Photo credit: James Gordon. Source: United Nations University. - Photo: 2018

Climate Change: The Devil Is in the Details

Neither Climate Change Deniers Nor Technology Enthusiasts Hold the Key to Addressing Global Warming

Viewpoint by Franz Baumann

The author is a visiting professor at New York University and a former UN assistant secretary-general, special adviser on environment and peace operations. Dr. Baumann joined the UN Development Program in 1980, began working in the UN Secretariat in 1985, and retired in 2015 after about a dozen assignments under five secretaries-general, in four duty stations and on three continents. – The Editor

NEW YORK (IDN) – United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, on September 10, 2018 spoke eloquently and with urgency about the frightening prospect of a climate catastrophe. “Climate Change is the defining issue of our time, and we are at a defining moment,” he said. Everything in his powerful speech was backed by science and evidently correct. Yet, because Secretaries-General cannot say everything, it was incomplete.

What Guterres did not say is that global heating is the flip-side of a phenomenal success story, namely the extraordinary growth of productivity, production, consumption, wealth and income as well as carbon emissions, mainly in Western countries, but lately also in China, India and elsewhere that is unprecedented in human experience. He did not say that the trends of the past decades cannot possibly continue, because infinite growth collides with the physics of a finite world.

The origin of global heating goes back to the Industrial Revolution some 250 years ago, yet developments since then have not been linear. A significant acceleration took place during the past 60 or so years, made possible by human ingenuity, but also the colossal use of fossil fuels: first coal, then oil and more recently gas. No plateau has been reached yet, and further growth is projected:

►     Since the UN’s founding, the world’s population more than tripled. We are 7.6 billion today, will be around 10 billion in 2050 and over 11 billion by the end of the century. This means 50 percent more than today. People who will need to eat, work, move and be housed, yet who cannot depend on fossil fuels the way we are.

►     Global life expectancy rose from 51 years in 1960 to 72 years now, which is astounding, considering that into the 19th century infectious diseases caused 50 percent of all children under the of 5 to die.

►     The world’s gross domestic product increased from $1.4 trillion in 1960 (or from $470 on average for each of the then living 3 billion people) to more than $76 trillion today (over $10,000 for each of 7.6 billion people, albeit very unevenly distributed).

►     The number of motor vehicles quintupled from 250 million in 1970 to 1.3 billion today; it is expected to double again by 2050.

►     The number of airline passengers increased more than tenfold from 310 million in 1970 to nearly 4 billion today. Its growth continues unrelentingly at an annual rate of 5.5%. International tourist arrivals have more than doubled since 1996 (from 563 million to 1.3 billion).

►     Since 1960, the number of domestic ruminants (mainly cattle, sheep and goats) has increased by over 50 percent to 3.9 billion to accommodate the demand for meat and dairy products.

►     Global plastic production grew from around 1.5 million tons in 1950 to 335 million tons in 2016. Between 4 million and 12 million tons are discarded annually into oceans.

►     Nature is shrinking and biodiversity is endangered.  The population decline in vertebrate species between 1970 and 2012 is approaching 60 percent.  Freshwater populations have declined by 81percent, terrestrial populations by 38 percent and marine populations by 36 percent.

►     Staggering 45 million metric tonnes of electronic waste are generated around the world     every year, an amount that corresponds to nearly 4,500 Eiffel Towers.  An increase of about 20 percent (to 52 million metric tonnes) is expected by 2021.

It’s not only the climate change deniers who are anti-science

Guterres did not declare that the past can be prologue only at our peril. He also did not censure the logic, in fact the fetish, of today’s global economy, namely relentless growth, nor did he point out that it is not only the climate change deniers who are anti-science. So, too, are the technology enthusiasts and renewable-energy optimists who entertain the fantasy that it will be possible for ten or eleven billion people to live in the style of the American or European middle class.

We cannot conceivably continue to grow in numbers and, at the same time, have rising living standards.  But this is the trajectory we are on, and this is why the Earth’s carrying capacity is being exceeded. And we are seeing it. The weather is acting up. Plastic is inundating oceans. Insects and many other species are disappearing. Obviously, this goes beyond climate change, but it shows that we – humans – are living beyond our means, and that this cannot continue much longer.  Perhaps, we have crossed dangerous thresholds already.

While making the case that the shift to renewables is urgent, Guterres did not say that the emergence in the coming years of technical solutions is unlikely to decarbonize the world economy while, at the same time, permit the poor to become wealthy and the Earth’s population to increase by another 40 percent or so without requiring the rich fundamentally to change their life-styles.

Guterres also did not point out that such delusions keep climate change on the political backburner, and intellectual honesty as well as ethical responsibility muted.  The facts suggest that urgent action is essential to reposition rich economies, and decency requires radical decarbonization in the North in order to create space for the global South to escape poverty.

It has been said that we are the first generation experiencing climate change and the last generation that can do something about it.  Perhaps, this is too optimistic, because the opportunity to prevent climate change has been missed. Conceivably, the war is decided, if not over yet and, at best, we might be able only to prevent the worst.

Present-day atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide are the cumulative result of both historical emissions and current ones. As economists call it: Global warming is both a stock issue, and a flow issue. Picture a bath tub with water gushing in, and the drain blocked. The water level rises unless the faucet is turned off, or unless water is scooped out.  If neither is done, the bathtub will overflow.

