What is causing the climate crisis, and how do we stop it?

Coronavirus proves the world can solve the climate crisis if it really wants to

Faced with Covid-19, governments took drastic action. The same urgent response is needed to tackle the climate emergency

Mark Baldwin,Tim Lenton
Monday 08 February 2021 16:06

As the world continues to grapple with Covid-19, leaders are meeting at the United Nations today to discuss another crisis: climate change. Though these crises are different, both require global action to stop them running out of control. The fundamental difference is our response.

Faced with Covid-19, governments took drastic action. This followed three basic steps: identify the precise cause of the problem through expert scientific advice, pass legislation focused on the cause, and employ a robust feedback mechanism to assess progress and adjust the approach.

We have all become familiar with feedback in the form of the R number – and the current tightening of restrictions in the UK is a direct response to its rise as a result of a surge in Covid-19 cases.  

In the 1980s, we followed a similar three-step approach to tackle depletion of the ozone layer – and the resulting restoration of the ozone layer is one of humanity’s greatest environmental success stories.

But on climate change, this isn't happening. Current global climate commitments only express an intention to solve the climate crisis. They are the equivalent of intending to end the Covid-19 pandemic without a plan for social distancing to reduce the spread of the virus.

Instead, we could use the three-step structure as follows.

Step one: we already know that burning fossil fuels is the leading direct cause of the climate crisis, followed by deforestation to create more land for crops and livestock.  

Step two: we should be examining every policy, every law and every trade agreement with an overarching goal of decreasing fossil fuel use by transitioning to green energy. A fundamental reason that we can succeed is that solar and wind power are now becoming cheaper than fossil fuels for generating electricity, and nearly all of our energy needs can be met by electricity. The main reason that we are not solving the climate crisis is not a lack of green energy solutions; it is government policies that continue energy strategies that prioritise fossil fuels. There is simply no justification to use fossil fuels if green energy is cheaper.

Step three: the robust feedback mechanism should include monitoring planned fossil fuel production, which despite climate intentions is planned to increase into the future.

Currently, the world has no step three – there is no plan to change our approach if it is not working.

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Rather than addressing fossil fuel supplies and tracking the results, climate policies focus almost exclusively on the demand side, making individuals feel guilty for the greenhouse gas emissions of their lifestyle choices.

Entrenched government energy policies tilt the energy playing field toward fossil fuels by subsidising the discovery, extraction, transport and sale of fossil fuels, with the aim of ensuring a cheap, plentiful, steady supply of fossil energy into the future.

It’s like a war on drugs in which users are punished, but the suppliers and distributors are protected and rewarded in order to ensure a cheap, plentiful supply.

Strangely, Covid-19 has demonstrated that we can do better than this incoherent, hypocritical response to a crisis.  

At today’s UN meeting, the secretary-general promoted the "vast social and economic benefits of a sustainable recovery and of action to limit global warming to 1.5°C".

Working within the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement framework, governments can help solve the climate crisis.

A step-change is needed, and we advocate seven key actions - end all government subsidies to the fossil fuel industry; ban all exploration for new oil/gas/coal reserves anywhere in the world; spend no public money on fossil fuel infrastructure anywhere in the world; stop justifying fossil fuel use by employing carbon offset schemes; redirect fossil fuel subsidies to promote the transition to a green energy economy; minimise reliance on future negative-emissions technologies; do not buy products from nations that destroy rainforests in order to produce cheaper, greater quantities of meat and agricultural products.

It is possible to solve the climate crisis, and these policies would make a real difference.  

A comprehensive global plan to solve the climate crisis will require addressing complex issues involving politics, fake news, human behaviour, government subsidies, taxes, international trade agreements, human rights, lobbying by the fossil fuel industry, and disinformation campaigns.

However, the basic rules for solving the climate crisis are, "leave the fossil carbon in the ground" and "end deforestation".

Some might say these are impossible aims, but much of what we've seen in 2020 would have seemed impossible as the year began.  

Finally, what if we had a national referendum – as we did on leaving the EU – on a mandate to transition from fossil fuels to green energy, and solving the climate crisis became “the will of the people”?

Professor Mark Baldwin and Professor Tim Lenton are assistant director and director of the Global Systems Institute, University of Exeter

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