Why Climate Action is Not All Talk
In the last decade, there has been progress in climate action. The snowball is starting to grow, but there is still a long way to go.
For most of the last two decades, climate activists have been out time and again to protest the lack of action from political leaders. For the longest time, few politicians would only pay lip service to the climate activists. Talking about the need for action was about as far as they would go while making no practical changes. Even today, we hear stories about activists claiming that they want actions, not words from those in power. But in the last decade and a half there has been significant action by both the private and public sectors. These actions have a growing snowball effect that will drive more action in the near future.
The first thing to point out is that nowhere near enough has been done. Despite all of our efforts, global carbon emissions have continued to increase. We will need to double our efforts to decarbonize our economies and to help developing countries to never rely on fossil fuels to run theirs.
But this story is looking to highlight our successes. It isn’t all doom and gloom when we talk about climate change. Since we now have the ball rolling, the momentum will only continue to increase. In North America, carbon emissions peaked in 2007 — just before the Great Recession. Important steps were taken during the economic recovery to make sure the economies of North America were less reliant on carbon emissions. Today, total emissions are down 12% from the 2007 peak. There have been steps taken to reduce the carbon emissions in almost every sector.
In electricity generation, renewables are the fastest growing energy source. They have increased in capacity by 42% in the last ten years alone. Today in the United States, 20% of the electricity is generated from renewable sources. And that growth will continue to accelerate as renewables continue to decrease in cost. Also, coal-fired power plants — the most carbon-intense source of electricity — are continuing to be shut down across the continent. Much of Canada’s electricity relies on hydroelectric power and other low emission sources. Only 18% of electricity generation in Canada is from greenhouse gas emitting sources.
Many cities in North America are also investing in new public transportation infrastructure to reduce vehicle traffic. That, in addition to the ever-increasing popularity of electric cars has the potential to significantly reduce transportation-related emissions. This is the one sector that is lagging in progress. Rollbacks on electric vehicle incentives and the lack of charging infrastructure delays the transition to zero emission vehicles in North America.
The building industry is also one that is seeing significant improvements in greenhouse gas emissions. Building codes and standards are becoming increasingly stringent for new construction. Building owners and property management companies are also taking advantage of government incentives to install high efficiency equipment to reduce the emissions of their portfolios. Retrofitting their existing building stock to be Net-Zero Carbon is a practice that is also growing in popularity. It is conceivable to see a near future where most buildings are emitting no emissions at all.
Those three sectors alone account for 67% of total emissions in USA, and 46% in Canada. Reducing these emissions requires government policies and public adoption, but they do not require radical changes to the way we live. And if trends continue, these emissions will keep decreasing.
In Europe, the decrease in emissions is even more significant. Excluding former Soviet Union states (whose emissions all significantly decreased after its collapse), carbon emissions peaked in 1979. Back then, not many people were talking about climate change or carbon emissions. But in the last few decades, changes were made across Europe that resulted in a society that was less dependent on fossil fuels. Greener electricity grids, improved city planning, and even generally smaller passenger vehicles contributed to stable carbon emissions. Over the next three decades, emissions increased and decreased periodically depending on the economy (and the Yugoslav War in the 1990s) until they reached a final peak of emissions in 2006. Since then, European countries have cut their emissions by 19% by 2019. Including the COVID stricken year of 2020, that reduction increases to 28%.
Government policies have become increasingly strict on polluters in Europe, and there have been tangible results. Right now, 20% of the electricity generated in Europe is fully renewable. That does not include nuclear power — which itself is a carbon-free source of electricity. In total, nearly 30% of the electricity generated in the EU is carbon-free and dropping all of the time.
European countries have also taken bolder moves to make a more sustainable transportation network. In the UK, there will be a ban of gasoline and diesel-powered cars starting in 2030. The EU is set to follow with its own ban starting in 2035 — along with a significant investment in public vehicle charging stations. Last year, one in nine vehicle sales were hybrids or electric. Beyond vehicles, the French government recently announced a ban on domestic flights where a train trip could be done in two and a half hours. The public outcry from the announcement was that this should be extended to four hours. The greening of the transportation industry in Europe is the fastest anywhere in the world and there are no signs of it slowing down. At this point in time, it appears that Europe — and specifically the EU — has moved past talk and has implemented policies that have tangible results.
In the near future, there is good hope that in North America and Europe, carbon emissions will continue to decrease. The reactions by the governments have finally started to match the urgency shown by activists. The challenge for the world in the medium term will be how developing nations can continue to grow without increasing their emissions. This will require collaboration and cooperation like the world has never seen. The knowledge gained now will help the rest of the world become carbon-free much more quickly than it is taking the West.
Carbon emissions in Africa and Asia — including China and India — have increased exponentially in that last few decades. There is still a significant gap in emissions when considered on a per-capita basis. However, as economies develop, there is a corresponding increase in emissions. We cannot afford for that trend to continue. If it does, the progress made in the developed world won’t matter. This is why it is imperative for the West to work alongside those in the developing world so they do not become dependent on fossil fuels.
Climate activists have done more than their share of the heavy lifting to make changes. Although there has not been enough action, it is also unfair to say that there haven’t been any changes. There are many changes happening right now that aren’t being talked about enough. We are also putting ourselves in a position to reduce carbon emissions even more significantly in the next two decades.
It gives me hope that there are places in the world that have moved from pandering to climate activists with words, to implementing policies that have consequence. And these actions will only lead to further action. Even the private sector is on board with reducing emissions. At COP26, financial firms committed to doing more to divest in planet-destroying activities. This may be just pandering, but even pandering is a massive leap in the right direction.
Perhaps I am being an optimist, but I truly believe that a corner has been turned. There are reasons to look into the future and see the world in a better light. We humans are funny. We are pretty apathetic until our backs are against the wall. Only then are we able to do truly extraordinary things. Well, climate change has put us against a wall and we are finally starting to fight back.