With a rocket launcher strapped to his back, President Ronald Reagan rode fearlessly upon a long-extinct Velociraptor while brandishing a machine gun: This is the imagery — presented on poster board and carried to the floor of the Senate Chamber on March 26 — that Republican Senator Mike Lee used to mock the Green New Deal, a proposal to rapidly transform the U.S. energy infrastructure and slash the nation’s ample emissions of carbon dioxide.
The Green New Deal, argued Lee, is not a serious solution to combatting climate change — presumably as unserious as a dinosaur gimmick in the Senate. Instead, he contended (this time seriously) that the climate solution America needs is to produce significantly more babies. Yes, the predestined ingenuity from these babies will fix the global problem, Lee concluded. Unsurprisingly, the Senate voted no on whether to debate the Green New Deal.
So with a still-emerging Green New Deal stalled in the Senate — and nearly two decades after the U.S. released its first congressionally-mandated climate report — the U.S. still has no long-term, coherent climate plans.
Meanwhile, across the pond, Europe is on track to slash its carbon emissions by 2030 to around 50 percent of 1990 levels: Already, the European Union has made binding pledges to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40% by 2030 — though a new analysis by the UK climate policy group Sandbag shows the European nation states can get to 50 percent by then — or higher.
This matters. Earth’s climatic future will be heavily shaped by the four big players, or carbon emitters — the U.S., EU, India, and China. Of these, the U.S. and EU are obviously similar in that they’re a foundational part of the wealthy and long-industrialized Western world. But when it comes to slashing heat-trapping carbon emissions — which are now at their highest levels in some 15 million years — these two powerful unions are barreling down starkly different highways.
“It’s purely a matter of political will. We don’t have any, at least, on the federal level.”
While the EU spies a carbon-free future, President Trump has vowed to pull the U.S. from its biggest climate pledge, made back in 2015, to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 26 to 28 percent of 2005 levels by 2025. Accordingly, the outlook for Uncle Sam’s ability to slash carbon emissions and help avoid the worst of future climate scenarios might look grim — especially on the heels of 2018 in which U.S. emissions shot up. Even so, the U.S. could still catch up (or nearly catch up) with the ambitious EU, though the Europeans have a growing head start. After all, it’s not science, inventiveness, or technology that’s holding the U.S. back. It’s politics.
“We can achieve those cuts,” said John Quigley, the director of the Center for Environment, Energy and Economy at Harrisburg University. “It’s purely a matter of political will. We don’t have any, at least, on the federal level.”
Indeed, it’s challenging to get hundreds of heavily-lobbied Congress members who represent the interests of millions to agree on weighty climate policy. But it wasn’t easy in Europe’s parliament, either.
“This has been politically contentious,” said Andreas Graf, an energy policy analyst at the European think tank Agora Energiewende. “It’s not like it was easy to get to those numbers. If it was easy, we would have even higher numbers.”
So how did Europe do it — and by extension — how can the U.S.? It comes down to quitting coal and accepting the economic inevitability that the future is, largely, renewable.
Quitting an old habit
Europe’s biggest chunk of carbon reductions has come from cuts or planned cuts to coal-burning power plants.
“It’s all about coal,” said Phil MacDonald, an analyst at Sandbag.
“It’s all about coal.”
“Coal is a dirty fuel that has an immediate effect on overall emissions,” added MacDonald. Though, just like states in the U.S., not all EU member nations have weaned themselves off the fossil fuel (for example coal-happy Poland). But the UK has slashed coal rapidly, and that’s made a dent. In 2012, 40 percent of the UK’s power came from coal, but today, that’s down to five percent, explained MacDonald.
It’s easy to see why. In a capitalist society, money talks.
“We’re reaching this tipping point where renewables become cheaper to build than just the running cost of the coal and gas plants,” said MacDonald.
Something similar is now happening across the Atlantic, in the U.S. A new report by energy analysts Energy Innovation found that “wind and solar could replace approximately 74 percent of the U.S. coal fleet at an immediate savings to customers.” Already, the indifferent, free-hand of capitalism has signaled coal’s gradual demise in America. In 2018, coal use dropped to its lowest levels in 40 years, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. In 2019, even lobbying from coal-proponent President Donald Trump failed to keep a coal plant open.
“It’s the market making its voice known,” said Ahmed Abdulla, an energy expert at UC San Diego’s School of Global Policy and Strategy. If the black fossil fuel were a smart economic choice, coal plants would thrive in today’s political climate, wherein a former coal lobbyist now heads the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). “They would be building them left and right.”
But where the U.S. falls short is how quickly renewables can ramp up. Wind and solar are plummeting in price, emphasized Quigely, but it could take decades to replace coal’s infrastructure, built over the 20th century. “The problem is we’re starting from a small scale,” said Quigley, noting the need to construct new, massive power lines across the vast Lower 48. This means the federal government would likely need to step in to stimulate the transition — similar to the New Deal energy mobilization that electrified The South. “The challenge is enormous given the pace and scale of what has to happen,” said Quigley.
Meanwhile, Earth’s climate clock is ticking as historically unprecedented amounts of carbon dioxide load the atmosphere.
