When COP21 was held in Paris in 2015, every single country participating in the UN Climate Change Conference was showing, to all appearances, a genuine interest in limiting global warming by swearing to reduce immediately the CO2 emissions. As we obviously know, the problem is not even remotely solved; if anything, the problem is getting worse.
Several well-meaning policy initiatives have been attempted by various countries and regional consortiums, including carbon taxes, cap-and-trade scenarios, renewable portfolio standards, and similar policies. But the complexity of these policies and their ultimate failure to succeed is attributable to a global economic problem, which occurs at a very basic individual level. Ultimately, our climate problem reflects a human truism: our own addictions are killing us, and even if we are able to recognize this fact, with consensus, what can we do to save ourselves?
One issue is that the problem presents itself differently in every country, and so we cannot say the same suite of policies will work everywhere: according to the Greenhouse Gas Inventory Data provided by UNFCCC, in only 18 years China has increased its emissions by approximately 250%. A similar fate is the one India, through in the same years grew emissions by more than 66%.
Some clear ways to tackle the climate issues may appear to exist. For example, switching vehicles from diesel to natural gas seems like a no-brainer. If countries implemented natural gas mandates instead of continuing to use using diesel, this would result in a reduction of 50% of CO2 emissions from transportation, according to Mark Cupkovic, Chief Sustainability Officer at the New York Botanical Garden. By mandating transportation fuel-switching, the whole world would be able to solve a little less than a third of the whole problem. In the USA alone, for example, according to EPA, transportation contributes 30% of the CO2 emissions, while transportation accounts for 23% of global emissions.
But can we really expect all countries to mandate fuel-switching? There is an explanation that comes from philosophy and could be easily applied to climate change, known as the Prisoner’s Dilemma – before everyone becomes really committed to make a change and start reducing the footprint on our planet, first we have to be truly interested in a cooperative way to reduce emissions.
Obviously, one crucial issue is related to energy production: the more energy produced from fossil fuels we use, the more the global average temperature rises, and thus we need more energy still produced from fossil fuels to power our AC units. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, about 64% of the whole electricity production in 2017 was produced from fossil fuels, with all the byproducts that impact the environment.
So, what about alternative energy sources, primarily solar and wind power? In Sweden, for example, they are generating energy from renewable resources for 54% of their requirement, the highest score among the European Union countries. It is very compelling looking at the charts provided by Sweden.se, that show how much impact on the environment has every single country in terms of CO2 emissions. In 2014 the CO2 emissions coming from the United States were 331.32% of the global average, while Sweden 10% below the global average the same year. There are limits to the benefits of renewables, however, since the base-load of any energy system must meet peak requirements on demand, which is normally accomplished with coal or natural gas.
Another relatively large contributing field to global CO2 emissions that regularly goes unnoticed is the agriculture and the food industry, having an impact of about 25% to the whole picture, according to EPA. The real problem here comes from the background you face: in medium-high income countries, 40% of food waste occurs in the market. The same percentage shows up again when you think of low-income countries, relating to how much food is lost during the processing stages, due to old and inefficient infrastructures that cannot ensure enough productivity. As a result, in order to produce the amount of food we want to reach, we must use an extra 40% energy, which contributes the same percentage of excess CO2 emissions to the global atmosphere.
Clearly, we need to act, but what is the appropriate solution? The optimist in me says that if we start now, we still have some chance to invert the trend and eventually to find a new sustainable way to live our days in an acceptable world. By changing our societal habits and compromising today, perhaps we can have a sustainable tomorrow. “Carbon pollution would have to be cut by 45% by 2030,” The Guardian affirms. We only have 12 years left before an irreversible crisis wipes out our hopes and our planet.
It has been said that addiction is the royal pathway to the self since through addiction we can better see the patterns that plague our lives. And once we realize our addictive behavior is the issue, our success is as simple as overcoming that one thing.
We collectively need to develop radically new habits at all levels and adopt them with as rapidly and ubiquitously as the precious technologies that distract us all every moment of every day. We need to mass adopt new conscious habits worldwide with the speed and scale that we integrated iPhones, Amazon Prime, Twitter, Instagram and Snap into our lives.
As hundreds of tankers flow back to the US full of plastics from China, and plastics in the ocean will soon exceed fish, it is clear that the atmosphere is just the first of nature’s components of the complex system that we destroy. Local air pollutants, local water contaminants, heavy metals and other waste from coal plants, and the toxic cocktail we inject into our lands to release methane and shale oil, will all soon begin to demonstrate that our addictions will be our ultimate destruction.
As a professor of Environmental Economics said in the Podcast #926: So, Should We Recycle by Planet Money, nowadays it would be controversially better to stop recycling some products, since they end up being wasted and produce an enormous quantity of greenhouse gases to be reused as a completely new item. Countries should be putting more emphasis on processes to limit the waste itself, even if aimed at a recycling process, and focusing on how to implement a multi-use plastic or any other material in all the items we own. By doing that, we would be able to avoid a huge quantity of energy needed to start the recycling process, eliminate all the emissions that would occur from that, and reduce the transportation needed to bring all the waste from a country to another one only to get processed again.
The pessimist in me says that our human condition is, in the end, a tragedy of the commons. And we may not be able to see the cliff that we are driving our sleek new Tesla from.