This week England will hit 40C (or 104F) for the first time in recorded history. Here in Connecticut, we are yet again in an abnormally dry and warm summer, while most of Texas and the Southwest are facing one of the longest, most brutal stretches of warm weather in decades. Hope you like the heat; thanks to global warming, this is likely going to be one of the coolest summers we will have in the coming decades.
Despite this seasonably cheerful opening, I do not intend to write yet another gloomy article about climate change. Nothing about how unless we radically change how we live and work we face a bleak, endless inferno in a dying planet, and that now it is the time to make sacrifices and struggle in a painful transition to save ourselves. I want to talk, instead, about how we dramatically cut emissions and reverse this process right now, and barely notice it at all. The biggest mistake we make in attacking climate change is assuming that nothing we do right now matters – because it truly does, even (and perhaps especially) on the local level.
First, I want to start with a simple, but often forgotten data point. US energy consumption peaked in 1978, when we burned the equivalent of 8,348 kg of oil per capita to fuel our economy. In 2019, Americans were over six times wealthier, per capita, than in the late seventies, but we used significantly less energy to produce all that wealth: less than 6,500 kg of oil, to be precise. We have grown our economy several times over, in other words, while cutting energy use by leaps and bounds.
We know, as well, that we can cut energy usage by a significant margin with little to no impact to our daily lives – mainly because other countries do it already. Switzerland, Germany, France, or Britain are wealthy, well-functioning democracies, and have much lower energy use per capita than we do. The Swiss are even richer than us and spend half the amount of energy we do any given year. You can have a really wealthy, growing economy while steadily lowering your energy consumption. We have been doing it for decades here in the US; Europeans are just a bit further down the line.
Second, we can do this while steadily lowering the amount of carbon emissions we use to generate all this energy. If we look at the amount of greenhouse gasses emitted per unit of electricity produced in the US (that is, how much carbon we spew to produce one kilowatt-hour), our emissions have dropped by 30 percent in the past two decades. We also know that there is a lot of margin to cut these emissions; the UK uses 70 per cent of carbon emissions we do to generate one kilowatt-hour; the French only 17 percent.
That is: we can reduce energy use and we can cut carbon emissions while growing the economy. We are already doing it. Our problem is not one of technology, or engineering, or lifestyle, but about who is making money by preventing this from happening. In other words, we have a political problem.
For starters, we can go carbon-free on electricity generation with current technology while lowering energy costs. We can even do it without relying on nuclear energy, as France does; solar, wind, hydro, energy storage, with nuclear power plants serving base loads is more than enough. Battery storage has already overtaken nuclear power at times in California during off-hours, and it will only get cheaper in the coming years.
As power plants become greener, we can electrify the rest of the economy to further reduce emissions. The biggest issue with electric cars and buses is that Tesla, Ford, GM, and the rest of the industry cannot make them fast enough to keep up with demand, but production is ramping up very quickly. Railroad electrification is a known technology that was literally invented in Connecticut over a century ago. Industry, heating, cooling – all can switch to electric power, often becoming much more efficient in the process.
The one thing that one has to keep in mind in policy, however, is that the easiest part about solving a problem is not engineering or technology, but politics and regulatory capture. Electric utilities have been slow to move away from fossil fuels in the US due to hefty subsidies to coal, oil, and gas, and little effort to limit or regulate emissions. Energy conservation is often a matter of building codes; the European Union simply mandates better windows and insulation in buildings, and the market provides them. Rail electrification has been endlessly stalled due to bureaucratic inertia and bad policy, not because it is hard to build.
We need the political will to make those changes – or more precisely, to tell the corporations and executives that make money wasting energy and filling our atmosphere with carbon to get out of the way. We need to work to lift some of the meaningless rules and barriers that slow us down moving away from fossil fuels, from NIMBY lawyering against clean energy power plants to obsolete restrictions to build offshore wind projects.
The one thing about these changes is that they are not expensive – in fact, they save money in the long run, even without taking into account their impact on the climate. Once installed, a solar panel or a wind turbine do not require any fuel and are much cheaper to maintain than any gas power plant or pipeline. Electric cars have very few moving parts, so they can run for much longer. Energy-efficient windows and appliances just cost less to own. All that money that we are saving on fossil fuels and energy can be used elsewhere.
The biggest lie polluters ever pulled is that moving away from the toxic, dangerous stuff they sell will be costly and hard. Sure it will be – but just for them.