We don’t need magic, just incentives and elbow grease.
Against the backdrop of record heat waves across Europe, people striking for climate action in historic numbers around the globe, the rise of the Green New Deal–and even Congressional Republicans starting to embrace climate action–one gets the sense that there has been a shift in the discussion around climate change. As the mercury rises, we can see people thinking through what it means to successfully act on climate and how best to get there.
Many advocates for change continue to lean on the strategy of emphasizing that decades of inaction have made immediate and somewhat severe emissions reductions necessary to avoid calamity. Given the scale of risks that await humanity, there is plenty of cause for concern–and given the thousands in the streets, it may be working. But the scientists of climate communication also have also argued that it is not enough to talk about science, and offer scare stories. It helps to remind people that climate change is solvable as well, because “if people do not believe a problem is solvable, they are unlikely to spend time solving it.”
For a recent example, consider the essay from Shikha Dalmia published in The Week, arguing that the fight against climate change requires that society develop revolutionary technologies, such as Bill Gates’ Terrapower reactor, that are so superior to traditional fossil fuels that they cannot be ignored. Dalmia writes that offering these cheaper and cleaner alternatives is the only way to overcome the collective action problem inherent to global climate cooperation.
While breakthrough technologies, like advanced nuclear and carbon capture, will need to be part of a sensible decarbonization strategy, we can still prioritize the deployment of clean technologies already at our disposal to achieve immediate emissions reductions.
There are already cleaner and cheaper energy options that can be incorporated into our energy system at much greater levels without reducing energy demand. A 2014 report from the Deep Decarbonization project modeled different pathways to achieving an 80 percent reductions in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Even in their mixed case, which includes nuclear and fossil fuel sources, renewables still accounted for over 50 percent of electricity generation. Considering renewable energy still only supplies 17.1 percent of all U.S. electricity generation, we must continue to focus on ramping up the deployment of these technologies. The trend lines in the U.S. are pointing toward a near future of lower carbon dioxide emissions. Incremental cost reductions in the renewable energy and battery storage industries are driving utility company decisions to retire costly coal plants early, and these technologies could soon become cost-competitive with natural gas plants.
Although the rapidly declining costs of clean energy technologies and the increasing number of utilities committing to net-zero targets are promising signs, the decarbonization transition is simply not happening quickly enough. We need to proactively incentivize the deployment of these technologies, and the most ambitious and cost-effective way to do that would be through pricing carbon.
There is no doubt that fossil fuels have been a significant driver of economic development across the world, and we must be aware of the tradeoffs involved in transitioning away from fossil fuel technologies. However, we must also be cognizant of the harm that fossil fuel combustion is causing today. If we internalize that cost and start paying for the damage fossil fuel combustion produces, then renewables would be considerably more competitive than fossil fuel generation technologies. A report from Columbia’s SIPA Center found that a $50 per ton carbon tax would increase renewables share of U.S. electricity generation to 40 percent by 2030. A carbon price would also raise significant revenue to help pay for the upfront costs of this transition, and would incentivize the innovative power of the private sector to come up with some of the breakthrough technologies that Dalmia refers to in her essay.
Waiting on a magical new technology of any kind–nuclear, CCS, or free infinite batteries–is not how we solve climate change. We should not let the goal of a perfect solution distract us from making progress. Instead, we accelerate where we have already made progress and innovate a diverse set of technologies.