Climate change is a political football in the United States. To a degree unknown in the rest of the world, the facts about global warming are still debated, as if they were philosophies. This is the wrong game for the climate and the future; no matter who “wins” it, our kids lose.
In the face of this polarization, there is a tendency among reasonable non-scientists to believe that the truth must be somewhere in the middle. But it’s not. Physics is not like politics. The truth is that the climate crisis is upon us. The dominance of fossil fuels in our energy (and political) system has already begun to dangerously destabilize the climate, causing devastating storms, unprecedented wildfires, food shortages, mass migrations, and rising, acidifying oceans.
The climate crisis itself is a fundamental matter of justice; those who do the least to cause it generally suffer the worst of its consequences.
Business-as-usual energy and emission trajectories would send the average global temperature soaring by more than 4 degrees C in this century. That future, according to Kevin Anderson at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, “is incompatible with an organized global community, is likely to be beyond ‘adaptation,’ is devastating to the majority of ecosystems, and has a high probability of not being stable.”
This challenge cannot be met with politically palatable half-measures or tentative incremental steps in the right direction. Trimming our carbon footprints by turning the thermostat down a few degrees is helpful, but only in the context of a comprehensive transition from fossil fuels to clean energy over the next quarter century.
The challenge is not just, or even primarily, an “environmental problem”—a matter of mitigating the adverse physical effects of our energy and economic systems on our ecology. It is a matter of rebuilding these systems to eliminate the need for fossil fuels.
And because the transition represents a major structural shift in our economy, it is also a social transition, with broad implications for employment, energy affordability, and economic equity. The climate crisis itself is a fundamental matter of justice; those who do the least to cause it generally suffer the worst of its consequences.
Strategies for reducing and responding to climate impacts must address these equity issues squarely. The transition will require not only proper economic signals (such as carbon prices that tell the truth about carbon costs), but sustained public and private investment in energy and transportation systems that offer broadly shared economic opportunity.
The Climate Imperative
To set our sights well, we must start with the physical facts. Climate science defines the pace and scale of the required transition. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)—the most thorough and collaborative scientific consensus process ever conducted—warns that the global average temperature must not be allowed to rise by more than 2 degrees Celsius (C).
Until 2015, 2 degrees had generally been accepted as the red line—the threshold beyond which the risk of chaotic disruption of human civilization becomes unacceptably high. But with the IPCC’s 5th Assessment in 2015, the world has recognized that even that much warming poses unacceptable risks. The global climate commitment, memorialized last December in Paris, is to limit “the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial levels.”
The global climate agreement achieved in Paris is to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial levels.
Since warming is a function of the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the IPCC has derived a “carbon budget” from this temperature limit. In order to have a 66% chance of holding warming below 2 degrees C, we can load the atmosphere with no more than 800 billion tonnes of carbon from burning fossil fuels.
This budget is global. Any plausible or fair allocation of it must take into account historic emissions and economic circumstances. Richer nations emit more, enjoy more prosperity, and are better equipped to invest in climate solutions. That is why the success of global climate diplomacy depends on the willingness of the developed nations to reduce emissions more quickly and invest more in the global clean energy transition.
Degrees of Action
So, what is the appropriate emissions reduction and energy transition goal for the Pacific Northwest in view of this global challenge? The Paris Agreement recognizes that in order to prevent catastrophic disruption, the world will need to achieve net zero emissions—a complete transition to clean energy—“in the second half of the century.” (Exactly when is, of course, a function of how quickly we reduce emissions in the near term. At present emission rates, the 800 billion tonne carbon budget would last only 20 years, and still leave us with a one-third chance of exceeding 2 degrees. So any plausible strategy requires both accelerated action in the near term and a complete transition much closer to 2050 than 2100.)
The UN principles of “Common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities” clearly require what fairness and common sense suggest: the richest nations with the most emissions must blaze the trail. China has surpassed the U.S. as the largest annual emitter, but it is cumulative emissions that drive warming, and in that category, the U.S. is still #1. It also remains the world’s largest economy by a very wide margin. So for any global climate strategy to work, the U.S. must lead. Since this transition represents an enormous new driver for investment and broadly shared economic opportunity, we should jump at the chance.
For any global climate strategy to work, the United States must lead and to the extent that the Northwest enjoys a head start, we can and should win a complete transition from fossil fuels to clean energy by 2050
Within the U.S., the Pacific Northwest, in cooperation with California and other western states, is among the best qualified regions to spearhead the transition. Our natural resources, historic clean energy achievements, technology leadership, and emphasis on sustainable prosperity make us a natural leader in the transition to a clean energy future. To the extent that we enjoy a head start toward a clean energy economy, it should give us the confidence and determination to forge ahead, not an excuse to defer.
Accounting for the risks and uncertainties as well as capital investment cycles, and with all of our advantages, the Northwest can and should win a complete transition from fossil fuels to clean energy by 2050. Given the immense focus and commitment this transition will require, and the need for early action in the regions best qualified to take it, why would we shoot for less? If the whole world needs to complete the transition early in the second half of the century, shouldn’t the natural leaders get there at the beginning?
