Can We Afford Another Climate Failure?

Can We Afford Another Climate Failure? | November 7, 2015
Originally published at JohnBrianShannon.com by John Brian Shannon John Brian Shannon

Climate scientists say we must decide (at COP 21) to dramatically lower our CO2 emissions or we lose our last opportunity to stop global warming at a scale never before seen.

“How many climate scientists?”

A majority of climate papers agree that global warming is real and a looming concern for planet Earth. Image courtesy of James Powell
A majority of climate papers agree that global warming is a looming concern for everyone on planet Earth. Image courtesy of JamesPowell.org

“Houston, we have a problem.”

The question, “Is there any doubt that global warming could threaten plant and animal life on the planet?” no longer seems relevant due to the astounding amount of quality research done in recent years which proves we do, in fact, have a problem.

One wonders about the other question, “Are our politicians up to the task at hand?”

Don’t lose hope yet! There are some inspiring examples of environmental stewardship in the world

100% Now: Albania, Bhutan, Belize, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Iceland, Lesotho, Mozambique, Nepal, Norway, Paraguay, Tokelau, and Zambia, are countries that produce virtually 100% of their primary energy generation (electricity) via renewable energy, while Samoa will hit that standard by 2017. (All of these countries produce a minimum of 95% of their electricity via renewable energy, and all of them have plans to meet their 100% target within a few years. As always, easy access to low-interest financing is one way to enable those targets to be met by 2020)

100% by 2021: Costa Rica will hit its renewable energy target by the end of 2021. At present the Costa Rican electricity grid is powered by 94% renewable energy, but many days of the year renewable energy production exceeds 100 percent of demand allowing the country to export surplus electricity.

100% by 2030: Denmark and Scotland and are well on their way to hit 100% clean electricity generation by 2030 — while the Cook Islands, Tuvalu, and Kiribati in the South Pacific expect to become 100% clean energy powered by 2050 including all transportation.

90% Now: Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Laos all produce more than 90% of their electricity via renewable energy and have ambitious plans to increase those targets. Limited funding is a factor.

80% Now: Canada produces over 80% of its primary generation from renewable energy (hydro-electric dams and nuclear power stations, with assorted minor solar power and wind power installations) but has, so far, has no plan to convert the remaining 20% of its electricity generation to clean energy.

80% by 2025: Nicaragua has an aggressive renewable energy program to replace its primarily fossil fueled primary energy (electricity) with renewable energy. The country is blessed with radiant sunshine, healthy wind resources and volcanoes (geothermal) all it lacks is the financing to accelerate its planned targets.

80% by 2050: Germany, an advanced country of 82 million people gets almost 40% of its annual electricity from wind, solar and biomass power and has an ambitious tw0-track programme underway called Energiewende that is simultaneously a) shutting down all of Germany’s nuclear power stations by 2022 (completely decommissioning them by 2045) and b) replacing that lost power generation with wind, solar, and biomass power.

By 2050 Germany expects to meet 80% of its electricity via renewable energy, and further plans to curtail energy use by 25% due to additional energy efficiency. The scale and speed of transition to clean energy in Germany is astonishing and enjoys broad support among the public.

See: German Renewable Energy Leaves Coal Behind (JBSNews)

20% by 2020: In the United States, primary energy (power plants that produce electricity or district heating, or both) are the single largest source of CO2 pollution.

Excessive carbon pollution is a contributor to climate change. Primary energy (power plants that produce electricity or district heating, or both) are the single largest source of CO2 pollution in the United States.
Excessive carbon pollution is a contributor to climate change. Primary energy (power plants that produce electricity or district heating, or both) are the single largest source of CO2 pollution in the United States.

And, although a slow starter, the United States has made rapid advances toward a cleaner energy grid. Early legislation such as the Clean Air Act (1970, amended 1990) has now been joined by the EPA’s Clean Power Plan.

See: How the Clean Air Act Has Saved $22 Trillion in Health-Care Costs (The Atlantic)

It’s notable that the U.S. now spends more than any country in the world on its transition to clean energy and is quickly switching out of coal (good) to natural gas (better) and renewable energy (best).

Climate and Carbon: Renewable energy as a proportion of the total U.S. electricity demand (2015)
Climate and Carbon: Renewable energy as a proportion of total U.S. electricity demand (2015) Image courtesy of IER

China has the second-highest spend on renewable energy globally and breaks global solar and wind power installation records every year. By a wide margin.

See: List of countries by electricity production from renewable sources (Wikipedia)

And yet, all of it together isn’t nearly enough to lower our present carbon emissions to a safe level

Not even close actually, as the carbon bender we’ve been on since 1988 is mind-numbing.

