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How greed and politics are slowing the switch to renewable energy

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Wind and solar are now as cheap as the cheapest fossil fuel power, if not cheaper. And these price comparisons typically do not include the costs of climate change, air pollution, and price variability from fossil fuels. Those costs represent an enormous subsidy for fossil fuels and, if you include them, fossil fuels become far more expensive than renewable energy. Andrew Dessler, a climate scientist who studies both the science and politics of climate change, explains how greed and politics are slowing the switch to renewable energy.

 The image above is a Photo by Dan Meyers/Unsplash

January 17, 2022

It is (with apologies to Charles Dickens) the best of times; it is the worst of times.

Thanks to fossil fuels, billions of people in 2022 enjoy lives of wealth, comfort, and material possessions unimaginable before the industrial revolution.

But fossil fuels have their dark side. You might think you understand that, but it’s likely fossil fuels are even worse for the world than you think. Let’s start with climate change. Contrary to what you might hear listening to Fox News, the scientific understanding of climate change is good and it is progressing at exactly the rate predicted decades ago by Exxon.

What you probably don’t realize is how massive these changes may be. In the depths of the last ice age 20,000 years ago, the Earth was only 6 degrees Celsius colder than it is today. That world—with thousands of feet of ice sitting over much of North America, sea level 300 feet lower, and completely different ecosystems—would be unrecognizable to those living on today’s Earth.

This helps us put predictions of future warming into context. The chart below shows predictions for the twenty-first century, but instead of units of temperature, I have plotted units of ice ages, where one ice age unit equals 6 degrees Celsius. Business-as-usual emissions gives us about 3 degrees Celsius of warming in 2100—about half of one ice-age unit. Given how much the Earth has changed since the last ice age, 3 degrees Celsius of warming may well remake the planet, leading to an Earth in 2100 as unrecognizable to us today as the world of the last ice age.

Warming over the historical period (blue line) and future projections under four scenarios. Warming is expressed in ice age units, equal to the amount of warming since the last ice age (one ice age unit equals 6 degrees Celsius). These model simulations are from CMIP6 models and downloaded from https://github.com/swartn/cmip6-gmst-anoms.

The earth is presently about 1.1 degrees Celsius above preindustrial temperatures, so we have already warmed about 17 percent of an ice age, and the impacts are clear. For example, there is widespread agreement in the scientific community that climate change contributed to the unprecedented rainfall during Hurricane Harvey in 2017, and that the massive heatwave in the Pacific Northwest last year could not have occurred without global warming.

But fossil fuels cause even more insidious damage. Billions of people today live in air polluted by fossil fuel combustion. This harms people in surprisingly numerous ways. One fact that stands out: One in five deaths worldwide is due to air pollution, amounting to more than 8 million deaths every year.

But fossil fuels are even worse than that. As commodities whose price is set on the world market, international politics can cause the price to whipsaw. Oil price spikes associated with Middle East conflicts, oil embargoes, and other political events have often been followed by painful economic recessions. In 2020, the price of oil dropped significantly because of the coronavirus pandemic combined with a price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia. This laid waste to the US oil industry, bankrupted oil producers, and increased unemployment.

As a consequence, US foreign policy over the last 70 years has been hyper focused on maintaining stability in the world energy market. This has led the United States, for example, to invade Iraq twice, first in 1990 and then again in 2003, starting wars that cost the United States trillions of dollars; hundreds of thousands of lives of people of many nationalities were lost.

Putting everything together, one conclusion is clear: Fossil fuels are terrible. While many people in 2022 are living much better lives because of fossil fuels, people in 2100 will be much worse off because of them.

The story doesn’t end there. The world needs power. People need it so much, in fact, that as bad as fossil fuels are, people would continue to use them if there were no alternatives. But we do have an alternative: renewable energy. This means primarily wind and solar energy, although other energy sources (e.g., geothermal) will also play a role. Non-renewable energy sources such as nuclear could provide another source of climate-safe energy.

