The temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean are higher than at any point in the last 3,000 years. The weakening Gulf Stream is triggering more violent and destructive weather patterns. At the top of the world, the Arctic is morphing into the North Pool.
The world must act now to pacify our inflamed atmosphere by rewiring the world with clean energy.
In rejoining the Paris Agreement, the Biden administration has given the issue the highest priority by seating the new climate czar, John Kerry, in the National Security Council. Unfortunately, the accord itself is vaguely defined. Every country need only specify and track the progress of their own climate plans, which are all part of the larger agreement to keep the rise in the average global temperature under 2 degrees Celsius.
There is, however, a far more streamlined approach to the climate crisis. It consists of three elements:
▪ Every country, starting at its current baseline, would increase its carbon efficiency by 5 percent per year. That means a country would produce the same amount of material goods as last year with 5 percent less carbon — or produce 5 percent more with the same amount of carbon as it consumed last year.
▪ Industrial countries would phase out all subsidies for coal, oil, and natural gas over the next three years — and put those same subsidies behind non-carbon energy sources. Were the Biden administration to embrace such a plan, this is the element that would probably provoke the greatest opposition to Senate ratification, given the power of the fossil fuel lobby in Congress.
▪ The world would create a fund — in the range of $800 billion a year — for solar, wind, hydro, and tidal power in poor countries. The fund could be financed by a small tax on a mix of international activities such as international air travel, international currency transactions, and the $500 billion a year global gaming industry.
The fund would finance such things as wind farms in Ethiopia, solar assemblies in El Salvador, and hydroelectric generating plants in the Philippines. It would be administered by the private banking system. In return, the banks would receive a small fee to administer the fund, using their audit capacities to minimize corruption in recipient countries while eliminating the need for a new United Nations bureaucracy.
The driver of the plan would be a progressive Carbon Efficiency Standard. For the first few years, countries would achieve the 5 percent reductions in carbon emissions simply by eliminating the waste in their current energy systems. As those efficiencies became more expensive to capture, governments would meet the progressive efficiency standard by deploying clean energy technologies, all of which are 100 percent carbon efficient. This approach would eliminate battles over the differentiated requirements of wealthy and poor nations that have doomed so many previous efforts.
While international emissions trading programs are inherently flawed, domestic cap-and-trade programs could be useful in helping countries meet their goals.
A nation’s compliance could be easily measured simply by calculating the ratio of its carbon fuel use to its gross domestic product. That ratio would have to change by 5 percent a year.
Since no economy grows at 5 percent for long, emissions reductions would outpace long-term economic growth.
That, in turn, would create the mass markets and economies of scale for renewables that would bring down their prices and make them far more affordable than fossil fuels.
The progressive Carbon Efficiency Standard would harmonize the transformation of national energy structures; the subsidy switch would propel the metamorphosis of oil companies into energy companies; and the competition for a new $800 billion a year clean energy market in developing countries would power the process.
Today every country on the planet is experiencing the increasingly disruptive impacts of our changing climate. At the same time, they require an abundant supply of energy to compete in the global economy.
Development economists tell us that energy investments in poor countries create far more wealth and jobs than equivalent investments in any other sector. A properly framed global energy transition would create millions of jobs in developing countries. Over time, it would turn impoverished and dependent countries into trading partners. It would raise living standards abroad without compromising ours. And it would propel the renewable energy industry into a central driving engine of growth of the global economy.
A common global project to rewire the world with clean energy would be an unprecedented act of international cooperation. At the risk of being overly visionary, it might even provide the first step on a path to peace, even in today’s profoundly fractured world — peace among people and peace between people and nature.
Ross Gelbspan is the author of “The Heat is On” and “Boiling Point.”