What it Will Take to Stop Global Warming

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on April 7, 2008. Partner content is not updated.

Last month, hundreds of NHL hockey players teamed up with the David SUZUKI Foundation to take part in what they called the Carbon Neutral Challenge. Hockey players, it turns out, are particularly bad for the ENVIRONMENT.
This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on April 7, 2008. Partner content is not updated. Last month, hundreds of NHL hockey players teamed up with the David SUZUKI Foundation to take part in what they called the Carbon Neutral Challenge. Hockey players, it turns out, are particularly bad for the ENVIRONMENT.

What it Will Take to Stop Global Warming

Last month, hundreds of NHL hockey players teamed up with the David SUZUKI Foundation to take part in what they called the Carbon Neutral Challenge. Hockey players, it turns out, are particularly bad for the ENVIRONMENT. They do a lot of flying around the continent, playing games in big, power-hungry arenas, which in turn pump a lot of carbon dioxide into the air. The solution, the players' union and the Suzuki Foundation decided, was to start buying carbon offsets - essentially small investments (each player will pay $290 a year) in things like wind farms and hydroelectric projects to "offset" their impact on the environment.

Their plan is just one of the countless ideas being hawked in Canada and other Western nations to help people reduce their so-called carbon footprint and do their part in the fight against GLOBAL WARMING. So quickly has this green industry grown that people can now put their money into everything from green investment banks to green energy companies. Never mind hybrid cars, there are green computers, green grocery stores and even green, carbon-neutral weddings. Green is everywhere, and the message behind it is as simple as it is attractive: change your day-to-day habits, consume less, and for a small price, you can solve global warming. The only problem with it is this: you can't. In fact, you can't even come close.

Around the world, emissions are skyrocketing. Even in countries that signed on to the Kyoto accord, they are on the uptick. Look at any graph projecting greenhouse gas emissions this century and beyond, and you will see a line going sharply upwards - a nose-thumbing at a decade of effort and tens of billions of dollars spent trying to reduce greenhouse gases. Even if every household in the U.S. screwed in an energy-efficient light bulb today, the savings in greenhouse gas emissions would be wiped out by fewer than two medium-sized coal plants - the kind of plant that is being built in China at a rate of one a week. If everyone in North America started driving hybrid cars tomorrow, it would contribute just a fraction of the overall reduction needed to cut global emissions 50 per cent by 2050 - a minimum target scientists widely agree we must meet.

The problem, say a growing number of environmental economists and academics, is that, for too long, global warming has been looked at as a kind of POLLUTION problem that can be regulated away in a relatively cheap way using existing technologies. Yet efforts to solve what is commonly described as the greatest challenge facing mankind have run aground on a sharp reality: fossil fuels are an integral part of every major economy in the world. Rich nations refuse to give them up and, more importantly, poor - and more populous - ones are relying on them to lift them from poverty. Fixing global warming requires nothing short of remapping energy infrastructures and economies all around the world. Instead, what we're doing is reducing ecological footprints with light bulbs, awareness campaigns and carbon offsets for the environmental sins of buying books and putting up Christmas lights.

Late last year, the Paris-based International Energy Agency compiled a list, which it presented at the United Nations CLIMATE CHANGE Conference in Bali, outlining what's required in order to meet emissions reductions of 50 per cent by 2050. The list, described by the Los Angeles Times, included: 30 new nuclear power plants, 17,000 wind turbines, 400 biomass power plants, two hydroelectric dams the size of China's massive Three Gorges project, and 42 coal or natural gas plants using carbon-capture technology to store CO2 emissions underground. But that's not all. It concluded that all of that would have to be built and up and running by 2013 - and the process repeated every year until 2030.

It is an almost comical proposition. A new nuclear power plant hasn't been built in the U.S. in 30 years. In Canada, nuclear power has been a political minefield. A wind farm in Cape Cod of just a few hundred turbines has been stalled for years because of strong local opposition, and projects like it coast to coast are running into NIMBYism, as well as real environmental concerns of their own. China's Three Gorges dam, which has caused untold ecological damage, has been under construction for well over a decade and is still not completed. "You look at each of these things, and you go, 'Oh my God, how does this happen?' " says Michael Shellenberger, president of the Oakland, Calif.-based Breakthrough Institute, an environmental think tank. "The engineering challenge alone is enormous, but combine that with economic, political and even environmental obstacles, it can start to feel pretty darn overwhelming."

