From pricing carbon to shifting diets, here’s what we need to prioritize now.
Climate scientists told us this week in a long-awaited United Nations report that limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius would require a gargantuan global effort — and that we have roughly 12 years to do it.
One bright spot in the report is that we already have the tools we need.
Let’s make something clear, though: The emissions we need to focus on now are the ones at the industrial, corporate level, not at the individual level.
According to the Carbon Majors Database, 71 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions since 1988 can be traced back to just 100 fossil fuel companies.
Hitting the 1.5°C or 2°C goals means these corporations, their customers, and other large enterprises must phase out fossil fuels (more aggressively than what Shell laid out in its vision for a zero-carbon world).
Governments will also have to come up with tax schemes to generate new revenue for investment in and incentives for renewable energy, reforestation, and carbon removal technologies. And we need to vote for leaders who will deliver on them.
The Trump administration is obviously contributing little to these efforts, trying its best to roll back Obama’s suite of climate policies and enable the continuation of fossil fuel dominance. But a growing number of younger leadersaround the world understand what’s at stake and are pushing for more ambitious goals.
Here are some examples of strategies that are working and need to be rolled out worldwide:
Australia’s Price on Carbon reduced emissions until the LNP “axed the tax”
1) Price carbon emissions
By adding a cost to emitting greenhouse gases, you create an incentive to produce less of them and switch to alternatives.
It’s hard to convince someone to pay for something if they can get it for free. Right now, much of the world can dump their greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at no charge. And we don’t have many straightforward ways to value the carbon that trees and algae help pull out of the atmosphere.
Though the new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report didn’t explicitly discuss the economics of fighting climate change, the authors highlighted at a press conference that attaching a price tag to greenhouse gases is a critical step in limiting warming. “Carbon pricing and the right economic signals are going to be part of the mix,” said Jim Skea, co-chair of IPCC Working Group III.
Even fossil fuel giant ExxonMobil is campaigning for a carbon tax.
To date, at least 40 countries have priced carbon in some form. Some have done it through a carbon tax. Cap-and-trade schemes for carbon dioxide are also underway, like the European Union’s Emissions Trading System. China now runs the world’s largest carbon trading market. Even some regions in the United States have cap-and-trade schemes, like the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiativeamong eastern states.
But, as our colleague David Roberts wrote on Twitter, “A price on carbon of some sort is, wonks almost universally agree, an important part of a comprehensive climate strategy. But the details make all the difference in whether it’s regressive or not, effective or not, popular or not, passable or not.”
2) Subsidize clean energy, and end subsidies for dirty energy
Renewable energy sources like wind and solar power have already become dramatically more affordable. In the United States, renewables are cost-competitive with fossil fuels in some markets. In Europe, new unsubsidized renewable energy projects are coming online.
From a market standpoint, it might seem like the time is near for pulling the plug on subsidies to renewables. But if your goal is to fight climate change, it makes more sense to keep giving cleaner energy sources a boost.
The fossil fuel industry is meanwhile still getting a number of direct and indirect subsidies. In the US, these subsidies can amount to $20 billion a year. Globally, it’s about $260 billion per year. Getting rid of government support for these fuels seems like a no-brainer. But yes, the massive political influence of fossil fuels means this will continue to be extremely hard.
3) Close coal plants, and cut off the fossil fuel supply in other ways
The world is still opening tens of thousands of coal-fired plants every year.
Each of these plants represents decades of further greenhouse gas emissions. Although the rate of new coal power plants is declining, that’s not enough. We still need to shut down the oldest, dirtiest coal power plants and preventing new ones from coming online.
According to the IPCC, to stay on track for climate goals the world would have to burn one-third of the coal its using by 2030.
And while natural gas emits about half the greenhouse gases of coal, the quantity isn’t zero, so these generators are in the cross-hairs too.
Some countries are already taking steps to shut off fossil fuel power. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has assembled a panel to figure out when the country can close all of its coal plants. The United Kingdom, meanwhile, has pledged to end its coal use by 2025.
Economists have also argued that countries should use supply-side tactics to restrict the supply of fossil fuels in other ways, too: like opting against new oil and gas pipelines, refineries, and export terminals.
4) Electrify everything and get more efficient
Energy efficiency is the lowest of the low-hanging fruit in fighting climate change.
Increasing fuel economy, insulating buildings, and upgrading lighting are all small incremental changes that add up to dramatic reductions in energy use, curbing greenhouse gas emissions.
It’s also often the cheapest tactic.
“The combined evidence suggests that aggressive policies addressing energy efficiency are central in keeping 1.5°C within reach and lowering energy system and mitigation costs,” according to the new IPCC report.
Buildings, for example, account for roughly one-third of global energy use and about a quarter of total greenhouse gas emissions. To stay on track for 1.5°C of warming, indoor heating and cooling demands would have to decline by at least one-third by 2050.
Many countries already have building codes that require new structures to use state-of-the-art HVAC systems, double-pane glass windows, and energy-saving appliances. But most of the buildings that are standing now will still exist in 2050, so retrofitting existing homes and offices to use less energy needs to be a major policy priority.
Another way to use our resources more efficiently is to electrify everything: oil heaters, diesel trucks, gas stoves. That way, as our sources of electricity get cleaner, they pay climate dividends throughout the rest of the electrified economy. And products like electric cars are far more energy-efficient than their gasoline-powered counterparts.
However, we need financing, incentives, and penalties to push the global economy to do more with less.
5) Invest in innovation
Perhaps the best tools to fight climate change haven’t been invented yet — a battery that can store gobs of energy for months, a solar panel that’s twice as efficient, a crop that makes biofuels cheaper than petroleum, or something even better, beyond our imaginations.
So while we clamp down on heavy emitters and deploy cleaner alternatives, we also need to come up with new answers to climate change.
That means investing in basic research and development. It also means helping nascent technologies get out of the laboratory and onto the power grid, whether through loans, grants, or regulations.
The United States already has a framework for this. The Department of Energy runs the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), a small federal program that funds high-risk, high-reward energy projects with an eye toward fighting climate change. It’s backed projects ranging from flow batteries to wide bandgap semiconductors.
While analysts have argued that programs like ARPA-E increase America’s competitiveness and that the world needs more innovation initiatives for clean energy, the Trump administration has repeatedly tried to zero out its $353 million budget. Congress has nonetheless kept it in place and gave the program a boost in the last spending bill.