Tomorrow, the new Biden administration will make the global climate challenge the focus of the day’s event. The president is expected to sign an executive order halting new leases for oil and gas drilling on federal lands. (Update January 27, 2021: Read the order here.) Also, the White House will hold a press conference featuring two of its climate team’s senior leaders: John Kerry and Gina McCarthy. Both served in the Obama administration, the former as Secretary of State and the latter as Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. Going forward, they are the International Climate Envoy and National Climate Advisor, respectively. (Update January 27, 2021: You can watch the press conference here.)
The need or climate action remains urgent. Last year matched 2016’s record for hottest year on record, a clear signal we as a species still fail to address a threat as existential as the COVID-19 virus.
As alarming as the above graphic is, it takes on greater significance when put in a broader context. The World Meteorological Organization recently shared a disturbing-but-easy-to-understand graphic by climate scientist Ed Hawkins that shows the rise in average global temperatures over the last 170 years. It should put to rest any lies about global warming being overblown. However, I suspect it won’t given the post-intellectual, post-factual, and expertise-hating moment in which we currently find ourselves.
So, it appears the global community still has its work cut out for it. One hopes it can strengthen its case in light of recent data showing a 7 percent drop in global carbon emissions last year. Unfortunately, that drop had little to do with sound, consensus-driven climate policy and more to do with the impact of the coronavirus on the global economy. In fact, the severity of the global economic crunch so crippled demand for energy that Exxon Mobil, one of the world’s largest oil and gas companies, suffered a historic and draw-dropping asset writedown of nearly $20 billion. In addition, it plans to cut capital spending severely through 2025.
Despite all of this, and assuming the global economy begins picking itself up and dusting itself off in the near future, containing emissions connected to increased activity may prove difficult. Prior to the pandemic, the transportation industry was responsible for nearly 30 percent of global carbon emissions. The UN International Maritime Organization says that over a billion tons alone comes from shipping, which is more than all but five countries. Despite a significant drop in production, global fuel supplies remain plentiful and are ready to fire the global economy’s post-COVID recovery.
But in the face of that potential emissions growth is the continued growth of renewable energy in the US, which remains the world’s second largest carbon emitter behind China. In the first half of 2020, US-based renewable electricity generation increased by 22 percent compared to a similar window in 2019. That trend should continue into 2021. The US Energy Information Administration recently released figures showing that approximately 39.7 gigawatts of renewable energy generating capacity will come into operation this year. For context, the US has approximately 1,200 GW installed overall, of which approximately 17 percent is renewables based. These new additions will edge that total to almost 20 percent. A decade ago, it was nearly half that. Sufficiently meeting the climate moment will require that pace to triple if we are to meet the country’s new “net zero emissions by 2050” goal.
Also needed is significant research and development of new technologies. Green hydrogen (the use of spare renewable energy to power chemical reactions producing hydrogen for fuel cells) looks promising, as do technologies that use existing atmospheric carbon emissions as inputs to food and fuel.
These are just a few aspects in the current struggle to reduce our fossil fuel reliance and achieve the goals necessary to stave off environmental devastation. I have not touched subject including carbon taxes, nuclear power, subsidies, and shifting population demographics. Each could be its own deep dive. And by no means do I believe we are doing enough. We are moving at a glacier’s pace on environmental action. Addressing the climate crisis should be as much a daily headline as the COVID crisis. We remain in the position of being able to do something about this most important threat. Hopefully we have the right pieces falling into place to finally look like we give a damn.