The amount of renewable energy available is almost unfathomable. Human society consumes about 15 terawatts of power. Sunlight falling on the earth provides more than 100,000 terawatts, enough to power 7,000 human civilizations. There are obviously issues with the intermittency of solar and wind. The sun is not always shining everywhere, not at night nor when it is cloudy. Similarly, the wind does not always blow.RELATED:Climate scientist: “It’s already worse than what I imagined”

However, a huge amount of research has gone into how to build a reliable energy system that relies predominantly on intermittent renewable energy. First, wind and solar power tend to be uncorrelated, so a system combining these energy sources will have more consistent power than a system that is solar- or wind-only. Thus, diversifying your energy portfolio solves a lot of the intermittency problems.

Second, we need to be able to transport power. While the sun may not be shining or the wind blowing where you are, the sun is always shining and the wind is always blowing somewhere. By enhancing our electrical grids, power can be shifted regionally from where it’s generated to where it’s needed, further reducing the impact of intermittency of solar and wind power.

Third, intermittency becomes an even smaller problem if part of the energy mix is dispatchable climate-safe energy. This means power sources that are available at any time and can be dispatched at the request of electric grid operators, including always-on energy sources such as hydroelectric, geothermal, nuclear, or natural gas with carbon capture.

Fourth, we need demand response. At times when supply simply cannot keep up with demand, we need to be able to reduce demand. This can be as simple as asking large industrial consumers to reduce their consumption. Or utilities can change consumption patterns by making power cheaper when it’s abundant and more expensive at times when it’s not. Smart appliances in homes can automatically delay running the dishwasher or drying clothes for a few hours until the utility signals that the supply of power is tight; in return for this, consumers get a break on their electricity bill.

Finally, we need energy storage. This could help the grid equalize supply and demand by storing power from wind and solar energy when there is excess supply and releasing it when there is excess demand. The price of batteries has been dropping rapidly and, as discussed below, we already see plans for more storage on the grid. Much research today is focusing on other technologies to store energy, including compressed airhydrogenpumped hydroelectric, and gravity energy.

The upshot of this is that we can largely run our economy on renewable energy. There are some edge cases where decarbonization might be hard (e.g., international airline flights), but this should not stop us from gathering the low-hanging fruit.

This leads me to the other piece of misinformation you’ll often hear: A renewable energy grid will be expensive.

There was a time when that was the case, but today the picture is quite different. Wind and solar are now as cheap as the cheapest fossil fuel power, if not cheaper. And these price comparisons typically do not include the costs of climate change, air pollution, and price variability from fossil fuels. Those costs represent an enormous subsidy for fossil fuels and, if you include them, fossil fuels become far more expensive than renewable energy.

In response to this, the market is decisively moving away from fossil fuels. In Texas, for example, 95 percent of the energy connections to the electrical grid planned for the next four years are for renewable energy (60 percent solar, 16 percent wind, 18 percent battery).

It’s great news that our electricity system is already switching over to renewable energy. But it’s not happening fast enough. On our present trajectory, we will continue to use fossil fuels well into this century, leading to warming of 3 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures by 2100, well above the target that the world has agreed upon, 1.5-2 degrees Celsius. Given that our present warming of 1.1 degrees Celsius is already causing severe and expensive impacts, 3 degrees Celsius would be a planetary disaster.

The transition has been sluggish because the price of fossil fuels is kept artificially low. Consumers and businesses do not pay the full cost of the climate, health, and other related costs of fossil fuel use. This could be largely solved by making consumers pay the full cost of their energy through a carbon tax or cap and trade system. If society had to pay the full costs of energy, fossil fuels would quickly disappear from the energy market.

The climate problem is therefore quite simple: Fossil fuels are terrible for humanity, and we can switch at relatively low cost to an economy largely powered by renewable energy. So why aren’t we doing that?

The blame, in my view, lies with economists. Not all economists, mind you, but a group of influential thinkers in the mid-20th century who pushed governments towards implementing an extreme view of free markets. They also said that the social responsibility of corporations was to make as much money as possible. One of the most influential of these thinkers, Milton Friedman, called this the Friedman Doctrine. It was immortalized by Oliver Stone in the movie Wall Street, when one of the main characters proudly declares, “Greed is good!”

via GIPHY

Beginning in the 1970s and 1980s, the United States saw government oversight shrink while corporations became laser-focused on profits. This deregulation effort delivered benefits like cheaper airline tickets for consumers. But the lack of government oversight combined with the imperative to make profits as large as possible also resulted in some terrible outcomes. These include climate change and the skyrocketing price of lifesaving drugs like insulin.

