Politicians like to say, “We are all in this together.” Of course, in most cases that is not true. They issue orders locking people in their homes and then proceed to party, travel, visit girlfriends and mothers. Here they issue orders making it difficult for middle class families to educate their kids in public schools, while placing their own in private schools. They make life difficult for the police, defund them in scores of cities, while ensuring their own safety, often with security services paid for by the taxpayers.
But there is one thing we are all in together: the planet’s climate, although the better-off can shield themselves from the effects of warming to a greater degree than the less fortunate. The problem is that “all” includes China, Russia and India, who are determined to continue pumping CO2 into the atmosphere while demanding that America, Britain, Europe and other advanced, democratic economies cut back on the activities that produce those greenhouse gasses.
President Biden had his virtual green summit, and promised to reduce America’s greenhouse gas emissions to 50% cent below 2005 levels by 2030 – they are already 21% down. But he could not elicit a promise from other major polluters to cut back on the use of coal, at least not just yet. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will hold a live summit in Glasgow in November, at which it is certain those countries will promise little and deliver less. “Some countries are asking China to do more on climate change. I am afraid this is not very realistic,” says deputy foreign minister Le Yucheng. To which Wang Yi, foreign minister, adds that China’s cooperation on climate will depend on America’s non-involvement in “China’s internal affairs” – Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Xinjiang Province, home to Uyghur detention camps.
Meanwhile, what is being asked of countries willing to reduce the pace at which the globe is heating is becoming clearer. Biden plans to build (i.e. have taxpayers finance) 500,000 charging stations for electric vehicles, and to continue subsidising their sale. All to get rid of emissions-producing gasoline-fuelled vehicles, of which there are almost 300 million in the United States and over 1.3 billion in the world. A new study by the International Energy Agency, not a lobby group, reckons that if the world is to reach net zero emissions by 2050, Biden’s goal for America and presumably the world, the global share of electric vehicles would have to jump from about 5% now to 60% only about a decade from now, and by 2050 virtually all cars on the road will have to run either on batteries or on hydrogen. The oil, gas and coal industries will be gone, relegated to studies of economic history.
All sales of oil and gas furnaces to heat buildings will have to be banned, by 2025, and by 2040 half of all air travel would have to be fuelled by clean alternatives to jet fuel. Perhaps most important, starting immediately, no new permits for developing oil and gas fields, and no construction of coal plants unless outfitted with carbon-catching technologies. And the solar industry would have to build the equivalent of the world’s largest solar farm every day, to the advantage of China, that accounts for about 70% of the value of a typical solar panel.
Faith Birol, IEA executive director, says, “The sheer magnitude of changes needed to get to net zero emissions by 2050 is not fully understood by many governments and investors…. Governments around the world make net zero pledges … But there’s still a huge gap between the rhetoric and the reality.” Indeed. The goal set in the 2015 Paris accord is to limit the long-term increase in global temperatures to 1.5°C, an average that conceals large regional variations. The pledges to date, if honoured, would take the increase in temperatures in 2100 to 2.6°C, a miss of over one degree in a game in which tenths of a degree have consequences. And neither those pledges, nor the spending commitments of the developed countries are being honoured. The International Renewable Energy Agency guesses the world must invest $115 trillion through 2050 in clean technologies to meet the 1.5°C goal.
There’s worse. America and China are in battle for economic leadership. The Paris accords confer a huge competitive advantage on the People’s Republic. America has agreed to reduce its CO2 emissions, while the People’s Republic promises that some day, not just yet, it will reach an emissions peak, and only after a period in which it continues increasing the amount of CO2 it pours into the atmosphere. China, the world’s largest polluter, is continuing to build and finance hundreds of coal plants at home – more than five times the rest of the world combined – and around the world, while the Biden pledge would force America to use far more costly means of production. A global tax on emissions would do something to untilt that playing field, but the Biden administration won’t have it.
The IEA says achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 “will require nothing short of the complete transformation of the global energy system.” That includes behavioural changes, including replacing car trips with walking, cycling and public transport, and cutting back on long-haul flights. John Kerry, Biden’s climate czar, says “No one is being asked for a sacrifice” as he heads for still another international meeting in a private jet, “… the only choice for someone like me who is travelling the world to win this battle.”
No working politicians can believe these are attainable goals. So, as Lenin once asked in another connection, “What is to be done?” Ameliorate, innovate, offset, pressure China.
- Ameliorate: Admit that warming will continue, and in oceanside areas design to accommodate higher water levels, as the city of Miami is doing by raising the level of seaside sidewalks by two feet. Or as Charleston is doing, call on the federal government to finance construction of barriers and systems to handle flooding, perhaps a better use of infrastructure funds than subsidies for elderly care, a group least able to wade through ankle-deep water to get to the pharmacy.
- Innovate, as Bill Gates is suggesting, by creating incentives for increased research and development. The IEA says that half the emissions cuts by 2050 will come from technologies that are in early stages of development, such as hydrogen fuels and better batteries. To which add carbon capture, which major oil companies have sufficient incentive to develop to avoid landing on the ash heap of history.
- Offset: The goal of net zero emissions does not mean no emissions. It means emissions would be offset by carbon-reducing investments. Plant trees or extend programs that pay southern timberland owners to leave their trees standing and absorbing carbon. Harvest low-hanging fruit in developing countries by making available alternatives to coal. Amass credits by paying Brazil’s thuggish president, Jair Bolsonaro, to stop burning down the Amazon.
In short, ameliorate, innovate and offset – even though the absence of a carbon tax will reduced incentives to invest in any of these measures below levels that would prevail if they were competing against fossil fuels that included a tax on carbon. But don’t take some of the costly steps being proposed. Some 168,000 retail locations sell fuel in the United States, and none are owned or directly subsidized by the government. When the Standard Oil monopoly was broken up in 1911, oil companies competed for market share by building gas stations. Better to let Elon Musk, competing with other entrepreneurs, including General Motors, which plans to build its own network, decide on the quality of coffee served at charging stations than a government employee with life tenure.
Unless China can be persuaded or coerced into abandoning its expansion of the coal sector, we will be dealing around the fringes of the problem, absent a major technological break-through. By definition, that is hard to predict, and certainly not something to be relied on. Better to tax high-carbon-content Chinese imports. Which brings us back to Biden.