Commentary: We’re moving into a more optimistic era for climate action
Policymakers are finally moving from stick to carrot, and good ideas will spread fast, says the Financial Times' Simon Kuper.
LONDON: There’s an old joke about a driver stopping to ask a villager for directions. “Well,” says the villager, “if that’s where you’re going, I wouldn’t start from here.”
That describes our current status for saving the planet. Ideally, we wouldn’t start from here: Ice sheets doomed, climate damage under way and barely any plausible path to achieving global net zero emissions by 2050.
But finally there’s some good news. After decades in which we’ve essentially been driving a gas-guzzler around in circles, the next stretch of our journey to net zero looks more straightforward. We are entering a hopeful new era for climate action. People and green alternatives are readier, policymakers are moving from stick to carrot and good ideas will spread fast.
In the era of the stick, the hope was that we would sacrifice our way to lower emissions. Through carbon taxes and moral awakenings, people would fly less, forgo meat and install solar panels.
Going green was meant to hurt. But the stick didn’t work.
True, we used more renewables, but we also burned more fossil fuels. Global emissions just kept rising. The “stick” era was a mass experiment in human willingness to make sacrifices for future generations. The outcome was sobering.
FROM STICK TO CARROT
Today, suddenly, things look different. First, climate change - always cast as a problem of the future - is here.
Rolling climate disasters, most recently this summer’s transcontinental droughts, have shown people that this is about us, not our dimly imagined descendants. That creates a sense of urgency.
Governments now feel emboldened to act on emissions, even in two major countries that until this year were objectively pro-climate change. In recent weeks, both the United States and Australia (the world’s third-largest fossil-fuel exporter) passed the most serious climate legislation in their histories (admittedly a low bar).
Large majorities of Americans now back climate action, according to pollsters Gallup. Next month, a third domino should fall: Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro, who oversaw the Amazon’s degeneration from carbon sink to carbon emitter, is expected to lose the election.
The US Bill also showed the way to cut emissions. The old idea of taxing carbon was economically correct but politically wrong. People wouldn’t vote to consume less. Consequently, carbon taxes were always set too low to reduce consumption much.
Now the US has switched from stick to carrot, offering tax credits for renewables, electric vehicles and so on. That works partly because these technologies have come along so fast: The price of solar, for instance, dropped 89 per cent in a decade. E-cars (not to mention e-bikes, e-mopeds and e-rickshaws) are now so affordable that they account for a quarter of new car sales in China.
Even before the war in Ukraine turbocharged gas prices, the world was switching to renewables largely out of grubby self-interest.
“In 2020, 82 per cent of new electricity capacity globally was wind or solar,” write Eric Lonergan and Corinne Sawers in Supercharge Me: Net Zero Faster.
Renewables industries are emerging with their own grinning lobbyists and backchannels to politicians — the kind that fossil-fuel companies always had. That means green is starting to work with capitalism rather than against it.
High gas prices have also weakened the quasi-religious taboo on nuclear energy: Germany, Japan, California and the United Kingdom are pivoting towards extending the lifespans of existing nuclear plants.
CLIMATE CHANGE A "NOW" PROBLEM
The other reason to hope: As climate change becomes a “now” problem, cities and countries have begun acting to protect themselves.
After all, even the most short-sighted government will want to benefit people today (and their pricey homes) by building seawalls or urban cooling centres.
Google Trends, which has tracked worldwide Google searches since 2004, is the closest we have to a window on to the collective consciousness. Global searches for “climate adaptation” just hit an all-time high. Even some poor places are finding ways to adapt: Mountain slopes around San Salvador are being reforested to stop landslides, while Ghanaian cocoa farmers are planting trees to shade crops from the sun.
Effective action on climate creates virtuous circles. As the whole world tries to tackle the same problem at the same time, a scheme or technology that works in one place can quickly go global, point out Lonergan and Sawers.
Doomsayers argue that the rising global population will boost emissions. But that’s wrong: Almost all the additional people will be born in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, where emissions per capita are very low.
Though we’re starting in the wrong place, we now have a credible road map to reach net zero, perhaps by 2070 - a potentially manageable 20 years late.