The wild overshoot of planetary boundaries is both a technical and political issue. But political solutions are worth nothing without technical solutions. This article examines 3 solutions from a purely technical perspective, which would nevertheless induce deep political implications.
The first solution is inspired by the fact that we drastically need to reduce our GHG emissions every year for the coming decades, in proportions that have only been witnessed on four years of industrial history: the Great Depression, the year 1945, the 2008 Great Recession, and the 2020 global lockdown. It could hence follow that to get on the “right” track, we need to prompt a global financial meltdown in year 1 (and never rebound), destroy Japanese and German industry in year 2 (and never let them rebound), impose a 2-month global lockdown in year 3, a 4-month global lockdown in year 4, and a 6-month global lockdown in year 5. Similar efforts would have to be repeated every year, preferably targeting the wealthiest so as to maximize GHG reductions, until carbon neutrality is achieved in 2050.
But unemployment, misery, wars, famines, pandemics, genocides, and totalitarianism are definitely NOT what we want. At the very least, we want the baseline of the Philadelphia Declaration of 1944: “material well-being and spiritual development in conditions of freedom and dignity, of economic security and equal opportunity, for all human beings”.
This first solution is thus a very –very– bad solution, and was just meant to give an idea of the scale of the problem.
The second technical solution is based on the observation that despite some progress (e.g., global CO2 emissions have increased by ~30% over 2000-2009, ~10% over 2010-2019) we remain increasingly unlikely to achieve our 2-degree goal (let alone our 1.5-degree goal), and we are increasingly reliant upon technologies that barely exist, such as CO2 removal from the air. Policies currently in place would lead us to a 2.7 degree warming by 2100 (perhaps less if we are lucky with climate sensitivity, perhaps more if we are unlucky), thereby significantly increasing risks of unemployment, misery, wars, famines, pandemics, genocides and totalitarianism. Decarbonization policies may be enforced, but there may also be glitches on the road to an energy transition (that has for now barely started): resource issues with critical minerals, social oppositions to technological or cultural change, economic crises, political denialism, technological unreadiness… in other words, things which we already observe.
A conclusion would be that humanity should bypass the GHG issue and directly take control of the Earth’s thermostat through solar geoengineering, in particular Stratospheric Aerosol Injection, which would be cheap, quick to deploy, and theoretically effective to shave off unwanted half-degrees of warming (at least computer simulations of SCoPEx Project pioneers suggest so, though they need out-of-lab experiments to confirm hypotheses such as the actual behavior of aerosols in the stratosphere). Obvious disadvantages of this solution are unanticipated physical consequences, as well as geopolitical and ethical risks. The solution could only be temporary to buy more time, and it does not address ocean acidification (our “other CO2 problem”). Nor does it address other ecological issues such as biodiversity collapse, water scarcity, ecosystem pollution, or fossil fuel depletion, and their associated social injustices. These issues would be aggravated by climate change (e.g. climate change may make fossil fuel extraction more difficult, both because of physical and socio-political reasons). But they do not need climate change to be highly problematic.
The third solution, which does not necessarily exclude the second one, is based on the fact that to achieve neutrality by, say, around 2070, and maintain a good chance of limiting global warming below 2 degrees, we need to cap GHG emissions today and reduce them linearly every year by a quantity equivalent to 2% of 2021 levels.
2% x 50 = 100%. So far so good.
The third solution also recognizes that there are in fact many solutions: renewable energy (solar, wind, geothermal, biomass…), nuclear energy, energy efficiency, lifestyle changes, better urban planning, recycling, re-use, conservation agriculture, reforestation, stopping deforestation, mangrove replantation, CCUS, DACC, enhanced weathering… Wow, what are we going to do with so many solutions? They are so numerous! That is great.
Regulatory frameworks are needed, however, to guarantee that technological and political promises are kept (you never know after all), and that most competitive solutions are implemented as needed.
The overall idea is to set quotas and rationing schemes both on supply and demand, everywhere in the world, on every GHG-emitting source, both energy and non-energy GHG sources (solely focusing on energy, as we typically tend to do, misses 30% of the climate problem, and most of biodiversity and water problems). Quotas would cap overall global carbon emissions in year 1, after which they would be reduced each year by the necessary proportions.
There is nothing undemocratic about this. It is nothing else than the logical mathematical result of our commitments. It happens that all countries and all businesses are allegedly able to achieve “carbon neutrality” by 2060, sometimes even 2039. Wow, they are even more ambitious than in this article. That is great.
