My Turn: For climate, a turning point in human history?

Gerd Altmann/via Pixabay

Gerd Altmann/via Pixabay Gerd Altmann/via Pixabay

Russ Vernon-Jones

Russ Vernon-Jones

By RUSS VERNON-JONES

Published: 06-20-2024 6:01 PM

Will we be able to pass a livable world on to future generations? Given the climate emergency, is there hope for the future?

Whether we want to think about climate change or not, most of us care about the answers to these questions. New polling data shows that all around the world, protecting the planet for the next generation is a top motivation for taking action on the climate.

Surveying thousands of people in 23 countries, the communications experts at Potential Energy found that “The world is united: it’s this generation’s responsibility to solve climate change and leave a thriving world for our children and grandchildren.” Across these 23 nations, they found that in every one, a majority supports immediate government action to address climate change. In fact, they found that supporters of climate action outnumber opponents by nearly 8 to 1.

Of all the good news we could get about climate change, this depth and breadth of support is probably the best news of all.

Good news on climate, of course, does not mean that everything is going to be fine. It does not mean that other people are going to take care of it. It does mean that if humanity engages and pulls together, we can most likely keep this planet livable for people and for other living things. There are many struggles ahead, but they are winnable if we engage.

This year may also be one of the major inflection points of human history. According to new data and projections, carbon dioxide emissions peaked last year and have started to fall. These emissions — the major cause of climate change — have been rising since the very beginning of the industrial age. Primarily the result of burning of coal, oil, and gas, these emissions have disrupted the climate and are wreaking havoc throughout the world.

Emissions are falling partly because of energy conservation and efficiency measures. Mostly, they are falling because of the rapid build-out of solar and wind energy. The amount of renewable energy capacity the world added last year was nearly 50% more than the previous year. China has played a huge role in this — installing almost 350 gigawatts of renewable energy in 2023, more than half of the world’s total additions last year. China is now expected to reach its 2030 goal for renewable energy by the end of 2024.

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As David Gelles wrote in The New York Times, global emissions from the energy sector are virtually certain to fall in 2024, and “with the rise of electric vehicles and heat pumps, similar gains are anticipated in the transportation sector and residential buildings.”

It’s a big deal that there’s wide support for climate action and that greenhouse gas emissions have finally peaked. However, just because emissions have peaked doesn’t mean they will now fall rapidly. An analysis from Bloomberg NEF indicates that even under the best-case scenario it will take two decades, $215 trillion, and an all-out effort to transition us to a zero-emissions world by 2050.

Under this scenario, global temperatures would rise 1.75°C above pre-industrial levels. The all-out effort would need to include, as Gelles writes, “a wartime approach to constructing renewable energy and subsidizing low-carbon technologies, and a set of strict regulatory measures designed to curb emissions-heavy modes of transportation, energy production and industry.”

This will include such steps as transforming the manufacture of cement and steel, eliminating sales of new cars and trucks with gasoline or diesel engines, fully electrifying homes and other buildings, and powering the electric grid with 100% renewable energy.

Without an all-out effort, in a business-as-usual scenario, global emissions will drop just 27% by 2050 and global temperatures will rise to 2.7°C by the end of the century. This would be catastrophic — beyond imagining.

So, in short, while keeping global warming to 1.5°C is almost certainly now beyond our reach, it is still possible to get to zero emissions by 2050, but it will require a great acceleration of effort both in the U.S. and worldwide. It will require bringing the extraction and burning of coal, oil, and gas to an end fairly quickly. It will also require first heavily taxing, and then outlawing, the extraction of fossil fuels.

We will get no help from the fossil fuel industry. They have made it clear that they intend to continue producing climate-destroying fuels indefinitely — as long as they can make money off of them — regardless of their effects on human life.

We don’t yet have political leaders who can lead the transition we need. What we can do is to elect the candidates who have the better commitment to human rights. Then we must create an unstoppable groundswell of public demand for using government to require that fossil fuels be kept in the ground and to lead an all-out, just transition to a zero-emissions future, for the sake of people everywhere.

Russ Vernon-Jones of Amherst is a member of the Steering Committee of Climate Action Now (CAN). The views expressed here are his own. His column appears in the Gazette on the third Friday of each month. He blogs regularly on climate justice at russvernonjones.org and can be reached there.