Tackling climate change won’t happen without fossil fuels or messy partisan politics


Forgive senior Saudi officials for scratching their heads in response to the Biden administration’s simultaneous and conflicting demands that the Riyadh royal family is pumping more oil into the global economy while reducing carbon emissions.

During my travels over the past two weeks – first to Riyadh to hear Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman commit Saudi Arabia to net zero by 2060, then to Glasgow for the United Nations climate change conference in 2021 – you could feel the reverberations of the first energy shock of the green era.

National and international policies to raise energy prices, with the cost of a basket of fossil fuels doubling since last May and power outages in China and India, face longer-term certainty that world leaders must deal more effectively with the dangers of a warming world.

I returned home this weekend in Washington with three convictions:

  • First, what the world is experiencing is more the energy transition than the energy revolution. The switch from fossil fuels to renewables will take years, and the only way to accelerate it is more technological breakthroughs, such as battery storage; more comprehensive policy changes, such as a carbon tax; and even greater investments in renewable energies.
  • Second, we’re all going to hear more of the term “climate change adaptation” because “climate change mitigation” is going to take a lot longer than purists would like. The difference is that mitigation addresses the root causes of climate change while adaptation manages its negative effects. Where mitigation strategies fail or change too slowly, adaptation strategies can make society more ‘climate resilient’ and, in some communities, be a matter of survival from the impacts of heat waves to rising seas. .
  • Third, international and national policies will shape the energy future as certainly as new technologies and changing climate realities. Countries like China, Russia and India are unwilling or unable to switch to renewables faster. The United States will have to weigh its human rights demands on China against its desire for climate concessions. In democracies around the world, voters will demand affordable and reliable energy, even as their leaders struggle to meet net zero commitments.

The painful lesson of the past few weeks is that you can’t pull fossil fuel supplies off the market when demand for energy rises and renewables are not yet sufficient.

“The world has dozed off in the supply crisis,” said Sultan Ahmed al Jaber, UAE special envoy for climate change, in Riyadh. His country was ahead of all other oil-producing states in setting a target of net zero for 2050. Despite this, he said, “A transition means a transition. It takes time.”

Minister al Jaber says the lesson he draws from the current fear of energy is that even as the world rushes towards renewables and decarbonization, the reality is that fossil fuels remain 80 percent of the energy mix and some 60 percent come from oil and gas alone, which he calls “the backbone of our ability to meet the world’s energy needs of the future.”

What The Economist called the energy “panic” exposed deeper issues as the world shifts to a cleaner energy system, including inadequate investments in renewables and some fossil transition rules, growing geopolitical risks and fragile security buffers in electricity markets. Without swift reforms, there will be more energy crises and, perhaps, a popular revolt against climate policies. “

On climate adaptation versus mitigation, the United Nations Environment Program released a report this month concluding that growing climate impact far exceeds adaptation efforts, a reality which hits the developing world hardest.

The report says developing countries need five to ten times more finance than they need to manage climate impacts, or around $ 200 billion a year. Yet in 2019, only $ 20 billion in climate-related finance from developed to developing countries, or about a quarter of the total, went to adaptation projects.

These projects range from improving the resilience of infrastructure to extreme weather conditions to manufacturing more drought tolerant farming methods, developing better early warning systems for storms to better cooling measures against extreme heat. .

The Atlantic Council has adopted a myriad of ways to mitigate climate change and slow the rise in global temperatures through the pioneering work of its Global Energy Center.

At the same time, the Council’s Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center has been a world leader on climate adaptation issues. One of his most important recent initiatives has been to urge cities and communities around the world to appoint heat and heat wave blenders to deal with the danger.

Miami-Dade County in Florida, for example, decided to hire Jane Gilbert as their first CHO, which has now been followed by Athens, Greece; Freetown, South Africa; and Phoenix.

Gilbert told Axios that his heat office will be “data driven” and “look at the best possible solutions to handle the heat.” She noted that applying a special coating to the pavement can have a cooling impact of 10 to 12 degrees.

If you think it doesn’t matter, consider this. A study from the University of Washington reported that extreme heat contributed to the deaths of some 12,000 people in the United States each year during the decade through 2020. By 2100, that toll could reach about 100,000 per year.

Regardless of temperature readings, the heat of geopolitics and domestic politics will persist. Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin were not in Glasgow this week, a fact that US President Joe Biden brought home.

“It’s just a gigantic problem and they are gone,” Biden Recount journalists before returning from Glasgow. “How do you do that and claim you can have any leadership?” “

At the same time, President Biden’s own advisers know that the way he handles energy prices and the resulting inflation could shape his future and that of his Democratic Party more than his climate policies or his Afghan woes. .

Whether in the Saudi desert or the Scottish highlands, the reality is that fossil fuel advocates and climate utopians must find common ground. The enormity of the climate danger demands an energy transition, but it will not happen without oil and gas, without huge investments in climate adaptation, and without the messy and inescapable realities of global and local politics.

Frederic kempe is President and CEO of the Atlantic Council.

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