The fundamental problem is that free markets can’t solve environmental problems. Most environmental problems are externalities, or costs imposed on people who are not part of the transaction. Climate change is a classic externality—if you consume a gallon of gas or a kilowatt of electricity, the resulting carbon dioxide causes climate change everywhere, thereby imposing costs on everyone in the world. The costs of this climate change are not paid by the consumer, so this is a hidden subsidy of fossil fuels.

To corporations, externalities are terrific! If the goal of a corporation is to make as much money as possible, then it wants to push as many of the costs onto society as possible, which increases corporate profit. Because externalities benefit corporations, solving problems that arise from them, like climate change, requires government regulation. If the government is unwilling to regulate in some fashion, then climate change will never be fixed.

Following the Friedman Doctrine, corporations work hard to ensure that our government is not able to regulate. They funnel enormous quantities of money into the political process. This includes lobbying for preferred legislation and working to elect candidates who, once in office, return the favor by passing laws that support continued use of fossil fuels. For example, dozens of state legislatures have passed laws that criminalize protest around oil and gas infrastructure. In Texas, recent laws have forced the state’s investment funds to divest from institutions that boycott fossil fuels and prohibited Texas cities from exercising local control over drilling regulations, after the city of Denton banned fracking.

Fossil fuel corporations have also tried to stifle regulation by spending millions of dollars over the last few decades casting doubt on the science of climate change, despite their own researchers accurately assessing the risk. This closely paralleled what tobacco corporations did decades earlier. This shows the true problem with our version of free-market, profit-maximizing economics: Today’s economy does not create wealth that makes everyone better off, but rather generates enormous benefits for corporations while generating few benefits or even net harms for everyone else.

In the end, climate change is not a scientific or technical problem. The scientific community understands how fossil fuels cause climate change, and technology to solve the problem exists. Rather, climate change is a political problem. We need to return to the 1970s, a time when Republicans and Democrats overwhelmingly passed legislation forming the EPA. We need to understand that a world in which corporations care only about maximizing profits demands that the government protect the interest of the people.

Andrew Dessler

Andrew Dessler is a climate scientist who studies both the science and politics of climate change. He is a Professor of Atmospheric Sciences and… Read More

One Of The World’s Wealthiest Oil Exporters Is Becoming Unlivable

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Trying to catch a bus at the Maliya station in Kuwait City can be unbearable in the summer.
About two-thirds of the city’s buses pass through the hub, and schedules are unreliable. Fumes from bumper-to-bumper traffic fill the air. Small shelters offer refuge to a handful of people, if they squeeze. Dozens end up standing in the sun, sometimes using umbrellas to shield themselves.

Here is the story as told by Fiona MacDonald (Bloomberg) as published by gCaptain on 16 January 2022.

The image above is for illustration and is of State Magazine.

Kuwait, One Of The World’s Wealthiest Oil Exporters Is Becoming Unlivable

“The Al Burqan Oil Field can be seen in this north-looking view. The country of Kuwait possesses about one-fifth of the world’s oil reserves. To the north of the Al Burqan Oil Field, Kuwait City is discernible. New pivot-irrigation fields (dark circular features) developed since the end of the Gulf War are visible to the west (left) of the city. Oil refineries and large tanker facilities are discernible along the Persian Gulf coast.” NASA Photo ID STS080-733-21

Global warming is smashing temperature records all over the world, but Kuwait — one of the hottest countries on the planet — is fast becoming unlivable. In 2016, thermometers hit 54C, the highest reading on Earth in the last 76 years. Last year, for the first time, they breached 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit) in June, weeks ahead of usual peak weather. Parts of Kuwait could get as much as 4.5C hotter from 2071 to 2100 compared with the historical average, according to the Environment Public Authority, making large areas of the country uninhabitable.

For wildlife, it almost is. Dead birds appear on rooftops in the brutal summer months, unable to find shade or water. Vets are inundated with stray cats, brought in by people who’ve found them near death from heat exhaustion and dehydration. Even wild foxes are abandoning a desert that no longer blooms after the rains for what small patches of green remain in the city, where they’re treated as pests.

