Let’s start with a figure.
Here we see the pathways to reach the Paris Climate Agreement, which proposed to limit warming to 2C by 2100. This threshold was basically set as a compromise to limit “dangerous” warming, and to be feasible politically. As we can see in the figure, emissions would have to be reduced at a rate of 5% per year in order to reach that target. The figure also shows how much easier it would have been if things started in 2000 (essentially a fairy tale where China does not industrialize) and how difficult it will be if things start 10 years from now (increasing to 9% per year reductions).
A couple of days ago, the 2018 carbon budget paper was published. In the paper, global carbon emissions are projected to increase by 1.8%. This essentially dashes the optimism that was going on a few years ago that global emissions were peaking, as we now see the effects of the Chinese economy rebounding, and changes to policy by the US government (in addition to the impacts of the unusually cold winter and hot summer in the US this year).
So, we are currently in a situation where emissions are going up, rather than down. As more nations industrialize, why should we expect that trend to be reversed, especially since the industrializing process emulates the Western model? Why should we expect mitigation in industrialized countries, when there is a growing trend towards authoritarianism that cares little except maintaining power? The answer, of course, is that we should not expect emissions to go down anytime in the near future.
I spend a lot of time looking at problems related to paleo-climate, and it is pretty clear to see what the future holds for the Earth under an unmitigated scenario. As the world warms, it melts the land-based ice and heats up the ocean. Ecosystems around the world will be disrupted, probably at a rate that is too fast for adaptation for many animal species (i.e. there will be extinction). Sea level rise will erode away our coasts and force the evacuation of anyone living near them. Agricultural lands will face the threats of extreme weather or drought (some places, both). Anyone who studies history knows what happens to countries if there is not a reliable source of food. These problems are not some problem to be dealt with long into the future, these things are happening now.
Everything looks pretty dire from my perspective, and really the only way that I can see a way to lower emissions is a complete reshaping of the economy. The rise in authoritarianism is a huge barrier for this, and the fear of change is likely the main reason why it is rising. So what can we do? I have some thoughts, which likely are not possible, since the current governments have little interest in it, but here we go.
- Break up large corporations. Nothing is a bigger threat to democracy right now than the influence of big companies. We see this is especially true in the US, where there are no limits to how much companies can spend on influencing politicians and people. In the 70s and 80s, the US government was not afraid of splitting up major corporations that wielded monopoly-like powers, like Bell. Companies like Google and Facebook effectively are monopolies, and have a massive influence on modern discourse. This is incredibly dangerous, and as we have seen in recent years, affect the outcome of elections and policy. Though Google and Facebook are mentioned here, they are by no means the only ones. Large energy producers also wield extreme influence, and there is a reason why things are going backwards in terms of emissions. Once a major company reaches a certain size, it should be split up.
- Transportation networks need to be completely overhauled. I currently am in Japan, a densely populated country. Yet, outside of the cities with subways, most people still go around in cars. You hardly see any bikes, even though the cities are as densely populated as a typical European city. How is a country like Japan supposed to meet the Paris goals when people still drive so much? The answer is, they won’t. Owing a car should be far more expensive than it is now. Only with emptier roads, does cycling and public transport becomes much more feasible. In a carbon-neutral world, there probably can’t be any cars at all, and I don’t see electric cars being a savior (since producing a car is still fairly energy intensive).
- Interest rates should be increased. The biggest con in the global economy is the fact that interest rates are below 4%. This causes upwards pressure on the price of limited resources (such as land and property) and downwards pressure on the price of things considered disposable. If there is a higher cost to taking on debt, less people would consume, and it would also reduce the cost of housing, encouraging people to live closer to their place of work.
- Working hours need to be substantially reduced. Most people work way too much, and as a result, acquire more wealth than they need to live comfortably. They use this wealth to purchase too many disposable things. There were horrifying pictures published this year of dead animals in the ocean, with stomachs full of plastic. Would people use so much plastic if they were forced to save money and not throw things away? We have been convinced that we need ever-more quantities of money to maintain an unsustainable living standard. Inevitably if the Paris agreement levels are to be met, our expectations will need to be lowered. The added benefit of less working hours is that we will have more time for leisure and family, so maybe living standards will actually be higher.
- Economic focus of countries should return basic production. Adam Smith said there were two kinds of work: productive and unproductive. Productive work involves producing things like food and utilities that are useful to people. Unproductive jobs are ones that ultimately produce nothing of value, but may extract a lot of resources (think something like a stock market trader, but in Smith’s definition it includes professions like policing and law). In modern times, there are far more unproductive jobs than productive ones in wealthy nations. This is in a large part caused by the mechanization of labour. However, the mechanization of labour has a huge cost in terms of carbon output, and has also forced mass migration into cities. There has also been an outsourcing of labour to third world countries. While this enriches big companies (see point 1), it is one of the reasons why production has become more carbon intensive. I don’t want to say that we should deprive third world countries of a means to escape poverty, but that companies that utilize it should bear the costs. One way I would propose doing that is to ensure that the labour standards and pay in those third party countries be the same as the consuming country.
These are just five brief ideas that I think would be required in order to start reducing carbon emissions in a real way. Whether it is possible to achieve this politically, I am not optimistic. The default position of people who are relatively comfortable is conservatism, and major changes to the global economy would require some extreme levels of liberalism.