What the list also makes painfully clear is that the fight against global warming is being lost in a humiliating fashion, and the tactics being used have badly misjudged the nature and scope of the problem. And for that, some of the blame, at least, falls on the environmental movement itself. In 2004, Shellenberger and a colleague, Ted Nordhaus, wrote a landmark paper titled "The Death of Environmentalism," which attacked the movement's lack of vision and its focus on "technical policy fixes like pollution controls and higher vehicle mileage standards." "What the environmental movement needs more than anything else right now," they wrote, "is to take a collective step back and rethink everything." Environmentalism, they concluded, had become "just another special interest." The screed didn't sit well with mainstream environmental groups - the Sierra Club called its conclusions "troublesome and divisive" - but it attracted attention and launched a much-needed debate on just how things went so wrong.

One of the main problems, argues Shellenberger, is that global warming is fundamentally different from a problem like acid rain. Environmental groups like the Sierra Club and NRDC had won big battles before, and there was little reason to think they couldn't face down global warming with the same strategy that had brought about successes like the Montreal Protocol, which addressed the depletion of the ozone layer. But the fight for the ozone layer involved relatively few industries, and chemicals (known as CFCs) that were easily replaceable. Not so with global warming and fossil fuels. "The environmental movement as we know it today was scaled up to do things like fight for national parks," says Bill McKibben, a well-known environmental writer in the United States and a scholar-in-residence at Middlebury College. "We've been strong enough to get catalytic converters put on cars. That's a different order of magnitude from transforming our economy and taking on the most powerful and richest parts of our economy."

But the environmental movement continues to rely on local, grassroots action, the strategy with which it has traditionally been most comfortable. As a long-time fringe movement, it owes its past successes to making small, incremental changes. Now, even though it's confronting a problem that's global in scope and addressing a population that is actually listening en masse, the same old strategies are maddeningly alive. On Saturday, March 29, as part of an event called Earth Hour, people are being encouraged to turn their lights off for an hour. The event is aimed at raising awareness about climate change; participating is "one simple action that you can take to help make a difference," said organizers. Precisely what kind of difference is open to debate. If the entire world stopped using energy for a month, let alone an hour, it would not cure us of our addiction to fossil fuels, nor postpone global warming. If the goal was simply to raise awareness, then Earth Hour is a questionable use of resources - the environmental movement already won that round; global warming is not a problem lacking for awareness.

As the battle limps on, what is clear is that self-restraint will not make much of a difference - certainly not on a voluntary basis. Polls routinely show people care about the environment, just not enough to give up their cars, or sacrifice a standard of living based on energy consumption. And on the corporate level, too, solutions to date have focused largely on voluntary measures: things like subsidies (rebates and credits to businesses and individuals that reduce emissions) and setting long-term emissions targets, a tactic that Canadian politicians have been especially enamoured with. None has worked.

Under the Kyoto protocol, Canada committed to cutting emissions six per cent below 1990 levels by 2010. More recently, the federal government said it would aim to cut emissions 20 per cent from 2006 levels by 2020. All that Canada has to show for it is a rise in emissions of about 30 per cent since 1990, and no concrete policies, just vague talk about emissions limits on industry and modest funding for carbon capture and storage. Environmental groups have understandably cried foul at the lack of political will that undermines these well-intentioned efforts, but they have largely continued to support the underlying policies. "The environmentalists were applauding political parties during an election based on how tough their targets were in 2050," says Mark Jaccard, one of the authors of Hot Air and an environmental economist at Simon Fraser University. "How absurd."

And then there's China, the one subject that can bring any discussion on solving global warming to a grinding halt. This year, the country is expected to pass the United States as the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases. The burning of cheap, readily available coal supplies 70 per cent of the energy fuelling the country's massive economy. China has announced it will invest $128 billion in coal-based fuels between 2007 and 2020. If everyone in Canada turned all the lights out for an entire year, and stopped emitting any greenhouse gases at all, the effect would be wiped out by little more than a month's worth of emissions from China. In India, emissions aren't quite as bad, but with demand rapidly growing for everything from electrical appliances to cars - the number of which jumped 130 per cent in a decade - that will change. If current trends continue, energy use around the world will rise over 50 per cent by 2030, and China and India will account for 45 per cent of that demand, according to the International Energy Agency. China and India's problems have long been used by recalcitrant governments in the West to defend not taking strong measures themselves, even as they outsource emissions from manufacturing to those nations. In any case, the hard reality is that any solution to global warming must address this very large, dirty problem and it must begin to do so in short order.

The good news, if there is any, is that the planet isn't beyond saving. There is now a growing awareness that global warming is really a fundamental economic dilemma: how to make it more expensive to emit carbon dioxide while dramatically reducing the costs of new, alternative energies needed to meet the world's growing needs. A new environmental movement, led by economists more than mainstream environmental groups, is slowly taking root, and it is offering economic solutions that strike at the heart of the global climate change problem - policies like carbon prices, trading schemes, and massive investments in alternative energies.