Why not go all the way?
Not a Bridge Too Far
The most difficult and important questions about the appropriateness of this goal are generally not about climate science. They are about technology and economics and politics. They are not about whether we must make this transition, but about how we can and whether we will. Our working answers to these practical questions–the common perceptions that shape our policy and politics–are much too pessimistic in light of our emerging understanding of the real-world prospects for clean energy.
In the summer of 2015, public opinion researchers in Washington asked focus group participants of swing voters whether they would be inclined to support a transition to 100% clean energy for our electricity. At first, respondents were cautious and skeptical. They liked the goal, but 100% seemed too ambitious, not practical.
Then participants were told that Washington State already uses renewable energy for over two thirds of its power supply, and asked whether that changed their level of support for the transition to 100% clean energy. With that information, many more focus group participants were supportive of the 100% goal and sanguine about the prospects for achieving it. The news that we already rely so heavily on renewables was greeted with surprise, pride, and relief.
If we have been reluctant to rise to the climate challenge, it is at least in part because it seems beyond our ability to act effectively, but a fresh reading of emerging energy trends calls this assumption into question.
Clearly, the Pacific Northwest electric power system is exceptional in the extent to which it already relies on renewables and the relatively small and shrinking proportion of our power that comes from fossil fuels. (Hydropower supplies the bulk of that renewable power, and not without significant environmental problems.)
A national and global transition to clean energy starts from the daunting fact that fossil fuels currently supply 80% of primary energy in the United States, and 86.3% worldwide. Even in the Northwest, while our electric power system relies largely on carbon-free sources, our transportation depends overwhelmingly on oil.
And yet, despite the Northwest’s exceptional circumstances–our head start toward a clean energy future–these focus group results have broad relevance. For if we have been slow or reluctant to rise to the climate challenge, it is at least in part because it seems so huge and beyond our ability to act. It reflects a widespread assumption that the economic and political drivers of fossil fuel dependence are insurmountable. But a fresh reading of the emerging trends in energy markets calls that assumption into question.
The persistence of climate denial in spite of the overwhelming preponderance of evidence is surely in part an unconscious attempt to shield ourselves from hopelessness. But in turning away from the challenge, we may have made it seem less possible than it really is. Momentum in energy markets is already shifting away from fossil fuels and toward clean energy at a surprisingly impressive rate. The evidence increasingly suggests that a profound and accelerating transformation has already begun.
Forward, Farther and Faster
Frances Moore Lappé said, “Hope is a stance, not a calculation.” At Climate Solutions, we appreciate that positive attitude. But we also find that some calculation—focused assessment and analysis of the rapid transition already underway in energy markets and systems—helps to reinforce a hopeful stance.
Since April 2014, we have been reviewing and curating news about climate change and the clean energy transition for ClimateCast, our weekly summary of climate and clean energy news. In that time, we’ve documented a strong positive trend: while legislative bodies have slipped deeper into stalemate with respect to climate, our communities, businesses, and government executive agencies have quietly but dramatically accelerated progress toward solutions.
Fossil fuel expansion plans have faltered, met head on by a potent combination of stiff citizen resistance and increasingly robust competition from clean energy. 2015 was not only the hottest year on record, it was the first year when carbon emissions declined while the world economy grew. While we have slogged through two decades of what seems like glacial progress in climate policy, climate solutions have hit their stride and begun to accelerate.
Clean energy–renewable resources and energy efficiency–dominates new investments in the electric sector. Coal plants–many of them long past their originally-planned service lives–are retiring across the country. Despite economic growth, power demand is generally not increasing, as energy efficiency investments decouple economic output from energy throughput. Rapid advances in storage technology, distributed power, demand management, and smart grids are facilitating the integration of intermittent renewables, challenging old assumptions about the need for “baseload power” and fossil-fueled system balancing.
Viable alternatives to oil dependence are taking hold. Even with the decline in oil prices, oil consumption in the U.S. is levelling off. Vehicle efficiency standards are kicking in and delivering impressive results. Urban centers are emphasizing transit, smart growth, biking and walking over further investment in irrevocably clogged highways. And replacing oil with electricity in the transportation sector and port operations is becoming increasingly cost-effective. With foreseeable advances in electric infrastructure and storage technology, decarbonized electricity is becoming an economically and environmentally superior transportation fuel.
Greater understanding of the remarkable surge of progress in solutions may open the door to an energy transformation as bold and comprehensive as the climate crisis demands.
Fossil fuels are losing their dominant position. While we still rely on coal for a significant share of our electric power needs, the writing is clearly on the wall for coal: coal companies that were worth $34 billion at their peak in 2011 are worth $150 million today, a decline of more than 99.5%. Oil and certainly gas are not as far along in their path to obsolescence, but the price of oil has dropped 70% since June 2014. A variety of forces–geopolitical, economic, and technological–are likely to undermine the market power required to drive prices back up as dramatically as they have skyrocketed in the past. Growing commitment to the climate imperative is also playing a key role–driving, for example, the denial of the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline and the retreat from US Arctic oil development. Here, economics and the climate imperative are converging to make much of the world’s carbon reserves as “unburnable” in economic practice as they are in the climate science literature.
