I’ll take a wild guess that you don’t need any convincing about the need for action on climate change. You know that since the start of the Industrial Revolution we’ve dumped more than 500 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere and we’re adding about 10 billion more each year. You know that global temperatures have risen 1 degree Celsius over the past century and we’re on track for 2 degrees within another few decades.
And you know what this means. It means more extreme weather. More hurricanes. More droughts. More flooding. More wildfires. More heat-related deaths. There will be more infectious disease as insects move ever farther north. The Northwest Passage will be open for much of the year. Sea levels will rise by several feet as the ice shelves of Greenland and the Antarctic melt, producing bigger storm swells and more intense flooding in low-lying areas around the world.
Some of this is already baked into our future, but to avoid the worst of it, climate experts widely agree that we need to get to net-zero carbon emissions entirely by 2050 at the latest. This is the goal of the Paris Agreement, and it’s one that every Democratic candidate for president has committed to. But how to get there?
Let’s start with the good news. About three-quarters of carbon emissions come from burning fossil fuels for power, and we already have the technology to make a big dent in that. Solar power is now price-competitive with the most efficient natural gas plants and is likely to get even cheaper in the near future. In 2019, Los Angeles signed a deal to provide 400 megawatts of solar power at a price under 4 cents per kilowatt-hour—including battery storage to keep that power available day and night. That’s just a start—it will provide only about 7 percent of electricity needed in Los Angeles—but for the first time it’s fully competitive with the current wholesale price of fossil fuel electricity in Southern California.
Wind power—especially offshore wind—is equally promising. This means that a broad-based effort to build solar and wind infrastructure, along with a commitment to replace much of the world’s fossil fuel use with electricity, would go pretty far toward reducing global carbon emissions.
How far? Bloomberg New Energy Finance estimates that by 2050, wind and solar can satisfy 80 percent of electricity demand in most advanced countries. But due to inadequate infrastructure in some cases and lack of wind and sun in others, not all countries can meet this goal, which means that even with favorable government policies and big commitments to clean energy, the growth of wind and solar will probably provide only about half of the world’s demand for electricity by midcentury. “Importantly,” the Bloomberg analysts caution, “major progress in de-carbonization will also be required in other segments of the world’s economy to address climate change.”
This inevitably means we have to face up to some bad news. If existing technologies like wind, solar, and nuclear can get us only halfway to our goal—or maybe a bit more—the other half would seem to require cutting back on energy consumption.
Let’s be clear about something: We’re not talking about voluntary personal cutbacks. If you decide to bicycle more or eat less meat, great—every little bit helps. But no one who’s serious about climate change believes that personal decisions like this have more than a slight effect on the gigatons of carbon we’ve emitted and the shortsighted policies we’ve enacted. Framing the problem this way—a solution of individual lifestyle choices—is mostly just a red herring that allows corporations and conservatives to avoid the real issue.
The real issue is this: Only largescale government action can significantly reduce carbon emissions. But this doesn’t let any of us offthe hook. Our personal cutbacks might not matter much, but what does matter is whether we’re willing to support large-scale actions— things like carbon taxes or fracking bans—that will force all of us to reduce our energy consumption.
Solutions depend on how acceptable these policies are to the public. To get a rough handle of what a significant reduction means, the Nature Conservancy has a handy app that can help you calculate what it would take to cut your household carbon footprint in half. If you’re an average household, you need to pare down to one car. If it’s an suv or a sports car, get rid of it. You need a small, high-mileage vehicle (the calculator assumes a regular gasoline car) and drive it no more than 10,000 miles per year. That’s for your whole family. You need to cut way back on heating and cooling. You need to live in a house no bigger than 1,000 square feet. And you need to buy way less stuff— about half of what you buy now.
There are solutions to some of these problems—electrification obviously helps with transportation, and better insulation helps with heating and cooling—but only to a point. One way or another, any government policy big enough to make a serious dent in climate change will also force people to make major lifestyle cutbacks or pay substantially higher taxes—or both.
How many of us are willing to do that? It turns out we have a pretty good idea. In 2018, the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago fielded a national poll on climate change. Only 71 percent of respondents agreed it was happening, and of those, more than 80 percent said the federal government should do something about it.
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