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Friday, December 1, 2023

Climate Freeloaders Are Destroying the Planet

Alaska isn’t supposed to be an inferno—but its summers are now so warm that apocalyptic wildfires are almost inevitable. In June 2022, lightning strikes set the drought-stricken land ablaze, winds whipped up flames, and long curtains of fire soon ripped through previously untouched tundra, pushing plumes of thick smoke up into the atmosphere. Firefighters were powerless to contain the blazes. More than 1.8 million acres were scorched in just a month. 

Now, less than a year later, US president Joe Biden has just approved a massive, 600-million-barrel oil-drilling project in the north of the state, which will further heat the world and deepen Alaska’s descent into an age of fire. Fuels extracted by the Willow Project on Alaska’s north slope will generate emissions equivalent to 66 coal-fired power plants.

The incongruity is hard to stomach. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has this month spelled out unequivocally that keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius is rapidly becoming impossible, and that staying under 2 degrees will require “deep and rapid reductions” in CO2, methane, and other greenhouse gas emissions. The IPCC’s new synthesis report, which pulls together the findings of its most recent scientific reports, underlines that Alaska’s fate is just a fragment of the picture of what’s happening worldwide. Emissions continuing to rise will mean more heat waves, floods, droughts, and sea level rises—more biodiversity losses, epidemics, and food insecurity. 

And yet so many governments—Norway, Australia, and the United States, to name just a few—are still approving new fossil fuel projects. The IPCC has found early signs that mitigation efforts are starting to work. Yet more public and private money is still being spent on financing fossil fuels than on climate change mitigation and adaptation in its entirety.

The problem is “the world isn’t acting as one—it’s all of these individual national interests,” says Frank Jotzo, a member of the core writing team for the synthesis report and a professor of environmental economics and climate change economics at the Australian National University in Canberra. “It is a global good to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” Jotzo says. “But from any individual nation’s perspective, there is a free-rider incentive to let others go ahead and hang back.”

Just last month, Australia showed off this selfish behavior. Its new-ish federal government—voted in through an election dominated by concerns about climate change—gave mining company Santos approval to sink up to 116 new gas wells in the northeastern state of Queensland. This is despite Australia’s east coast experiencing two record-breaking floods last year that proved to be the most expensive in Australian history, costing insurers around AU$3.35 billion (US$2.24 billion). The deluges were almost undoubtedly climate-change-related.

Part of the problem is that the international climate change regime is built on the concept of territorial greenhouse emissions—those that result from activities within a nation’s borders, Jotzo says. The current system doesn’t hold one nation to account for exporting fossil fuels to another nation, just as it doesn’t credit them for the export of renewable energy.

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“We see that play out perfectly in Australia: strong attention on reducing domestic emissions, and policy shying away completely from addressing the export side of things,” says Jotzo. The Australian government elected in 2022 has set a target of net zero emissions by 2050, but it refuses to ban any new coal or gas projects. It has promised hundreds of millions of dollars for community batteries, solar banks, and EV charging, yet the nation is the second-largest exporter of coal in the world and has the third-largest coal reserves.

Given recent record-breaking droughts, temperatures, bushfires, and floods, one might expect the Australian government to rethink its continued extraction of coal, oil, and gas. But Polly Hemming, director of the climate and energy program at independent think tank the Australia Institute in Canberra, says the government is too beholden to industry to do that. “Climate policy has been completely subverted. Industry sets the climate standards that they want from governments,” she says. That influence is wielded through political donations, industry lobbyists (who are frequently themselves former politicians and political staffers), and scare campaigns against government actions on climate change. “Fear is a much more powerful motivator than hope or optimism, and so governments just step right back,” Hemming says.

There’s no economic logic to this. The Australian government subsidizes fossil fuels to the tune of around AU$11 billion (US$7.36 billion) each year, while the fossil fuel industry employs fewer people than McDonald’s. Most of the companies extracting and selling Australia’s fossil fuel reserves are foreign owned and pay little tax into Australian coffers, and most of what is extracted is exported, Hemming says. Yet this “incredibly small handful of really powerful corporate interests” still holds sway.

Which is ironic, given that the IPCC authors state that the economic and social benefits of climate change mitigation will far exceed the costs. The economic cost of air pollution alone—estimated in 2018 to be around US$2.9 trillion dollars worldwide, as well as claiming 4.5 million lives that year alone—far exceeds the costs of climate change action. Mitigation options such as wind and solar energy, green infrastructure, energy efficiency, electrification of urban systems, and reduced food waste are increasingly cost-effective compared to business as usual.

Despite the urgency of the need to decarbonize, a multitrillion-dollar energy sector can’t just turn on a dime, says Samantha Gross, director of the Energy Security and Climate Initiative at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC. “We need to feed the system we have while we transform it,” Gross says. “The energy system that uses those fossil fuels isn’t changing fast enough that we don’t need them.” Gross says the recent gas crisis precipitated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has illustrated this, with some European countries restarting old coal-fired power stations to fill the energy gap that still exists, despite rising renewable energy deployment. 

And Gross argues that as long as there’s demand for fossil fuels, industry will provide the supply. “It’s going be really hard to fight climate change from the supply side, the reason being that fossil fuels are plentiful,” she says. She argues for a focus on the demand side of that equation: more policies and regulations that drive a shift away from fossil fuels, such as even greater investment in renewable energy, bigger and quicker moves to electrify the transport sector, and using carbon pricing mechanisms to encourage and support uptake of low-emissions technologies.

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It’s not just governments that have to mitigate. Individuals—especially those in high-emitting households that contribute an outsized proportion of emissions—also need to change. The challenge is overcoming the psychological barriers to climate action, says Lorraine Whitmarsh, an environmental psychologist and director of the Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations at the University of Bath in the UK. “People perceive climate change through the lens of what they already believe and what they value, and particularly their political ideology,” Whitmarsh says. Too many people can still convince themselves that reducing emissions isn’t something they have to try to do. 

Reducing emissions is also a slow-moving challenge that can get shoved to one side by more immediate, present concerns. “We’re sort of hardwired to focus more on the here and now, on the local, on the visible, on what’s certain,” Whitmarsh says. “That also means that climate change will tend to be deprioritized in the face of things like the cost-of-living crisis.”

But change is happening, both at the individual and political level. Whether it’s people changing their diets to those with less environmental impact or buying EVs in higher-than-expected numbers, consumer habits are starting to make a difference. “Most people don’t need persuading that climate change is an issue anymore,” she says. “It is just the political will to really ramp some of this stuff up.”

Some governments have the will. The IPCC’s synthesis report notes that 18 countries have achieved sustained, absolute reductions in CO2 emissions for more than a decade. “The picture is very clear: Policy to reduce emissions is effective,” Jotzo says. What’s really needed now is to get all governments acting to reduce emissions, and to call out and stamp out the free riders.

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