Policy-makers are beginning to press forward. The Paris Agreement; the Clean Power Plan; the moratorium on new fossil fuel development on public lands; ambitious new clean energy commitments in many states and cities—these are unmistakable signs that, despite continuing dysfunction in the US Congress, public will to accelerate the clean energy transition will not be indefinitely denied.
If the true extent and gravity of the climate crisis has been underreported and underappreciated in the U.S., so has the remarkable surge of progress toward solutions. Greater understanding of this building momentum may help open the door to an energy transformation as bold and comprehensive as the climate crisis demands.
Recalibrating for Success
With accelerating advances in clean energy and the waning political and economic power of fossil fuels, emission curves are beginning to bend downward. From the peak of the curve, the contours of a much more dramatic shift–a clean energy transition as big and bold as it must be to address the climate challenge–are coming into view.
A growing body of credible analysis suggests that that a complete clean energy transition is achievable. Our current energy policies and assumptions about the prospective scale and pace of transition are badly outdated. Recalibrating them to our best, emerging understanding of what is possible could take us a long way toward what is, from a climate perspective, necessary.
- In November 2014, Energy and Environmental Economics offered the definitive study of the pathways to deep decarbonization in the United States: highly efficient end use of energy in buildings, transportation, and industry; decarbonization of electricity and other fuels; and fuel switching of end uses to electricity and other low-carbon supplies.
- Stanford University researchers have developed roadmaps for all-sector transitions to 100% wind, water, and sunlight-powered energy systems for the entire country. These are not comprehensive or optimized implementation plans, but they do credibly suggest the potential for a complete transition.
- Reducing the use of oil may be the biggest challenge, as decarbonizing liquid fuels is relatively difficult and transportation infrastructure investments are relatively inflexible. However, the California Air Resources Board now has a plan for reducing oil consumption by half by 2030 while improving economic performance; the Union of Concerned Scientists shows how Washington and Oregon can do the same
- Cities around the United States and the world are taking matters in their own hands and committing to carbon neutrality and 100% renewable energy.
Mustering the Will
The transformation to a clean energy economy represents an enormous challenge for humanity, but we are equipped now to tackle this challenge with a great deal more focus and determination than we have over the past quarter century.
While our political system continues to offer alarmingly weak and tentative responses to these questions, the spectacularly hopeful news is this: people, communities, businesses, and energy markets are beginning to offer much more satisfying answers. The transition is–to a widely underappreciated degree–already on.
We know we must. The science is clear and, to be frank, dire. The moral imperative is undeniable. To defer action–or to settle for modest, incremental action–is to forsake our kids and their kids. Broken politics is no excuse for moral numbness or evasion. This is a crisis that calls on us to act collectively, with all the resolve and determination that the objective physical reality of our circumstances demands. As Pope Francis says in his climate encyclical Laudato Si', “There is a clear, definite, and urgent ethical imperative to act.”
We have fresh and exciting new reasons to believe we can. The sense of futility and paralysis around climate is receding as solutions advance, citizens and communities mobilize, and governments respond. The limits to the pace and scale of the transition are beginning to look like remnants of obsolete assumptions about the necessity of fossil fuels and the viability of clean energy.
With both the imperative and the tools to respond at hand, the pressing question becomes whether and how we will win this transition.
The evidence for the clean energy proposition is proliferating. And yet the proposition itself – the decision to undertake a clean energy transition at scale – is still indistinct. This is why we are launching Bright Future:
- To document and illuminate the clean energy transition that’s emerging, with facts, stories, and solution strategies that demonstrate its power and help it scale more rapidly.
- To ratify the emerging social consensus for the transition–to show how even as our political system falters and defers, we are collectively demonstrating the capacity to rise to the challenge, as we must.
- To connect the proliferation of solution work into a more coherent whole, showing how it can scale to the climate challenge, and illuminate the big transition context for the multitude of small solutions.
- To highlight and accelerate the leadership of the Pacific Northwest–not as a green island, but as a catalyst and partner in the broader transition on the West Coast, nationally, and globally.
The Only Way to Find Out
No one can say for sure how the clean energy transition will unfold, and whether it will be fast and bold enough to stave off catastrophic climate disruption. But we do know that our current energy policies and political will are constrained by an increasingly outdated set of perceptions about what is already happening and assumptions about what is possible. We know with a high degree of certainty that a much bolder, faster, more determined transition to clean energy is both necessary and plausible.
We know we can and we must. It’s our hope that by setting our sights on what is right and necessary, and by shining more light on the emerging pathways and transition strategies, we’ll help get the Northwest a little closer to we will and we are.
Sign up for Climate Solutions updates!