“Mother Earth” will be fine whether or not we protect the planet from catastrophic global warming. We’re fighting for human habitat — for our own future on this spaceship.
The good news is that we can prevail with minimal costs if we act decisively over the next 15 years. That’s the conclusion of a report released this week by The Global Commission on Climate and the Economy, a group of former senior government officials advised by some of the world’s leading economists.
As The New York Times reported, the commission found that “an ambitious series of measures to limit emissions would cost $4 trillion or so over the next 15 years, an increase of roughly 5 percent over the amount that would likely be spent anyway on new power plants, transit systems and other infrastructure.”
When the secondary benefits of greener policies — like lower fuel costs, fewer premature deaths from air pollution and reduced medical bills — are taken into account, the changes might wind up saving money.
The solutions are there; the roadblocks are political and cultural.
The politics are straightforward: corporations that wield disproportionate political power tend to focus on short-term profits, and the investments required to combat climate change are significant. Fossil fuel companies’ market valuations are based on their proven reserves, and 80 percent of those reserves have to stay in the ground if we’re to avert catastrophic climate change.
The other reality is that, at least to some degree, we’re going to have to change the way we live. As Naomi Klein told BillMoyers.com this week, “if we’re going to get off fossil fuels by midcentury, which we need to do, we are going to need to consume less. And that’s the piece that nobody wants to talk about.”
What might we be doing if there were no oil industry shills muddying the waters around climate change and the climate change deniers were run out of Congress? If we followed the science, here are some of the things we could be doing right now.
1. Move Toward Sane Subsidies
Transportation and the generation of electricity account for a huge share of global greenhouse gas emissions – in the US, the two sectors account for about 60 percent of what we contribute to our warming planet.
According to the Global Commission, worldwide subsidies for fossil fuels total $600 billion per year, while governments around the world only subsidize renewable energy to the tune of $100 billion.
Those numbers are out of whack. The point of subsidizing something is to intervene in the market in order to encourage more of its production. We’re subsidizing the industries that threaten our future with six times the resources than we do those that will help address the problem. While the price of solar and wind energy are falling rapidly, the process of transitioning to renewables would move a lot faster if our subsidies aligned with the imperative of saving our habitat.
Consider the impact that might have on cars alone. According to the industry forecaster IHS Automotive, worldwide sales of electric cars will remain shy of 1 million by 2020. A big part of the reason cleaner cars haven’t taken off is that the citizens of many countries enjoy cheap, heavily subsidized gas. In the US, where gas currently sells for less than $4 per gallon, the actual cost of that same gallon would be around $1.65 higher if we included only direct subsidies to oil companies. When you include indirect subsidies – like providing security to energy companies’ overseas operations or picking up the costs of health care caused by pollution – some estimate that the cost of gas would exceed $15 per gallon. If we had to pay the true price of gas, those electric vehicles that get 100 miles to the gallon would look a lot more attractive.
2. A Global Apollo Program
In 1961, John F. Kennedy announced the ambitious goal of landing men on the surface of the moon by the end of that decade. Over the next eight years, 400,000 Americans and 20,000 industrial firms and universities made it happen – at a cost, in today’s dollars, of around $200 billion. It was arguably the single biggest mobilization of resources any country had ever undertaken during peacetime.
Getting the Earth’s climate under control will require similarly massive investments. According to economist Robert Pollin, the US, which is responsible for about 17 percent of global emissions, could reduce its footprint by 40 percent by investing 1.2 percent of our economic output into new infrastructure over the next 20 years — enough to reach our target of reducing emissions by 40 percent.
The Global Commission estimates that the world will have to spend around $90 trillion over the next 15 years on energy infrastructure regardless of whether or not we tackle climate change. The authors write that “by combining renewable energy with reduced fossil fuel investment, more compact cities, and more efficiently managed energy demand,” we can create a low-carbon economy by spending an additional $4.2 trillion… [and] these higher capital costs could potentially be fully offset by lower operating costs, for example from reduced expenditure on fuel.” That’s a modest five percent increase in spending up front, which may pay for itself entirely down the road.
Germany is already undergoing an energy revolution by taking a similar approach, albeit on a much smaller scale. The New York Times reported this week that the German government has invested $140 billion in wind and solar energy, and will soon get twice the share of its power from renewables — 30 percent — as the US. And The Times points out that “Germany’s relentless push into renewable energy has implications far beyond its shores.”
By creating huge demand for wind turbines and especially for solar panels, it has helped lure big Chinese manufacturers into the market, and that combination is driving down costs faster than almost anyone thought possible just a few years ago.
As a result, “electric utility executives all over the world are watching nervously as technologies they once dismissed as irrelevant begin to threaten their long-established business plans.” That’s precisely the kind of “disruption” we’ll need to preserve our habitat, and it began with significant public investments by the German government.
3. Build Smarter
We’re going to have to build smarter and live in denser communities.
Cities are currently the home to about half of the world’s population, but they account for 80 percent of our economic output and 70 percent of the planet’s greenhouse gas emissions.
