Thursday, February 02, 2023
On the difficulties of stopping climate change
As this post will contain some news that aren't flattering about some climate activists, I think I should start with a series of statements, which I believe are true:
- Climate change is real, and is caused by human activity, mainly the emission of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide (CO2).
- At the current pace of action against climate change, we will not be able to limit the temperature rise to less than 2°C above pre-industrial levels.
- While this will not exterminate humanity, climate change at this level will cause a series of very hard to predict meteorological events, which will cause immense economic damage and kill a large number of people.
In Germany, a climate activist group calling themselves "Last Generation" has been in the news with some actions that were downright dangerous, like trying to cause a huge oil spill by sabotaging safety valves on oil pipelines. Causing a catastrophe to limit a bigger catastrophe is a dubious method at best, and downright terrorist at worst; which is why these climate activists have been targeted by German anti-terrorist police.
The latest story about the "Last Generation" is funnier, because it involves hypocrisy. But I want to tell it not for a cheap laugh, but to highlight some of the difficulties involved in stopping climate change. Two activists of the "Last Generation", a couple, missed a court date for their involvement in a blockade event. The judge, as judges do, wasn't amused, and demanded an explanation. They replied to that request for an explanation, which thus got into court records, and by that way was found by journalists: They missed the court date because they had been on holiday, flying to Bali. A return flight from Germany to Bali emits about 4 tons of CO2 per person, while for comparison going vegan saves only 1 ton of CO2 per year, and a typical car emits about 4.6 tons of CO2 per year. Flying is about the worst thing an individual can do regarding greenhouse gas emissions, which is why for example Greta Thunberg used a sailing boat to get to a climate conference in New York in 2019. I haven't taken a flight since 2019, but of course I don't claim that is possible for everybody.
Smaller planes flying shorter distances have been shown to be able to use more climate friendly fuels, like electricity or hydrogen. However, for a typical holiday flight, it is physically impossible to get a jumbo jet from Germany to Bali on anything other than liquid hydrocarbon fuels. You can make that "climate neutral" on paper, by offsetting it with "negative emissions", or reducing the carbon footprint by using fuel that has been made out of biomass or even recycled CO2. But currently "carbon offsetting" is often a scam, especially if they don't fulfill the criterion of additionality. Scam carbon offsetting is a lot cheaper than actual carbon offsetting. And if you look up the discussion of what a working "carbon tax" would need to be, or how much carbon capture and storage would cost, you end up with a cost per ton of carbon dioxide of around $100. With the cheapest ticket for a return flight from Bali to Germany being around $1,000, offsetting the carbon emissions realistically would increase the cost of the flight by 40%. And because take-off and landing consume more fuel than high-altitude flights, carbon offsetting for shorter flights can up to double the cost of the ticket.
Obviously cheap holiday flights are not actually a human right, but many people treat it that way. And the carbon offsetting solution would quickly be perceived as socially unjust, with only the richer half of the population still being able to afford it. The same is true for ground transport: The technology exists to make climate-friendly or even climate-neutral cars (climate neutrality always involves "negative emissions", even going on horseback isn't strictly "climate neutral"), but they will be a lot more expensive than cars running on fossil fuels. Which means that a smaller percentage of the population could still afford a car than today, which will be controversial.
Furthermore, if you had a magic wand and could in an instant replace every single car on earth by a climate friendly electric car, these cars wouldn't go anywhere. There simply wouldn't be enough electricity to run them all. For example the USA in 2021 produced 4.11 trillion kWh of electricity. But they consumed also 7.26 billion barrels of petroleum, which is about 12.3 trillion kWh. Yes, some of the petroleum produced went into electricity production, so the numbers aren't strictly comparable. But it is obvious that we would need not only make all our electricity production carbon neutral, but also increase it by several hundred percents in order to switch to electric cars.
There are other areas where we can make real progress relatively fast. For example I am currently building a house in the near-zero emission building standard (NZEB). Home isolation is a one-time investment that can save around 3 tons per year of CO2 on heating (rough estimate for Europe, but this very much depends on where you live, and how bad the current building standards are where you live today). Unfortunately isolating older buildings isn't quite as easy, and in some situations the incentives are badly aligned, with for example the landlord paying for isolation, but the heating cost being paid by the renter.
In summary, the difficulties of stopping climate change are the ones I mentioned above: We need a large amount of green energy to replace fossil fuels before we can "end oil". Barring a technological miracle in fusion technology, that green energy will be significantly more expensive than fossil energy, so we also need solutions for social problems in order to make heating and transport affordable for everybody. And all of this will take decades, and trillions of dollars in investment, which is why we will overshoot the 2°C target. Lifestyle changes should be a part of the solution, but they are difficult, and they won't be enough to solve the problem.