In that case, GHG quotas changes nothing, thus nobody should be afraid.
Quotas are essentially what the EU emissions trading scheme applies to European industry. Water is regularly being rationed here and there in the world, a recent example being water from the Colorado river. Oil shocks in the 1970s have seen fuel rationing schemes in multiple European countries. When there ain’t no more, there just ain’t no more. And there ain’t much carbon budget left.
Quotas are much more effective and socially just than taxes. The poorest can hardly consume any less energy, and the wealthiest do not care how much they pay for energy.
Quotas are not a punishment, but the exact opposite: it is an incentive for all inventors and entrepreneurs to innovate, accelerate technological deployment, compete for most carbon-efficient products, and make money hand over fist.
Quotas are not a way of treating people like children, but the exact opposite: they give companies and individuals long-term visibility, time to organize, and responsibility for our children’s future (which current short-term political blah blah blah does not do, taking instead people for complete fools, which they are not). Everyone should feel honored and find meaning in such a civilizational endeavor (the current consumerist system providing absolutely no meaning).
Easier said than done though. How should such an idea be implemented in an economically and socially acceptable manner? What follows is of course open for debate.
On the supply side, limiting fossil fuel extraction permits is technically feasible (and already a little under way). The problem is then two-fold. First, fossil fuel producers will not unanimously cooperate. Second, it guarantees in no way a worldwide, socially fair energy transition.
When dealing with fossil fuel producers, Western opinion all too often concentrates on capitalistic ventures within the context of a worldwide market. But energy remains, in the 21st century, a highly national subject, closely linked both to national independence and the sustainability of balance of payments. No country with exploitable national coal reserves chose to left it underground. This is not fortuitous. If we want quotas and rationing to be efficient, we, “rich” countries must, at the same time, help coal, oil and gas dependent countries quit their fossil fuel dependency. Because as we transition to a low-carbon economy, “coal addicts” will only see their situation worsen and their dependency on national reserves deepen: any CO2-related tax, quota or rationing will impact imports from emerging countries which run their low-cost industries on (very dark) “brown energy”.As their hard currency sources diminish, so will their capacity to import “clean” energy or assets to transition. So to squeeze the “supply” side, it is not enough to set stringent regulations to prevent corporations and Western banks from investing in fossil fuels. We must, at the same time, “pay to stop mines”. Not by sending dollars or euros, but by creating a real system of international energy solidarity which would ensure a fair, worldwide and shared access to whatever energy is left after closing the mine pits and oil rigs.
On the demand side, it seems evident that least essential uses benefiting the wealthiest should be pat of the scheme, without which social acceptance of the energy transition would be close to zero. Aviation is responsible for about 2.5% of global carbon emissions (3.5% once we account for other radiative forcing factors such as contrails) and its climate impact is increasing by 4-5% a year. This growth must stop and be reversed. The aviation industry’s kerosene allocation in 2022 should be equal to its 2021 consumption. After which its allocation would be decreased each year by a quantity equivalent to 2% of the 2021 level. 50 x 2% = 100%.
The aviation sector would have absolutely no difficulty in handling such a system, which is much less stringent than its own promises. The industry would activate levers such as energy efficiency (which it already does quite well), alternative energy (“green” hydrogen, “green” electricity, “green” Synthetic Alternative Fuels, “green” ammonia), trajectory deviation for contrail reduction, or air traffic decrease.
IATA considers that Synthetic Aviation Fuel could do most of the job, thereby necessitating “green” hydrogen and “green” CO2 captured from the air at massive scale (??). But whatever works. The climate does not care how the industry handles its carbon budget.
Within 10 years, a 20% carbon reduction would be achieved. Since alternative technologies are not readily available, energy efficiency and trajectory changes would do most of the job. If not, air traffic decrease would complement. Over the longer term, whatever technological improvements do not achieve, air traffic decrease would.
Pilots and other airline workers with whom I discuss generally find this idea interesting. It may be surprising, but in fact it is not. This proposition is no different from what their industry is committed to achieve. It may also be its last chance to survive: it seems plausible that in a world where increasing numbers of climate activists and climate change victims feel a +1.5C or +2C world “for real”, and where farmers and poor automobile drivers increasingly suffer from oil constraints, the aviation industry’s social license to operate would be under threat.
Easy part done.
