Step 5. Taking the long view
People today aren’t used to looking far into the future or contemplating issues of the scale and complexity of global climate change. We focus on the quick fix. We deal with problems now — then we move on to the next one. Climate change is different. The future can only be changed if we begin today and keep going. Hitting a big target in 2030 or 2050 may be helpful, but to hit longer-term objectives, we need to change the technologies that are vital to a modern society — including those used to generate and distribute electricity.
Today’s concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is about 380 parts per million (ppm) — only about 100 ppm more than in pre-industrial times. If we continue to use the same technologies, projections of CO2 concentrations by the end of this century will top 900 ppm. The earth hasn’t seen that level of CO2 for about 35 million years, when things were a lot hotter and wetter than they are today. Scientists say we need to take the first steps to lower our emissions so that future concentrations don’t exceed 450 to 550 ppm.
Emissions from less-developed countries will continue to grow as those societies simply improve their lives. This increases the urgency to get to work to develop new non-emitting technologies and lower their cost so they can also be built in the developing world.
The task for our generation is to get the policy right, get started and stick to it. We need to develop the least costly way to address climate change and do it right. That means policies need to be market based and cover most, if not all, of the economy. The early years of a cap should encourage more energy efficiency and lower-cost actions that can slow, stop and begin to reverse the growth in CO2 emissions. Policies should encourage the development and commercialization of technologies we will need to make the necessary deep reductions. Policymakers need to avoid the temptation to demand immediate deep emissions cuts, which would result in a greater reliance on natural gas. We must give clean coal technologies the time to develop so that we may deploy them as we retire current technologies.
Future generations will continue this work. The technologies we develop today around CO2 capture and storage will serve as a bridge for the next generation of technologies. Our grandchildren will need new energy sources, whether advanced solar, space-based solar or even nuclear fusion. We may also find new technologies to remove CO2 from the atmosphere, perhaps using a combination of biomass and carbon capture and storage. There will be plenty of opportunity for innovation and adaptation to a warmer world.
We think of this as “cathedral thinking” — remembering that the architects and builders of the great cathedrals of Europe never saw them completed. Frequently these inspired creations were not finished until the builders’ grandchildren were themselves old. Yet that didn’t cause them to lose faith, nor did it dull their vision of what might be if they merely began — despite the work, despite the cost and despite the fact they’d never see the end result. Such a commitment is needed for achieving a low-carbon future.