The Truth About Our Failure to Curb Carbon Emissions

The Teck Mining Co open pit Elk River Valley coal mines

We all know what needs to be done: reduce carbon emissions. But so far, we members of global humanity just haven’t been able to turn the tide. The latest IPCC report documents that carbon emissions are still increasing, despite all the promises and efforts of the past few decades. The report tells us there’s only a narrow (and rapidly shrinking) pathway to averting climate catastrophe. That path requires us to cut emissions 50 percent by 2030, and to reach net zero emissions by 2050. So far, we’re going in the opposite direction.

Why is this so hard? Because it would require sacrifice. Why would it require sacrifice? Let’s walk through the logic:

1. Lowering emissions requires reducing our extraction and burning of fossil fuels. But right now, 85 percent of our energy comes from fossil fuels, and energy is what makes the economy go and grow.

2. Replacing fossil fuels with low-emissions energy sources like solar and wind would still give us energy, but right now it takes fossil energy to build solar panels, wind turbines, batteries, and all the other electrical infrastructure we would need to replace the fuel-based infrastructure we now have.

3. Renewable energy sources require energy investment up front for construction; they pay for themselves energetically over a period of years. Therefore, a fast transition requires increased energy usage over the short term. And, in the early stages at least, most of that energy will have to come from fossil fuels, because those are the energy sources we currently have.

4. Again, the only way to reliably reduce emissions is to cut fossil fuel extraction and combustion directly and immediately. As we have seen over the past decades, just waiting for renewables to replace fossil fuels is too slow. Global emissions increased last year despite a record nearly 10 percent growth in renewables.

5. So, if more fossil energy will be needed for the energy transition, but we need to extract less coal, oil, and gas overall, that means that, at least over the next couple of decades, much less fuel will be available for non-transition purposes—i.e., for transport, manufacturing, and food production, which are the mainstays of the economy.

That’s why we can’t just do it. That’s why, when governments get to decision points like having to approve or deny permits to drill for oil in Alaska, the decision often goes in favor of more fossil energy extraction.

(By the way: mainstream reporting on Biden’s recent approval of the Willow oil project has missed the fact that the approval probably had a lot to do with declining amounts of oil flowing through the Alyeska pipeline that delivers oil to the West Coast states; if the amount of flow declines much more due to the depletion of older oilfields, the pipeline could freeze up in the winter and become useless, depriving those blue states of a half million barrels a day of crude, which would be hard to replace.)

Our collective impasse in addressing climate change is the fault not just of greedy oil executives. Policy makers want to avoid any decision that would result in economic hardship. So, they punt in favor of business as usual, and as a result the pathway to averting climate doom narrows that much more.

At the same time, our fossil fuel supplies deplete further, giving us less of an energy cushion for building an energy system to replace the current one that relies on coal, oil, and gas.

The best answer is a managed reduction in fossil fuel extraction accompanied by a rationing system that preferentially directs declining fossil fuel supplies toward energy transition projects while distributing remaining fuel supplies to industry and households for only the most essential purposes. Programs would also be needed to offset the impacts of scarce energy on lower income households and countries.

Policymakers may find this unthinkable, because they have built their careers on the assumption that the economy must always grow, and that people must always be promised the opportunity to consume more. Yet until public discussion turns in the direction of managed energy descent and rationing, nothing will happen to avert climate hell.

Which is a shame for two reasons. First, of course, it condemns present and future generations to weather extremes and all the suffering associated with hotter and less stable conditions. Second, it forecloses the possibility of an energy descent in which hardships are fairly shared, along with opportunities for learning to live better with less. And such opportunities could be plentiful if only we were to look for them.

We’re at a crisis point. A sacrifice is needed. Only a sacred cow will do. Economic growth is our society’s most sacred of cows. And guess what? The cow is sick anyway.

Richard Heinberg is a senior fellow at the Post Carbon Institute and the author of fourteen books, including his most recent: “Power: Limits and Prospects for Human Survival” (2021). Previous books include: “Our Renewable Future: Laying the Path for One Hundred Percent Clean Energy” (2016), “Afterburn: Society Beyond Fossil Fuels” (2015), and “Peak Everything: Waking Up to the Century of Declines” (2010).

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