We need to activate a rapid spread of new technologies, behaviors, social norms, and structural reorganization across our society to radically transform the global energy system.
First published in July 2020.
There couldn’t be a higher time for Climate Action than the year 2020. The last decade was a roller coaster of invoices from the planet Earth showing us clearly that there is something terribly wrong with our climate. The recent unprecedented blaze of Australian bushfire took its toll on more than 1,000 homes and nearly half a billion animals, burning out 9 million acres of land killing at least 18 people.
2016 and 2019 were the hottest years on record! Europe suffered from a record-breaking heatwave in the summer of 2019. The year before, the heatwave in Pakistan killed at least 65. Our oceans are warming up at an unprecedented rate putting our life-supporting global circulations at stake. Ironically, global warming is now a threat to the security of many nations and may even trigger a nuclear war.
Climate change is an existential threat! Putting an end to burning fossil fuel is not optional anymore; it never was. Scientists knew it for long but brought it first to the policy by addressing this at the council of US President Lyndon B Johnson in 1965. However, our reductionist society managed to ignore it, almost until now, claiming climate change as a distant and far away in the future phenomenon that is not going to affect us anyway.
Our Borlaugian optimists always assured us the advent of technology is going to solve the problem. Many still believe, the emerging technologies will transform our energy system, even will draw back the huge amount of greenhouse gases we emitted and will emit. Automated electric cars and the unprecedented spread of renewable energy, particularly solar, are proving their points to some extent. Our politicians are seriously thrilled by the carbon capture technologies, which are far away from being scaled and getting acceptance from the larger society.
The problem is not our energy system; it’s Us! Since we learned to transform one form of energy into another in the 1770s by James Watt inventing the steam engine, we developed this weird dependency on fossil fuel. We have been so obsessed with growth and GDP that we couldn’t care less about the cost they incurred to our environment and climate. We live in a material and energy-intensive consumerist society, and we educate future generation to lead an even more material and energy-intensive consumerist life.
Since 1950, we entered into a great acceleration phase, subsidizing per ton of emitted CO2 with 150 USD and compromising a 60% decline in the global vertebrate wildlife. So, before we do anything about our energy system, we have to fix Us, and that has to happen radically.
The window of Climate Action is closing rapidly. We have to bend the emission curve immediately and halve global emissions no later than 2030. Each year we wait, the more challenging it gets to avoid a catastrophic world with frequent hurricanes, floods and droughts, and dangerous climate tipping points. But is it realistic to expect that our society will transform so quickly when during the last 50 years literally nothing happened, although the problem was so evident? The good news is, yes, rapid transformation or tipping happened in societies before.
Take, for example, the movement to abolish slavery, which began in England in 1772 and led to complete abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1833. Just 50 years to transform a system that prevailed over centuries. A more recent example, a needle in the hay that gives hope for Climate Action is the ripple effect of Fridays for Future, which became a catalyst to spark a global movement. In less than 18 months, the number of climate strikers raised from none to 14 million.
Both needed small nudges! Abolition of slavery required people internalizing a simple message “slavery is immoral”. And Fridays for Future needed the climate educated primary school activist Greta Thunberg.
This is it! We need some nudges, some interventions to trigger a global radical transformation to carbon-neutral societies within the next 30 years.
In an article published recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), we, a group of international sustainability scientists identified six key interventions that can rapidly and radically put a stop to burning fossil fuel.
Intervention 1. Remove fossil fuel subsidies and incentivize decentralized energy generation.
Fossil fuel is still the cheapest source of energy and only because it’s heavily subsidized. The recent International Monetary Fund (IMF) report shows that these pre-tax subsidies increase by a factor of 4 in the post-tax subsidies if we include the cost of health externalities of burning fossil fuel. These subsidies have to be removed and mobilized to decentralized production of renewable energy. 1.1 billion people still don’t have access to electricity, and we are still promoting grid dependency with Kilowatt-hour pricing. A rice mill located in a remote village of Bangladesh doesn’t need the main grid connection with Kilowatt-hour pricing. All it needs is the subsidy to set up its own solar panel or connection to a distributed solar grid, for which a total-energy price will do.
Intervention 2. Build carbon-neutral cities and settlements.
By 2050, two-third of the global population will live in cities, which are currently the largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Project drawdown outlines 15 solutions that can rapidly draw down emissions from cities and settlements. All these are well known and already being implemented, like walking and cycling in cities and retrofitting buildings.
Intervention 3. Divest from assets linked to fossil fuel.
“If it is wrong to wreck the climate, then it is wrong to profit from that wreckage” – Fossil Free Divestment. Inform yourself, where is the money you put in your bank account is invested in? How is your pension fund getting mature? If any of these is linked to stock, bonds or sponsorship of any of the fossil fuel companies, divest from it. Here is a list of the top 200 fossil fuel companies. Invest your resources for clean energy production and climate mitigation projects.
Intervention 4. Reveal the moral implications of fossil fuel.
Seven million people die every year because of air pollution, which is mostly originated from burning fossil fuel. Climate change will put 400 million people in the poorest countries of the world at risk of severe floods and water shortages. These are only two of many immoral consequences of burning fossil fuel that touch upon equity, justice and fairness issues. We first have to realize them ourselves, and then need to talk about them with our families, friends and peers.
Intervention 5. Strengthen climate education and engagement.
The success of Fridays for Future shows that education is powerful! But, arguably, our schools continue to educate for fossil fuel-dependent energy-intensive lifestyles and careers. Sadly, higher levels of education became part of the problem rather than part of the solution. What is really frustrating is that most of our educators are still in the dark about climate change. We have to educate our educators and follow Italy to make learning climate change compulsory in the school curriculum.
Last but not least, intervention 6. Disclose information on greenhouse gas emissions.
Labelling organic food and thus by distinguishing them from the non-organic food led to a 16% compound annual growth in the food market and is expected to reach a revenue of USD 323.56 billion by 2024. We have to label the carbon footprint of the consumer products in exactly the same way and advertise climate-neutral products. The carbon footprint of a cup of coffee is ten times the carbon footprint of a cup of tea. What difference do you think disclosing this information will make in your choices of hot beverages?
Selecting or prioritizing some of the interventions will be a bad move. We will need all of them! They are scientifically evident and effective, and they can overlap and amplify each other to activate a contagious process of rapidly spreading technologies, behaviors, social norms, and structural reorganization across societies. Everyone, including financial investors, business managers, homeowners, teachers, and youth, have a vital role to play in this.
Climate strikers and activists still seem to belong to a minority. But, once these six interventions are enacted, this minority can turn into the critical minority to tip the global society toward long-term resilience. There is still light at the end of the tunnel.
The important thing is to Act, Act Now!🔷
Dr Avit K. Bhowmik, Environmental scientist & Assistant Professor, Karlstad University, and Research fellow in Planetary Boundaries Research Network, Stockholm University.