“By the end of this year, more than half of all industrial emissions of carbon dioxide since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution will have been released since 1988 — the year it became widely known that these emissions are warming the climate.”

“The Global Carbon Project (GCP) estimates that in 2014, we will release a record 37 gigatons (GT) of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere from burning coal, oil, and natural gas, and manufacturing cement. That’s a 2.5 percent increase over emissions in 2013, itself a record year.”

“This brings the total industrial carbon dioxide emissions since 1751 to an estimated 1480 Gt by the end of this year. And, remarkably, more than half of these emissions, 743 Gt, or 50.2 percent, have released just since 1988.” — , Director of science & policy, Union of Concerned Scientists

See: Global Warming Fact: More than Half of All Industrial CO2 Pollution Has Been Emitted Since 1988 (Union of Concerned Scientists)

Climate and Carbon. More than half of all industrial carbon dioxide emissions have been released since 1988. Image: Union of Concerned Scientists
Climate and Carbon. More than half of all industrial carbon dioxide emissions have been released since 1988. Image: Union of Concerned Scientists

Convinced?

Most people are. Some 80% of North Americans want stronger government and corporate action towards cleaner energy, more efficient buildings and electric vehicles. Which is great.

But in 2014, some $548 billion dollars of subsidies were paid or otherwise granted to the world’s fossil fuel corporations. And they’re in no mood to give it up.

Why would they?

Ever since large-scale coal, and oil and gas extraction began around 1920, fossil fuels have been getting massive subsidies relative to their imprint on the economy.

If the plan at COP 21 is to remove those subsidies from the fossil fuel companies, then there is no point in anybody showing up there. At all. Because as far as plans go, that must surely be voted; “Least likely to succeed since there were rocks.”

If the plan is to legislate ever stricter air quality standards (to the point where it has any real effect on total global emissions) get ready to pay even more subsidies — perhaps double. Yet, if that’s the plan, we might be wise to support it as we don’t have a second Earth to fall back on.

A more effective plan would be to leave fossil fuel subsidies at their present level and begin to match renewable energy subsidies to the fossil fuel subsidy rate, based on the barrel of oil equivalent (BOe) standard and let the market work on a level-playing-field basis

In that way ‘fossil fuel companies’ would morph into ‘energy companies’ — instead of remaining coal-only, oil-only, or natural gas-only companies.

Stand back and watch the CO2 emissions fall through the floor if that ever happens! Standardizing renewable energy subsidies to match coal, oil and natural gas subsidies, means that real and profound change would begin to take place throughout our energy sector.

It should be pointed out that a very good case could still be made for keeping natural gas alive and thriving (with the same subsidy regime) to fuel the transportation sector.

See: Energy Darwinism – The Case for a Level Playing Field (JBS News)

Climate and Carbon. Global fossil fuel subsidies vs. global renewable energy subsidies (2014)
Climate and Carbon. Global fossil fuel subsidies vs. global renewable energy subsidies (2014)

Because of the (over-hyped) variability of renewable energy (the Sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow) a massive shift towards natural gas (hundreds of times cleaner than coal, BTW) or battery storage will be needed to balance electrical demand. Perhaps both.

Natural gas (CNG) cars and trucks are affordable right now and can use the present distribution system as gasoline and diesel vehicles, while battery technology approaches the point of affordable battery systems for cars and trucks.

See: Clean Energy: Renewables & Natural Gas Powered Electricity Grids (JBS News)

Although there is reason for hope at COP 21 in December 2015, the few examples above represent only a handful of nations acting on the scientific warnings about global warming

There are almost 200 other nations that must become convinced of the need to act on climate change this December, and many of them will be negatively affected by sea level rise, drought/heat waves, premature deaths caused by air and water pollution (China 410,000 per year, the U.S. over 200,000 per year, and Europe over 400,000 per year) and desertification.

See: Air Pollution Costs the West Almost $1 Trillion/yr (JBSNews)

Now that we have broad and deep consensus by climate scientists that global warming represents an existential threat to our planet, all that is required is the will to act.

Let’s hope our politicians are bigger than the looming environmental maelstrom our civilization faces.

Climate and Carbon: Rooftop solar installation in Standard, CA the birthplace of California's oil industry. See? There is reason for optimism!
Climate and Carbon: Rooftop solar installation in Standard, California — the birthplace of California’s oil industry! See? There is reason for optimism.

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John Brian

Editorial Board at kleef&co. Published by the UNDP.