Market-based solutions have been around for some time - economists have been talking about them for two decades. But they've only recently caught on with environmental groups. "It's only become part of the discourse since Nicholas Stern came out with his report," says Emilie Moorhouse, of the Sierra Club of Canada. Stern, a former chief economist with the World Bank, wrote the 2006 report, one of the most important and widely discussed on climate change, recommending governments embrace economic policies aimed at fixing global warming.

These days, an emission market exists in the European Union, and similar schemes have been a topic of much debate in Canada and the United States. Under so-called cap-and-trade systems, compulsory emissions limits are set and companies are auctioned permits by governments to emit carbon dioxide. In contrast to straightforward limits on emissions, there are strong financial incentives at work here - companies that beat emissions limits (ideally by seeking out efficiencies and new technologies) can sell their unused permits. Already, the value of carbon permits traded last year in Europe was estimated to be worth $60 billion.

If that's the carrot side of the equation, for a glimpse of the stick, look no further than British Columbia. When B.C. announced a plan this month to put a tax on carbon emissions, environmental economists around the world offered Premier Gordon Campbell a collective pat on the back, as did environmental groups. It wasn't just that the move was politically bold - introducing new taxes is never popular, especially ones that threaten to jack up the price of fossil fuels - but the province's new approach to global warming was a page torn straight from the economists' dusty textbooks. B.C. will put a modest price on carbon dioxide, not just for a few large emitters, but for everyone. Everything from gasoline to heating fuels will cost a little more. The plan is neither voluntary, nor does it offer any loopholes. And as carbon prices go up, markets should begin to seek out more efficient energy solutions. "In order to have a meaningful impact on emissions 20 and 30 years down the road you need to start today with serious policies, and this is the only one I've seen in Canada," says Jaccard.

Jaccard has reason to be pleased. The new B.C. policy bears a striking resemblance to his own proposals, including the critical element of putting a price on carbon in a way that doesn't strangle an economy addicted to fossil fuels. That means a carbon price that ramps up over time (from a rate of $10 per tonne of carbon emissions this year to $30 a tonne by 2012) and feeds all the revenue back into other tax cuts. The impact may be small, even negligible in the beginning, but it is nevertheless a pragmatic step toward fixing the global warming problem.

Market forces can be a powerful tool in correcting the greenhouse gas problem, but there are still weaknesses. Europe's cap-and-trade system nearly collapsed in 2006 when, under pressure from industry, too many permits were offered and prices plummeted. In the U.S., some industries have started to push back against efforts to establish a trading system, arguing that permits should be given away, not sold. And some economists argue that under these systems, companies will focus only on short-term energy efficiencies (and the use of current technologies). Even B.C.'s breakthrough has its doubters: some question how effective a carbon tax really is when the revenue it raises is simply handed back to polluters rather than put toward the kind of long-term fixes that are so badly needed.

Meanwhile, climate scientists now say that global warming is happening much faster than anticipated. One recent report, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, concluded global emissions from fossil fuels will double in just 21 years, not 53, as previously thought. According to NASA scientist James Hansen, the safe, upper limit of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is 350 parts per million. The current concentration: over 380 parts per million. Observers point to the rapid melting of Arctic ice as evidence of how bad things have become in recent months.

What this calls for is something more ambitious than carbon pricing and emissions markets alone. The only thing that may be able to spark the kind of radical transformation that's needed, say many in the new environmental movement, is a huge boost in public spending on energy research and development - something on the magnitude of the spending that fuelled the U.S. space program. "We shouldn't pretend that all these technologies exist and we just need to scale them up or that a modest price for carbon will accomplish anything like that," says the Breakthrough Institute's Shellenberger. Things like wind, biomass, and solar power don't yet exist in forms that could fuel the world's energy needs. Shellenberger likes to cite Al Gore's conclusion to his An Inconvenient Truth documentary that "we already know everything we need to know to effectively address this problem." Gore has since revised that, stating that we have everything we need to start fixing the climate problem. But this, says Shellenberger, is a bit like saying we now have everything we need to start travelling at the speed of light.

Shellenberger is one of the main champions of making massive public investments into energy research. Government spending, he argues, has played a critical role in major developments throughout history, from national railways to the aerospace industry to computer technologies. If revenue from a national carbon tax system (with only a low carbon price) in the United States was pumped into energy R & D, it could fuel an annual investment of up to $80 billion, he argues in a recent paper in the Harvard Law and Policy Review. Within the scientific community, too, there's growing consensus that this may be the only answer. Last December a group of environmental economists and scholars sent a letter to the U.S. Congress calling for an investment in energy technologies "with the ambition of an Apollo or Manhattan program." That would mean a minimum of $30 billion in annual spending, they said (up from the current level of about $3 billion).

