By Paul Roberts / For The Herald
In September the United Nations convened the 78th General Assembly and climate change was prominent on the agenda. The focus was on sustainable development goals for 2030 and progress toward meeting the Paris accord, limiting global warming to between 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius.
No surprise, the world is not yet on a trajectory to meet that goal. Antonio Guterres, the U.N. secretary general and a fierce advocate for tackling climate change, said efforts to address the climate crisis were “abysmally short” of meeting these objectives.
Ahead of the U.N. meetings, the “UN Framework Convention on Climate Change” — a technical advisory body — issued a sobering report card. They found that the world is not on track to meet the long-term goals of the Paris accord. To strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change “all parties … including civil society, the private sector, financial institutions, cities and other subnational authorities, local communities and Indigenous Peoples” must support accelerating actions to achieve sustainable development.
The 45-page report recommends accelerating the transition to a clean-energy economy. The window is closing to reach the goals of net zero emissions by 2050 considered essential to limit further warming and environmental damage. Much more ambitious and urgent actions are necessary across all sectors with more ambitious mitigation targets. Phasing out fossil fuels and scaling up renewable energy is essential. This will require measures to transform industry, transportation, buildings and agricultural practices.
There is much to unpack in the framework report, including reasons for hope and optimism. The report points out that the Paris agreement has inspired “near-universal climate action” and there are indicators reflecting significant movement in energy, transportation and buildings. In some areas, greenhouse gas emissions are beginning to fall. However, more and faster movement is necessary on all fronts.
Energy: The price of renewables has fallen as speed and scale of development has increased. Major economic powers including China and the U.S., the two largest emitters of greenhouse gases and the two largest economies, are accelerating their response to climate change and renewable energy development. The U.S .Energy Information Administration announced that for the first time renewable energy sources generated more electric power than coal. The Inflation Reduction Act passed last year is the largest investment addressing climate change in U.S. history. Together with the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the U.S. is making significant investments in renewable energy and climate resilient infrastructure.
Transportation: Electric vehicles, and the charging infrastructure to power them are expanding at levels unimaginable just a few years ago. EV sales have tripled from 10 million to 30 million since 2020. Last year, EV sales jumped 60 percent. Electric buses are increasing in urban areas including in the city of Everett and by Community Transit. Advances are being made in aviation and commercial shipping, two areas that will take longer to transition away from fossil fuels. Some of these developments are taking place here in Everett and Snohomish County.
Buildings: Construction materials and building practices are slowly transitioning. Steel and concrete generate large amounts of carbon emissions and alternative technologies are not yet available, or not available at scale. Building materials such as cross-laminated timber developed in Darrington and elsewhere, are emerging as a green alternative. Huge improvements have been made in HVAC systems, improving efficiency and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Local governments are connecting land use and transportation, increasing more efficient movement of people and goods with fewer emissions. In the Puget Sound region, Sound Transit light rail is expanding to Lynnwood and Bellevue in 2024, powered by 100 percent clean energy. Washington state is leading efforts transitioning to a clean-energy economy. More on these efforts in future articles.
The U.N. will take stock and encourage progress addressing sustainable development and climate change. Its framwork and findings clearly acknowledge we are not on track to meet the objectives of the Paris accord, but there are signs of progress and reasons for hope.
Newsweek magazine published a special Climate Issue last month in which Katharine Hayhoe, chief scientist at the Nature Conservancy said: “If we realize that the future is in our hands, that means we can make a difference. That is what our hope is based on.”
At a New York Times Climate Forward event, former Vice President Al Gore said: “Losing hope is not an option. People should instead look for ways to organize politically. Climate despair is just another form of denial and we have to resist it … we can do this.”
This moment in time is like the Charles Dickens’ story “A Christmas Carol.” We have seen the Ghost of Climate Future and it is a bleak spectre unless we rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Business as usual will not deliver us from that future.
The future is in our hands, but the window is closing. Much of the needed technology to transition to a clean-energy economy is available or actively being developed. We need to stop subsidizing fossil fuels and provide incentives for renewables. The greatest impediment to progress is the lack of political will.
Paul Roberts is retired and lives in Everett. His career spans over five decades in infrastructure, economics and environmental policy including advising Washington cities on climate change.
“Eco-nomics” is a series of articles exploring issues at the intersection of climate change and economics. Climate change (global warming) is caused by greenhouse gas emissions — carbon dioxide and methane chiefly — generated by human activities, primarily burning fossil fuels and agricultural practices. Global warming poses an existential threat to the planet. Successfully responding to this threat requires urgent actions — clear plans and actionable strategies — to rapidly reduce GHG emissions and adapt to climate-influenced events.
The Eco-nomics series, to be published every other week in The Herald, is focusing on mitigation and adaptation strategies viewed through the twin perspectives of science and economics.