Positive Tipping Point Disinformation

coal plant

Dr. Tim Lenton is one of my fav climate scientists. His work on the physics and maths of tipping points and the implications of tipping points within the earth systems science understanding of how our climate could change is both fascinating and cliff edge scary.

Now a new report delivered at Davos by Dr. Lenton’s Exeter university team and the systems designer Systemiq shows that there are also potential tipping points that could be exploited by climate policymakers to speed up the energy transition. Hopefully this will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions so that human caused warming doesn’t raise temperatures enough to push us over tipping points leading to a cascade of feedbacks and Hothouse Earth.

Except that I think this report is disinformation. Well-intentioned, hopeful disinformation, but perhaps more sinister because it could help us choose the wrong policies when it is imperative to halve global emissions before 2030.

Speeding up the energy transition, even if this became every government’s singular policy focus, will not reduce emissions enough this decade. The energy transition was always regarded as a 2050 timeline goal; it was a reasonable conception of climate mitigation when policymakers first began to grasp the climate change problem and the need for mitigation but now it is not fit for purpose and, worse, the pretense that we can still lower emissions using economy friendly, gradual, incremental instruments keeps both public’s and policymakers in denial about what mitigation must mean today.

The energy transition is an ineffectual Rube Goldberg machine. In one sentence:

Energy transitions take decades we no longer have; historically new energy sources add to instead of displacing existing sources of energy; renewables aren’t decreasing fossil fuel use, and building renewable capacity of a scale needed to displace 50% of fossil fuel use by 2030 is now delusional.

Renewables shouldn’t be expected to displace fossil fuels (except maybe to different jurisdictions) nor lower emissions (except maybe on the 2050 timeline). Half the cars on the road in 2030 won’t be EVs, for only the most obvious example. Plus, any attempt to build renewables and EVs of scale will raise not lower the demand for fossil fuels at a crucial time – the Heinberg pulse. (Heinberg is also worth reading on the additive nature of energy transitions.) This is a faulted, ineffectual conception of needed mitigation.

This is not an argument for doing nothing about climate.  Effective mitigation – of a scale needed and urgently – has to be the prime governmental goal. After at least three decades of pretend, ineffectual mitigation we need deep emission cuts – half by 2030 globally, which must mean a much higher rate of reduction in developed countries.

Importantly, there must be innovative programs to speed up the energy transition with new policies and funding. But much more importantly, to actually cut emissions directly, we need to use both sides of the climate policy scissors and initiate supply-side policies to curtail exploration and new infrastructure and to begin a regulated wind-down of fossil fuel production.

Both arms are complimentary: a (carbon budget based) schedule for winding down production would lead to much more time and money invested in innovation for getting to that post-carbon economy; and a speeded up energy transition could speed up the pace of the wind-down and therefor of emission reduction.

But to argue for only innovation and policies on the demand side to speed up the energy transition while not making the case for using both sides of the policy scissors is helping to ensure that we will fail to meet our 2030 imperative.

Greatly enhanced renewable capacity doesn’t necessarily mean less emissions and present investment into future fossil fuel production strongly suggests the world (or more precisely the major emitters) will just use more energy with minimal emission reduction. Dr. Lenton and his teams’ (hopeful) disinformation helps to keep us on a path to fail.

There is a climate realist case that in our neoliberal governance governments have put on the golden straitjacket and will not regulate a wind-down of fossil fuel production; and that within the dominant realism perspective in international relations it is nation versus nation and given the dangers no country will give up fossil fuel, certainly not the militaristic US and Chinese governments, and so, given this double lock, our only hope is speeding up the energy transition.

This may be true now but this doesn’t change the imperative of emission reduction this decade. And the energy transition – even speeding up the energy transition with the best science-based innovation – won’t reduce emissions nearly enough without the supply-side policies too.

There is also the key point that the energy transition has been the only allowed mitigation conception. We greatly benefit from both the production and use of fossil fuels but the potentially catastrophic side effect of climate disaster will fall on the more vulnerable today and upon future generations. Instead of framing mitigation as ceasing to inflict this unintentional but potentially lethal damage on innocents we have viewed it as how to substitute clean energy for fossil fuels to run our society.

Of course we choose to see mitigation this way! And of course the mitigation – which legitimizes continuing fossil fuel production and leaves the industry in charge to run out the clock – has been ineffectual, but GDP goes up and we pay the mortgage, etc., etc. This is the path over the nearing cliff – a horrific lose-lose for everybody.

Deep, deep emission cuts are needed urgently and that requires regulating a wind-down of fossil fuel production and use. Arguing for anything less as supposed effective mitigation at this crucial time is serious misinformation.

Bill Henderson is a long-time climate activist and Counter Currents contributer  bhenderson(at)dccnet(dot)com

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