It’s often argued that climate change is not a technological or engineering problem, it is a political problem. And it’s true. We have all the technology we need to power the world with renewables and stave off the worst of climate chaos. What we lack is the political will to take the kind of moonshot-scale action necessary to accomplish it.
But climate change is also a numbers problem. Every ton of carbon that we dump into the atmosphere stays there for hundreds of years, warming the atmosphere and reshaping the future climate. As the recent IPCC report pointed out, to avoid the worst of climate chaos, the world needs to reduce carbon emissions to zero by 2050. Accomplishing that would require not just a remaking of our energy system, but profound changes in agriculture, the design of cities and transportation systems. It is possible to imagine how a revolution like this might happen, but it’s even easier to imagine how it would not.
A new report issued this week by the Global Carbon Project shows that, far from making progress, we’re going in exactly the opposite direction. After several years when global carbon emissions flatlined, giving hope to some that the turning point had come, the new report shows that carbon emissions are projected to increase by 2.7 percent in 2018. That may not sound like a lot, but given what’s at stake with our rapidly changing climate, it’s the equivalent of an alcoholic who had sworn to go cold turkey taking a couple of shots of Jack Daniels at lunch.
Take a look at this graphic included in the report that shows the increase in fossil fuel emissions since 1900. Notice the big wedge of the grey line, which are fossil fuel emissions, which just goes up and up and up:
Why is California burning? Why are hurricanes getting more intense? Why are high temperature records being broken around the world? Why are scientists increasingly worried that ice sheets in West Antarctica are going to fall into the Southern Ocean and cause sea levels to rise so high they drown coastal cities?
It’s all right there in the graph in the fat wedge of gray.
“We are in trouble. We are in deep trouble with climate change,” United Nations Secretary General António Guterres said this week at the opening of the 24th annual U.N. climate conference in Poland, where attendees will once again wrestle with how to convince world leaders to implement policies that will sharply reduce carbon emissions in the coming years.
“It is hard to overstate the urgency of our situation,” Guterres said. “Even as we witness devastating climate impacts causing havoc across the world, we are still not doing enough, nor moving fast enough, to prevent irreversible and catastrophic climate disruption.”
In this narrative, it’s easy to cast China as the villain. After all, according to the new report, China produces 27 percent of global emissions. The U.S. accounts for 15 percent of emissions, the European Union 10 percent and India 7 percent.
China’s emissions are also projected to rise 4.7 percent in 2018, the report said, which is nearly twice the rate projected for the U.S. It’s not hard to see why. Although China has invested heavily in wind and solar, as well as electric cars, the Chinese officials are trying to boost their slowing economy by revving up the manufacturing sector, which is largely made up of factories powered by old coal plants. And despite the cost benefits of renewable energy, China is still hooked on coal, building new coal-fired power plants at home and planning others in new markets such as sub-Saharan Africa.
China has long been cited as an excuse for inaction on climate change. On Tuesday, President Trump wrote on Twitter that the Paris Agreement was “fatally flawed” because its system of voluntary pledges let other countries off the hook, adding that “American taxpayers — and American workers — shouldn’t pay to clean up others countries’ pollution.” In other words, if China isn’t going to clean up its act, why should the U.S.?
But as always, Trump gets it wrong.
As scientist Peter Gleick pointed out in a tweet, China’s national emissions are the biggest, but if you look at emissions per capita, the U.S. is by far the biggest carbon polluter.
This, more than any other reason, is why America’s leadership matters so much on climate change, and why Trump’s abandonment of that leadership, as well as his administration’s deliberate attempts to subvert all action on climate change and promote fossil fuels, amounts to one of the greatest humanitarian crimes of our time. The suffering and loss that will result from Trump’s failure is incalculable.
This week, in a desperate attempt to breathe life into the dying coal industry in America, Trump’s EPA, under the guidance of Administrator (and former coal lobbyist) Andrew Wheeler, went so far as to propose removing limits to CO2 pollution from new coal plants in the U.S.
The moral of this story is not that all hope is lost. It’s that more dramatic action is needed to get off fossil fuels, and it is needed now. And in just the past few weeks, there have been a number of announcements that demonstrate real progress toward a zero carbon world. A.P. Moller-Maersk, the world’s largest shipping-container company, announced it would go carbon neutral by 2050. Xcel Energy, a major U.S. utility, announced it is committing to delivering 100 percent carbon free electricity by 2050. Last month, Google announced it will soon run all its operations on 100 percent clean energy. As Vox’s David Roberts points out, there are now hundreds of companies (Ikea, Apple, BMW, Coca-Cola, Facebook, etc.), more than 90 U.S. cities (Minneapolis, Denver, St. Louis, Atlanta, Salt Lake City, etc.), and two U.S. states (Hawaii and California) committed to reaching 100 percent clean electricity.
The trouble is, when it comes to averting climate chaos, we are in a race against time. Hal Harvey, the CEO of Energy Innovation, points out that every year we delay cutting carbon pollution, every new coal plant that gets built and every new V-8-powered SUV that rolls off the assembly line makes the goal of limiting climate change much tougher:
Carbon Math: The costs of delay are staggering.If we had started global decarbonization in 2000, we would have had to progress at a rate of 3% per year. If we start today, it is 10% per year (really tough). If we delay ten more years, it is 30% per year! This math is inexorable. pic.twitter.com/kJARZYlVKs
— Hal Harvey (@hal_harvey) November 29, 2018
What it really comes down to is this: Every ton of carbon that is not emitted into the atmosphere helps to minimize future warming and preserve a stable climate. But we are fast approaching a time when, if you think about climate change as a math problem, the math no longer works. Short of a global economic collapse, it becomes nearly impossible to see how we can cut emissions fast enough to have much chance of staving off climate chaos. And at that point, climate change will become more than just a problem of politics and math. It will become a problem of human survival.