: Climate Crisis Explained

Earth’s Climate Crisis

It’s no longer a matter of climate change – it’s a climate crisis. 1 Almost every day you can see the effects of global warming on TV or your cellphone. Earth’s temperature is climbing, polar ice sheets are melting, glaciers are disappearing, sea levels are rising and coral reefs are vanishing.

Meantime, Delhi and Beijing are experiencing deadly levels of air pollution, while Australia, the Arctic and the Amazon Rainforest are experiencing runaway wildfires.

In recent weeks, an estimated half a billion mammals, birds, and reptiles have been killed in the Australian fires alone, including an estimated 25,000 koala bears burnt to death in a matter of days. 2

Planet Earth is in distress. We hear about it almost every day. But many of the world’s governments aren’t interested in reaching agreement on climate action because they are too busy protecting their “national interests.” For more, see: Root Cause of Climate Change.

How Hot Can The Planet Get?

No one knows. Climate models suggest that, if left unchecked, temperatures could rise by between 4.8°C and 5.7°C (8.6°F to 10.2°F) by the end of the century. 3 To grasp the full impact of a global 5°C temperature rise, remember that all the effects of global warming we’re seeing so far are the result of a 1°C increase. (See also: Why Does A Half-Degree Rise in Temperature Make Such a Difference to the Planet?)

Why Is The Planet Getting Hotter?

The scientific consensus on rising temperatures is pretty clear. Things are getting hotter because the usually benign greenhouse effect has been seriously unbalanced by the surge in man-made greenhouse gases (GHGs), like carbon dioxide (CO2), caused by the burning of fossil fuels in our power plants, factories, homes and cars. Cement industry CO2 emissions are another significant contributor.

What’s The Solution To Our Climate Crisis?

For more than a decade, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has been saying that in order to deal with the climate crisis we need to make dramatic cuts in our greenhouse gas emissions by phasing out fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas) and replacing them with renewable sources of energy.

In its last major bulletin on global warming in 2018, the IPCC says we need to reduce our emissions by 45 percent (from 2010 levels) by 2030, and reach net-zero emissions by 2050. This will limit the rise in Earth’s temperature to 1.5°C in 2100, saving us from the worst of the effects.

Okay, So Are We Reducing Our Emissions Of Greenhouse Gases?

No. In fact, our emissions are increasing. In 2018, emissions of carbon dioxide grew by 2 percent, the highest increase for seven years. 4

CO2 Emissions Target Gap Infographic
The Growing CO2 Emissions Gap. Image: © Climate Action Tracker. 2019

Are We Reducing The Amount Of CO2 In The Atmosphere?

No. In fact, globally averaged concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the troposphere (lower atmosphere) reached 407.8 parts per million (ppm) in 2018, an increase of 2.5 ppm. 5

Are We Using Fewer Fossil Fuels?

No. In fact, we’re using more. Global energy production for 2018 showed increases across all fossil fuels: coal production is up 1.9 percent; petroleum is up 2 percent; natural gas is up 5.2 percent. 6 To make matters worse, China is continuing to invest in coal-fired power stations. Edward Cunningham, a specialist on China and its energy markets, at Harvard University, says that China is building or planning more than 300 coal plants in places such as Egypt, Turkey, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines. 7 Does the Beijing government realize there’s a climate crisis?

Are We Consuming Less Energy?

No. In fact, we’re consuming more. Energy consumption for 2018 is up by 2.3 percent. 6

How Much Renewable Energy Is The World Using?

Renewable energy accounts for roughly 11 percent of total global energy, and 26 percent of global electrical power. Renewable sources of energy are growing, and they’re getting cheaper, but their availability is ridiculously small. So, it’s hardly surprising that fossil fuels continue to dominate.

Global Energy Sources: 2018
Global Electricity Energy Sources

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, electricity generation in the United States in 2018 was sourced from fossil fuels (about 63 percent), nuclear energy (about 19 percent), and renewable energy sources (about 18 percent).

