May 25 2021

Global Action To Prevent Climate Change

There have been many studies coming out recently looking at what it would take to mitigate climate change, and some patterns emerge from these analyses. First it is important to note that a certain amount of climate change has already happened, with 2020 being 1.2C warmer than the average year in the 19th century. More warming is also inevitable, even if we stopped all greenhouse gas emissions today.

The famous “12 years to stop global warming” notion refers to what it would take to stay below 1.5C warming, because below that level we can avoid major outcomes from climate change. That means getting close to net zero by 2030, which is absolutely not going to happen. Failing that the next goal is to stay below 2C warming. For that we likely need to get to net zero by 2050. That is possible, but will be extremely difficult.

One point of clarification that often gets misunderstood – no one is claiming that seriously bad outcomes will happen by 2030 or 2050, just that dangerous levels of warming will become inevitable by then if we don’t drastically reduce our CO2 release. The bad outcomes, like significant ocean level rise, kick in around 2100. This misunderstanding creates the illusion that scientists keep warning about climate change with endless deadlines that keep passing, while the world seems to be doing fine. Don’t be deceived by this. This is like ignoring your health, including warning signs like high cholesterol and high blood pressure, and claiming everything is fine, right up until the day you have a heart attack.

Further, the reason the deadline for action keeps getting pushed back is because the level of acceptable warming keeps going up once lower levels become impossible. Initially it would have been nice to stay below 1C warming, when that became impossible scientists said, well, at least let’s stay below 1.5C. Now that this goal is impossible they are shooting for at least 2.0C. This means accepting worse outcomes as inevitable while still trying to prevent even worse outcomes.

The one huge variable in all this, however, is tipping points. These are tricky to predict, and so we can only give a range and talk about margins of error. One tipping point, for example, is the collapse of the Antarctic ice sheet. We don’t know at what point this will happen, but when it does the outcome will be rapid and severe. Therefore, negative outcomes from climate change are not strictly linear. There are “tipping points” with rapid change. We are trying to build in as much of a buffer as possible to prevent these from happening. These are changes that are not reversible on a human civilization timescale, so we only have one shot.

So what will it take to reduce carbon release sufficiently to stay below, let’s say, 2.0C (having given up on 1.5)? That is the focus of a lot of discussion, and I think the reporting sometimes is excessively gloomy. Yes – it will be horrifically difficult to get to net zero carbon. But the good news is, there is a lot of low-hanging fruit that can get us most of the way. If we could, for example, reduce our carbon footprint by 60% by picking this low-hanging fruit, that would buy us a lot of time. Time might then be on our side as technology advances and we figure out more ways to chip away at that last 20%, or even economically pull carbon from the air at scale.

Therefore, our strategy might be to as quickly as possible reduce CO2 emissions with existing technology, using the most cost-effective methods, to buy us time to do the more difficult tasks. So what’s the low-hanging fruit?

One thing is clear, it’s not personal activity. Individually we can do nothing. Personal behavior is only responsible for 4% of carbon release. If you want to reduce your personal carbon footprint, good for you, but realistically this is going to make practically no difference to climate change. We cannot let industry shift the focus to personal behavior, and don’t be lulled into complacency because you can pay to plant a tree to offset your carbon footprint. This is all a massive distraction – climate mitigation theater. This is not an excuse to be wasteful, but we have to put it in perspective.

Overall 29% of CO2 comes from the transportation sector, 25% from power generation, and 23% from industry, for a total of 77%. That is our target. Of these three, power generation is actually the easiest to deal with. We have the answer – just build as much solar, wind, and nuclear as we can. Phase out fossil fuels as quickly as possible. If we need to replace coal with natural gas as a stop-gap, that’s fine, but even natural gas needs to be eventually phased out. This will not have a significant effect on the price of energy. Wind and solar are the cheapest forms of energy, and getting better every year. The nuclear industry is moving toward small modular reactors that are less expensive to build and operate.

Transportation will be more difficult, but again, we have one solution that will get us much of the way, electric vehicles. This transition is happening anyway. EVs are just a better technology than internal combustion, and again are benefiting from continued improvements in battery technology. The challenge is rapidly retooling the auto industry to make the transition. We also need to source a lot of material to make all those batteries. Hydrogen fuel cells also have a role, in the trucking and locomotive industries probably. Air travel is trickiest, but biofuels can take a chunk out of that sector. Of course this also means generating more electricity to charge all of those vehicles, but we can do that with wind, solar, and nuclear.

Industry is the trickiest sector, because there is no one solution. We need to address the specific technologies that are generating the most CO2 and figure out alternatives will have less of a CO2 footprint. Concrete is a huge source, for example, and there is already research looking into alternate methods that do not release as much CO2.

The bottom line is that we used up most of our time, and now are under the gun. We need not just solutions but a strategy, and it seems to me that the best strategy is to accelerate the gains that are already happening and that are beneficial for other reasons. We need some breathing space to tackle the more challenging issues.

This will require a global effort, however. The US cannot do this alone. We cannot do this without Asia, specifically China. Right now China is building coal-fired plants, with a plan to replace them later, between 2050 and 2060. This is the exact opposite of what they should be doing. They need to reduce their coal now. Without them, there is no chance to avoid the 2.0C goal and likely to avoid devastating tipping points. This doesn’t mean the rest of the world through throw up their hands and do nothing. It means we need to lead anyway, while dramatically increasing pressure on China to come along. Remember, any reduction in CO2 buys us time, and time is the game.

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