By Ryan Morrice
There are few things that make for more grim forecasts than the consequences of climate change. Droughts and famines will increase in prevalence and severity. Events such as when Cape Town came very close to running out of water in 2017, and when Chennai (a city of 9 million people in India) actually did in 2019, will become more common occurrences across the globe. Extreme weather events will also follow the same path. Wildfires, flooding, and cyclones will happen more often with greater severity. Expect the massive wildfires that plagued Australia and California last year to only get more massive. Coastal cities such as Miami in the US, Jakarta in Indonesia, and many, many more, will struggle to avoid rising sea levels making more and more swaths of land increasingly uninhabitable. Crop yields will fall, and desertification will reduce arable land, increasing food insecurity all over the world.
This is only a very short summary of the massive impacts that global warming will have on the world. This will all come to pass if global temperatures continue to rise. To stop this the emission of greenhouse gasses needs to fall and eventually end. Yet forecasts still show carbon emissions on the rise. Much of the world consists of nations yet to fully industrialise. When they do they will add to the already-high levels of global emissions.
Were there an effective international agreement to reduce carbon emissions, the problem would be much easier to tackle. But the Paris Agreement—the most recent international agreement on climate change, ratified in 2016—only asks countries to voluntarily reduce their emissions by setting their own “nationally determined contributions” (NDCs), such that increases in the global temperature stay well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels. There are no legal consequences for failing to meet these targets. To no one’s surprise then, countries’ currently promised policies fall well below what is required for them to meet their NDCs. COP26, the United Nations Climate Change Conference, will meet in November this year to negotiate further action against climate change, but it’s unlikely an international agreement will be reached that contains binding targets for all nations to reduce their carbon emissions. This is simply because the problem is a tragedy of the commons. Should any one country agree to a greater reduction in their emissions, there is less incentive for every other country to reduce theirs. Given all of this, can we be frank and conclude that it is unlikely that climate change can be stopped? Many people have, admitting that there is a climate apocalypse coming, and there is nothing we can do to stop it.
However, there are a few complications to this conclusion. The first is that global warming can be delayed. In 1991 the volcano Mount Pinatubo erupted. It spewed millions of tons of sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere. In the atmosphere sulphur dioxide reflects light; the sheer quantity of it released by the eruption blocked enough light to reduce global temperatures by 0.5°C for several years. The same effect can be replicated by simply using planes to deposit tonnes of sulphur dioxide and other aerosols into the atmosphere. This would not stop climate change permanently: over time the aerosols would dissipate and their cooling effect would cease, sending global temperatures soaring again. But their use can buy more time to reduce carbon emissions. Although there is still uncertainty as to precisely how much it will cost, estimates put it roughly at tens of billions of US dollars a year—cheap compared to the costs of global warming. This exists only as a plan on paper; no one has actually tried it yet at the scale described. But as global warming gets worse, and the desire to mitigate its severe consequences grows, it will be a tempting option to buy time.
The second factor as to why there is still hope to tackle climate change is that technological progress will play a critical role in the transition to a green economy. ‘Techno-optimism’ has been criticised because of the inherent risk in relying on technology that does not currently exist to solve a present problem. There is some merit to this argument in that it can dissuade governments and businesses from reducing emissions today, since the technology will supposedly sort it out in the future. But as hard as it is to forecast technological development, it is foolish not to at least attempt to. It is easy to forget how quickly it progresses. For example, consider the past 20 years. The original iPod came out in 2001. Its cutting-edge feature was that it could hold thousands of songs in your pocket, a massive jump compared to the Sony Walkman which required you to lug CDs around to listen to your music. Twenty years later and music streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music allow users to listen to almost all of the recorded music in all of history, wherever they go in an ultra-portable device, at a monthly cost less than what a single CD would have cost in 2001.
So when we consider the future of green technology, it is realistic to think of the unimaginable. Consider some very real and visible trends. From 2010 to 2019 the cost of solar panels has fallen by 82%, while the cost of onshore and offshore wind has fallen by 39% and 29%, respectively. Renewable electricity generation is volatile, with output dependent on the time of day for solar and wind speeds for wind power, so improved battery technology is also necessary for their adoption. Battery prices fell by 85% from 2010 to 2018. Although not as proven as a technology as renewables, hydrogen is also getting a lot of focus. The EU is aiming to develop to increase its production sixfold by 2024 and attract billions of euros to the sector. Japanese firms are racing to develop their own hydrogen technology faster than the EU. Meanwhile the UK’s national grid is trialling it to replace natural gas in order to decarbonise heating.
Changing consumer preferences towards more green goods and services is also helping drive this trend in green innovation. If all motorists cared about was price and performance then electric cars would have never left the drawing board. Yet Tesla is fast expanding and Volkswagen is targeting 60% of their sales to be hybrid and electric cars by 2030. Rising numbers of vegetarians and vegans means that millions of people are switching to a more eco-friendly diet; in response supermarkets are providing new plant-substitutes to make this happen. And for the omnivores, what was literally science-fiction only a few years ago is now reality, as Chicken meat is grown in a lab and sold to consumers in Singapore. Assuming the process is successfully scaled up to a larger scale, then this can provide a much less carbon-intensive method of ‘producing’ meat.
Finally, the most important factor of them all is that increasing political will to combat climate change will ensure that the necessary action by governments eventually happens. This is most prominent in the younger generation, who have realised that global warming poses serious danger to the planet within their lifetimes. Every following generation will be the same. As a result, democratic will to reduce emissions will only grow. When Al Gore ran for president in 2000 he struggled to convince the US of the need for reducing carbon emissions. Now the talk is of reaching net-zero emissions by 2050. In Britain, Boris Johnson has his “10-point green plan” to tackle climate change. The actual plan is far from sufficient, but the mere fact that he is politically compelled to produce such a plan is indicative of the shifts in politics today.
Greta Thunberg also symbolises this shift in political agenda. A cynical view would suggest that her activism has been unable to have any tangible effects. Politicians have been happy to line up for photos with her while simultaneously failing to commit their governments to action that could prevent climate change. But her activism has set an inevitable direction of change for both government and business that is obvious from how environmental issues are now discussed. When Michelle Manook, Chief executive of the World Coal Association, writes to The Economist to defend coal, she is not dismissive about climate change, but instead arguing about the massive carbon emission reductions that can come from improving the efficiency of existing coal power plants. Companies around the world are lining up to demonstrate how they will reduce their carbon footprint. Trillions of dollars in the global financial system are now invested in ‘green finance’; investors care about climate change.
To finish off, imagine hopping into a time-machine and travelling back 20 years. Imagine talking to someone who’s just bought the latest iPod, and try explaining Spotify or any other music streaming service. Imagine how mind boggling it would be for them that such a technology could exist, that such change could happen in such a short space of time. And that’s before you explain everything else your smartphone can do. They’d likely call you crazy. Now imagine that today you bump into a time-traveller who’s from 20 years into the future. What would they try and explain to you? That vast fleets of planes dumping aerosols into the atmosphere were reducing the global temperature by two degrees? That even though everyone was aware of the danger posed by greenhouse gasses, extreme weather events had once again become a rarity. Would they explain to you that the majority of electricity now came from renewables, their favourite food was a lab-grown steak, and that most nations around the world were on the track to reach net-zero? Would you call them crazy?
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.