If you read CleanTechnica on a regular basis, you are well informed about the latest in electric vehicle news, green hydrogen, battery storage, and renewables. Chances are you put all that information together and think we have a handle on catastrophic climate change. Think again. In order to tame carbon dioxide and methane emissions, we need to stop burning coal, oil, and natural gas. End of story. Full stop.
Now the weeping and wailing begins. “But we can’t do that! All of modern civilization depends on the energy we get from burning those fuels! Think of the job losses! Think of the effect on Wall Street! Think of my 401-K!” And here’s the answer. If we don’t stop burning fossil fuels, we are all dead. Every one of us. Either we starve or we drown or we succumb to temperatures beyond human endurance. Oh sure, a few lucky (super wealthy) individuals may construct underground encampments worthy of Kubla Khan’s Xanadu Dome and a few may escape on one of Elon Musk’s interplanetary flights to a brave new world on Mars. Or perhaps a few hundred humans will orbit the Earth forever in a stylized spaceship like the one in the Disney movie Wall-E while they wait for the Earth to cool in a millennium or two. But for the vast majority of our species, extinction looms just over the horizon.
In order to stave off disaster, the experts say we must reduce fossil fuel use by 6% a year — starting now. But the problem is, even the most aggressive plans call for a reduction that is less than half that number and powerful interests — many funded by profits from extracting and burning fossil fuels — are doggedly fighting even those efforts. In other words, we as a species are screwed six ways to Sunday and we have only ourselves to blame.
The United Nations Environment Program, in conjunction with the Stockholm Environment Institute, the International Institute for Sustainable Development, the Overseas Development Institute, and climate oriented think tank E3G, has released an important new report entitled The Production Gap which builds on its 2019 report entitled The Emissions Gap. Taken together, they outline in stark terms just how short the best of our current fossil reduction plans fall. Forget about China’s net zero by 2060 framework. Forget about the UK’s new proposal to reduce emissions by 63% by 2030. Forget all those stories you have read about plans to ban gasoline and diesel powered transportation. Wrap them all up and put a bow on them. They still aren’t nearly enough.
The message of The Production Gap report is this: “To follow a 1.5° C consistent pathway, the world will need to decrease fossil fuel production by roughly 6% per year between 2020 and 2030. Countries are instead planning and projecting an average annual increase of 2%, which by 2030 would result in more than double the production consistent with the 1.5°C limit.” Wait, what? More fossil fuel production, not less? That is crazy talk, people. It’s insanity writ large. We do that and we are signing our own death warrant. What is it about global warming we don’t get?
In last year’s Emissions Gap report, UNEP put its findings in stark terms. “There is no sign of GHG emissions peaking in the next few years, Every year of postponed peaking means that deeper and faster cuts will be required. By 2030, emissions would need to be 25 per cent and 55 per cent lower than in 2018 to put the world on the least-cost pathway to limiting global warming to below 2˚C and 1.5°C respectively.” What are the odds of that happening? If you said “Slim and none,” go to the head of the class. As the Natural Resources Defense Council put it just last week, slow and steady is not going to win this race. We need bold, disruptive, and rapid changes. Good luck with that.
The Covid Effect
We have heard the Covid-19 pandemic has led to a reduction in the use of fossil fuels. People are driving less if at all. Air travel is down considerably. No one is taking a cruise unless he or she really, really wants to experience the virus in an up close and personal way. Governments around the world are pumping trillions of dollars into their economies but there’s a problem. A lot of that money is going to fossil fuel interests. Consider this from the Production Gap report:
To date, governments have committed far more COVID-19 funds to fossil fuels than to clean energy. Policymakers must reverse this trend to meet climate goals. As of November 2020, G20 governments had committed USD 233 billion to activities that support fossil fuel production and consumption, as compared with USD 146 billion to renewable energy, energy efficiency, and low-carbon alternatives such as cycling and pedestrian systems.
In general, government responses to the COVID-19 crisis have tended to intensify patterns that existed prior to the pandemic: jurisdictions that already heavily subsidized the production of fossil fuels have increased this support, while those with stronger commitments to a transition to clean energy are now using stimulus and recovery packages to accelerate this shift. Unfortunately, most of the world’s major producing countries are in the former category; this needs to change, if the world is to meet climate goals.
Looking Out For The Least Among Us
There is an often overlooked component to reducing fossil fuel production. Wealthier countries have more access to renewable energy than poorer countries. Despite the mindless blatherings of white supremacists around the globe, we are all one people. In the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus instructed his disciples as follows: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”
He did not say “love thy white neighbor.” He did not rail about the murderers and rapists in the country next door. He did not exclude people who live in “shithole countries.” He did not care about the grievances of people from Appalachia as depicted in Hillbilly Elegy. It’s pretty clear His imprecation was addressed to all people everywhere, not just those who trace their lineage to northern Europe. The Production Gap puts it this way:
The COVID-19 pandemic has provided a reminder of the importance of ensuring that a transition away from fossil fuels is just and equitable. Countries that are less dependent on fossil fuel production and have higher financial and institutional capacity can transition most rapidly, while those with higher dependence and lower capacity will require greater international support. Developing countries have borne the brunt of the fossil fuel industry’s fragility during the pandemic, with lost oil revenue, for example, driving a 25% cut in government spending in Nigeria, significantly reducing Iraq’s social benefits, and severely affecting Ecuador’s public sector.
But a just and equitable transition away from fossil fuels offers the potential for alternative high-quality jobs, improvements in public health, a re-envisioning of urban areas, and a refocusing of economic systems on human well-being and equitably shared prosperity. This requires recognizing that countries’ transitional challenges differ widely, depending on their level of dependence on fossil fuel production and their capacity to support a transition.
Sustainability Is The Key
Somehow, humans have embraced the notion that the Earth will never run out of resources to be plundered. We have convinced ourselves that a few grams of carbon dioxide from the exhaust pipe of our personal vehicle could never impact the entire ecosystem. Both thoughts are wrong, Dead wrong, in fact. To continue to exist as a species, we must learn to embrace all humanity in the quest to live in a way that does not destroy the only home we will ever know. Can we do that? Based on the observable evidence, the answer to that question is, “No, we cannot.”
As UN chief Antonio Guterres said last week, humans are “suicidal.” Fossil fuels can be rightly characterized as nothing less than liquid death. Yet like lemmings, we seem determined to drive our civilization right over a cliff, chortling merrily on the way down. That is the very definition of an unsustainable situation, one which we are embracing with every fiber of our beings. This is not going to end well for the vast majority of humans.