Delaying emissions cuts makes climate change worse, even if countries reach net-zero in 2050.
It is important to note that making solar, wind and batteries requires enormous amounts of energy which is currently mostly provided by burning fossil fuels. As a result rapid expansion of these technologies is actually accelerated greenhouse gas emissions. This explains why burning of fossil fuels is now at record levels ever despite record expansion of solar, wind and batteries.
Expanding nuclear might be slower because of the time taken to build these plants, but it is not energy intensive and so will not cause a big spike in fossil fuel use. It will should result in much faster declines in greenhouse gas emissions. Historically, expansion of nuclear power has been by far the fastest way to reduce emissions associated with electricity production.
The article raises a key aspect of net zero, so thanks for that. Slight reservation though regarding one of your last sentences saying that "economic growth and emissions reductions are not incompatible". To be accurate, it should read "economic growth and emissions reductions are not incompatible although insufficient to reach a goal that is good enough to meet the Paris Agreements". There is a relatively long economic literature showing the limits of decoupling, which is often temporary, not caused by systemic changes but rather by external causes (hence its temporary aspect), or no where near fast/drastic enough in order to respect goals sufficient to maintain a liveable planet.
For example Hubacek et al (2021) conclude that these countries (the countries of the economic North you talk about in your OWID article) “cannot serve as role models for the rest of the world” given that their decoupling “was only achieved at very high levels of per capita emissions”.
All in all, the following article better presents why and how the examples we have of decoupling are not enough (or not related to genuine Green Growth) than I will ever do, and is extremely thorough and methodical, so I encourage you to read it:
Hannah: As always, I appreciate your clear explanations of many of the issues and trends with climate change. Your explanation clearly illustrates why end goals are not the only issue with CO2 emissions. However, in making your case, you've glossed over some important nuance.
As I suspect you know, the success or failure of any policy decision cannot be measured by a simple before/after split. (ie: we had X CO2 emissions/year before the policy went in, which got lowered to Y CO2 emissions/year after the policy). What actually matters is the change in the trend slope (Ie: emissions were going down X% a year before policy, and now are going down Y% a year after policy). Supporters of goverment intervention are very fond of citing before/after splits as evidence of their success, whilst the evidence is often dubious when the change in the trend line is considered.
In the specific example we're talking about here, your "reduce early/delay action" graph clearly makes the point that CO2 emission reductions sooner is better than later. However, the graphs in no way represent what is likely to happen.
As you yourself have pointed out in previous posts, electric car adoption seems to be growing much faster than previously projected. Solar panel costs have dropped 99.5% in the last 50 years (due of course to the "learning curve" effects you refer to in your articel). In short, whilst I can't prove (because none of us can fully predict the future), I suspect that your "reduce early" curve is in fact much closer to what's likely to happen, regardless of goverment policy.
Which then leads me to ask: what exactly are you advocating for with respect to goverment policy?
Personally I am deeply cynical about any goverment policy. Indeed, your observsation that long term goals are incompatible with 4 (ish) year election cycles is simply evidence about why government policy is rarely a good solution to long term problems (or often, any problems). I suspect that technology will beat policy almost always. Solar will keep gettting cheaper & better, it will become more and more attractive to individuals who will buy because it saves them money, not because of any stated goverment policy. More solar will in turn make electric cars more attractive. And so on in a technology/economic driven virtuous cycle to better and better tech, and less and less CO2.
As in so many government policies (no matter what the country), I'd personally advocate for "go away and leave me alone" as the best goverment policy. About the only place I can see goverment having a positive role is funding basic reasearch (with the proviso that research results then become public as well since the public are paying for them).
Great piece however I feel we can place no comfort in decoupling of GDP from environmental damage, not only because the scale of decoupling in the countries you quote is slow but that the majority of countries are nowhere near this, nor can they be whilst we in rich countries fail to support them in the transition to clean energy.
At current emissions the world has ~10 years of carbon budget left for even a 50:50 chance of +1.5C and when you build in equity provisions many rich nations have 3-5 years left.
Just as, if not more, important though is the failure to decouple resource & material use from economic growth. Climate change is just one of the planetary boundaries we are overshooting, the other 5 in overshoot are impacted by our overuse of, and pollution from, material & resource use.
The obvious solution therefore is to curtail or drastically reduce unnecessary and polluting industries and activities. For example, is it really our goal to continue to build & fly private jets with green energy and fuel, or would the energy/fuel not be better used to build and fuel activities that benefit human and environmental wellbeing, or not actually be used at all?
Non-essential products & services rule the lives of most people in the Global North and are negatively impacting, if not killing, those in the Global South. Our priorities should revolve around doing what's necessary for the health and wellbeing of humans and nature regardless of how that impacts on a number in a government spreadsheet. In the words of Kate Raworth, "We have economies that need to grow, whether or not they make us thrive, whereas what we need, certainly in the rich countries, are economies that make us thrive, whether or not they grow"
Your episode of More or Less was excellent!
Hello. First of all thanks as always for this interesting post.
But I'm sorry to disagree on this phrase: "The role of rich countries is to invest in these technologies early when they’re more expensive, to drive down costs for the rest of the world."
If you sell it like that, no country is going to take the first step. We already have the example of solar, where Germany gave the first step and now China is the one making big money, because the move was done more as what you said (someone has to take the first step for the bigger cause) and less as an investment to position your country as a leader of a new tech.
A big chunk of money will be needed to develop the tech we need to deal with climate change, and we should treat it as the needed investment that it is. Not as a charitable project, which is how it sounds when you explain it like that :)
Great article as always! Quick note, the first footnote has a typo at states "Liz Truss lasted less than 2 months from early September to the end of October 2023." 2023 should be 2022 :)
It seems that our "countries" don't know by themselves where to go, only energy providers compagnie are giving their will and wishes when the various government simply seems to really follow these companies will/wishes. For sure the weather situations since several years is different, the CO2 seems to have some different values, even if I think we must have or create an "index" or similar item to include the various gazes having environmental negative effects, like CH4, SF6 and others...
But. This is not all, the crisis we are having since several years and the various power politics are making very big changes, look at the kind of technologies wd are using, not the most commercially available, lot of the wind turbines manufacturers are in the red. The interesting Thing is that there is not lot of areas where we can add new wind fields. Replaced by far more footprint hungry solutions, less efficient solar fields, don t talk about hydrogen, nice ideas but slowly only added for large conservative companies, usually based on petroleum technologies when far more efficient solutions like NemoRenSys exist, modular underwater gravity based, far better capex, open but no one seems willing to...too different? For sure away of classical ways, it is not efficient to put everything on CO2 linked. But so easygoing... we are far too conservative mainly because investors are dinosaurs and ultraconservative but. Look what happened to Dino's.... they will realize when it will be too late. And probably with the wrong tools...