To borrow from the iconic film The Usual Suspects, the greatest trick the fossil fuel industry ever pulled was convincing the world that climate action would require sacrifice, for just the opposite is true.
It is climate inaction that will lead to people living more difficult, less prosperous lives. Action on climate means more jobs, quieter transport, cleaner air, better access to affordable energy and a more equitable society.
World leaders, particularly those from high carbon-emitting countries like the US, UK and China, know this. When these countries gather in Glasgow for climate negotiations next month they have a choice: end investment in fossil fuels or stay on the current course to disaster.
There are reasons to be concerned. In the past year we’ve seen climate change-fuelled extreme weather to rival Revelations. Heat domes and drought in the western US, catastrophic flooding and wildfires in Europe, and dangerous hurricanes have hurt millions of people and cost billions of dollars. The latest United Nations report detailing countries’ climate plans and progress makes for grim reading, suggesting greenhouse gas emissions will rise by 16 per cent by 2030 under current policies. To have a chance of avoiding the harsher impacts of a 1.5ºC warmer world, carbon emissions must fall by roughly 50 per cent by the end of the decade. While we’re making some progress, we’re still a long way off track.
Climate change negotiations can seem arcane but, at their heart, they’re very simple: they’re about how quickly we move away from fossil fuels towards a clean energy economy.
Fossil fuel energy is dirty energy. Fossil fuels are dangerous to dig up. They’re unhealthy to burn. But most of all, they’re terrible for the planet: burning coal, oil and fossil gas releases planet-warming, climate-changing carbon pollution. Climate-friendly alternatives like wind and solar energy aren’t just better for the planet – they’re cheaper and better for people’s health.
The status quo – which props up fossil fuels with subsidies in the trillions of dollars per year – is simply indefensible. And yet it has plenty of defenders. Dirty energy has made plenty of people filthy rich, and they’re not going to give up their grip on the power structure easily – particularly not in the US, where the industry’s generous campaign donations have not only bought the loyalty of the Republican Party, but also of key Democrats. Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, makes a half-million dollars a year from a coal services company, and unfortunately his vote is also absolutely essential to enacting President Joe Biden’s climate agenda and allowing Biden to meet his pledge to cut carbon emissions in half over the next ten years.
Elsewhere the story is similar. China has seen surging greenhouse gas emissions in recent years. Factions within the ruling party have pushed and benefitted from growth at all costs. While this has birthed a gigantic renewable energy industry, it has also meant more investment in fossil fuels, leading to smog-filled cities and mass protests. One might argue that four years of Trump and his obstructionist stance on climate took the pressure off China – which had actually been decommissioning coal-fired power plants during the Obama years – to decarbonise its economy. Re-engagement and diplomatic outreach, under Biden, appears to be starting to pay some dividends.
In the UK – where old-fashioned internal combustion engine cars crowd petrol station forecourts and people suffer sky-high prices and fuel shortages – the downsides of relying on volatile fossil fuels are clear. So while Prime Minister Boris Johnson has made a bold pledge to reduce carbon emissions by 70 per cent (relative to 1990s levels) by 2030, he can’t credibly claim to be a climate leader if the UK caves in to industry demands to build a new coal mine in Cumbria. And Nicola Sturgeon can’t be green and plan for a future in which Scotland depends on North Sea oil. No less conservative an institution than the International Energy Agency, after all, has said there can be no new fossil fuel infrastructure if the world is to keep warming below the 1.5ºC danger limit.
But there are signs that barriers to change erected by fossil-friendly politicians are beginning to break. In the US, Biden continues to push for a historic investment in climate-friendly infrastructure and clean energy in Congress, and he’s likely to release new climate plans in Glasgow. But, in the meantime, perhaps the most notable move he’s made has garnered less attention than the machinations of Joe Manchin. Biden has directed Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and other federal regulators to make investors and companies account for climate risks. In the European Union, where a similar process has begun, banks are now backing away from the financing of fossil fuel projects. Turning off the flow of funds to dirty fuels would seriously speed the transition to clean energy.
Just over a year ago, China announced that it will be carbon-neutral by 2060. Given the size of the Chinese economy, this is the clearest signal yet that the fossil age is coming to an end. Last month President Xi Jinping also said that the Belt and Road Initiative – China’s vehicle for investment in infrastructure around the world – will no longer finance new coal plant construction. This will shift hundreds of billions of dollars out of coal and into clean energy. The UK is arguably going further, saying no not just to coal but to funding oil and fossil gas overseas too.
Prime ministers, presidents and premiers are waking up to the urgency of the clean energy transition. But they can and must go further. President Biden needs to use the full weight of his office to push the Build Back Better bill through Congress with key climate provisions intact. President Xi should end new coal construction in China as well as abroad. And Prime Minister Johnson should back off on Cumbrian coal at home and invest more in clean energy abroad because you can’t credibly transition off fossil fuels without having something to transition to.
At their worst, climate change negotiations are about apportioning suffering; at their best they’re about creating a better world for us all. In Glasgow we have a chance to codify climate commitments and create a world where energy is cheaper, the air is cleaner, and our planetary environment remains hospitable. Let’s hold our policymakers accountable and demand they take full advantage of this critical opportunity.
Michael Mann is distinguished professor of atmospheric science and director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University. He is the author of the recently released book The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back our Planet.