US Electricity Generation by Fuel Type

How Much Renewable Energy Should The World Be Using?

The IPCC’s Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C (2018) lays out certain options (called 1.5°C pathways) that we can take in order to avoid the worst impacts of our climate crisis. A key characteristic of these pathways is the mix of fossil fuels and renewables that should be used. The overall aim is the reduction of CO2 emissions (from 2010 levels) to “net-zero” by 2050, to be achieved via cut-backs in fossil fuel consumption and corresponding increases in the use of clean energy like wind, solar, hydro, geothermal and bioenergy.

The IPCC’s middle-of-the-range options assume:

Renewable sources will supply 50-66 percent of global energy by 2050. 3

Electricity generation will be powered by fossil fuels (10 percent), with 8 percent coming from natural gas, and no more than 2 percent from coal; renewables will supply about 70–85 percent of electricity, with nuclear energy supplying the balance.

All fossil fuel usage after 2050 will be neutralized through carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies. 3

Most of the 1.5°C pathways foresee an increased role for nuclear power (currently supplying 4 percent of global energy), in one scenario up to 20 percent by 2050. But in some pathways nuclear power decreases.

The IPCC’s assessments rely heavily on the use of carbon capture and storage 8 to neutralize CO2 emissions of fossil fuels, and cites the potential of clean energy technologies like energy storage (such as lithium-ion batteries), even as it warns about the availability of resources and their impact on the environment. If CCS technologies fail to live up to their billing, or if lithium supplies dry up, renewables will not be able to fill the gap. In such a case, nuclear power may be the only emission-free option available. (Please see our article: Is Nuclear Power a Replacement For Fossil Fuels?)

Solar Panel Farm, Ukraine
Starokazache Solar Station, Ukraine. Installed over an area of 200 acres, it consists of 185,952 solar panels. It generates enough energy to supply 11,000 households and saves up to 44,000 tons of CO2 emissions per year. Photo: © Activ Solar

How Can Renewable Energy Grow Faster?

Despite promising growth, the use of renewables needs to expand much more quickly in all three main energy sectors – heat, transportation and electricity generation – to have any chance of meeting long-term climate goals as set out in the IPCC Special Report on Global Warming 1.5°C. At current rates, fossil fuels will remain the dominant global energy source well after 2050 – the date set by the IPCC for “net-zero” fossil fuel emissions.

Renewable power consumption increased by 14 percent in 2018, providing 26 percent of the world’s electricity. 9 Which makes electrical power generation the most promising sector for renewables. This is based on the recent exponential growth of solar photovoltaics and wind, as well as the significant contribution of hydropower. But, electricity accounts for only 20 percent of global energy consumption, thus the growth of renewable energy in the transportation and heating sectors remains critical to the move away from fossil fuels. In these two sectors, renewables are forecast to enjoy only modest growth over the next five years. 10

Frequently Asked Questions About Global Warming
For answers to popular questions on all aspects of rising temperatures caused by human actions, see: 50 Climate Change FAQs, and 50 FAQs About Global Warming.

More Investment And Better Infrastructure Urgently Needed

Investment of $2.9 trillion in renewables since 2004 11 , is highly positive but, not nearly enough if we want this climate crisis to blow over. What’s more, Bloomberg New Energy Finance counted a mere $138.2 billion in clean energy investments during the first half of 2018. In contrast, says the International Energy Agency (IEA), to boost take-up of renewables in the power industry to the levels needed to limit warming to 1.5°C, an annual investment of $2.4 trillion is required.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, moving to a low-carbon, energy-efficient society requires large-scale public and private investment in energy infrastructure, including smart grid systems capable of interfacing with and integrating supplies from renewable sources. Since solar power ceases at night and wind power fluctuates with the wind, it’s vital to be able to store this power to guarantee continuity of supply.

In addition, if the motor industry is to be decarbonized, each country needs to establish a national network of electrical charging points, capable of facilitating long distance travel.