As it stands, existing alternative energies remain prohibitively expensive. Solar energy is somewhere in the neighbourhood of 10 times more expensive than fossil fuels like coal. China is one of the largest manufacturers of photovoltaic cells used for solar energy, but given the costs, there's no hope that it will start using them instead of coal. "In the developing world there's very little or no understanding of why they should cut their living standards and essentially deny their kids better health care or better education or get things that we take for granted to avoid a problem in 50 or 100 years," says Bjorn Lomborg, the controversial author of Cool It and the director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center. Until alternative energy sources exist that can be used on a large scale and as cheaply as coal in places like China, global warming will continue at a steady clip.

Lomborg is a popular but polarizing figure in the global warming debate. One of the most vocal critics of environmental efforts like Kyoto, he argues that the cost of past efforts to confront global warming have badly outweighed any benefits. "There's something fundamentally wrong about believing that we can cut carbon emissions dramatically while it costs so much." It's just not economically viable, he says. And while one could debate the morality of his argument, it's hard to argue with the pragmatic reality it represents. Yet 15 years of policy have been staked on the idea that the world will cut carbon emissions despite the cost, rather than on investing in research to make future technologies much cheaper. Focusing today on things like solar power, Lomberg says, amounts to little more than window dressing. "A few rich people in the rich part of the world will put them up on their roof to make themselves look good, but it's not actually going to solve the problem," he says.

But however much environmentalists might like the idea of more government money for alternative energies, the fact is, the idea of calling for a large-scale, public investment in energy technology hasn't been a priority. "The environmental community, which prides itself on hewing very closely to the science of climate change, have actually rejected the science of energy economics," says Shellenberger. Muddying the debate even more for environmentalists is the fact that even if big investments in energy research happen, in the short term, the world will continue to depend on things like coal and gas. "There's a transition process we have to go through. It's going to be fossil fuel intensive and coal intensive and we've got to stick that carbon somewhere," says Thomas Homer-Dixon, with the Trudeau Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Toronto. That, he argues, means investing in things like nuclear power and, more importantly, carbon capture and storage, in which CO2 from industrial sources, like the oil sands and coal-fired power plants, is pumped underground. Environmentalists argue that this lets big polluters off the hook - industry keeps doing what it's doing without making real shifts away from fossil fuels. "Our response is, wake up to reality, guys," he says. "These are the big energy actors. You're not going to shut them down. You have to create win-win-win opportunities: win for business, win for the environment, win for Canadian society."

Of course, if policies like publicly funded R & D projects and the like are going to make the jump more broadly from academic papers and debating circles to reality, a key ingredient is political support. There are varying degrees of optimism over how likely it is that politicians will embrace these strategies and dump their much-loved, innocuous emissions targets. Despite the Stern report, ideas like carbon taxes, a trading scheme and huge investments in clean energy have not made it to the top of national political agendas. The muted criticism to B.C.'s carbon tax has at least been reassuring. "Symbolically, it's terrifically important," says Homer-Dixon. "It's a tax and Campbell hasn't taken a huge political hit from it." A the same time, federal Environment Minister John Baird has flat out rejected the idea of a national carbon tax.

If any of this is going to happen, as economists hope it will, only very significant political pressure in places like Washington and Ottawa will create results, says McKibben, whose new project called 350.org (a reference to the 350 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere that scientists say is a safe level) is aimed at rallying a grassroots political movement to a new, more global focus. Its message, he says: "Yes, screw in the new light bulb and then screw in the new senator - the second is considerably more important than the first." None of the economists or scholars who are critical of past environmental efforts to tackle global warming oppose doing the little things - the light bulbs, the hybrid cars, efficient appliances. Twenty years of public education by environmental groups to the reality and dangers of global warming have also been invaluable. It wasn't long ago that climate-change deniers were in the mainstream, not the fringe.

But with the problem believed to be worsening and very little to show in the way of results, there is also the growing risk that panic over global warming will sooner or later give way to a sense of boredom. Recent polls in Britain and the U.S. have shown that there is widespread awareness about the severity of global warming, but also a growing lack of enthusiasm and even cynicism over what's being done. "Over-focusing on global warming and doing so in the wrong direction are going to lead people to eventually be fatigued and stop worrying about it," argues Lomborg. And that, in the end, would be the movement's biggest failure of all.

Maclean's April 7, 2008