The emotional weight of the findings in the IPCC’s latest report is real and the conclusion is therefore unmistakable: we must double down and act without delay. We have known for many decades that at some point this day would come when the climate crisis was not a distant future occurrence but happening now. The only remaining question is, how fast will we take action to reduce the consequences of this planetary emergency?
Now that the climate crisis has become too obvious for all but the most determined denialist to ignore, there are two types of risky reactions. The first is despair. Some will skip straight from denial to doom, somehow convincing themselves that the problem they just claimed wasn’t real is now too terribly real to solve at all. This is just a different excuse for failing to take action.
Even for those who are not in denial, the seriousness of this problem can be too much to bear and the consequences of failure too scary. There will be an urge to turn off, to shut it out. But the antidote to despair is action.
The second risky reaction is deciding that we do need to take action, but that we can only do so at a certain pace or in certain ways. The endless quibbling about innovation or deployment, emissions reductions or removals, adaptation or mitigation, demand side efficiency or supply side carbon free energy, is now utterly ridiculous. The answer is that while some climate solutions are more effective and urgent than others, we must utilize a broad spectrum of technologies and approaches, and act as quickly as possible.
There have never been good excuses to delay action on climate, but the excuses that were made are even less valid now. Zero-emissions technologies such as solar, wind, EVs and heat pumps are not only cleaner than the dirty, outdated technologies that they replace — both in terms of climate impacts and reduced air pollution. In many cases they perform better, create more jobs, last longer, and increasingly are less expensive.
Costs for wind and solar have come down between 60%–80% since 2010, and battery costs have come down 85% in the same time period. While sales of internal combustion engine cars have likely already peaked, sales of EVs are growing rapidly and plug-in vehicles more than doubled in the first half of 2021 compared with last year, when the pandemic sapped sales. That far outpaced the 29% rise for total vehicle sales.
Of course, it is not enough to build a new clean energy economy. It is now clear that we must also more quickly retire carbon intensive assets, well ahead of the end of their economic, let alone their technical life. Coal plants must be rapidly shut down, fossil fuel subsidies must end immediately, and no new fossil fuel infrastructure can be built — including demand-side infrastructure such as highway expansions and gas distribution systems. Yes, assets will be stranded, but in the face of catastrophe the realistic response is: “so be it.”
The IPCC’s report also underscores the particularly urgent need to tackle methane and other short-lived climate pollutants. But we cannot address what we cannot measure, and that is why RMI’s work is focused on measuring and certifying methane emissions. We need to stop using gas, but in the meantime we need to stop leaking it!
Signs are growing that financial markets, at least, understand that the shift away from fossil fuels is well underway, even if not all policy makers have caught on. Analysis from Carbon Tracker shows that falling demand, lower prices and rising investment risk is likely to slash the value of oil, gas and coal reserves by nearly two thirds. More recent analysis explores seven positive feedback loops that will accelerate transformation of the global energy system.
The Race of Our Lives
But feedback loops accelerating the energy transition are not the only ones. As the IPCC points out, we are now at grave risk that feedback loops in the climate system will tip the planet into an unbearable hothouse earth scenario. The conclusion is that, quoting my dear friend Jeremy Grantham, “we are in the race of our lives, to see if clean solutions can scale and dirty systems can be shut down fast enough to radically reduce emissions across the entire global economy before the climate equilibrium is permanently disrupted.” This is a timed test that we only get to take once, and there is no greater single challenge for this decade. Without a stable, habitable planet, nothing else will work.
Will global leaders grasp this fundamental understanding of the climate crisis in time? No country, company, or community will be safe if we fail. We must understand that everything is at risk: human life, food chains, supply chains, infrastructure. And when we do act, we create jobs, prosperity, and resilience.
We know what to do. Now is the time to find the courage to do it.
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