With world leaders meeting at the international climate change conference in Glasgow to negotiate urgent global action necessary to meet this greatest of challenges, many people still don’t know what must be done. Ever since the “code red” report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) this August, many people have been feeling shell-shocked. In addition to bringing a serious dose of reality to those who don’t keep up with the latest advances in climate science, the most important message of the report is that it is not too late to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, if we act rapidly and decisively to cut the emissions that are warming our planet. But what would that look like?
It comes down to three things: phase out fossil fuels, deploy clean energy, and protect the world’s forests.
To phase out fossil fuels, the first step is to allow no new development of coal, oil and gas. That means no exploration, no new wells, mines, pipelines, refineries or power plants. We already have a massive amount of fossil fuel infrastructure, and it will take decades to phase out its use. It makes no sense to throw good money after bad and prolong the inevitable. The International Energy Agency has concluded that any new fossil fuel investments from now on would be incompatible with meeting internationally agreed-upon climate targets.
After a phaseout of existing internal combustion engine vehicles, all new cars, trucks, buses, and trains should be electric or powered by other clean fuels such as green hydrogen. It will be years before all the dirty old vehicles are off the road, but good policies can help speed that transition.
Another important aspect of the fossil fuel phaseout is to plug methane leaks associated with current and former coal, oil and gas development. The IPCC report makes clear that reducing these emissions is the best opportunity to avoid a significant amount of near-term warming.
Methane is a potent heat-trapping gas, about 80 times as powerful as carbon dioxide over a 20-year period. It also has a much shorter atmospheric lifetime than carbon dioxide, so its levels can be reduced relatively quickly. Oil and gas wells and pipelines and coal mines often leak large amounts of methane. Plugging these leaks will save money, improve air quality, and stave off warming. We now have the technologies to find and eliminate these leaks.
Second of our three major tasks is rapidly ramping up the deployment of clean, renewable energy. Contrary to a common misconception, we do not need an energy miracle, because we’ve already had one. Solar and wind are the fastest-growing new sources of energy we have. Their costs have plummeted, making them the least expensive options in most locations. Studies have shown that we can get all the power we need from wind, water and sun coupled with various kinds of energy storage and grid improvements.
Part of clean energy deployment involves recognizing the global nature of the climate challenge and developing aggressive and efficient ways to share clean energy technologies across the globe. Many people in developing countries do not yet have access to reliable electricity. It is a global imperative to help them gain this access through new, clean technologies. Just as countries that lacked telephone service were able to leapfrog over conventional phone lines and go straight to mobile phones, they can similarly skip the dirty energy stage and go straight to renewable energy.
Third of our tasks is protecting the world’s forests, which currently absorb about a third of the carbon dioxide our activities emit to the atmosphere. Tropical forests are especially at risk and still being cleared for agricultural uses including cattle ranching and soybean and palm oil production, and this must cease. To meet the planet’s growing food needs, agronomists urge improved management practices on already-cleared land rather than clearing new land, especially forested land. We must recognize that maintaining these vital carbon sinks is of value to all life on Earth, and we must be willing to do whatever it takes to help protect them.
All three of these tasks will serve us in many ways beyond ensuring a livable climate. Protecting forests will not only maintain their vital function as a carbon sink, it will also help preserve indigenous cultures, biological diversity, endangered species and clean air and water.
Similarly, ending new fossil fuel development and phasing out its existing uses will give us cleaner air and water, better health, fewer premature deaths and less of the toxic pollution that comes with oil spills, mountaintop removal and other insults that accompany the extraction and use of fossil fuels.
Finally, the global cooperation could be transformative for humanity as we work together to protect the only home we have. If we can see beyond our typical battle lines, we can take on this global challenge as we would if some outside force were inflicting it upon us. We are on a mission to save planet Earth, its people and its natural wonders. The three actions we propose—phasing out fossil fuels, deploying clean energy and protecting the world’s forests—are essential for success.