The Global Commission estimates that over the next two decades, “nearly all of the world’s net population growth is expected to occur in urban areas, with about 1.4 million people – close to the population of Stockholm – added each week.”
How we grow those cities will have a huge impact. Urban development is now haphazard and largely unplanned. But as the authors of the Global Commission’s report point out, “pioneering cities across the world are demonstrating [that] more compact and connected urban development, built around mass public transport, can create cities that are economically dynamic and healthier, and that have lower emissions.” They add that “such an approach to urbanization could reduce urban infrastructure capital requirements by more than $3 trillion over the next 15 years.”
Stockholm, Sweden, has a model of sustainability in a development called Hammarby Sjöstad, which was built in a formerly bleak industrial area. According to its website, “the City has imposed tough environmental requirements on buildings, technical installations and the traffic environment from day one.”
Everybody who lives in Hammarby Sjöstad is a part of an eco-cycle. The eco-cycle solution in Hammarby Sjöstad is called the Hammarby Model and handles energy, waste, sewage and water for both housing and offices.
The goal is to create a residential environment based on sustainable resource usage. Energy consumption and the waste production are to be minimized while the resource saving, reusing and recycling are maximized.
4. Rethink Transportation
Transportation accounts for 28 percent of America’s greenhouse gas emissions, and because of our sprawling exurbs, relatively low population density and firm embrace of our car culture, this is a source emissions that will be especially challenging for us to address.
But in recent years, we’ve taken some important if incremental steps in this area. The Obama administration’s vehicle efficiency standards, enacted in 2013, are expected to cut tailpipe emissions from cars and light truck in half by 2025. Next year, the EPA will issue similar standards for heavy trucks.
But further efforts – and more creative thinking – are required. Light rail and other forms of public transit make it possible for people to ditch their cars. A number of US cities are investing in gondolas as a form of public transit; in South America, they’ve already proven to be “cleaner, more efficient and quieter than gas-guzzling buses — all crucial features in the age of climate change,” according to The International Business Times.
In Copenhagen, they’ve built a four-lane bicycle “superhighway” connecting the city to nearby suburbs. It’s the first of many Danish cities to do so, and as Time Magazine reported, “cycle superhighways could increase the number of cyclists by 30 percent, adding 15,000 more cyclists to the superhighway network, saving 7000 tons of CO2 and 300 million Danish Krones in health costs per year.” In Mälmo, Sweden, efforts to make the city more bike-friendly have paid off handsomely – cycling has increased by 30 percent in each of the past four years, and the city is now investing in a bike highway that will connect it to the neighboring city of Lund.
The greenhouse effects of flying are becoming a hot-button issue. One roundtrip flight from San Francisco “creates a warming effect equivalent to 2 or 3 tons of carbon dioxide per person,” according to The New York Times – that’s around 20 to 30 percent of what the typical European’s carbon footprint is for an entire year. But most commercial flights in the US are less than 500 miles, and a 2006 study by the Center for Neighborhood Technology found that “a full network of high-speed trains could save as much as 6 billion pounds of Carbon Dioxide per year.” Magnetic levitation, or MagLev train systems promise to be even greener.
5. The Bare Minimum: Take the Conservative Approach
Just as the broad structure of Obamacare was first developed by conservative wonks as a “free market” approach to expanding healthcare coverage — only to be demonized later on as a pernicious form of socialism — so too began the move toward “cap-and-trade” in the Reagan White House.
There are modest emissions trading systems already in place around the world, and they’ve proven to be effective – usually in combination with a straightforward tax on greenhouse gas emissions.
Alone, these schemes aren’t sufficient for the challenge at hand, but if expanded, and in combination with other efforts to tackle the climate crisis, cap-and-trade and carbon taxes represent a solid step toward sustainability.
A Little Light in a Dark Picture
As BillMoyers.com’s John Light points out, the latest IPCC report is “bleak, to say the least.” It gets worse: a study led by Harvard scientific historian Naomi Oreskes found that scientists tend to err “on the side of least drama,” suggesting that the IPCC’s projections probably understate the severity of the problem. And, as Naomi Klein told BillMoyers.com this week, there’s a “procrastination penalty” when it comes to emissions, and we’ve waited far longer than we should have to act on the science that was available to us 20 years ago.
The fossil fuel industry has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in a network of climate “skeptics” to muddy the waters around climate change, and that effort has been a success: while there’s a solid scientific consensus that human activities are warming the planet, a 2012 Pew Poll found that only 45 percent of Americans knew that there’s virtually no debate among climatologists over the basic facts.
Despite that bleak outlook, it’s encouraging that people all over the world are taking concrete steps in the right direction. It’s good to know that there are solutions out there – that it’s the political will that’s lacking, rather than some sort of impossible-to-overcome technological challenges. And grassroots movements have changed many political landscapes in the past.
So we still have the ability to correct our course – it’s entirely in our hands.
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