climate change: cheaper green energy is the solution to climate problems
Since the start of climate negotiations nearly three decades ago, big promises have been followed by dramatic disappointments and steep increases in emissions. In a surprisingly honest review of climate policies over the past decade, the United Nations Environment Program found that global emissions since 2005 were indistinguishable from a world in which we did nothing to address climate change. . So, despite all the lofty climate promises of the past decade, including the Paris Agreement, emissions have risen as if there were no climate policies.
It’s easy and popular for politicians to talk about the dangers of climate change and to promise security with grandiose policies for 2030 or 2050. It’s much less popular when it’s time to ask voters to pay for these draconian climate policies. . When Emmanuel Macron enacted a tiny gas tax, he faced years of protests from yellow vests. In June, Swiss voters said no to a new carbon tax, and the UK government even backed away from introducing a costly new mandate to replace home gas heating.
In Glasgow, Joe Biden reaffirmed his goal of getting the US to net zero by 2050. But it will have surprisingly little impact. Even if it managed to reach zero today and stay there for the rest of the century, the UN Standard Climate Model shows that it would only reduce the temperature increase by the end of the century 0.16°C.
However, this climate policy would be spectacularly costly. A study published in the August 2021 issue of Nature shows that cutting emissions by 95% by 2050 — almost Biden’s net zero pledge — would cost 11.9% of GDP, or more than $11,000 in current value for every US citizen, every year. These costs are much higher than what most people are willing to pay. In a 2019 Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) survey, a majority were unwilling to spend even $24 a year. Proposing costs hundreds of times higher than voters accept simply cannot be sustained for decades.
Moreover, reducing emissions is not primarily about what the rich world does, as most 21st century emissions will come from China and India, as well as the rest of Asia, Africa and of Latin America. For them, the current climate approach of paying huge sums to achieve negligible temperature reductions in a hundred years is spectacularly unappealing. As their citizens live on as little as a few hundred dollars a year, they understandably care more about their children who survive malaria and malnutrition. They want to escape poverty, poor education and poor job prospects. They care about lifting themselves and their children out of poverty through strong economic growth.
Just days before the Glasgow summit, 24 emerging economies, including China and India, said their demand to reach net zero by 2050 was unfair because it prevented poor countries from developing their economies. In a Wall Street Journal article last month, Ugandan President Yoweri K Museveni put it even more bluntly: “Africans have the right to use reliable and cheap energy. It’s no wonder these nations spoke out against language in the final agreement that would have called for a phase-out of coal.
We clearly need a smarter way forward. Otherwise, the next 26 climate conferences will be just as insignificant as the first 26 iterations. Leaders should focus on innovation to make green energy cheaper. While politicians often claim that green is already cheaper, the evidence proves them wrong. If it were cheaper, we wouldn’t need years of haggling for hundreds of nations to begrudgingly promise to go greener.
In this smarter approach, we would dramatically increase investment in research and development of cheaper, low-CO₂ energy, from fusion and fission, solar, wind and batteries to biofuels from second generation, etc. Not only would this be much cheaper than current energy climate policies, but it would also lead to major breakthroughs for new, better and greener energy.
In Glasgow, leaders missed an opportunity to shift gears and dramatically increase funding for green innovation. They will have another chance at COP27 in Cairo, Egypt next year. If we can innovate the price of green energy below fossil fuels, everyone will change.