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Special Interests Are Last Barrier to Fixing Climate Change

Special Interests Are Last Barrier to Fixing Climate Change

Wednesday, 11 August, 2021 - 05:30

The world has failed to halt climate change and is starting to feel the consequences. But for the first time, there's also hope on the horizon. Technology has made climate change a solvable problem by expanding the universe of the possible. Before advancements made renewable energy a cost-effective solution, nation's faced a hellish tradeoff between climate disaster or material impoverishment. Now, thanks to the efforts of scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs, that tradeoff no longer exists.


But there’s a powerful force acting to stop governments from making full use of these technologies — especially in the U.S. and China, the world’s top two carbon emitters. That force is the political power of the fossil fuel industry, in particular, oil and natural gas companies in America and coal companies in China.


The new report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is fairly dire — and exactly what you’d expect, given that humanity has so far declined to make deep cuts in worldwide greenhouse emissions. Scientists now estimate that there’s very little chance of holding warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius relative to pre-industrial levels. Instead, the battle is now to keep warming under 2°C.


People don't need climate scientists to tell them things are getting bad. From the wildfire smoke choking California to the heat roasting Oregon, to the floods now hitting Germany, China and elsewhere, it’s increasingly apparent that no region of the world will be safe.


But the IPCC report has some reasons for optimism as well. The extreme scenarios in which Earth turns into a version of Dante’s Hell have now been effectively ruled out. And it’s not because modelers made some kind of math error, either; the scenarios have changed because new technologies have arrived that will make it much easier to reduce greenhouse emissions by drastic amounts without impoverishing ourselves.


Solar, wind and batteries together will drastically cut emissions from electricity production while also allowing most transportation and many industrial processes to switch to electric power. In the last decade, the price of solar and wind has come down so much that these are often the cheapest ways to generate electricity.


The cost decline in batteries has been similar, which is why car companies are now racing to electrify the next generation of vehicles.


This doesn’t mean technology alone will save the planet from disaster. Even if solar is cheaper than fossil fuels and electric cars outperform internal combustion cars, the world already has a huge existing stock of coal and natural gas plants and gasoline-powered vehicles. Left to their own devices, utilities and consumers will economize on short-term costs by waiting to replace power plants and vehicles when their lifetime expires, instead of replacing them immediately — drastically slowing the pace of decarbonization.


This is where government needs to step in. A huge burst of investment in the short term will lead not only to long-term climate protection, but to long-term cost savings as well. It’s really a story about time horizons — companies may be focused on next month’s earnings call and consumers on their monthly budgets, but the government needs to think about what the world will look like in 30 years.


In the US, coal is a dying technology and was rapidly being replaced by natural gas even before renewables got cheap; despite former President Donald Trump's paeans to coal miners, there are fewer and fewer jobs left. Oil and gas, however, are a very different story. According to some estimates, these industries support more than 5% of total US employment, or around 10 million jobs. That, plus their deep pockets, gives companies like Exxon Mobil Corp. enormous political clout. And these companies have used that clout not only to minimize concerns about climate change, but to spread fear, uncertainty and doubt about renewables.


In China, whose total carbon emissions are now double those of the US (even after accounting for trade and outsourcing), the problem is even more extreme. Politically powerful coal companies and coal-producing regions are a big reason why China is still building new coal plants. China isn’t building this new coal because it’s cheap — if price was all they cared about, they would follow India’s lead and dramatically slash coal power in favor of cheaper renewables. Instead, it’s about the persistent power of fossil-fuel companies. Unless China’s authoritarian leaders can break the back of their coal industry the way they’re breaking their private tutoring industry, decarbonization of the global economy will prove impossible.


The American and Chinese publics need to understand that the game has changed. Technology has opened the door to climate salvation, but special interests are blocking it. Switching away from Chinese coal and American oil and gas will cause temporary economic dislocation for many in both countries, but ultimately the economic savings will be incalculable. Old-line industries must not be allowed to stand in the way of the planet’s salvation.


Bloomberg


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