Reducing emissions is not enough

I often see messages like “come on people, we need to save the planet! let’s all stop driving, stop flying, take cold showers and become vegans!”. Although it’s well intentioned, it’s sadly a wasted effort. It may even be counter productive.

The main environmental issue we are facing right now is global warming from greenhouse gases, primarily CO2. There is a great report from the IPCC describing in detail what we should expect if we do not limit these emissions. Things are made made much worse by the fact that CO2 emitted today is estimated to remain in the atmosphere for thousands of years. So even if we cut emissions to zero when things get too bad, by then it will be too late and things will be very bad for a really long time.

Looking at the IPCC reports, I would recommend cutting back emissions drastically as soon as possible. But global CO2 emissions are at an all time high, and growing strong.

If we could find a way to reduce emissions by 80% (which would require a lot more sacrifices than cold showers), that just means it takes five years to release what we release in a year today. But here comes the important part of this argument: that’s not enough. An emission that takes thousands of years to leave the atmosphere must only be put in the atmosphere by an amount that divided by a thousand leads to reasonable consequences. We need to cut back greenhouse gas emissions by 99.9%. And we need to do it fast.

One conclusion that I draw from this is that making cars that are more energy efficient is a bad idea. Fossil fuel cars needs be made obsolete. Making fossil fuel cars more efficient does nothing to promote the alternatives that we need to move to. Tesla, Nissan Leaf, VW e-Golf are available today. As a matter of fact, investments in developing more efficient fossil fuel cars may be net negative for the the environment. An electric car will be evaluated on economy compared to it’s fossil fuel alternatives. The more inefficient the fossil fuel car is the better the electric car will compare and the quicker the transition to fossil-free transportation. Cars are only one example, there are many similar arguments to be made.

Arguing for a transition to electric power can be met with the argument that the emissions will just move to coal plants generating the electricity. There is good news to be shared, should that argument come up: Solar energy (photovoltaics, PV) is already economically sound, with estimated electricity yield larger than expected credit cost for most parts of the populated world. Solar is already cheaper than coal and it will only get cheaper from here.

The more people can start being a part of the solution and stop being a part of the problem the better. The reason I said in the leading paragraph that cold shower, no-car, no-air vegan-ism may be counter productive is that we need massive technological development and massive investment in energy infrastructure. We need those who appreciate the gravity of this problem to fight for the solution. We need massive innovation and the way forward is through development and progress.

If you’re in a (very long) canoe and you refuse to paddle, that really doesn’t do much if all the other folks in the canoe are paddling with an ever increasing fervour towards a waterfall. We need to make everyone put up sails and start going upstream.

Please let me know (e.g. @torkeld on twitter) if there is anything unclear in this argument.


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