Earth is smoldering. From Seattle to Siberia this summer, flames have consumed swaths of the Northern Hemisphere. One of 18 wildfires sweeping through California — among the worst in the state’s history — is generating such heat that it created its own weather. Fires that raged through a coastal area near Athens last week killed 91. Elsewhere, people are suffocating in the heat. Roughly 125 have died in Japan as the result of a heat wave that pushed temperatures in Tokyo above 104 degrees for the first time.
Such calamities, once considered freakish, are now commonplace. Scientists have long cautioned that, as the planet warms — it is roughly 1 degree Celsius hotter today than before the industrial age’s first furnaces were lit — weather patterns will go berserk. An early analysis has found that this sweltering European summer would have been less than half as likely were it not for human-induced global warming.
Yet as the impact of climate change becomes more evident, so does the scale of the challenge ahead. Three years after countries vowed in Paris to keep warming “well below” 2 degrees Celsius relative to preindustrial levels, greenhouse-gas emissions are up again. So are investments in oil and gas. In 2017, for the first time in four years, demand for coal rose. Subsidies for renewables, such as wind and solar power, are dwindling in many places, and investment has stalled; climate-friendly nuclear power is expensive and unpopular.
It is tempting to think these are temporary setbacks and that humankind, with its instinct for self-preservation, will muddle through to a victory over global warming. In fact, it is losing the war.
Insufficient progress is not to say no progress at all. As solar panels, wind turbines and other low-carbon technologies become cheaper and more efficient, their use has surged. Last year the number of electric cars sold around the world passed 1 million. In some sunny and blustery places, renewable power now costs less than coal.
Public concern is picking up. A poll last year of 38 countries found that 61 percent of people see climate change as a big threat; only the terrorists of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria inspired more fear. In the West, campaigning investors talk of divesting from companies that make their living from coal and oil.
Despite President Donald Trump’s decision to yank the United States out of the Paris deal, many American cities and states have reaffirmed their commitment to it. Even some of the skeptic-in-chief’s fellow Republicans appear less averse to tackling the problem. In smog-shrouded China and India, citizens choking on fumes are prompting governments to rethink plans to rely heavily on coal to electrify their countries.
Optimists say that decarbonization is within reach. Yet, even allowing for the familiar complexities of agreeing on and enforcing global targets, it is proving extraordinarily difficult.
One reason is soaring energy demand, especially in developing Asia. Between 2006 and 2016, as Asia’s emerging economies forged ahead, their energy consumption rose by 40 percent. The use of coal, easily the dirtiest fossil fuel, grew at an annual rate of 3.1 percent. Use of cleaner natural gas grew by 5.2 percent and of oil by 2.9 percent. Fossil fuels are easier to hook up to today’s grids than renewables that depend on the sun shining and the wind blowing. Even as green fund managers threaten to pull back from oil companies, state-owned behemoths in the Middle East and Russia see Asian demand as a compelling reason to invest.
The second reason is economic and political inertia. The more fossil fuels a country consumes, the harder it is to wean itself off them. Powerful lobbies, and the voters who back them, entrench coal in the energy mix. Reshaping existing ways of doing things can take years. In 2017, Britain enjoyed its first coal-free day since igniting the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s. Coal generates not merely 80 percent of India’s electricity, but also underpins the economies of some of its poorest states. Panjandrums in Delhi are not keen to countenance the end of coal, lest that cripple the banking system, which lent it too much money, and the railways, which depend on it.
Last is the technical challenge of stripping carbon out of industries beyond power generation. Steel, cement, farming, transport and other forms of economic activity account for more than half of global carbon emissions. They are technically harder to clean up than power generation and are protected by vested industrial interests. Successes can turn out to be illusory. Because China’s 1-million-plus electric cars draw their oomph from an electricity grid that draws two-thirds of its power from coal, they produce more carbon dioxide than some fuel-efficient petrol-driven models. Meanwhile, scrubbing CO2 from the atmosphere, which climate models imply is needed on a vast scale to meet the Paris target, attracts even less attention.
The world is not short of ideas to realize the Paris goal. Around 70 countries or regions, responsible for one-fifth of all emissions, now price carbon. Technologists beaver away on sturdier grids, zero-carbon steel, even carbon-negative cement, whose production absorbs more CO2 than it releases. All these efforts and more — including research into “solar geoengineering” to reflect sunlight back into space — should be redoubled.
Yet none of these fixes will come to much unless climate listlessness is tackled head-on. Western countries grew wealthy on a carbon-heavy diet of industrial development. They must honor their commitment in the Paris agreement to help poorer places both adapt to a warmer Earth and also abate future emissions without sacrificing the growth needed to leave poverty behind.
Averting climate change will come at a short-term financial cost — although the shift from carbon may eventually enrich the economy, as the move to carbon-burning cars, lorries and electricity did in the 20th century. Politicians have an essential role to play in making the case for reform and in ensuring that the most vulnerable do not bear the brunt of the change. Perhaps global warming will help them fire up the collective will. Sadly, the world looks poised to get a lot hotter first.
Copyright 2013 The Economist Newspaper Limited, London. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.