Burning fossil fuels is said to be the root cause of climate change, but it’s not true. So, what’s the real driver? We’ll get to the answer in a moment. But first, let’s look at a few facts about our climate crisis and get a feel for the scope of the problem.
- How Hot Will Earth Get?
- What Happens If Earth’s Temperature Rises by 3 Degrees Celsius?
- What’s the Root Cause of Climate Change?
- Solutions? Maybe
- Maybe the Rich Are the Root Cause of Climate Change
How Hot Will Earth Get?
We don’t know exactly; global temperature projections vary according to the assumptions used. But current evidence points to a rise in Earth’s temperature of at least 3 degrees Celsius by the end of the century.
Even if all countries meet their climate action commitments under the 2015 Paris Agreement, the planet is heading for a 3.2°C global temperature rise over pre-industrial levels by 2100. That’s according to the annual Emissions Gap Report compiled by the latest UN Environment Programme. 1 Meantime, the U.N. World Meteorological Organization recently issued a statement forecasting a rise of between 3°C and 5°C. 2 For more on this issue, see: Our Climate Plan Can’t Cope.
What Happens If Earth’s Temperature Rises by 3 Degrees Celsius?
We don’t know for certain what the effects of global warming will be by the end of the century. Climate models can’t yet cope with the complexities of our climate system and its meteorological weather patterns. Even so, scientists have a reasonable idea of how rising temperatures are likely to impact the planet in such a case, and it’s not pleasant.
Extreme weather events (hurricanes, cyclones, floods, heatwaves, marine heatwaves) will become more frequent and more intense, rainforests will dry out, and large areas of permafrost will start thawing. Some of these effects of global warming are likely to trigger irreversible sequences or ‘climate tipping points‘, involving runaway polar ice melt and the like. To understand the concerns, see: Antarctic Ice Sheet: How Fast is it Melting?
Okay, now that we’ve set the scene let’s deal with the real driver of climate change.
What’s the Root Cause of Climate Change?
The main driver of our climate crisis is human consumption, which (incidentally) is going to get much worse, very quickly.
Human consumption – by which we mean the human use and exploitation of Earth’s resources – is driven by three things: (a) population growth (b) economic development and (c) greed. These three drivers together constitute the root cause of climate change. The impact of the first two will get much worse as the century unfolds. The third may well prevent us from finding the necessary solutions.
Population Growth: The No 1 Root Cause of Climate Change
As of March 2020, the world’s population was estimated to be 7.8 billion. 5 Since the year 2000, it has risen by an average of 84 million people per year. This is 50 percent more people than the annual average during the 20th century. Demographers expect it to reach 8 billion in about 2023, 9 billion by 2037, 10 billion by 2056 and 11 billion by 2100. 6
To put these figures into the context of global warming, the population in 1800 (shortly after the start of the Industrial Revolution) was 1 billion, and in 1900 (the baseline for pre-industrial temperature levels) it was 1.7 billion. Today, there are 6.1 billion extra people to feed, clothe and provide for. These 6.1 billion extra human beings are the root cause of today’s climate change.
Some of the greatest growth is in the poorest areas, where large families are seen as a form of wealth and an insurance against poverty and starvation in old age. Take Ethiopia, for instance. When famine struck the country in 1985, the population of the country was 36 million. The famine eventually ended, and their current population is now 112 million. In 1960, there were only 28 million people in the entire country. (Source: Knoema Data)
It is the consumption of resources by this mass of humanity (such as water, food, housing, heat, power, transport, health services and material possessions) that leads to the burning of coal and natural gas for energy, and petroleum for transportation.
And as we know, the combustion of ever larger amounts of fossil fuel produces ever larger greenhouse gas emissions, which ramps up the greenhouse effect which traps heat in the atmosphere and leads to global warming.
But it’s all because of the huge rise in global population. More people need more food, more energy, more houses and more stuff, and it all causes more emissions and more global warming.
Yes, renewable energies don’t emit greenhouse gases, and by switching to them (as we are) we are lowering our emissions. But this switch is happening far too slowly. In fact, the percentage of primary energy supplied by renewable energy has hardly changed over the past 20 years. In 2000, coal, oil and natural gas accounted for 86 percent of the world’s energy consumption. (Source: International Energy Agency.) In 2018, they accounted for 85 percent. (Source: BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2019.)