“This is why we are seeing less and less wildlife in Kuwait, it’s because most of them aren’t making it through the seasons,” said Tamara Qabazard, a Kuwaiti zoo and wildlife veterinarian. “Last year, we had three to four days at the end of July that were incredibly humid and very hot, and it was hard to even walk outside your house, and there was no wind. A lot of the animals started having respiratory problems.”

Unlike countries from Bangladesh to Brazil  that are struggling to balance environmental challenges with teeming populations and widespread poverty, Kuwait is OPEC’s number 4 oil-exporter. Home to the world’s third-largest sovereign wealth fund and just over 4.5 million people, it’s not a lack of resources that stands in the way of cutting greenhouse gases and adapting to a warmer planet, but rather political inaction.

Even Kuwait’s neighbors, also dependent on crude exports, have pledged to take stronger climate action. Saudi Arabia last year said it would target net-zero emissions by 2060. The United Arab Emirates has set a goal of 2050. Though they remain among the biggest producers of fossil fuels, both say they are working to diversify their economies and investing in renewables and cleaner energy. The next two United Nations climate conferences will take place in Egypt and the UAE, as Middle East governments acknowledge they also stand to lose from rising temperatures and sea levels.

Kuwait, by contrast, pledged at the COP26 summit in November to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 7.4% by 2035, a target that falls far short of the 45% reduction needed to meet the Paris Agreement’s stretch goal of limiting global warming to 1.5C by 2030. The nation’s $700 billion sovereign wealth fund invests with the specific aim of hedging against oil, but has said that returns remain a priority as it shifts to more sustainable investing.

“Compared with the rest of the Middle East, Kuwait lags in its climate action,” said Manal Shehabi, an academic visitor at Oxford University who studies the Gulf nations. In a region that’s far from doing enough to avoid catastrophic global warming, “climate pledges in Kuwait are [still] significantly lower.”

Sheikh Abdullah Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah, head of the EPA, told COP26 that his country was keen to support international initiatives to stabilize the climate. Kuwait also pledged to adopt a “national low carbon strategy” by mid-century, but it hasn’t said what this will involve and there is little evidence of action on the ground.

That prompted one Twitter user to post pictures of wilted palm trees, asking how his government had the nerve to show up.

Jassim Al-Awadhi is part of a younger generation of Kuwaitis increasingly worried about their country’s future. The 32-year-old former banker quit his job to push for a change that experts argue could be Kuwait’s key to addressing global warming: revamping attitudes toward transportation. His goal is to get Kuwaitis to embrace public transport, which today consists only of the buses that are mostly used by migrant workers with low-paying jobs who have no choice but to put up with the heat.

It’s an uphill struggle. Though Kuwait has among the world’s highest carbon-dioxide emissions per capita, the idea of ditching their cars is completely foreign to most residents in a country where petrol is cheaper than Coca Cola and cities are designed for automobiles.

The London School of Economics, which conducted the only comprehensive survey of climate opinions in Kuwait, found older residents remain skeptical of the urgency, with some speaking of a conspiracy to hobble Gulf economies. In a public consultation, everyone over 50-years-old opposed plans to build a metro network like those already operating in Riyadh and Dubai. And the private sector sees climate change as a problem that requires government leadership to solve.

“When I tell companies let’s do something, they say it’s not their business,’’ Al-Awadhi said. “They make me feel I’m the only one who has problems with transport.”

That’s partly because most Kuwaitis and wealthy residents are shielded from the effects of rising temperatures. Homes, shopping malls and cars are air-conditioned, and those who can afford it often spend summers in Europe. Yet, the heavy reliance on cooling systems also increases the use of fossil fuels, leading to ever hotter temperatures.

The situation is much worse for those who can’t escape the heat, mainly laborers from developing countries. Though the government prohibits peak afternoon outdoor work during the hottest summer months, migrant workers are often seen toiling in the sun. A study published in Science Direct last year found that on extremely hot days, the overall number of deaths doubles, but it triples for non-Kuwaiti men, more likely to take on low-paid work.

