Climate Change Hope or Delusion?

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I have a running debate with one of my friends about climate change, and it is all about the policy. Should we have a carbon tax? Cap and trade? Greater energy efficiency requirements?

There are so many options, and they are all fabulously fun to debate. But one thing that always comes up in our discussions is can anything work? Even if the US institutes an effective policy, what about China? If China follows suit, would India reduce its emissions too? And even if we are able to reduce emissions, which we have done in the past during economic downturns, would we be able to lower them during a time of global economic prosperity? Is it really something that can be sustained?

I argued for hope, he argued I was deluded, and inevitably disillusionment kicked in. Maybe he was right; how could we ever dramatically reduce our energy emissions without a unified global plan? And a unified global plan seems like a total impossibility.

But then something interesting popped into my newsfeed this week. The New York Times published a story reporting that emissions from energy makers (like power plants) globally have leveled off for the first time during a period of economic growth. This, it seems, has turned all of our arguments upside down. So how did we do it?

From the article:

“Dr. Birol [the International Energy Agency’s chief economist and incoming executive director] noted that many nations have promoted energy efficiency and low-carbon energy sources like hydroelectric, solar, wind and nuclear power. China, he noted, has worked to reduce carbon emissions as part of an intensive effort to limit environmental damage from economic development. That China appears to be successfully moving down that path, he said, portends well for the deal struck with the United States in November. China committed in that agreement to turning around its growth in carbon emissions by 2030, or earlier if possible, while increasing the share of non-fossil fuels in energy production to 20 percent of its menu.”

Here we are without a cohesive global political plan to reduce emissions, in a time of economic growth, and our emissions have not continued to explode; rather they’ve leveled off. This is a direct challenge to the arguments that such reductions are not only impossible but also would be economically devastating.

But before I start waving the “I told you so” flag, there are a lot of caveats, and the article is quick to point them out. First and foremost, we know that “One year does not a trend make.” This could be a blip on the radar, and only time will tell whether we continue to level off or even reduce our emissions. Moreover the article points out that these gains could be wiped out within a year if we don’t start replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy—and the technologies we need may not have been developed yet. So, maybe a good year, but may we hope for a good decade, century, or future? The article was not so sure.

So we can probably agree that this is not a slam-dunk, but a good first step. What I like about the article, though, is that it turned my climate change “delusion” that we can actually enact change into evidence-based climate change hope—we did it once; could next year be a replay? Ever the optimist, I say absolutely, but only time will tell. In the meantime, I’ve got one year’s worth of data in my pocket for those who argue it can’t be done. Here’s hoping that next year will follow suit!

Minda Berbeco
Short Bio

Minda Berbeco is the former Programs and Policy Director at NCSE.