Globalwarming:Deep Decarbonization

Read Time:5 Minute, 5 Second YORK – Have a look at what happened around the world this past month.
Australia’s heat wave filled headlines when temperatures reaching 45° Celsius
disrupted the Australian Open tennis tournament. California’s extreme drought forced
the governor to declare a state of emergency. Major floods in Indonesia killed
dozens and displaced tens of thousands. Beijing’s coal-induced smog forced people to
stay in their homes, closed highways, and diverted flights. Such events are daily
warnings to the world: wake up before it is too late.

We have entered the Age of Sustainable Development. Either we make peace with the
planet, or we destroy our hard-won prosperity. The choice seems obvious, but our
actions speak louder than words. Humanity continues on a path of ruin, driven by
short-term greed and ignorance.

Much (though not all) of the global environmental crisis stems from the world’s
fossil-fuel-based energy system. More than 80% of all primary energy in the world
comes from coal, oil, and gas. When these fossil fuels are burned, they emit carbon
dioxide, which in turn changes the Earth’s climate. The basic physics has been known
for more than a century.

Unfortunately, a few oil companies (ExxonMobil and Koch Industries are the most
notorious) have devoted enormous resources to sowing confusion even where there is
clear scientific consensus. But, in order to save the planet we know, and to
preserve the world’s food supply and the well-being of future generations, there is
no alternative to shifting to a new, low-carbon energy system.

There are three parts to this transition. The first is improved energy efficiency,
meaning that we should use much less energy to achieve the same level of well-being.
For example, we can design our buildings to use sunlight and natural-air circulation
so that they require far less commercial energy for heating, cooling, and

Second, we need to shift to solar, wind, hydro, nuclear, geothermal, and other forms
of energy that are not based on fossil fuels. The technology exists to use these
alternatives safely, affordably, and at a scale large enough to replace almost all
of the coal, and much of the oil, that we use today. Only natural gas (the
cleanest-burning fossil fuel) would remain a significant source of energy by

Finally, to the extent that we continue to rely on fossil fuels, we must capture the
resulting CO2 emissions at power plants before they escape into the atmosphere. The
captured CO2 would then be injected underground or under the ocean floor for safe
long-term storage. Carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) is already being used
successfully on a very small scale (mainly to enhance oil recovery in depleted
wells). If (and only if) it proves successful for large-scale use, coal-dependent
countries like China, India, and the United States could continue to use their

American politicians have proved to be incapable of designing policies to shift the
US to low-carbon energy use. Such policies would include a rising tax on CO2
emissions, large-scale research-and-development efforts in low-carbon technologies,
a shift to electric vehicles, and regulations to phase out all coal-fired power
plants except those that install CCS.

Yet politicians are pursuing none of these policies adequately. Climate-change foes
have spent billions of dollars to influence policymakers, support election campaigns
by defenders of fossil fuels, and defeat candidates who dare to promote clean
energy. The Republican Party as a whole attracts massive financial support from
opponents of decarbonization, and these donors aggressively fight even the smallest
step toward renewable energy. For their part, many Democratic members of the US
Congress are also in the pro-fossil-fuel camp.

A few big players in the energy industry, showing no concern for truth (much less
for our children, who will bear the consequences of our present folly), have teamed
up with Rupert Murdoch. Indeed, Murdoch, the Koch Brothers, and their allies behave
just like Big Tobacco in denying scientific truths; even use the same experts for

The situation is generally the same around the world. Wherever powerful lobbies
defend existing coal or oil interests, politicians typically are afraid to tell the
truth about the need for low-carbon energy. Brave politicians who do tell the truth
about climate change are found mainly in countries that do not have a powerful
fossil-fuel lobby.

Consider the fate of one courageous exception to this rule. Kevin Rudd, the former
Australian prime minister, tried to implement a clean-energy policy in his
coal-producing country. Rudd was defeated in his re-election bid by a candidate
whose backing from an alliance of Murdoch and coal companies enabled him to outspend
Rudd by a huge margin. Murdoch’s tabloids pump out anti-scientific propaganda
opposing climate-change policies not only in Australia, but also in the US and

The reason all of this matters is that the path to deep decarbonization is open to
us. Yet time is very short. The world needs to stop building new coal-fired power
plants (except those that implement CCS) and to shift to low-carbon electricity. It
needs to phase out the internal combustion engine for almost all new passenger
vehicles by around 2030, shifting to vehicles powered by electricity. And it needs
to adopt energy-saving technologies that consume less commercial energy. The
technologies are available and will get better and cheaper with use, if only
fossil-fuel lobbies can be held at bay.

If this happens, people around the world will discover something wonderful. Not only
will they have saved the planet for the next generation; they will also enjoy
sunshine and clean, healthy air. And they will ask what took so long when the Earth
itself was at dire risk.

Jeffrey D. Sachs is Professor of Sustainable Development, Professor of Health
Policy and Management, and Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia
University. He is also Special Adviser to the United Nations Secretary-General
on the Millennium Development Goals.

Copyright: Project Syndicate

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