I share the frustration of the young activists as I listen to news from the Glasgow climate conference where wealthy countries want the summit to appear a success without putting up the cash and commitments to make it so. Meanwhile developing countries that feel the existential threat of climate change most keenly are unwilling to have their concerns smoothed over to make COP 26 look successful.
World leaders are making climate pledges. Nearly 100 countries have signed a pledge to cut methane emissions by 30% by 2030. Reducing this powerful but relatively short-lived greenhouse gas could stem temperature rise, improve health, cut crop losses and reduce pollution. Cutting methane emissions will have a relatively swift impact, potentially reducing global temperature rise by 1/3 of 1ºC by 2045.
Countries holding 85% of the world’s forests committed to halting and reversing deforestation and land degradation by 2030. India, one of the world’s biggest carbon emitters, pledged to get half of its energy from renewable resources, and to reduce its projected carbon emissions by a billion tons, by 2030. It also promised to get to net zero, but only as late as 2070.
India’s prime minister Modi also demanded that developed countries provide $1 trillion in climate action financing “as soon as possible, today.” The U.K. plans to spend $4.2 billion funding green technology abroad over the next five years. Japan made a $10 billion commitment over five years, to finance decarbonization across Asia.
But why pledging by 2030, 2050, even 2070, so many years away? Why no immediate action? Nothing by 2022? And why are developing countries yet to see the benefits from the $100 billion pledged in assistance years ago, calling into question all subsequent pledges? Could it be, simply, that bad habits like dependencies are very hard to break?
I am reminded of a cocktail party I attended back in 1964, after the surgeon general’s famous warning about cigarette smoking. Most of us there were smokers and conversations about the ominous warning filled the smoke-fogged air.
Cigarette in hand, I asked the elderly doctor who happened to be next to me for his advice: How might I quit my 3-packs-a-day habit?
“Don’t sweat it,” he replied, “You will quit when you find a good reason to do so.”
“Find a good reason” stuck in my mind. Two days later, having consulted the Sears Catalog, I purchased the radial arm saw I had long wanted for my home workshop, no money down. I found my good reason: I committed my cigarette money on something I wanted badly, but couldn’t really afford.
Like me to my three packs of Lucky Strikes, our well-to-do capitalist society is addicted to coal, oil and gas. Because of this, numerous energy subsidies exist in the U.S. tax code to promote or subsidize the production of cheap and abundant fossil energy.
Some of these subsidies have been around for a century, and while the United States has enjoyed unparalleled economic growth over the past 100 years, thanks in no small part to cheap energy, in many cases, the circumstances relevant when the subsidies were implemented no longer exist.
Today, the fossil fuel industries are mature and highly profitable. Additionally, numerous clean and renewable alternatives exist, which have become increasingly price-competitive with traditional fossil fuels.
Conservative estimates put U.S. direct subsidies to the fossil fuel industry at roughly $20 billion per year; with 20% allocated to coal and 80% to natural gas and crude oil. European Union subsidies are estimated to total $48 billion annually.
Historically, subsidies granted to the fossil fuel industry were designed to lower the cost of fossil fuel production and incentivize new domestic energy sources. There are also costs associated with fossil fuel use in the form of greenhouse gas emissions and other pollution resulting from the extraction and burning of fossil fuels. These negative externalities have adverse environmental, climate, and public health impacts, and are estimated by the International Monetary Fund to cost $5.3 trillion globally per year.
I found it very hard to kick my bad smoking habit 57 years ago. Committing my cigarette budget to something I wanted more made it easier. Between the E.U. and the U.S. we have $68 billion per year we could immediately commit to financing our transition from fossil fuels to 100% renewable energy, not to mention the post-COVID 19 economic recovery. Then, from the more than $5.32 trillion saved annually by not incurring the damaging externalities of our fossil fuel habit, the developed world could easily fulfill Mr. Modi’s trillion-dollar request and still have over $4 trillion left to spend on, say, renewable energy projects and financing the energy upgrade of our buildings.
(Paul Kando is a co-founder of the Midcoast Green Collaborative, which promotes environmental protection and economic development via energy conservation. For more information, go to midcoastgreencollaborative.org.)