Climate activists’ current stated goal is to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels. To achieve this goal, according to the latest IPCC report, atmospheric CO2 levels must peak by 2025. But this battle is already lost, so what is their Plan B?
The above statement is not a critique of the desirability of the 1.5-degree goal, which I am not competent to evaluate. The unhappy truth, though, is that not all good goals are achievable. Not even all necessary goals are achievable. “We will achieve it because we must” is a logically incoherent statement.
But how do we know we can’t achieve it? In the end, simple math. But before we get to that let’s look at the political reality behind the math. Poor nations are not content to remain poor, and it takes energy to become (and remain) wealthy, and wealthy nations are not doing what would be necessary.
If renewables were really as cheap as their supporters claim, developing countries would be rushing to build out their energy systems with them instead of with more carbon-intensive fuels, but we don’t see this happening. There is one fundamental reason why renewables aren’t really cheaper, even as the cost of solar panels tumbles and wind turbines more gradually become cheaper on a per-megawatt basis – variability, or low capacity-factor. In short, wind and solar aren’t always there when you need them. This means that one or more of the following expensive responses is necessary: overbuilding (building more of the renewable to get sufficient energy from it), storage (batteries are expensive and limited in how much energy they can store), extra transmission (to move wind and solar from where it’s presently available to where it is not), or building/keeping traditional firm resources, such as coal or natural gas, in place as backup.
So what we see poorer countries doing is still building coal-fired power plants. China, for example, both has more wind power and is building more nuclear power plants than any other country on earth, but they are also still building more coal-fired power plants and bringing previously retired ones back online. Although the new plants will be more efficient than older ones, this ultimately backtracks on previous pledges and actions they’ve taken, all in the goal of economic development and avoiding the type of severe blackouts they experienced in 2021.
India, where tens of millions of people still lack electricity, is also adding new coal-fired plants, despite arguments that they are uneconomical and will become stranded assets, and has bluntly rejected net-zero carbon goals. In sub-Saharan Africa, where more than half a billion people are without electricity, still more coal-fired power plants are planned.
The reason is simple – coal is cheap, even if that’s only because of its externalities. And how concerned do we expect people who cook over charcoal or dung fires to be about the dirty emissions of coal? As bad as coal can be, it still represents a step-wise improvement in these people’s lives.
Elsewhere we see coal being used for different reasons. Germany continues to use it because it is short-sightedly shutting down their nuclear power plants. Germany has a vain hope of powering the country through 100 percent renewables. Until – and even more significantly, unless – that is achieved, Germany will rely not only on natural gas, but on lignite, some of the dirtiest, most carbon-intensive, coal on earth. And although Poland has a stated policy of phasing out its use of coal – which provides 70 percent of its electricity – by 2049, achieving that goal depends on it having an ample supply of other energy sources. But it is currently phasing out its imports of Russian gas (having begun even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine).
China, India, and Russia, three of the top four GHG emitters (along with the US), will be increasing their emissions for at least two decades before they seriously begin to decrease them. And that’s if they decrease them – pledges made today do not easily translate into policies made tomorrow, and policies – as the German experience demonstrates – do not easily translate into effective action.
In more bad policy news for the 1.5 degrees goal, few countries are committing to the necessary policy actions to achieve it. According to a Bloomberg research group, “No G-20 government has implemented sufficient and concrete policies to match the promises to tackle climate change made at COP26 in Glasgow last year.” And the International Energy Agency reported last year that renewable generation capacity needs to continue expanding at 12 percent annually through 2030, but even with record levels of capacity additions the world continues to fall short of that necessary target.
In short, coal isn’t going away by 2050. Nor, although I lack the space to make the argument, is natural gas, which while less carbon-intensive than coal, still produces substantial greenhouse gases and is a target of climate activists.
Here’s the simple math. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that holding the global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius requires keeping atmospheric CO2 concentrations to 430 ppm. In 2020 we reached 412 ppm, up from 400 in 2015. At that rate of increase, we’ll hit 430 before the end of the decade, and zero-emissions climate pledges aren’t even scheduled to take full effect until 2050, another twenty years later.
So if the understanding of the link between CO2 and warming is correct, we are not stopping at 1.5 degrees warmer than in the pre-industrial era. The IPCC indicates that we are likely to experience between 2 and 3 degrees of warming. So what do we do?
Climate activists have no answer for this. They have not accepted this reality yet, and seem unlikely to do so anytime soon. If they did, they could most profitably call for heavily subsidized nuclear power to be built as fast as possible. But their misguided focus is on renewables, rather than on moving rapidly toward the development of any and all greenhouse gas emissions-free sources.
They could also advocate massive subsidization of research into carbon capture and sequestration technologies, including atmospheric carbon removal. If renewable energy were really as affordable as they claim, all subsidies could be shifted away from it and towards direct carbon capture. But these methods are generally opposed by environmental groups obsessed with the chimera of a renewables-only society, where those renewables are both cheaper than any other alternative and yet somehow still in need of subsidies.
Finally, a serious focus on adaptation could demonstrate that climate activists’ real concern is human well-being. It would be a way of ensuring that no child’s future has been stolen. Given that under all the IPCC scenarios, no matter how much warming, the world is nonetheless predicted to be wealthier than today, the resources for adaptation will be available. In fact, human adaptation to the climate has been the norm over the past century, with climate-related deaths declining globally by more than 90 percent despite a quadrupling of the world’s population.
But climate activists have no Plan B. If anything, they believe consideration of a Plan B to be an immoral act because it means giving up on Plan A. But if Plan A – limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius – is already a lost cause, it is irresponsible at least, if not immoral, not to be looking ahead for what we actually can do.