Dec 10 2020

The Decade of Climate Change

Of course there are many important issues facing the world, but arguably drastically reducing carbon emissions is near the top of the list. The 2020s is likely to be a pivotal decade for this effort, and will have a dramatic and long lasting effect. The reason for this is that we are nearing the end of our “carbon budget” – the cumulative amount of carbon we can release into the environment without causing warming >1.5C above pre-industrial levels. We are very close to exhausting this budget, and in fact most experts have set their sights on 2C as the goal, believing it is already too late to keep global warming below 1.5C. Without a major effort in this decade, we will miss the more liberal 2C target, we will have exhausted our carbon budget, and it will no longer be possible to avoid serious consequences of global warming. In fact, it’s possible it would then be too lake to stop a cascade of events that will eventually lead to 5-6C of warming through triggering threshold positive feedback events. This may take hundreds of years to play out, but it still may be unavoidable at that point.

This is really the last decade we have to ensure a high probability of avoiding significant global warming by drastically reducing our carbon emissions. This means transforming our energy and transportation sectors into mostly carbon free technology. Industrial emissions will be harder, and require various technological advances, but any such advances there will help as well. This means, at the very least, we have to stop burning fossil fuel. This in turn means electric vehicles (with perhaps some role for hydrogen and biofuel), and an energy infrastructure built on renewable sources (wind, solar, geothermal, hydroelectric) and nuclear with some grid storage. All of this is achievable with current technology, and will reap benefits beyond climate change, such as reduced health care costs and deaths from pollution.

Often, those who push back against the suggestion that we need to make this change to our civilization a priority frame the choice before us as a false dichotomy – the climate vs the economy. More people will be harmed by the economic costs of decarbonization than will benefit from reducing carbon emissions, they claim. Often this strategy is coupled with denial of climate change itself, or unsupported assertions that climate change will not be so bad. They will often point to the most extreme predictions of climate change and argue that the entire field is “alarmist”.

But as I said – climate vs the economy is a false choice. Fighting climate change is getting cheaper every year, and will yield greater economic benefit by far than the upfront costs. A recent report out of the UK, for example, calculates that the cost of mitigation strategies, such as insulating homes and shifting energy production, will cost much less than previously thought, and any short term impact of poor households can be offset by tax-breaks and incentives.

Further, multiple independent economic analyses show that the costs of mitigating climate change are less than the economic benefits of avoiding climate change. According to the recent Yale study:

A growing body of economics research documents the tremendous cost savings associated with implementing climate solutions.

And this does not even consider the other costs, such as human suffering and the disruption to many peoples lives. Another recent analysis found that:

The economic and health costs of air pollution from burning fossil fuels totaled $2.9 trillion in 2018, calculated in the form of work absences, years of life lost, and premature deaths, according to a new report by theĀ Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA). The cost represents 3.3 percent of global GDP, or about $8 billion per day.

Therefore money spent on mitigating climate change should not be viewed as an expense, but as an investment, exactly like building infrastructure. Those investments will be paid back many fold in the future, just in economic terms. But they will also yield better health, greater energy efficiency, less pollution, and less reliance on oil from unstable regions of the world. Individuals will benefit from lower energy costs. No doubt there will be up front costs, but again, these are investments.

Also, keep in mind that this is true even if technology remains stagnant – but it isn’t. Renewable energy sources like wind and solar are getting cheaper every year, significantly so. Right now the cheapest energy we can add to the grid is wind and solar. The real short term investments will involve upgrading the grid, adding significant grid storage, and building nuclear power plants to displace coal and then eventually natural gas. We can also invest in upgrading building to make them more energy efficient. But there is a payback horizon on all these investments.

Trying to save money now by ignoring climate change or pretending it’s no big deal is extremely short-sighted. The best thing we can do for our economy is to make smart investments, ones that will reap multiple benefits in the not-to-distant future. The time to do this is right now. The longer we wait, the higher the costs and lower the benefits. This is really an economic no-brainer, which is why it is so ironic that climate change deniers so often falsely frame the choice as between climate and the economy. The real choice is whether or not we are going to smartly invest in our future to yield maximal benefits.

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