What Fundamental Economic & Political Change Is Needed for an Effective Response to Climate Change?
Before I talk about the economic and political measures required to control climate change, I personally think that there is a desperate need to act from an individualistic level first and foremost. Where do priorities go when it comes to protecting our environment? Have we degenerated so far that creating a livelihood comes at the cost of destroying life itself? Humanity is at a crossroads, will we choose the path to a sustainable future or one towards extinction?
By now, there is widespread consensus that the increase in earth’s atmospheric temperature as a result of excessive burning of fossil fuels (global warming) is a human-made phenomenon. To put matters into perspective, according to NASA, global temperature has increased by 1.9 degrees Fahrenheit since the 19th century, sea levels are rising by 3.3 millimeters per year, and as of 2014 an average of 5.5 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) was released into the atmosphere by an individual every single year. Consequently, atmospheric CO2 levels have passed thresholds never before witnessed(409 parts per million). Glaciers retreating, oceans rising, temperatures soaring, ice sheets melting; action needs to be taken on a global scale to reduce and control global warming.
According to the Centre for Climate and Energy Solutions, the electricity and heat sectors are responsible for the highest amount of greenhouse gas emissions (31% as of 2017). The solution here is straightforward; gradually shift towards a cleaner energy sector less reliant on fossil fuels.
At a time when the costs of renewables are plunging, investments need to be made to switch to alternative sources of energy such as solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, and bioenergy. To pave the way for deep decarbonization, policies in the form of Feed-In-Tariffs (FIT) and Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) are the need of the hour. In short, FIT is a government measure intended to encourage renewable energy producers through long term contracts that ensure payments respective to the type of energy produced while an RPS sets a target amount of renewable energy to be generated by load serving entities (companies that supply electricity to the consumer) as a proportion of their total energy generation.
Governments around the world can take a leaf out of Germany’s book in this respect and adopt similar strategies that are currently leading the German energiewende.
Transportation (15%), manufacturing (12%), and other fuel combustions together with electricity and heat sectors add up to a significant 72% of all emissions from the energy sector alone. This calls for a desperate need for economic signals, vehicular and industrial efficiency standards, repowering of buildings and automobiles (to run on clean energy), measures to restrict deforestation (conversely planting more trees!), and government incentives to encourage the production of electric vehicles complemented by urban mobility policies (as in Norway). It is also important that these industries measure their carbon footprint, make this data available to their respective policymakers who can then adopt further measures to place a cap (Carbon Capping) or apply a tax (Carbon Tax) according to the industry scale. Subsequently, policies such as the carbon tax and dividend need to be implemented whereby a tax is applied to the sale of fossil fuels. This generates revenue which the government can then rebate to the population.
‘Positive incentive loans’ are another economic tool that companies would do well to adopt whereby organizations are incentivized to curb emissions to reduce their costs of borrowing. Nokia in 2018 undertook this financing method by signing a €1.5 billion loan.
According to the World Resources Institute, two-third’s of global emissions are generated from just 36 countries, with China, the United States, the European Union, and India being the top four emitters. Almost all of these countries are signatories of the Paris Agreement (2015) that “aims to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change.” The UK has already made legislation for an important net zero emissions target by 2050, which would require an all-of-the-above set of comprehensive measures to achieve.
Although, when world leaders adopt policies as such, they must also create mechanisms that would ensure that future generations adhere to said policies. The time for recognizing and acknowledging (with some denying) the challenge of climate change is over, we now need to deliver on promises that were made.
The past few years have witnessed technological breakthroughs in the form of liquid organic hydrogen carriers (LOHC’s) and Carbon Engineering. The former are fluids into which renewable or nuclear power can be stored in the form of hydrogen, which is then transported and burned for energy at the desired location without leaving any by-product other than water. The latter employs a method known as ‘direct air capture,’ which can directly absorb CO2 out of the air and store it underground. According to Steve Oldham (CEO of Carbon Engineering), a single plant of theirs is capable of doing the work of 40 million trees whilst running on natural gas and clean energy.
These solutions require both fiscal and capital investments. And this is where governments can step in to regulate and provide monetary support for R&D as well as other engineering processes. Hydrogen based energy solutions such as LOHC’s can truly set us on the road to a green economy while the need for some form of direct air capture is increasing every single year. While many might argue that direct air capture serves to promote the oil companies and to perpetuate oil production, measures can be taken by nations to ensure that CO2 captured through such means be used to generate carbon free fuels instead.
Global warming must be addressed from all levels of governance, and political will needs to be strongest at the top, with central governments setting the tone for secondary and tertiary forms of administrations to follow. We are treading a fine line here. Recent papers show that even if the temperature rise is kept below the targeted 2 degrees Celsius environmental catastrophes can, and will continue to occur. Hence given the urgency of climate change, it is imperative that any solution that mitigates the extremity of the situation is adopted. This is an emergency. And as individuals, you and I need to act, now.