It’s a cycle that’s all too clear to Saleh Khaled Al-Misbah. Born in 1959, he remembers growing up when homes rarely had air conditioners, yet felt cool and shaded, even in the hottest months. As a child, he played outside through months of cooler weather and slept on the roof in the summers; it’s too hot for that now. Children spend most of the year indoors to protect them from either burning sun or hazardous pollution, something that’s contributed to deficiencies in vitamin D — which humans generate when exposed to the sun — and respiratory ailments.

Temperature changes in the 2040s and 2050s will have an increasingly negative impact on Kuwait’s creditworthiness, according to Fitch Ratings. Yet despite the growing risks, squabbling between the Gulf’s only elected parliament and a government appointed by the ruling family has made it difficult to push through reforms, on climate or anything else.

“The political deadlock in Kuwait just sucks the oxygen out of the air,” said Samia Alduaij, a Kuwaiti environmental consultant who works with the U.K.’s Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science and UNDP. “This is a very rich country, with a very small population, so it could be so much better.”

So far, there’s been little progress on plans to produce 15% of Kuwait’s power from renewable sources by 2030, from a maximum of 1% now. Oil is so abundant that it’s burned to generate electricity, as well as fuel the 2 million cars on the road, contributing to air pollution. Some power plants have switched to gas, another fossil fuel that’s relatively cleaner but can leak methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Consumption of electricity and water, heavily subsidized by the government, is among the world’s highest per capita, and it’s proven politically toxic to even hint at cutting those benefits.

“That obviously leads to a lot of waste,” said Tarek Sultan, vice chairman of Agility Public Warehousing Co. When fossil-fuel powered electricity “is subsidized, solar technologies that can provide viable solutions get priced out of the competition,” he said. 

Even if the world manages to cut emissions quickly enough to stave off catastrophic global warming, countries will have to adapt to more extreme weather. As it stands, experts say Kuwait’s plan is nowhere near enough to keep the country livable.

If it starts now, said Nadim Farajalla, director of the climate change and environment program at University of Beirut, a lot can be done in the coming decades, but that would need to include protection against rising sea levels, making cities greener and buildings less energy intensive. It also needs to focus on transport, a leading cause of CO2 emissions.

Khaled Mahdi, secretary general of Kuwait’s Supreme Council for Planning and Development, said the government’s adaptation plan is aligned with international policies. “We clearly identify roles and responsibilities, and all the challenges in the country,” he said, though he admitted that “implementation is the usual challenging issue.”

If the government is dragging its feet, young Kuwaitis like Al-Awadhi aren’t.

His advocacy group Kuwait Commute is starting small by campaigning for bus stop shelters to protect passengers from the sun. National Bank of Kuwait, the country’s biggest lender, recently sponsored a bus stop designed by three female graduates. Still, like much of the private sector, they remain outside the decision-making process.

“I think I’m finally making progress,” said Al-Awadhi, who hopes that getting more Kuwaitis to ride buses will fuel enough demand to improve the service. But “it has to be driven by the government. It’s the chicken before the egg.”

–With assistance from Akshat Rathi and Hayley Warren.

© 2022 Bloomberg L.P.

Politicians Subsidise Fossil Fuel with Six Trillion Dollars in Just One Year

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Politicians Subsidise Fossil Fuel with Six Trillion Dollars in Just One Year By Baher Kamal is an eye-opener to the sad reality of the world prior to the COP26. Would this recent and very hyped up event have any bearing on this state of affairs?

The image above is of an offshore oil rig drilling platform. Globally, fossil fuel subsidies amounted to 5.9 trillion US dollars in 2020, according to an IMF report. Credit: Bigstock

MADRID, Nov 16 2021 (IPS) – It sounds incredible: while politicians have been cackling about the climate emergency and profiling in empty promises to halt it, they have spent six trillion US dollars from taxpayers’ money to subsidise fossil fuels in just one year: 2020. And they are set to increase the figure to nearly seven trillion by 2025.

Add to this that governments will double the production of energy from these very same, highly dangerous, global warming generators. IMF study reports that globally, fossil fuel subsidies were 5.9 trillion US dollars in 2020 or about 6.8 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). And that such subsidies are expected to rise to 7.4 percent of GDP in 2025

In a 2021 study: Still Not Getting Energy Prices Right: A Global and Country Update of Fossil Fuel Subsidies, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) reports that globally, fossil fuel subsidies were 5.9 trillion US dollars in 2020 or about 6.8 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). And that such subsidies are expected to rise to 7.4 percent of GDP in 2025.