A collective spirit
Today, Europe has a benefit the U.S. lacks: a genuine desire among a majority of its member states and political leaders to slash emissions.
“There is collective ambition,” said Graf.
Though some point out that it’s still not nearly enough to meet the necessary climate targets set by the historic Paris climate accords. The wheels are turning though, said Graf. In the last five years the EU was able “to punch up the member states on ambition” from their original 2014 targets. Achieving just 40 percent carbon reductions by 2030 is an outdated desire. There are now bigger goals — though not yet binding pledges — on the horizon. “55 percent is the new number out there,” said Graf.
Europe’s collective ambitions have been boosted by another reality. Globally-agreed upon climate science is generally not up for debate in Europe, which is in stark contrast to the U.S. where the EPA itself accused top climate scientists of writing an intentionally misleading climate report.
Current #Arctic sea ice extent (orange) is not anywhere close to average…
Compared to previous decades:
• about 700,000 km² less the 2000s mean
• about 1,120,000 km² less the 1990s mean
• about 1,160,000 km² less the 1980s mean pic.twitter.com/R368YXNFpI
— Zack Labe (@ZLabe) March 27, 2019
“There’s support across the board,” said Wendel Trio, Director of the Climate Action Network Europe in Belgium, an organization that promotes sustainable climate policy in Europe. “The climate science is agreed.”
“We have support for climate action — including from the conservatives,” added MacDonald, referencing the political climate in the UK.
“We have support for climate action — including from the conservatives.”
What’s more, the European public largely supports government efforts to decarbonize. When polled, “climate change always comes out as one of the top issues for ordinary citizens across Europe,” said Trio. Today, some 85 percent of Europeans “agree that fighting climate change and using energy more efficiently can create economic growth and jobs in Europe,” according to the EU.
The needle in the U.S., however, is moving. Influenced in part by the uptick in extreme weather, more and more Americans find climate science convincing. And overall, seven of 10 Americans say climate change is, at least, happening.
The end game
Europe’s end game, written in no uncertain terms, is to become a carbon-neutral region by 2050, meaning it’s no longer adding to the planet’s carbon burden.
But on the road there, the ambitious 2030 goals of cutting carbon emissions by well over 40 percent of 1990 levels almost certainly must be realized. Trio is optimistic. “Europe hasn’t missed a target yet,” he said. And getting to near 50 percent reductions can happen if nations boost energy efficiency (like in buildings) and deploy more renewables (like offshore wind farms powered by vigorous winds). “It’s going to be a challenge, but I’m pretty sure we can do it,” said Trio.
But the greater story is that the U.S. — along with burgeoning economic powerhouses India and China — will need to meet Europe’s ambition to stave off increasingly extreme consequences of a warming planet. It’s no secret nations globally are behind the curve.
“We’re all way behind where we need to be,” said UCSD’s Abdulla.
Last month’s global average concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) was about 411 parts per million (ppm), up about 4 ppm from February 2018.https://t.co/qjYgQZI1Al
— NASA Climate (@NASAClimate) March 20, 2019
“There are no technological or economic or social reasons why the U.S. cannot transition to a far more decarbonized energy system over the next few decades.”
And after 2030, the work to decarbonize will only get more difficult. Europe’s 2030 targets largely rely on the sunset of coal. “The problem is that coal is the low hanging fruit,” said MacDonald. What’s next are the challenges of slashing carbon emissions in agriculture (think methane-belching cattle), industry (like making concrete, which accounts for a whopping eight percent of global carbon emissions), and heavily-polluting airliners — all areas that have shown little to no declines so far, noted MacDonald.
Europe will be helped along by an increasingly important tool the U.S. doesn’t have: The EU has put a price on carbon. Though the system covers less than half of the EU’s greenhouse gases, the Emissions Trading System puts a cap on the total emissions allowed by certain sectors (like power plants). European companies buy “emission allowances” — and because they’re limited (like rare metals or money) — they can go up in price, making carbon emissions more expensive. It’s a valuable tool, said Trio.
The U.S., on the other hand, does not have any realistic plans to put a price on carbon.
**Bar Chart Race for CO2**
The changing ranks of the 10 largest CO2 emitters in the world since 1850.
Fascinating to see nations rise, fall & rise again in their yearly emissions*
See how the UK dominates the C19th & US the 20th.
Then watch China surge ahead after 2005… pic.twitter.com/mFLuHB8kTw
— Simon Evans (@DrSimEvans) March 21, 2019
Even so, will the U.S. follow Europe’s 2030, and ultimately 2050, path, perhaps guided by political leadership that doesn’t mock new, still-emerging ideas of how to cut carbon emissions?
“There are no technological or economic or social reasons why the U.S. cannot transition to a far more decarbonized energy system over the next few decades,” said Abdulla.
That will almost certainly require something approaching the EU’s collective ambition and an acceptance of deeply-vetted, globally understood climate science — something that doesn’t presently exist in U.S. Congress. Though bizarre gimmicks on the Senate floor are alive and well.
“It’s a political system that has decided to break itself at the seams,” said Abdulla.