Fossil fuels, climate change and low carbon diets

If you think the world is making headway on climate change, think again. We’re on the fast track to creating a planet that’s uninhabitable and drastic change is needed now. The world needs to go on a low carbon diet. By Tamara Pitelen.


The human race is speeding down the road to an uninhabitable planet, with temperatures too hot to live in; too high to grow food. In 2013, the world reached 400 parts per million of C02 in the atmosphere. This is the highest level in three million years on this planet and flies in the face of the ‘carbon budget’, that is, the amount of C02 the atmosphere can absorb without having devastating effects on the world.

Speaking at the Abu Dhabi Sustainable World Global Leaders’ Summit on 20 January 2014, Professor Jeffrey Sachs, Director Earth Institute, Columbia University, plainly outlined the dire situation the planet faced unless humans got real and serious about reducing fossil fuel usage.

Sachs said that the problem is that our fossil fuel-based energy system is leading to global scale change that is unprecedented in the geologic history of the planet. It threatens the fundamental survival of at least hundreds of millions of people this century.


“We’ve already increased the temperature on the planet by nearly one degree; one more degree and we reach tipping points that are extraordinarily dangerous for our children but we’re not on the path of two degrees, we’re on the path of four degrees right now.

“Even the mainstream report of the International Energy Agency, which is the leading organisation for keeping this data, is a four degree centigrade world. You can’t even imagine how dangerous that could be, where’s the food going to come from? What is the quality of life going to be? We’re still playing games. We have nice projects but nice projects do not solve the problem and we know scientifically what it would take, we’re emitting about 35 billion tonnes of C02 this year. By 2050, in a much larger world economy, we have to be emitting less than 15 billion tonnes,” Sachs said.

“If you do the carbon arithmetic, we need to get from 35 billion tonnes per year to about 12 or 13 billion tonnes a year by mid-century. In per person terms, right now there are seven billion people on the planet so we’re about five tonnes per person. There will be nine billion people by mid-century so we need to get to about 1.6 tonnes per person, in a global growing economy.

“So the world economy is going to grow by three times but we have to cut back by more than half our carbon emissions, what does that mean? It means we need to keep the coal under the ground; it means changing to electric vehicles, it means radically different building codes, it means facing the fact that when we produce power, our energy has to be emitting about 100 grams of C02 rather than the 700 grams per kilowatt hour [of electricity generated]that is now emitted when we produce electricity. This is straight forward arithmetic but our political systems do not want to face straight forward arithmetic because it means making choices. It means telling the coal industry that unless you have carbon capture and sequestration, the coal must stay under the ground. It means saying to the oil industry that by 2030 our vehicle fleets must be electric powered, they cannot be internal combustion engine if we’re serious about this problem. So far we’re not serious about the problem, I pity our children and I’m scared for them because we’re not facing the honest carbon budgets of the planet.”


The reality is that, if not one more drop of oil was pulled out of the ground, there is already enough oil and coal in reserve to meet the carbon budget. Use this up over the next 40 years, says Sachs, stop spending billions on exploration to find more and use that money to make the transition to renewable energy – which is critical for the survival of the planet.

“Instead of investing tens of billions of dollars in new oil and gas [exploration]when we have enough already, we would be investing that same money in the energy transition worldwide?

“Our politicians have a short term time horizon and the short term is continue to produce fossil fuel, that’s how we’ve grown up and that’s what the engineers know by and large and that’s how the world continues to grow. You look at how many new coal-fired power plants, more than 1000 are in construction or been approved for development right now. We are increasing the number of internal combustion engines by hundreds of millions in the next 20 years. What are we doing!? It’s not so hard to do a spreadsheet to show how we are moving to a dangerous planet but we don’t hear any of that in these discussions, we only hear the good news, we don’t hear the bad news and that’s the problem. We have to get real about a different direction, which is a different kind of energy system. One that is low carbon. The only low carbon sources are nuclear, wind, solar, geothermal or carbon capture and sequestration. There is no low carbon vehicle system except if we move to fuel cells and to battery. This is straight forward, so we have to make those choices and that’s what global agreements should be doing.”


Sachs said that one way to make the energy transition is to give the production rights to those who have the reserves right now. “Run down the reserves, let the market price be very high, that would be good for the Middle East and good for the oil companies, I don’t care about that, that’s fine, but don’t produce more reserves.

“Let’s understand that we’re on a dropping diet of fossil fuel and we’re on a rising diet of low carbon energy. Current shareholders would do just fine but companies wouldn’t waste their money with tens of billions of dollars of finding reserves of things that can’t be used safely in the world. This is the big mistake and it comes because our financial markets are even more short-sighted than our politicians. It used to be that great banks financed great industry, they’d invest in a 20 or 30 year forward industry but you look at our great banks right now, they’re all short-term traders, they don’t even know how to finance an industry any more, all they know is quarterly returns so all they want to do is trade existing securities, they don’t know how to finance a new energy sector for the world. So that’s my challenge for Wall Street or the city of London, stop being traders, start being investors again and that means creating a new energy industry not simply trading the shares of the existing energy industry, which is what they do because all of these companies are led by traders right now, not by industry builders. We need new industry.”


Is there any harmless energy system? “There is no energy system that is completely harmless so we have to make choices. The problem is that our fossil fuel-based energy system is the most dangerous of all because it is leading to global scale change that is unprecedented in the geologic history of the planet. It threatens the fundamental survival of at least hundreds of millions of people this century so I personally support nuclear energy for example, not because it’s perfectly safe but because it’s safer than a fossil fuel energy system. I support wind and solar power, not because it’s perfect, they use land, they threaten the local environment but they don’t threaten the global environment in the same way. So we have to make serious choices but we should understand it. In China, you cannot breathe the air, your eyes water and you can’t even see. The last time I flew into Beijing, I had to circle for an hour because there was no visibility to land at the airport. That’s the problem with coal, China has to move beyond coal because it’s damaging, it’s killing people, it’s leading to disease and it’s also the number one cause of greenhouse gas changes now. So there is no perfect system but it’s the relative problem that needs to be fixed.”

What do we all need to do? “By mid-century we need to get to about 1.6 tonnes of C02 per person (we’re now at about five tonnes per person), in a global growing economy. In order to do that, you need plans. Governments need plans. You have to do everything; you have to go to electric vehicles, you have to go to clean, low carbon electricity systems, you have to go to very well insulated, air-locked buildings that use about one fifth of the energy, you have to go to smart grids. You have to do everything because it requires very radical transformation that means operating on many different fronts, not one magic bullet. And that will require 30 or 40 years of change with concerted effort globally, global co-operation on all these new technologies. We’re not serious about this yet, we’re just telling ourselves nice stories.”

Professor Jeffrey D. Sachs is the Director of The Earth Institute, Quetelet Professor of Sustainable Development, and Professor of Health Policy and Management at Columbia University. He is Special Advisor to United Nations Secretary- General Ban Ki-moon on the Millennium Development Goals. He has authored three New York Times bestsellers: The end of Poverty (2005), common Wealth: economics for a crowded Planet (2008), and The Price of civilization (2011). 


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