According to the study, 8 percent of the 2020 subsidy reflects undercharging for supply costs (explicit subsidies) and 92 percent for undercharging for environmental costs and foregone consumption taxes (implicit subsidies).

Efficient fuel pricing in 2025 would reduce global carbon dioxide emissions 36 percent below baseline levels, which is in line with keeping global warming to 1.5 degrees, while raising revenues worth 3.8 percent of global GDP and preventing 0.9 million local air pollution deaths. Accompanying spreadsheets provide detailed results for 191 countries, IMF adds.

Commenting on this fact, António Guterres, the UN Secretary General, said that “… promises ring hollow when the fossil fuels industry still receives trillions in subsidies, as measured by the IMF. Or when countries are still building coal plants…”

Every country, city, company and financial institution must “radically, credibly and verifiably” reduce their emissions and decarbonise their portfolios, starting now, said Guterres.

Time running out for oil and gas?

Hard to believe when just 11 countries presented the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance at November’s UN Climate Conference in Glasgow.

Ireland, France, Denmark, and Costa Rica. among others, as well as some subnational governments, launched a first of its kind alliance to set an end date for national oil and gas exploration and extraction.

One of the Alliance members’ representative, Andrea Meza, Minister of Environment and Energy for Costa Rica commented: “Every dollar that we invest in fossil fuel projects is one less dollar for renewables and for the conservation of nature…” she added.

Energy Devourers

By 2050, 1.6 billion people living in cities will be regularly exposed to extremely high temperatures and over 800 million people living in cities across the world will be vulnerable to sea level rises and coastal flooding.

According to UN Habitat, which deals with human settlements and sustainable urban development, cities consume 78 percent of the world’s energy and produce over 60 percent of greenhouse gas emissions – while accounting for less than two per cent of the Earth’s surface.

Inger Andersen, the head of the UN Environment Programme (UNEPreported that “We build the equivalent of new buildings the size of Paris every week, and if that is the way we are expected to expand we need to think about how we do it because of climate, biodiversity, livability, quality of life. We need to build better.”,

According to Andersen, building and construction are responsible for 37 percent of CO2 emissions with construction materials like cement, accounting for 10 percent of global emissions.

She also pointed out that over half of the buildings that will be standing in 2060 haven’t been constructed yet.
According to UNEP, only 19 countries have added codes regarding energy efficiency for buildings, and put them in place, and most of future construction will occur in countries without these measures.

“For every dollar invested in energy efficient buildings, we see 37 going into conventional buildings that are energy inefficient. We need to move from these incremental changes because they are way too slow, we need a real sector transformation. We need to build better,” Andersen said, calling for more ambition for governments if they are to fill the promise of net-zero.

Cars, buses, trucks, ships…

The transport sector is responsible for approximately one quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Intergovernmental Panel of Experts on Climate Change (IPCC).

The sector’s emissions have more than doubled since 1970, with around 80 percent of the increase caused by road vehicles. The United Nations environment programme UNEP calculates that the world’s transport sector is almost entirely dependent on fossil fuels.

“A world where every car, bus and truck sold is electric and affordable, where shipping vessels use only sustainable fuels, and where planes can run on green hydrogen may sound like a sci-fi movie.”

This is how governments spend trillions of taxpayers’ pockets to subsidise fossil fuels that can only aggravate the ongoing climate emergency.

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Ditching fossil fuels will have immediate health benefits for millions

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Ditching fossil fuels will have immediate health benefits for millions – world leaders must seize the chance for a better and cleaner future.

By Eloise Marais, UCL and Karn Vohra, UCL

Carbon dioxide (CO₂) emitted by burning fossil fuels for energy today will only be removed from the atmosphere by natural sinks – like forests and the ocean – in the next 300 to 1,000 years. That means the climate benefits of transitioning to clean energy become apparent on far longer timescales than political term limits and election cycles. A US study, for example, found that deep cuts to emissions from the energy sector will not result in climate cooling until after 2100.

The costs of mitigating climate change outweigh the immediate benefits to the climate. Politicians seeking recognition for their actions at climate change conferences like COP26 in Glasgow have little motive to deliver policies which slash emissions quickly. But there is a large, short-term benefit to eradicating fossil fuels for global health.

