry needs to be incentivized to do this. At the same time the transportation sector needs to go mostly electric. And industry production, especially things like cement, needs to find alternatives that are less carbon intensive. This may further require an upgrade to the energy grid. Improvements in energy efficiency are the icing on the cake.

So sure, let’s think carefully about how those trillions of recovery dollars are going to be spent. Let’s not double-down on the old polluting technologies, when we can instead accelerate the green future. It would be nice to look back at the pandemic and be able to think that at least something positive came out of it. One of the most positive things, in my opinion, was just the clear demonstration that we can collectively do things when we have to. The example that I am closest to personally is telehealth, having doctor visits over video rather than in person. This is something that was slowly being adopted, with much industry resistance and red tape. When the lockdown hit suddenly telehealth was possible, and literally years of progress was made in weeks. This progress is not going away as we are lifting the lockdown.

People argue that it takes too long to build nuclear plants – but it doesn’t have to. Most of that delay is excessive regulatory red tape. The process can be streamlined and accelerated, if it were a priority. It should be, because the climate is not waiting for us.

As pessimistic as I am on the political end, I am optimistic on the technology end. If governments find the political will to prioritize climate change, industry will find a way to make it happen. Look at the massive research effort to stem COVID-19. We’re pretty clever monkeys when we want to be. We know that in the future we will not be using the old, dirty tech of burning coal for energy, polluting out cities and causing massive health problems. At the rate solar, wind, and battery technology is progressing, economics alone will render a green revolution eventually. And we will inherit a cleaner environment as a bonus. The question is – will it happen fast enough to prevent the significantly bad outcomes of climate change? Most experts agree the answer is no – not without a deliberate massive effort.

There are climate tipping points (I wrote about it here, so won’t bother to repeat it). Once we get passed them we won’t be able to reverse them on a human civilization time scale. You can’t just replace ice that took millions of years to form. So we really do have a relatively short window to avoid these tipping points, and from a political point of view this may be our best opportunity.

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