Meanwhile governments are either denying the issue, downplaying it or arguing who should take the lead: those who filled up most of the bathtub, essentially Europe and North America, or those who are today’s major emitters, China and the U.S., but also Russia and India. In terms of equity, it is useful to look at per capita numbers; in terms of impact, totals matter.

Given the longevity of carbon dioxide, hundreds of years in fact, Earth will continue to heat up even if drastic remedial action is taken immediately. Conversely, the longer emissions continue unabated, the greater the effort and the higher the costs will be to deal with the consequences.

Time is not on our side

Time, in other words, is a crucial element in dealing with global heating. Importantly however, time is not on our side. We are running out of time. More accurately: it is not us, but future generations that will suffer the consequences of our irresponsible procrastination. To avert the looming calamity, the 2015 Paris Agreement was a major achievement. It defined problems and outlined what needs to be done. Yet mapping the journey is not the same as actually moving forward.

No industrialized country is on track to meet its Paris commitments. The efforts of the EU, Australia, Brazil and New Zealand are rated as “insufficient;” Argentina, Canada, Chile, China and Japan, as “highly insufficient;” and Russia (that has not even ratified the Paris Agreement), Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States as “critically insufficient.”

In other words, governments have committed to something they are unable or unwilling to honor. Today’s gap between ambition and action is disquieting, because it will make it even more difficult in future to enact the deeper emission cuts needed to keep global warming at 2°C (3.6°F). Having to operate under time pressure and in crisis conditions, possibly involving armed conflict, the current casual procrastination will strike future governments, and future generations, as reckless.

The carbon budget – how much more carbon dioxide we can spew into the atmosphere – signals a hard stop. If 2°C (3.6°F) are the maximum acceptable warming, the supportable amount of future CO2 emissions is set.  At current emission rates, a net-zero state must be achieved in less than twenty years. This means that of the world’s estimated reserves of coal, oil and gas, two thirds must remain in the ground. Given the magnitude of the problem, and the dynamics at play, incremental changes will not suffice.  In fact, nothing less than another moon shot project will do.

The 11,500-year Holocene epoch, that allowed human civilization to develop and flourish, is ending (or has ended already), to be succeeded by an uncharted, unpredictable geological epoch, the Anthropocene, named after its dominant force, humans. This, to be sure, is a concept larger than individuals, communities, regions, nation states or international organizations.

The Earth is now a single, total system undergoing world-shattering, human-induced change. Never have humans been more powerful, knowledgeable or wealthier. The question is if these assets can be deployed purposefully to change the way we as a species interact with nature and thus to safeguard humanity’s survival.

What needs to be done can be expressed in one word. Decarbonization, or, as the UN Secretary-General Guterres put it: “We need to put the brake on deadly greenhouse gas emissions and we need to rapidly shift away from our dependence on fossil fuels.”

Carbon pricing is a powerful, yet underutilized tool

This means to reduce drastically, on a massive, global scale and as soon as possible the use of fossil fuels; to stop emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and to scale up efforts to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Guterres mentioned in passing a powerful, time-tested yet utterly underutilized tool to reduce emissions, namely carbon pricing.

It is an egregious market failure that spewing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere costs nothing. Of course, there are serious costs, but they are not paid by the polluters. They are imposed on society and the planet as a whole.

The World Health Organization reports that more than 80 percent of people living in urban areas are exposed to poor – and dangerous – air quality. To reduce carbon emissions, a price must be put on fossil fuel, so that pollution costs real money, and that incentives are created for producers as well as consumers to switch carbon-free products and services.

Allowing the atmosphere to be treated like a free sewer must stop. Ignoring environmental damage is fairy-tale accounting, like running a business and reporting only revenues, but not the cost of raw materials. 

Markets do not function well when important costs are externalized; they are effective only when significant costs are included in prices, and if there are no distorting subsidies. Even now, the G-7 countries – the world’s richest – instead of making fossil fuels more expensive, subsidize them to the tune of $100 billion per year. These perverse economic incentives stand in the way of decreasing CO2 emissions. If a serious price is put on carbon across all economies, the behaviour of producers and consumers will shift towards sustainability.

Meat will become more expensive, yet plant-based food cheaper. $50 dollar flights from New York to Florida – or €50 flights from Frankfurt to Athens, Rome or Lisbon – will be a thing of the past. The money raised can be invested in research, renewable energy, power storage and grids, in re-forestation and afforestation, and to finance mitigation in the global South.

If this is more than the political traffic will bear and if, instead, the carbon dividend is returned to tax payers in cash, it will still change incentives for producers and consumers and do more than all appeals to personal virtue. Carbon pricing is a tool, not an end in itself. The end is a decarbonized global economy with a close to zero demand for polluting energy supply.

Organizing decarbonization at the proper scale and speed is the formidable global public policy challenge on which the survival of the human species depends.  Scientific, technical and financial solutions are available or within reach, yet no single country is large enough to make much of a difference.

Individual, local, regional and national action is the essential backbone of globally negotiated, agreed and coordinated action. All of this, Secretary-General Guterres spelled out with clarity and urgency.

He could not ask, although it was probably at the back of his mind, if governments will do what logic, long-term national interest and the future of humanity demand?  Can or will they act before problems become too big to manage? Is the crucial repositioning of the world’s economies technically possible – and politically viable – in the short time available before the climate tips?

Put more differently: Will governments work together to ensure that the collective interests of preserving livable conditions prevail over those who, for profit, exploit the global commons? [IDN-InDepthNews – 14 September 2018]

Photo credit: James Gordon. Source: United Nations University.

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate. –

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