The same fossil fuels producing the greenhouse gases warming the Earth’s atmosphere also form large quantities of air pollutants. The pollutants most hazardous to health are small particles which can penetrate deep into the lungs. These particles have diameters of no more than 2.5 micrometers, so are called PM2.5. At least 800 of these particles could fit end-to-end on the head of a pin. These fall out of the air when it rains, so they persist in the atmosphere for a much shorter time (just a few days) than CO₂.

In a study we published earlier in 2021 in collaboration with researchers at Harvard University, we estimated that exposure to air pollution from using fossil fuels globally accounts for one in five premature deaths. Our results suggest that at least 8.7 million early adult deaths could have been avoided in a single year if countries had already abandoned fossil fuels. This is equivalent to the population of Greater London.

The health benefits of decarbonisation

Our estimate of premature deaths far exceeds that of other researchers, as we used a model that simulates the sources and fate of air pollution to calculate its abundance on a much finer scale. This gives a more accurate picture of the concentrations of air pollution breathed in by people in urban areas. We then used this to estimate excess deaths using the most up-to-date health studies, which have found that air pollution is deadlier than previously assumed.

The most common causes of premature death from air pollution exposure are heart disease and lung cancer, but researchers routinely report additional illnesses. The World Health Organization (WHO) recently published much stricter health guidelines for air quality than it last recommended in 2005 based on substantial evidence that exposure to air pollution is even worse for public health than scientists had imagined.


Read more: Air pollution: most national limits are unsafe for human health – new WHO guidelines


Our study is probably an underestimate of the possible public health benefits of abandoning fossil fuels. We only accounted for one type of pollution, PM2.5, which arises from burning fossil fuels. A range of air pollutants form as byproducts in all other steps of the fossil fuel supply chain: from finding, extracting and processing fossil fuels, to storing and transporting them.

The fossil fuel industry is an enormous source of air pollution. Mark Agnor/Shutterstock

One example is formaldehyde gas, which is emitted during petroleum refining and flaring of natural gas. Formaldehyde reacts to form ozone in the lower atmosphere, where it is toxic and can exacerbate asthma symptoms.

We also only focused on adults. The relationship between air pollution and poor health in children isn’t completely understood, but studies so far have shown that exposure to air pollution stunts growth and impedes brain and lung development in children. In a landmark case in 2020, air pollution was directly attributed to the death of Ella Kissi-Debrah, a nine-year-old girl in London.

The health benefits of transitioning to clean energy are substantial and can emerge quickly. They offer a tantalising opportunity for politicians to deliver immediate improvements in the lives of their voters.


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This story is part of The Conversation’s coverage on COP26, the Glasgow climate conference, by experts from around the world.
Amid a rising tide of climate news and stories, The Conversation is here to clear the air and make sure you get information you can trust. More.


Eloise Marais, Associate Professor in Physical Geography, UCL and Karn Vohra, Research assistant, UCL

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How to know if a country is serious about net zero

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A good question to ask after Top oil exporter Saudi Arabia declared targeting net zero emissions by 2060 would be how. That is How to know if a country is serious about net zero because achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2060 should follow a plan to phase out all usage of fossil fuels.
In any case, here is Fergus Green, Lecturer in Political Theory and Public Policy, University College London thoughts on the current problematics of greenhouse gas emissions. Would we turn a blind eye until 2060? Anyway, would we still be there by then?
The COVID-19 lockdown shed some light on the relationship between emissions and consumption. So why focus on the production side only and not on the biggest emitters of GHG’s?

The above image is for illustration and is of Phys.org.

How to know if a country is serious about net zero: look at its plans for extracting fossil fuels

Fresh emissions targets from Saudi Arabia and Australia – two of the world’s largest fossil-fuel producers – are due to arrive just in time for global climate talks in Glasgow. These would commit the two countries to reducing domestic emissions to net zero by around mid-century – though both are expected to continue exporting fossil fuels for decades to come.

For the leaders of countries and governments that produce fossil fuels, UN climate summits are a public relations boon. They get to talk up their commitments to a green and clean future without being held to account for their disproportionate role in fuelling the problem. It’s hard for experts, let alone the average citizen, to tell fact from fiction.

