The following is Food & Water Watch’s analysis on why we must ban extreme fossil fuel extraction and shift to 100 percent renewables by 2035. For additional information, see "With Five More Years of Business-As-Usual, Fracking Will Bust the Carbon Budget."
As world leaders gather in Paris for negotiations aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and at stopping global climate change, the urgent need for action has never been clearer. Protecting the planet, and our ability to live on it, requires transforming how we define and meet our energy needs.
Our leaders must recognize that political decisions on our energy future cannot be left to a cartel of multinational companies that favor fossil fuels. We need strong government policies backed by the political will to see them through.
The fossil fuel cartel includes Wall Street agents and the global financial services sector, which are eager to cash in on pollution trading and expect handsome returns for lending tens of billions of dollars, for example, to the U.S. oil and gas industry alone. That money is being sunk into pipelines and oil and gas wells to support fracking and other extreme methods of maximizing fossil fuel production. This is being done in defiance of climate science.
Staying below 1.5°C of warming, and well below 2.0°C of warming, will require aggressive action to undo our dependence on fossil fuels and achieve 100 percent clean energy worldwide.
Electricity generated by wind and solar power can and must immediately lead the way. We must make enormous investments now to deploy existing technologies and solutions for harnessing wind and solar power and for maximizing energy efficiency and conservation. And we must tap electricity from wind and solar power to meet almost all transportation needs.
This can all be done, and we have about twenty years to do it.
Warming Above and Beyond 1.5°C Is Too Dangerous
Historically, talks aimed at stopping global warming have centered on the goal of staying below a 2°C rise in average temperature. This goal has mostly come, however, from political determinations more so than from science or the reality of the risks. Recently, there has been significant scientific pushback against the 2°C goal, with many calls and commitments to limit long-term warming to 1.5°C.
Currently, with a 1°C rise in global temperature, we have already seen dramatic changes across the planet. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) noted in 2014 that “recent climate changes have had widespread impacts on human and natural systems.” Among the observed effects are violent storms, droughts, floods, acidifying and rapidly warming oceans, and altered growing seasons.
As climate pollution accumulates, and as global warming increases, we are also rolling the dice with so-called “tipping points,” which threaten to compound the problem. Each tipping point is a threshold in warming — or in “parts-per-million” carbon dioxide concentration in the air, such as 350 ppm, or 400 ppm — beyond which a certain climate change effect is expected to be abrupt and potentially irreversible.
A 2015 study of 37 different tipping points found that, according to various climate models, 18 could be triggered at temperature rises below 2°C. Warming beyond these tipping points is expected to bring “abrupt shifts in sea ice and ocean circulation patterns as well as abrupt shifts in vegetation and the terrestrial cryosphere [including polar ice caps, glaciers, tundra, etc.].” These tipping points could make sea level rise far worse than expected, close to a meter within the century, and impose huge costs on coastal communities.
Carbon Dioxide Budgets for < 1.5°C Make the Urgency Clear
In 2014, the IPCC released an array of different carbon dioxide budgets: simple projections for how much carbon dioxide could be emitted into the atmosphere over time for a given chance of staying under a given level of warming. For example, the IPCC stated that to have a better than 66 percent chance of avoiding a 1.5°C rise in temperature, we could only emit an additional 400 gigatonnes (Gt, one trillion kilograms, or a billion tonnes) of carbon dioxide, beginning in 2011. This was a consensus, conservative, scientific result.
Since the beginning of 2011, through 2015, about 180 Gt of the carbon dioxide budget of 400 Gt has already been dumped into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels. That is, only 220 Gt is left — equivalent to about five more years under current emission trends — if we are to have a decent chance of avoiding another 0.5°C of warming.
Once emitted, carbon dioxide largely persists in the atmosphere, so, this carbon dioxide budget means that greenhouse gas emissions must be driven to essentially zero, and driven to zero in a way that leads to an overall total in the neighborhood of 220 more gigatonnes of carbon dioxide. Global carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels now amount to close to 40 Gt per year. Reducing that by about 17 percent every year, year after year, starting in 2016, amounts to about 220 more gigatonnes, and not much more. That path would drive emissions to essentially zero by 2035. Larger annual cuts in emissions in the near term can buy time, but not much.
The Way To Make It Happen By 2035
Climate science is clear that to avoid devastating climate impacts on communities around the world, the transition to 100 percent clean energy must be rapid. Numerous groups and reports have cited 2050 as an agreeable target for achieving a near complete transition off of fossil fuels, but the reality is that we cannot allow it to take that long. Staying below 1.5°C requires a 100 percent clean energy system by 2035.
With its past emissions of climate pollution, the United States must demonstrate exceptional leadership and adopt a more ambitious path. The goal of 100 percent clean energy by 2035 is achievable if we grow the necessary political will, demand strong government policies and commit to aggressive action now. We must organize and mobilize on an unprecedented scale to make this happen, and build out what are, after all, largely proven solutions.
Food & Water Watch demands an equitable, rapid and safe transition to 100 percent renewable electricity generation within the next two decades. These next twenty years must be marked by:
- wind and solar power built out on a scale that rivals recent U.S. drilling and fracking;
- investments in expanded and better public mass transit;
- committed investments on energy efficiency and conservation across residential and industrial sectors; and
- the end to the era of extracting and burning fossil fuels.