IPCC Offers Climate Solutions That Depend on Magic

To solve the climate crisis, we’d have to slow growth. And no one wants to admit that.

Richard Heinberg reports on how the latest IPCC report offers “solutions” to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees – but only if you believe in miracles.

Here is a precis of his article.  Read the full version here

“Over the past couple of decades, climate scientists have warned government leaders that global warming could pose an extinction-level threat to humanity. In response, policymakers have asked climate scientists for recommendations to stave off catastrophic global warming, just as long as these recommended policies wouldn’t curtail economic growth. Climate scientists, in turn, have come up with a series of proposals that are the equivalent of magic: They deliver desired results, but only if you believe in miracles.

A case in point is the just-released Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C, drafted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change at the request of the United Nations. The purpose of the report is to explore the differences between a 2 degrees Celsius maximum target for global warming and a 1.5 degree target, and to identify ways to achieve that lower target. As solutions, the report discusses ways to capture and sequester carbon dioxide, (CCS) or ways of pulling CO2 out of the air. The report also suggests that we can continue to grow gross domestic product (GDP) while decreasing energy use.

I call these solutions “magic” because they are unlikely to accomplish much in the real world except to distract our attention from the necessary work of cutting emissions.  Here’s why that’s unrealistic.

CCS raises the cost of power generation and cannibalizes up to a third of power produced in order to run machinery that can isolate, compress, pump, and store the CO2 that has been removed from the combustion byproducts of coal or natural gas. be implemented at scale unless governments put a massive price on carbon—and even then, the result would instead probably be a quicker shift to cheaper energy alternatives.

Direct capture of CO2 from air and air-to-fuel conversion technologies have been successfully tested. The problem, again, is the massive cost in both dollar and energy terms.

Why all the conjuring and sleight of hand? Because policymakers have effectively asked scientists to do the impossible. No politician in a wealthy country wants to inform constituents that further economic growth is unachievable. And no international agency would deny hundreds of millions of poor people the hope of bettering their lives through economic growth in the developing world; that growth is built into the U.N.’s sustainable development goals, which are hardwired into the IPCC scenarios.

The essence of the problem is this: Growth currently comes from burning ever-growing quantities of fossil fuels in order to do economic work—from extracting resources to manufacturing products to delivering goods and services. Renewable energy sources can also do this work, but would require a nearly complete transformation in how we use energy, and an extensive redesign of systems for generating, storing, and distributing energy.

Ecological economists point out that the one strategy that would reliably work to reduce emissions would be to shrink overall economic activity and rein in population growth. Policymakers are unwilling even to discuss that pathway. Growth has become sacrosanct as a way of creating jobs, ensuring returns on investment, and expanding tax revenues. Every politician in every political party in nearly every country on Earth wants more of it, not less.

Perhaps the ecological economists’ most telling point of all is that the end of growth is inevitable with or without climate action, since nothing grows forever on a finite planet. Even HSBC, England’s largest bank, recently warned that we’d exhausted our annual budget of natural resources by the month of August. We’re headed for a crash sooner or later. Wouldn’t it be better to make the post-growth transition on our terms, rather than in crisis mode? “

So while the new government has taken some baby steps by introducing measures of well-being rather than an exclusive reliance on GDP, we’re not going to see the abandonment of the worshipping of “growth” by this government, and certainly not by the previous National administration. Even the Green Party promotes the magic of “green growth”.

We’ve seen this conflict between reality and policy play out on the last few days with the government trying to talk down petrol prices – ( lower prices boost consumption of climate-destroying fossil fuels) – while extolling its efforts to become carbon neutral by 2050.  

As Richard Heinberg points out we’re not going to see this or any other future government abandoning the sacrosanct growth mantra, and so inevitably the IPCC’s “solutions” are going to remain in the “magical” basket.