Because it’s only domestic greenhouse gas emissions that are counted for the purpose of the UN climate negotiations, burning exported fossil fuels counts towards the emissions of the importing country. Accordingly, the role that major fossil fuel exporters like Saudi Arabia (oil and natural gas) and Australia (coal and natural gas) play in stoking global heating is not accurately reflected in the talks.

Unlike some areas of international cooperation, like limiting the spread of nuclear weapons, climate-change summits aim to control something which evades easy calculation. Nuclear weapons and their production facilities are tangible, chunky and relatively few in number. Greenhouse gases are everywhere, invisible and caused by lots of different processes – from cow digestion to steel production.

These gases are also in constant flux. Emissions are produced from ubiquitous sources, but there are also natural systems – especially forests and soil – that suck carbon dioxide (CO₂) from the atmosphere. These natural removals of carbon are known as sinks. That is why scientists and governments speak of net greenhouse gas emissions: emissions minus removals.

It’s relatively easy to monitor aggregate levels of CO₂ in the global atmosphere. This is why scientists have a clear picture of how badly off-track the world is with tackling the climate crisis. But all this complexity concerning sources and sinks makes it easy for governments and corporations to obfuscate their real contribution to climate change.

For example, countries with lots of uninhabited land, like Australia, have become especially adept at gaming the systems of accounting for net emissions of CO₂. Australia effectively gets credited for large amounts of carbon stored in forests, which make it look like overall emissions have been falling, even though emissions from burning fossil fuels have been growing for decades.

The Australian government claims the country’s natural sinks offset its emissions elsewhere. Norman Allchin/Shutterstock

One sure-fire way of telling whether a government official is hoodwinking you when lauding their government’s climate credentials is to look upstream and see whether they’re producing the coal, oil or gas that ultimately causes about three-quarters of global emissions, and if so, what they’re doing about it.

Extracted fossil fuels are much easier to monitor and verify than greenhouse gas emissions. They come from a relatively small number of sources and are already measured by multiple parties for a range of purposes. Customers need proof that the shipments they receive reflect their contracts with suppliers. Governments collect production information to assess a company’s compliance with licensing requirements, tax liabilities and customs obligations.

Fossil-fuel infrastructure and projects are even easier to monitor. Oil rigs, gas pipelines and coal mines are large, making them easy to see both on the ground and via satellite. These features make it simpler to hold fossil fuel-producing countries to account for their contribution to global heating, compared with the more slippery measure of net emissions.

The fossil fuel production gap

In a new report, the UN Environment Programme and other research institutions found that governments plan to produce more than twice the amount of fossil fuels in 2030 than would be consistent with limiting warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels – the goal of the Paris Agreement. Countries’ fossil-fuel production plans and projections in aggregate even exceed, by close to 10%, the levels of global fossil-fuel production implied by their own climate pledges.

The production gap helps reveal how serious many national net zero pledges really are. SEI et al. The Production Gap: 2021 Report, Author provided

Shockingly, governments are pouring fuel on the fire. G20 countries have directed more than US$300 billion (£218 billion) in new funds towards supporting fossil-fuel production, such as subsidies and tax breaks, since the beginning of the pandemic – about 10% more than they have invested in clean energy.

The report echoes recent calls for greater transparency around fossil-fuel production and the support – financial and otherwise – governments provide at home and abroad. Research by various organisations has provided a better understanding of this, but the information is incomplete, inconsistent and scattered.

Governments could help by disclosing plans, funding and projections for fossil-fuel production, and how they intend to manage a just transition away from coal, oil and gas. Fossil-fuel companies should disclose their spending and infrastructure plans, as well as all the greenhouse gas emissions their product is responsible for, and financial risks to their business from climate change.

Numerous environmental organisations are working to build a global picture of the sources and flows of fossil fuels. So even if governments fail to illuminate the activities of fossil-fuel companies and their role in it, they can still be named and shamed.

Talking only about a country’s net greenhouse gas emissions gives fossil fuel-producing companies and governments a free pass to bullshit their way through the climate negotiations. If we want to force the PR managers to really earn their money, we should turn the conversation to fossil-fuel production.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.