Hope is that thing inside us that insists, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us if we have the courage to reach for it and to work for it and to fight for it.
-- Barack Obama
In September, I posted an essay on the growing dystopia of climate change. With a summer punctuated by megadroughts and firestorms in the west, widespread crop loss in the mid-west, failed salmon runs in Alaska, and massive hurricanes prowling the eastern seaboard, the evidence of a worsening crisis is all around us. And if things are this bad now, what are the prospects for the future?
This month I set out to explore legislation and ideas intended to move us closer to a sustainable, equitable future. Here’s what I’ve learned, about efforts to reverse climate warming, and about the power of hope and forward-thinking.
The national news is currently focused on the Biden administration’s attempt to pass a comprehensive package to address climate change, and the upcoming United Nations Climate Conference of the Parties, or COP26, in Scotland. Immediate Progress on both fronts is crucial if we are avoid ecological freefall. The overarching objective is to limit the rise in global temperatures to 1.5°C (2°F) above preindustrial levels and avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change. We have already warmed 1.2°C globally. In the northernmost latitudes that increase is closer to 3°C.
Biden’s initial 10-year, 3.5 trillion-dollar spending package (whittled down to around 1.75 trillion as of this printing) is intended to move the United States toward a 50% reduction in carbon emissions from 2005 levels by 2030 and to zero net emissions by 2050. The unprecedented breadth of the bill recognizes that, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi stated in a recent letter to congressional colleagues, “The climate crisis is a health issue, jobs issue, national security issue, and a moral issue to pass the planet on to future generations in a responsible way.”
Meanwhile, between October 31st and November 12th, representatives from 197 countries will attend the COP26 in Glasgow. The goals of the talks are to secure commitments from the countries in attendance to set ambitious emissions reductions targets to reach net-zero by 2050; protect and restore ecosystems by phasing out coal, curtailing deforestation, and accelerating the switch to electric vehicles; and contribute to an annual $100 billion fund to combat the impacts of climate change in third-world countries. Fortunately, the Biden administration will be at the table and not a climate action obstructionist from a second-term Trump administration.
At the end of the conference, if all goes well, global leaders will head home to deliver on the promised policies, resources, and incentives required to build a bridge between fossil fuels and green infrastructure, along with the clout to curtail deforestation and fossil fuel development.
But promises aside, how do we get there from here?
Between 1840 and 2020 fossil fuel combustion has released more than 2,000 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere where it remains, acting as a trap for the sun’s infrared rays. According to scientists, if we are going to stay below a 1.5°C temperature increase, we can only emit another 440 gigatons of CO2. In 2021 we emitted 34 gigatons (down from 36.44 in 2020). At this rate, we have 13 years until that budget runs out. This is our decade to act.
Numerous integrated assessment models (computer models that integrate societal choices into predictive climate models) indicate that capping climate warming at 1.5°C is still feasible. To do so, massive investments in carbon-neutral technology such as solar, wind, and wave energy, and lightning speed innovations in carbon capture are required. Such rapid-fire retooling is not unprecedented. During World War II the auto industry, under federal mandate, stopped building cars and, almost overnight, brought in the equipment and expertise needed to build tanks, airplanes, and bombs. Then, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, we had the Race to Space between Russia and the US. Clearly, we can rise to the challenge when necessity dictates.
Some argue that we can continue to grow our economy while retooling our energy needs with green infrastructure. Others argue for degrowth – a planned slowing of our demands for energy and resources such that the economy and ecology of the world are in balance in ways that reduce inequality and raise the standard of living for the poorest among us.
With a projected global population of 11.2 billion people by 2100 (an increase of 50% above our current population of 7.9 Billion), I question how we can rapidly reduce greenhouse gasses while continuing to grow robust northern economies and bring third-world countries up to first-world standards of education, healthcare, clean air and water, and nutrition. Such a great and noble achievement will only be possible if, and this is the crux of it, we can agree on and adhere to, a shared path forward, and put our trust in the most reliable science and technology available.
Currently, renewables provide 12% of our energy needs in the US – recently outpacing coal to become the third-largest source of electric power after natural gas and petroleum. Between 2010 and 2019, solar capacity increased nearly 15-fold globally. At the same time, the cost of solar installation fell 90% and the cost of building large-scale solar power plants fell below that of new fossil fuel facilities.
Following the remarkable success of Tesla, most major car manufacturers are now marketing electric cars and now make up 2.5% of the new car market, or one in 40. These cars can be charged overnight at home, or at electric vehicle (EV) charging stations. Currently, the US has 43,000 EV stations while Europe has 286,000. Locally, Homer has three stations available to the public, while Anchorage has 57, Fairbanks has 7, and Juneau has 29.
Carbon capture, still a nascent industry, is gaining traction. A geothermically-powered plant in Iceland is coming online that will pump captured carbon underground where it will solidify into rock. While this plant, the largest so far, will only sequester enough carbon to offset around 750 cars annually, 14 other carbon capture plants are online and another, vastly larger one in Texas is in the works.
Progress is also coming from an unexpected quarter – the financial sector. Major Banks, universities, and deep-pocket retirement funds are disincentivizing investments in the fossil fuel industry through global divesting, making stocks less profitable for investors and turning away oil companies who seek to secure funding for new projects.
The tide is beginning to turn. Between 2000 and 2010, annual global emissions grew an average of 3%. Between 2011 and 2019, that growth slowed to roughly 1% per year, and in 2020, emissions dipped, due to the pandemic. We have bent the curve. Before the 2015 Paris agreement, the world was on track to see a 4°C (7.2°F) temperature increase by the end of the century. Now, due to an acceleration in solar and wind power, we are looking at a 2.9°C temperature increase by 2100. This isn’t an overwhelming success, but it’s an encouraging start.
Given the impetus of such promising progress, what we need now is a worldwide groundswell of people willing to trade in their cars for electric vehicles or bicycles, invest in solar or wind energy, curtail their shopping habits, and reduce their dependence on beef. Such broadscale grassroots action, coupled with government support, might just pull the emergency brake before we plunge over the cliff of diminished fish stocks, dwindling aquifers, and climate collapse.
If the goal is to cut carbon emissions globally by 50% by 2030, what would that look like on a personal level? Using a simple carbon footprint calculator to determine our household’s carbon footprint for 2019 (pre-Covid), I determined that our family of two released some 42 tons of CO2 that year (below the national average of 60 tons for a household of similar size and income). Airline and automobile travel accounted for the largest share at about 35% of the total.
In 2020 we added solar power, cutting our electric bill and coal-generated electricity usage in half. We also got rid of our clothes dryer and I retired, reducing our need for trips to town, new clothes, and work-related trips out of state. This year I purchased a hybrid vehicle and we stopped eating red meat. Projecting forward for the year 2022, if we reduce travel to one trip to the lower 48, our CO2 footprint should fall to 25 tons per year. Not yet half of our 2019 output, but decidedly better. Other ways we might reduce our footprint include swapping our propane stove for electric, adding additional solar panels, and planning ahead to purchase an electric car.
Ultimately, our success or failure to address climate change is a matter of hopeful determination backed by decisive action.
We can’t save the world by playing by the rules, because the rules have to be changed. Everything needs to change – and it has to start today….Together and united, we are unstoppable.