Looking ahead, global population is due to be 28 percent larger by 2056, and 41 percent larger by 2100. Some experts already say this is likely to cause an increase in demand for food of between 50 and 90 percent, by 2050. The demand for animal-based foods is forecast to rise by almost 70 percent. 7 8
With food demand rising so fast, the crunch issue is going to be the battle between agriculture and global warming. Some political leaders are already demanding more forest clearance and more space for cattle. But more deforestation and more cattle will create more emissions of carbon dioxide and methane, which will simply add to global warming, making it progressively more difficult to increase food production because of extreme heat, soil erosion and reduced crop nutrition.
Extreme heat, for example, can be fatal to plants. If temperatures exceed the physiological limits of a plant, they lead to higher desiccation rates. In addition, they also affect plant phenology – that is, the timing of certain plant life-cycle events such as flowering. 9
Excessive heat can destabilize vernalisation in wheat, or cause spikelet sterility in rice, or reduce pollen viability in maize. During flowering, for instance, crop yields can suffer severe reductions if temperatures exceed critical limits for as little as 1 hour.
When extreme heat is combined with lack of water in the soil (either from drought, or from downpours causing excessive run-off), the effect on crops – including corn and soybean – is much more serious. Unfortunately, rainfall patterns are forecast to become more and more unbalanced, with long dry spells in some areas, and dangerous floods in others. The World Health Organization predicts that, by 2025, 50 percent of the world’s population will be living in water-stressed areas. 10
What’s more, extreme heat leads inevitably to rising seas that can swamp fertile delta fields, as well as coastal lands and wetlands, destroying valuable agricultural land and displacing hundreds of millions of people. 11
Development: The No 2 Root Cause of Climate Change
The United States is the world’s richest country. But two centuries ago, it was a developing country, doing its best to grow and prosper. Today, many developing countries are doing the same, and we in the developed world must afford them the same opportunity to achieve their potential.
India, for example, contributes a significant share of global emissions, but a great deal of her economic activity is essentially directed at fighting poverty rather than creating yet more affluence. Providing food, shelter and employment for its 1.3 billion citizens (17.7 percent of the total world population) means that India is going to emit substantial amounts of greenhouse gases. Even so, India’s per capita emissions are eight times smaller than those of the United States, Canada or Australia.
The Paris Climate Agreement recognizes the need for equality of development in two ways. First, by accepting that a developing country’s greenhouse gas emissions are going to peak later than those of a developed country. Secondly, by recognizing that developing countries need financial and technical resources to help mitigate and increase resilience to climate change.
It is this implicit right of development that is going to raise human consumption to higher and higher levels during the rest of the century. For example, as of 2020, at least 60 countries have a carbon footprint per person of less than 1. 12 Hopefully, all of them will raise their standard of living significantly by 2100, even though this will add significantly to global emissions and thus to climate change.
A key indicator of economic development is calorie-intake. According to the IPCC’s Special Report on Climate Change and Land (2019), consumption of food calories per person worldwide has increased by about 33 percent since 1961, and the average person’s consumption of meat and vegetable oils has more than doubled.
Unfortunately, providing more calories to the citizens of developing countries is going to put even more pressure on agriculture, which fails to feed the world’s current population, let alone the 3.2 billion extra mouths expected by 2100.
Basic infrastructure development is another major contributor to global warming.
This can include the development of roads and rail connections, as well as the construction of power plants, hydroelectric dams, cement factories, fertilizer factories, a new airport, and so on. All of these projects, to a greater or lesser extent, involve the use of concrete. Unfortunately, a major ingredient of concrete is cement, which is second only to carbon dioxide as a driver of global warming because of the staggeringly high CO2 emissions released during its manufacture. For more, see: Cement Emissions Bad for Climate Change.
Since 1990, global production of cement has almost quadrupled, with Asia accounting for the bulk of this growth. China, for instance, used more cement in the three years 2011, 2012 and 2013, than the United States did during the entire course of the 20th Century. 13
As developing countries expand their industrial base, they often face increasing urbanization which leads to more construction and higher cement emissions. This is reflected in new forecasts showing that most future growth in construction is set to take place in the emerging markets of South East Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.