Individual purchases (food, furniture, clothes, electronic equipment, and other stuff) weigh a significant proportion of global GHG emissions. The food chain alone covers about a third of global GHG emissions (that includes agriculture-led deforestation, fertilizer use, livestock methane emissions, food transformation, packaging, and transport, food waste decomposition in landfills etc.).There is little technical difficulty, especially with modern digital technologies, in implementing carbon allocations for everyday purchases. Individual allocation levels across the world would be set based on existing Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), and on the share lying with individual purchases (30%? 40%? whatever).
It should seem obvious that such a scheme would encourage innovation, product repair and re-use, short-distance transport, as well as consumer responsibility and dignity.
A focus on agriculture would also suggest that both technical innovation and consumer responsibility would accelerate under such a scheme. The methane pledge recently adopted at COP 26 aims to limit CH4 emissions by 30% in 2030 compared with 2020. That would indeed be a very climate-relevant achievement: methane is responsible for about 25-30% of global warming, and its short atmospheric lifetime (about 10 years on average) implies rapid climate rewards in case efforts are made. However the pledge, as usual, is a passive one: we will “wait for things to happen”, with no guarantee that they will. So as usual, they probably won’t. Methane quotas on industry and consumers would however ensure that adequate measures are taken in whatever proportions are necessary: feed supplements to reduce livestock’s enteric fermentation, dietary shifts towards plant-based diets, synthetic meat… Whatever works.
Regarding heating of homes (that is 60-70% of energy consumed by housing), things would be a little different. In a country like France it is theoretically forbidden to heat above 19°C. Contrary to speed limits on the road, the law is not enforced, but nothing technically prevents from doing so using digital technology that would enable warning consumers, and applying fines if they persist. This sounds like governmental intrusion in people’s intimacy. It indeed is, and it indeed raises ethical issues. One would however have to compare the social acceptability of such a situation with the existing situation, whereby some among the wealthiest overheat large homes, while many among the poorest (including in wealthy countries) must choose every winter between eating 3 meals a day and heating their homes. Whether we wish to keep undermining the energy and economic security of the poorest is a societal and political choice.
Stopping overheating immediately in year 1 would achieve much more than a 2% gain, giving time for insulation and for installing carbon-efficient boilers. It is outside the scope of this article to identify most effective policies for doing so. Many already exist. But in a perspective of social justice, renovation costs should not be bore by the poorest. It should be increasingly difficult, if not prohibited, for landlords to rent energy-inefficient homes (as per official diagnoses of energy performance). This would encourage landlords to finance renovations; government subsidies or tax breaks should accelerate such maneuvers.
Regarding emissions from industrial sites, the EU ETS scheme sets the example for the transition of steel, glass, chemical, paper, aluminum, and cement plants. Technical improvements of the scheme are probably possible, but the fact that this scheme exists exempts this article from having to justify itself.
Emissions from cars and motorbikes are difficult to address because of the diversity of individual situations. City dwellers needing no cars would face little constraints, while suburban and rural inhabitants with no other choice would face strong constraints. Why not just reproduce rationing schemes implemented in Europe in the 1970s? At that time, a country like the UK distinguished fuel for personal use and fuel for professional use. This could solve part of the issue, but the problem remains of constraining suburban and rural citizens on personal uses.
A regulation for an “easy” way forward would be to set more stringent limits on car emissions: maximum oil consumption and maximum CO2 emissions would be set, and regularly revised downwards. Car companies make most of their profits with heavy cars? This should not be the problem of climate change and oil depletion victims. It is a business model and pricing problem to be solved between government and automotive industry.
Sound urban planning over the long-term is of course another part of the equation. The bigger the cities, the higher their consumption of raw materials and energy per capita. Concentrating humanity in a handful of “hundred million dwellers” mega-cities will not only worsen the climate and ecological crisis, but also further undermine democracy and deepen the gap between urban elites and rural ecosystems. But the “urban re-planning” of Humanity is probably the subject of another article.
There of course remains uncertainties in this open-ended article. The organization of the international community and its capacity to think global, “as a species” and not as a cluster of sovereign states not being the least.
The main point though is that we are committed to solving an Energy-Climate equation. Either we are a generation of traitors and irresponsible liars to be hated for generations to come, or we implement a technical solution that mathematically solves the equation within ethical limits of social justice.
This article is also available in French. Energy Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Energy & Sustainability writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.