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A Pragmatic Approach to Climate Change: Part 3—Demand Gross Carbon Reductions Every Year

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Erik Devereux
October 20, 2021

This is the third in a series of columns I will write for PA Times Online about the role of government in managing climate change. The first column argued for a strategy that begins with concerted efforts to cool the Earth immediately instead of waiting for the possible benefits of long-term reductions in carbon emissions. The second column discussed why a new global governance framework is necessary to ensure climate interventions do not lead to war. This column discusses the reasons for making gross carbon consumption (or gross reduction in CO2 emissions) the only metric that matters both at the national and global levels.

The United States government graph accompanying this column depicts the relationship between CO2 concentration in the atmosphere and global CO2 emissions. The conclusion is obvious and correct: as total CO2 emissions have increased, so has CO2 concentration in the atmosphere. Other graphs clearly demonstrate the relationship between the CO2 concentration and average global temperatures.

Across this century the nations of the Earth must reduce CO2 emissions as rapidly as possible and, hopefully, bring the CO2 concentration down to pre-industrial levels. This effort is up against an economic behemoth—the fossil fuel industry—whose true proportions rarely are discussed. The table below presents the known proven global reserves of petroleum, natural gas and coal, along with their current market prices as of October 14, 2021. The third column in the table uses those numbers to estimate the current total market value of each fossil fuel in U.S. dollars. You are reading the table correctly—the total market value combined is in the quadrillions of U.S. dollars. If efforts to shift the world’s economies away from fossil fuels are successful, these commodities will become worthless. My inner skeptic is tempted to say, “Good luck with that!”

For its part, the fossil fuel industry has moved away from denying a role in climate change to pushing purported solutions such as carbon capture and storage. In theory carbon capture and storage solves the carbon problem by removing CO2 from the atmosphere and permanently storing it underground where the carbon eventually becomes inert carbonate rocks. In practice, however, the amount of energy required to perform carbon capture and storage results in a net increase in total energy use and a potential gross increase in CO2 emissions. To date, various experiments with carbon capture and storage have fallen well behind their initial projections both in terms of efficiency and effectiveness. Sufficient time may not be available to make carbon capture and storage economically and environmentally effective before the changes in the climate become complete irreversible.

As best as I can discern, these solutions being pushed by the fossil fuel industry simply are not going to result in a gross reduction in CO2 emissions. Neither will reliance on some form of carbon offsets, despite their increasingly frequent use by companies such as commercial airlines. Carbon offsets appear not to contribute to a reduction in gross carbon consumption and CO2 emissions. Again, those are the definitive metrics and we need to achieve rapid decreases in both. We need to insist on practical measures that reduce gross carbon consumption. A two-track strategy is necessary that puts the wealthier nations on earth on the road to eliminating all fossil fuel consumption while the poorer nations are given more time to make this transition.

Fortunately, there are excellent and pragmatic “road maps” being designed for how a wealthy country like the United States can phase out fossil fuels. My next column will delve into the economic and infrastructure requirements for this in more depth. But what about the poorer nations for whom a rapid elimination of fossil fuels seems impractical?

A pragmatic approach to climate change recognizes that the poorer nations who, by the way, have the majority of the earth’s current human population within their borders, will not comply with any climate change approach that appears to condemn them to permanent poverty. Admonishing these nations simply to stop using gasoline in their cars, coal for generating electricity or natural gas for heating water or cooking food, is a terrible mistake. Instead, the wealthier nations must find ways to assist the poorer nations with economic development while ensuring that total carbon consumption declines. This type of partnership will assure the poorer nations that they will not be asked to bear the brunt of the costs involved with addressing climate change.

The depth of this problem is as daunting as confronting the economics of the fossil fuel industry. Fortunately, in many poorer nations there is a window of opportunity to pursue decentralized energy technologies like residential solar and smaller-scale wind power. Similar to how the advent of global cellular phone networks overcame the historic absence of wired telephone and Internet networks in these countries, the absence of well organized large-scale electric and natural gas providers means that there is less political opposition to solar and wind power. Perhaps the best way to quit the carbon habit will be for these nations not getting so addicted in the first place.

Author: Erik Devereux is a consultant to nonprofits and higher education and teaches at Georgetown University. He has a B.S. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Political Science, 1985) and a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin (Government, 1993). He is the author of Methods of Policy Analysis: Creating, Deploying, and Assessing Theories of Change (Amazon Kindle Direct). Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @eadevereux.

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