Greed: The No 3 Root Cause of Climate Change
Greed is defined as an “intense and selfish desire for something, especially wealth, power, or food.” (Google’s English dictionary, provided by Oxford Languages.) In the context of climate action, this definition perfectly sums up the main motivation of the wealthy countries of the world.
The Gulf States, Canada, the United States, Russia and China are the wealthiest nations in terms of fossil fuel reserves. They, and other countries like them, have little interest in divesting themselves of their energy assets. As far as they’re concerned, their coal, oil and gas reserves represent real economic power, which they are not going to give up.
So when the UNFCCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) or Greenpeace call for a drastic reduction in fossil fuel combustion, the wealthiest nations nod vigorously but do nothing.
The rest of the world have few options. The top 5 fossil fuel producers not only control most of the world’s energy, they also account for more than 45 percent of global GDP.
These nations are concerned about global warming. They may suffer from serious smog, or other forms of air pollution involving wildfires, or fossil fuel pollution. And they may even be leaders in the development of renewable energy, such as solar, wind or hydropower. But they are not going to stop selling and using fossil fuels.
Some of them are actively pushing natural gas as the new “clean fuel”. Except it’s not. “Gas is a major concern,” says Bill Hare, chief executive officer of environmental group Climate Analytics. “Governments are acting as if this fossil fuel is somehow clean. Yet gas was responsible for half the increase in CO2 emissions from fossil fuel consumption in 2017-18.” 14
Similarly, wood has suddenly become reborn as a clean fuel. (Which it most certainly is not.) In April, 2018, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that wood burning was “carbon-neutral”. The EU has since followed suit (along with other countries), ignoring the advice of its own scientific committee in the process. These countries do not care that their approval is already causing the loss of primary growth forests in the Southern United States and Europe, despite the fact that tree conservation is a stated objective of the Paris Agreement (2015) to which both the US and EU are signatories.
In January 2020, the British Meteorological Office advised that Australia’s bushfires of 2019-2020 were expected to contribute 2 percent to the increase in the atmospheric level of carbon dioxide. That’s about 1 billion tonnes worth of heat-trapping greenhouse gas. If this is what carbon neutrality looks like, we are all in deep trouble.
Human Consumption and Population Growth are Culprits Say Top Scientists
In a major article, eminent scientists from UCLA and Stanford University in the US, and Flinders University in Australia, have warned of a ghastly future for humanity due to the unchecked effects of global warming.
Citing 150 studies, the scientists identify a series of scary trends in biodiversity decline, mass extinction, climate disruption, and planetary “toxification”, all of which are linked to human consumption and population growth. Prof Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University, an expert in mass extinction, said lack of political leadership, combined with global disinformation campaigns designed to protect short-term profits, make it doubtful that the climate action needed will be made in time. 15
There are two theoretical ways to cope with the root cause of climate change, and reconcile the needs of a growing and developing world population with the need to tackle our climate crisis.
(a) We can develop renewable energies that don’t contribute to global warming, or (b) We can agree a maximum per capita carbon footprint for all countries. Neither is problem-free.
Unfortunately, while we all know the benefits of renewable energy, switching from fossil fuels to renewables is not quite as simple as it sounds. Renewables have yet to prove themselves in the area of transport and heating. 16 Also, the storage of renewable electric energy (batteries), as well as the integration of intermittent renewable energies (like wind power and solar energy) into national grid systems, is still under development.
In other words, it’s going to take a lot more money to develop the technologies needed to store and distribute renewable power.
In its 2018 Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C, the IPCC warned that the world needed to invest $2.4 trillion in clean energy every year through 2035 in order to keep global warming below 2°C. That’s 8 times the amount (US$311 billion) that was was invested in renewable energy in 2019. 17
And here’s the problem: the wealthiest countries can’t/won’t agree on a global investment strategy to ramp up the supply of renewables. But they still give out huge fossil fuel subsidies.