How Popular Are Renewable Fuels In Europe?

Renewables are already playing an important role in Europe. Denmark leads the way with 69 percent of electrical power coming from renewables, while in Germany and the UK the proportion of electricity generated from renewable energy sources is 32 percent. Other countries where renewable sources contribute more than 20 percent of electrical power include: Spain, Italy, Portugal, Finland and Ireland. It’s a reasonable start but more needs to be done. 12

Why Are Governments Refusing to Take Our Climate Crisis Seriously?

As this article shows, when it comes to the use of fossil fuels it is very much “business as usual” for most governments and corporations. While all profess to accept the seriousness of climate change, few seem to be sufficiently impressed by the climate science to make the necessary changes in practice. For example, try answering the following questions:

  • When was the last time your President or leader appeared on TV specially to talk about climate change and what the government was actually doing (as opposed to making plans) about it?
  • Does your government have a full-scale ministry or government department devoted to climate change?
  • Has your government explained why global warming is happening and what lifestyle changes can help to mitigate it?
  • Has your government announced that it’s drawing up plans to encourage power companies to transition to renewable sources of energy?
  • Has your government announced that it’s drawing up plans to help workers in fossil-fuel businesses find jobs in other sectors?
  • Has your government announced that it’s actively building a national network of electrical power points capable of servicing the millions of electric cars that will soon appear on the roads?
  • Do you know of any oil company that is preparing its shareholders for the need to switch most of its operations into non-fossil fuels by 2050?
  • Do you know that the climate change denial machine is financed by conservative think tanks and fossil fuel companies, and uses the same type of anti-science strategies as those used by Big Tobacco in its campaign to prove that cigarettes had nothing to do with lung cancer.

Then again, we can’t expect governments to do what’s best for their citizens any more than oil companies are likely to give up their profits merely to save the world from extinction. They need to be pushed to accept the ethics of climate change and to do the right thing.

Hurricane Michael on Mexico Beach, Florida. 2019
Destruction Caused by the Category 5 Hurricane Michael on Mexico Beach, Florida. 2019. Photo: © Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety

Do We Need A Massive Carbon Tax?

Oil companies and power plant operators can be pushed into using more clean energy, but not overnight. They need to know that the future is much brighter for renewables than for fossil fuels. One way of doing this is to levy a very high carbon tax – introduced in phases over (say) 5 years – to force fossil fuel companies to pay for the environmental effects of fossil fuels and to encourage them to switch to greener energy sources.

Of course, before imposing any carbon tax, governments need to ensure that greener alternatives are available and that, where necessary, the right infrastructure is in place to enable consumers to switch to cleaner energies.

How Does A Carbon Tax Work?

A carbon tax – a form of carbon pricing – is a tax levied on the carbon content of fossil fuels, which is designed to reduce the use of emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, so as to mitigate global warming. The idea is that by making fossil fuels more expensive, corporations will switch to tax-free renewable fuels. Research confirms that carbon taxes do lower greenhouse gas emissions, although success rates vary. 13 Researchers have noted a consistently high level of public support for a well designed carbon tax. 14

Carbon is present in every kind of hydrocarbon fuel – that is, fossil fuels like coal, oil, natural gas as well as their derivatives like kerosene, paraffin and LPG – and is released as carbon dioxide (CO2) whenever this kind of fuel is burned. CO2 is the compound primarily responsible for the “greenhouse” effect of trapping heat within the Earth’s lower atmosphere, making it one of the main triggers for global warming. With the exception of bioenergy from wood burning, renewable fuels are carbon-neutral and do not emit CO2. (See our article on The Carbon Cycle: How Does it Work?.)

More than 70 countries and regions have introduced carbon taxes, including: Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Iceland, Ireland, Japan, Mexico and Portugal. Tax rates vary enormously from around $10 per ton to almost $140 per ton. Tax revenues are typically ploughed back into energy efficiency measures or the environmental needs of low-income groups.

