Sustainable development is arguably the most pressing challenge of the 21st century. The effort to reduce extreme poverty and modernize underdeveloped regions of the world is invariably linked to access to energy. The way the developing world fills its energy needs (traditional vs. “green” energy), alongside the energy consumption habits of the developed world, will have a great impact on the future of climate change (In the U.S., for example, the energy sector was responsible for 1/3 of GHG emissions in 2012).
A number of longstanding impediments still stand in the way of a meaningful global climate change policy. There is the issue of who will shoulder the majority of the costs of a shift towards sustainable energy sources, countries who have the longest history of emissions / highest per capita emissions rates (developed countries such as the U.S.), or those who currently emit the most GHGs (such as China and India, with their heavy reliance on coal based electricity)?
Unhealthy smog in China and India have put more pressure on politicians to address national climate change agenda’s, but to this point have done little in terms of bridging a global climate change agenda.
A related issue is that the countries that are most susceptible to the negative impacts of climate change are small island states, which have a negligible influence on global policy matters. Organizations such as the UN’s Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and the Alliance Of Small Island States (AOSIS) attempt to overcome this issue by banding together to promote their mutual interests, but still face an uphill battle in compared to more influential global actors. Until the worlds most powerful nations start feeling strong adverse effects of climate change (which some would argue they already have), the needs of these smaller nations are likely to go unaddressed.
Perhaps the greatest impediment to global policy change is that the worlds most powerful nations house the most powerful energy companies, who have a vested interest in the status quo and hold immense political sway due to their roles as political donors and job providers.
When it comes to climate change, the burden of proof is on the “accuser”, a reality climate change deniers have used to their advantage; these companies have virtually limitless resources to challenge claims that climate change is a man made phenomenon, or that it is linked to their activities. To quote Nick Naylor in the satirical comedy “Thank You For Smoking”; “These guys realized quick if they were gonna claim cigarettes were not addictive they better have proof. This is the man they rely on, Erhardt Von Grupten Mundt. They found him in Germany. I won’t go into the details. He’s been testing the link between nicotine and lung cancer for thirty years, and hasn’t found any conclusive results. The man’s a genius, he could disprove gravity.” In other words, if you pay a scientist / economist / expert enough money, they can disprove / refute any claim.
While the costs of addressing climate change are quantifiable (difference in costs between competing energy sources, jobs / economics output lost, etc.), the benefits tend to be more abstract (ex: the costs of addressing climate change will be “greater in the future”, we can stave off natural disasters with untold economics costs, the effects on global food security, etc.). In a world of budget constraints and high unemployment, the quantifiable and immediate costs of addressing climate change tend to overpower the necessary reforms. Factoring in power asymmetries (those arguing for action are much “weaker” than those arguing against it), and the future of global climate policy becomes even bleaker.
However, there are reasons to be optimistic about the future of global climate change initiatives. For one thing, denying climate change has become a fringe position; the latest IPCC’s report found with 95% certainty that climate change is a man made phenomenon, and a slight majority (53%) of young Republic voters (the political party in the U.S. typically associated with inaction against climate change) describe climate change deniers as ‘ignorant,’ ‘out of touch’ or ‘crazy.’
In the long run, the Post-2015 Development Agenda is being developed alongside Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which seem poised to be agreed upon in a Global Climate Treaty in 2015.
There are also immediate economic and geopolitical reasons to be optimistic about the future of renewable energy proliferation:
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which pools the efforts of scientists around the globe, has begun releasing draft chapters from its latest assessment, and, for the most part, the reading is as grim as you might expect. We are still on the road to catastrophe without major policy changes.
But there is one piece of the assessment that is surprisingly, if conditionally, upbeat: Its take on the economics of mitigation. Even as the report calls for drastic action to limit emissions of greenhouse gases, it asserts that the economic impact of such drastic action would be surprisingly small. In fact, even under the most ambitious goals the assessment considers, the estimated reduction in economic growth would basically amount to a rounding error, around 0.06 percent per year.
What’s behind this economic optimism? To a large extent, it reflects a technological revolution many people don’t know about, the incredible recent decline in the cost of renewable energy, solar power in particular.
The climate change panel, in its usual deadpan prose, notes that “many RE [renewable energy] technologies have demonstrated substantial performance improvements and cost reductions” since it released its last assessment, back in 2007. The Department of Energy is willing to display a bit more open enthusiasm; it titled a report on clean energy released last year “Revolution Now.” That sounds like hyperbole, but you realize that it isn’t when you learn that the price of solar panels has fallen more than 75 percent just since 2008.
Thanks to this technological leap forward, the climate panel can talk about “decarbonizing” electricity generation as a realistic goal — and since coal-fired power plants are a very large part of the climate problem, that’s a big part of the solution right there.
It’s even possible that decarbonizing will take place without special encouragement, but we can’t and shouldn’t count on that. The point, instead, is that drastic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions are now within fairly easy reach.
So is the climate threat solved? Well, it should be. The science is solid; the technology is there; the economics look far more favorable than anyone expected. All that stands in the way of saving the planet is a combination of ignorance, prejudice and vested interests. What could go wrong? Oh, wait.
SO the latest news is that President Vladimir Putin of Russia has threatened to turn off gas supplies to Ukraine if Kiev doesn’t pay its overdue bill, and, by the way, Ukraine’s pipelines are the transit route for 15 percent of gas consumption for Europe. If I’m actually rooting for Putin to go ahead and shut off the gas, does that make me a bad guy?
Because that is what I’m rooting for, and I’d be happy to subsidize Ukraine through the pain. Because such an oil shock, though disruptive in the short run, could have the same long-term impact as the 1973 Arab oil embargo — only more so. That 1973 embargo led to the first auto mileage standards in America and propelled the solar, wind and energy efficiency industries. A Putin embargo today would be even more valuable because it would happen at a time when the solar, wind, natural gas and energy efficiency industries are all poised to take off and scale. So Vladimir, do us all a favor, get crazy, shut off the oil and gas to Ukraine and, even better, to all of Europe.Embargo! You’ll have a great day, and the rest of the planet will have a great century.
“Clean energy is at an inflection point,” explains Hal Harvey, C.E.O. of Energy Innovation. “The price reductions in the last five years have been nothing less than spectacular: Solar cells, for example, have dropped in cost by more than 80 percent in the last five years. This trend is underway, if a bit less dramatically, for wind, batteries, solid state lighting, new window technologies, vehicle drive trains, grid management, and more. What this means is that clean energy is moving from boutique to mainstream, and that opens up a wealth of opportunities.”
We are closer to both irreversible dangers on climate and scale solutions on clean tech than people realize. Just a little leadership now by America — or a little scare by Putin — would make a big difference.
To be sure, all of the impediments discussed in this article still remain; power asymmetries, a sluggish global economy, different views about who should pay the costs of “greening” the planet. However, no impediment can withstand a well informed and empowered public; the science, technology, economics and geopolitics of climate change have aligned, the time for change is now (I hate making blanket statements like this, but for the reasons discussed in this blog, I truly believe it in this instance).
All that remains is the political will to stand up to vested interests and the public support to finance the shrinking cost gap between traditional and renewable energy sources (which could be further closed with some form of carbon taxation–again an issue of political will).
When the issue at hand is the fate of our planets ecosystems, with costs that are both unpredictable and rising, how can we not rise to this challenge?