The latest International Monetary Fund (IMF) report (2018) estimates 6.5 percent of global GDP (US$5.2 trillion) is spent on fossil fuel subsidies; a 500 billion dollar increase since 2015. The largest subsidizers are China (US$1.4 trillion in 2015), the United States (US$649 billion) and Russia (US$551 billion).
According to the IMF, “fossil fuels account for 85 percent of all global subsidies,” and reducing these subsidies “would have lowered global carbon emissions by 28 percent and fossil fuel air pollution deaths by 46 percent, and increased government revenue by 3.8 percent of GDP.” An Overseas Development Institute study found that subsidies for coal-fired power increased almost three-fold, to US$47.3 billion per year, from 2014 to 2017. 18
It’s important to note that the figure of US$5.2 trillion includes the full social and environmental costs of fossil fuels. Air pollution is costed at $2.3 trillion worldwide. The cost of global warming is reckoned to be $40 per ton of carbon emitted. That comes to $1.1 trillion. The costs of traffic, of road upkeep, and of car fatalities are assessed at $735 billion. 19
These costs are real enough, and fossil fuel companies should not get away scot-free from these liabilities, but no one is actually writing a check to these companies for US$5.2 trillion.
The amount that governments actually pay over to fossil fuel companies by way of direct subsidy is around US$296 billion per annum, of which (at a conservative estimate) the US goverment contributes roughly US$20 billion a year – 20 percent to coal and 80 percent to natural gas and petroleum. EU subsidies come to about $55 billion per year. In addition, fossil fuel companies are also in receipt of numerous grants and subsidies for R & D, much of which is aimed at carbon capture and storage technologies to reduce fossil fuel emissions.
Researchers still debate the fine points of subsidies. Even so, it’s safe to say that fossil fuel subsidies have outlived their usefulness and should go. At least one study has recently pointed out that subsidies could increase oil production by a fifth by 2050, equivalent to 6 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions. 20
Instead of paying the fossil fuel companies to pollute the planet, we should be charging them for some of the damage they’re causing, which – as the IMF report shows – is massive. The United States took US$4.5 billion from BP for damage caused by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. It should be able to sue the oil and gas companies for damaging the planet.
It’s worth noting, that even as they agree on the need to decarbonize and reduce emissions, fossil fuel companies wage a constant guerilla campaign against it in the background. For example, the top 5 publicly-owned oil and gas companies in America – BP, Shell, ExxonMobil, Chevron and Total – spend about US$200 million annually on climate lobbying to delay, control or block policies designed to tackle climate change. 21
Financial Arguments No Obstacle to Climate Action
According to a wide range of financial experts and research institutes, financial opposition to climate change mitigation is not credible. Evidence shows clearly that the future benefits of climate action overwhelmingly outweigh the future costs of doing nothing. 22 To start with a trivial example, the UK National Audit Office estimates that for every £1 spent on climate change adaptation measures to protect communities from flooding, roughly £9 in property damages and other costs may be avoided. See also: Sponge Cities – A Solution To Urban Flooding?
According to a joint report from The Hamilton Project and the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, U.S. carbon taxes would produce significant reductions in CO2 emissions together with environmental benefits in excess of the costs. 23
For example, an ambitious US$50 per ton price is calculated to reduce near-term emissions by 30 percent. It also reduces local air pollutants, including nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide and particulate matter (PM2.5), with significant improvements in human health. When all the benefits are added up, the carbon tax’s benefits exceed the cost of compliance by a factor of four. A major attraction of using a carbon tax to secure reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, (as opposed to adopting other conventional regulations for this purpose), is its ability to persuade the market to use the lowest-cost methods for reducing emissions.
Recent data corroborates the financial costs of air pollution around the world. New research from Greenpeace Southeast Asia and the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA), shows that air pollution from burning fossil fuels causes economic losses of US$2.9 trillion – roughly 3.3 percent of global GDP. The most affected countries include China (US$900 billion), the USA (US$600 billion) and India (US$150 billion). 24
Meantime, the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate states that transitioning to a low-carbon, sustainable growth pathway can deliver a direct economic windfall of US$26 trillion, and can generate more than 65 million new jobs by 2030, compared with business-as-usual. 22
Consumption Must Fall in Wealthier Countries
Another way of dealing with the root cause of climate change (in conjunction with renewables), is for richer nations to reduce their consumption to an agreed per capita carbon footprint.