Are Leading Economists In Favour Of A Carbon Tax?

In May 2017, a group of leading economists including Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz and former World Bank chief economist Nicholas Stern, called on countries to impose higher taxes on CO2 emissions in order to alleviate the catastrophic risks of global warming. The level of tax should be levied at $40-$80 per metric tonne by 2020. The aim is to meet the emissions targets called for under the Paris Climate Agreement (2015). 15

Restrain The Big Polluters

In a response to the IPCC’s Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C (2018), Kevin Anderson – Professor of Energy and Climate Change at the University of Manchester – argues that almost 50 percent of all global CO2 emissions are caused by the activities of about 10 percent of the population. By imposing a limit on the per-capita carbon footprint of these high emitters, to bring them into line with (say) the carbon footprint of an average European citizen, global emissions could be reduced by one third in a matter of a year or two. 16

Conclusion: Our Climate Crisis is Getting Worse

  • With a few exceptions, governments, sub-national authorities and fossil fuel producers all seem to be heading in completely the wrong direction. Our greenhouse gas emissions are going up, instead of coming down – hence the huge emissions gap that has now opened up – while our dependence on coal, oil and natural gas has hardly changed.
  • Within 30 years, renewable sources are supposed to supply 50-66 percent of global energy. In addition, renewables are supposed to generate 70–85 percent of all electricity. Given the predicted 45 percent increase in population and the predicted 80 percent (minimum) increase in food demand, these objectives seem far fetched, to put it mildly.
  • According to all the available evidence, the current climate crisis is shaping up to become a real emergency, and it demands an emergency response from our governments. Instead, we are told everything is fine. Meantime, scientists are telling us that our society, our lifestyles and our expectations can be radically transformed within a matter of a decade.
  • It doesn’t add up. Our climate system is in distress, the clouds are gathering and we are being told to relax and stick our heads in the sand.

References

  1. World Scientists Warning of a Climate Emergency.” William J Ripple, Christopher Wolf, Thomas M Newsome, Phoebe Barnard, William R Moomaw. BioScience, Volume 70, Issue 1, January 2020, Pages 8–12,
    Note: Corrigendum (1) []
  2. Climate Crisis: “Thousands of koalas burn to death as Australia fears native wildlife may never recover from bush fire disaster.” Giovanni Torre (Perth). Daily Telegraph, London. January 5, 2020. (2) []
  3. IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C: Summary for policymakers: (3) [][][]
  4. Emissions Gap Report 2019. Executive Summary.” U.N. Environment Programme. (4) []
  5. Greenhouse Gas Bulletin (2019). World Meteorological Organization (WMO) (5) []
  6. Global Energy Statistical Yearbook (2019) (6) [][]
  7. “Why Is China Placing A Global Bet on Coal?” Steve Inskeep, Ashley Westerman. NPR. April 29, 2019. (7) []
  8. The health and climate impacts of carbon capture and direct air capture.” Mark Z. Jacobson. Energy & Environmental Science. Issue 12, 2019. (8) []
  9. B.P. Statistical Review of World Energy 2019. (9) []
  10. Renewables 2018. International Energy Agency (IEA). (10) []
  11. “Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment 2018.” U.N. Environment. Bloomberg New Energy Finance. (11) []
  12. “Which is better: carbon tax or cap-and-trade?” The Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment. 21 March, 2014. (12) []
  13. “Carbon Taxes: What Can We Learn from International Experience?” Gilbert Metcalf. Econofact. May 3, 2019. (13) []
  14. How to win public support for a global carbon tax.” Stefano Carattini et al; Nature 565, 289-291 (2019). (14) []
  15. “Sky-high carbon tax needed to avoid climate catastrophe, say experts.” The Guardian. Phillip Inman. 29 May 2017. (15) []
  16. Response to the IPCC 1.5°C Special Report.” Professor Kevin Anderson. (16) []
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