For example, the average carbon footprint for a person in the United States is 15.5 tons, one of the highest rates in the world 12 This has to come down. According to the US environmental organization The Nature Conservancy, to have the best chance of avoiding a 2℃ rise in global temperatures, the average global carbon footprint per year needs to drop under 2 tons by 2050. 25 This seems way too radical. But 4-5 tons might be doable.
Countries would agree to limit their CO2-equivalent emissions to (say) 4.5 tons. So, a country with 1 million inhabitants will have a limit of 4.5 million tons of CO2. In practice, wealthier nations will have to reduce their emissions considerably, while poor countries will have room to develop.
Some of this reduction can be achieved simply by switching to forms of sustainable energy, such as wind, solar, hydro, biomass, geothermal, wave, tidal power and so on. But not all. Come what may, wealthier nations will inevitably have to reduce their actual consumption. This is only to be expected, given the fact they already use a far greater share of the world’s resources than other countries.
Wealthy Countries Consume Too Many Resources
As soon as we resolve the climate crisis there’ll be another crisis – maybe we’ll run out of copper or lithium or trees. Or maybe we’ll pollute the oceans so badly that we’ll kill all the oxygen-producing phytoplankton. The point is, there’s going to be a continuous crisis of resources. Why? Because humans consume too many resources, create too much pollution and kill too many animals.
Earth Overshoot Day is the day of the year when humanity has used up nature’s resource budget for the entire year. In 2019 (the last full year before the COVID shutdown) Earth Overshoot Day fell on July 29. This means we’re using up the resources of about 1.7 Earths. It’s a very clear measurement of how human consumption is becoming more and more unsustainable.
According to National Geographic’s Greendex, U.S. consumers rank last of 17 countries surveyed in regard to sustainable behavior. Furthermore, U.S. consumers are among the least likely to feel guilty about the impact their behavior has on the environment.
Its per capita use of energy, metals, minerals, forest products, fish, grains, meat, and even fresh water dwarfs that of people living in the developing world. 28
The United States has a per capita carbon footprint of 16.1 tons of carbon, per year. By comparison, the EU has a per capita footprint of 8.7 tons – 54 percent less. But billions of people in the developing world have a footprint of less than 2 tons.
In practice, this means that one American causes about the same amount of global warming as:
-9 North Koreans
The Average U.S. Adult Wastes One Million Dollars
The United States needs to reduce its consumption of energy and material possessions. A huge amount of this spending is non-essential. According to research commissioned by Ladder and conducted by OnePoll, the average adult in the USA spends $1,497 a month on nonessential items. This adds up to almost $18,000 a year – or more than a million dollars over the course of an adult lifetime. 29
Maybe the Rich Are the Root Cause of Climate Change
Then there are the rich. It’s the rich who are to blame for the global climate crisis, says a new study of 86 countries by the University of Leeds. The study shows that the richest 10 percent consume about 20 times more energy than the bottom 10 percent, wherever they live. 30
The gap is largest in travel and transport, where the top 10 percent use 187 times more fuel than the bottom 10 percent, the research says. This confirms previous research showing that 15 percent of UK travellers take 70 percent of all flights, while 57 percent of people in the UK don’t fly abroad at all.
According to a new report published by Oxfam and the Stockholm Environment Institute, the wealthiest 1 percent in the world were responsible for the emission of more than twice as much CO2 as the poorer 50 percent of the world, from 1990 to 2015. The report also warns that rampant overconsumption and the rich world’s addiction to high-carbon transport, are exhausting the world’s “carbon budget”. 31
Anyone who works hard and makes sacrifices is entitled to enjoy the rewards. But no one gets carte blanche to do what they like. Especially if their luxury is acquired at the expense of another person’s necessities. The well-being of our families, communities and nations, depends upon a fair share of resources.
Notice we’re not saying ‘equal’: we’re saying ‘fair’.
Veteran environmentalist David Attenborough puts it best in a recent podcast. He said that Nature would flourish once again when “those that have a great deal, perhaps, have a little less.” 32
The richest 10 percent may not agree that the disparity in consumption between them and the poorest 10 percent is unfair, but it’s safe to say that if they had to swap places with their less fortunate cousins, they’d change their minds pretty quickly. In fact, it’s probably safe to say that many rich people in the West have absolutely no idea how few resources are available to most people in the developing world.
Think what an educational experience it would be for members of the rich, white ruling class in the United States – the only major country to have quit the Paris Agreement – to be flown into (say) the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and left there for a couple of weeks to sample the life of ordinary people on average income.
The reality of our Anthropocene Epoch, is that we are gradually depleting Planet Earth of its natural resources. Our way of behaving is not sustainable and at some point, in the not too distant future, there is going to be no more planet.
Unless we change.
- “Emissions Gap Report 2019.”
- “WMO Press Release.” 15 January 2020.
- “What will 2°C and 4°C of warming mean for sea level rise?” Carbon Brief.
- The Carbon Brief Interactive article cites the PDF report “Carbon, Climate and Rising Seas.” 2015. sealevel.climatecentral.org/
- “World Population: 2020 Overview.”
- “World > Probabilistic Projections > Population > Total Population.”
- “Global Demand for Food Is Rising. Can We Meet It?” by Maarten Elferink and Florian Schierhorn. Harvard Business Review. April 7, 2016.
- “Creating A Sustainable Food Future: Final Report.” WRI 2019. Executive Summary.
- “Phylogenetic patterns of species loss in Thoreau’s woods are driven by climate change”. Willis CG, et al. November 2008. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 105 (44): 17029–33
- “Drinking Water.” World Health Organization.
- “Sea-level rise due to polar ice-sheet mass loss during past warm periods.” A. Dutton, A. E. Carlson, A. J. Long, G. A. Milne, P. U. Clark, R. DeConto, B. P. Horton, S. Rahmstorf, M. E. Raymo. Science 10 Jul 2015: Vol. 349, Issue 6244, aaa4019
- Emissions Database for Global Atmospheric Research (EDGAR) 2020.
- US Geological Survey statistics. See: “How did China use more cement between 2011 and 2013 than the US used in the entire 20th century?”
- “Global update: Governments still showing little sign of acting on climate crisis.”
- “Underestimating the Challenges of Avoiding a Ghastly Future.” Corey J. A. Bradshaw, Paul R. Ehrlich, Andrew Beattie, Gerardo Ceballos, Eileen Crist, Joan Diamond, Rodolfo Dirzo, Anne H. Ehrlich, John Harte,9, Mary Ellen Harte, Graham Pyke, Peter H. Raven, William J. Ripple, Frédérik Saltré, Christine Turnbull, Mathis Wackernagel and Daniel T. Blumstein. Front. Conserv. Sci., 13 January 2021.
- International Energy Agency (2018)
- “Global investment in the power sector by technology, 2010-2020.”
- “Fossil Fuel Subsidies.” IMF.
- “The Hidden Subsidy of Fossil Fuels.” Robinson Meyer. The Atlantic. May 9, 2019
- Nature Energy, Vol 2, November 2017. p 891–898.
- Forbes.com/Statista. 2019
- “Climate economics – costs and benefits.” Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit. 2020.
- “Ten facts about the economics of climate change and climate policy.” A joint report from The Hamilton Project and the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research. October 23, 2019.
- “Air pollution from fossil fuels costs the world US$8 billion every day: Greenpeace.” Greenpeace Southeast Asia February 12, 2020.
- “Carbon Footprint.” The Nature Conservancy.
- “What is the United States’ share of world energy consumption?” EIA.
- “What countries are the top producers and consumers of oil?” EIA.
- “Use It and Lose It: The Outsize Effect of U.S. Consumption on the Environment.” Scientific American. September 14, 2012.
- “Americans spend at least $18,000 a year on these non-essential costs.”
- “Large inequality in international and intranational energy footprints between income groups and across consumption categories.” Oswald, Y., Owen, A. & Steinberger, J.K. Nat Energy 5, 231–239 (2020).
- “Carbon emissions of richest 1 percent more than double the emissions of the poorest half of humanity.”
- “Attenborough: ‘Curb excess capitalism’ to save nature.” BBC News. Oct 8, 2020.