The world is ending.
But, policymakers are asking, how expensive will it be to prevent, or to cope with? Such are the hard economic questions posed by the latest bone-chilling report released by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Even at the brink of Armageddon, budgets must still be drafted, investments must be hedged, and inflation kept stable.
To put it in simple terms, we’re screwed, probably. The IPCC is an intergovernmental body created and sponsored by the United Nations, composed of the world’s top climate scientists. They have no legislative authority, but they do compose a yearly report on climate change, detailing both the status quo situation as well as recommendations for emission reduction targets and the appropriate approaches for achieving said targets. Their latest report, published last month, establishes that we are currently on course for 1.5°C of warming by 2030, with 3°C being reached by 2100, provided that all countries hold to the basic requirements of the The Paris Agreement, which, incidentally, the second largest polluter (the ol’ US of A) has pulled out of. The IPCC deems this unacceptable, as even a 2°C warming, reached between 2040 and 2050, would be catastrophic for both Earth’s biosphere and for its human inhabitants due to sea level rise, desertification, and more numerous natural disasters.
In order to prevent this, warming must be capped at a total of 1.5°C, according to the IPCC. This requires that the world reach a net zero carbon emissions before 2050 and a net negative thereafter. The IPCC itself recommends a global reduction of emissions by 40 per cent by 2030, with elimination of remaining emissions or compensation via carbon capture technologies by 2050. This would be difficult, to say the least. Emissions, rather than decreasing, increased by 1.5 per cent in 2017 as African and Asian countries continue to industrialize, overcompensating for reduced emissions across much of the West. As of 2018, the only nation with a high Human Development Index score that meets the IPCC’s stringent requirements is the Republic of Cuba.
While green energy technologies and carbon capture technologies do exist, the former are only beginning to be more cost-effective than fossil fuels, while carbon capture technologies are still in their experimental phase and will not be able to be mass produced for the foreseeable future. As a consequence, meeting the IPCC target will be outrageously expensive for most countries, both in terms of percentage of GDP and is absolute monetary terms. To replace all existing coal, gas, and oil-fired power plants and vehicles by 2050 would cost India alone 1 Trillion USD; as a percentage of GDP the cost of meeting the IPCC’s requirements falls most severely on developing nations, many of whom are still in the process of constructing nationwide coal-powered electrical grids.
This steep cost has prompted three types of responses from the countries of the world. For those least dependent on fossil fuels and/or most vulnerable to climate change, typified by island nations like the Seychelles and Cuba, and low-lying nations like the Netherlands, the response has been to accelerate existing plans to achieve carbon neutrality as the cost of ignoring climate change is the literal destruction of (in some cases) the entire country via rising sea levels. They are joined by those nations that have already made strides towards reducing carbon emissions, such as France, Japan, and the Scandinavian countries. The second approach, taken primarily by the United States and Australia has consisted of burying their heads in the sand while making unconvincing gestures towards maybe one day paying attention to those pesky UN scientists.
The third approach, being taken by most developing countries and typified by China is a cold-blooded, Machiavellian calculation that while climate change is a serious threat, it is more important for the national welfare that industrialisation and modernisation continue than to throw massive chunks of national GDP at reaching IPCC targets. China is simultaneously the world’s largest carbon emitter and the largest investor in green technology, by far in both cases. While China is particularly vulnerable to desertification and water shortages, the CCP has come to the conclusion that to meet IPCC requirements would cripple the Chinese economy more than climate change will. These countries have an unspoken gamble that, firstly, climate change will not adversely affect the national welfare more than current projections, and secondly, that once modernisation is complete (China projects 2030 to be their year of peak emissions) carbon capture technologies will have developed enough that they will be able to reduce emissions more quickly and less painfully than Western nations have found it to be.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t work if everyone else is making the same calculation, or one like it. In Western countries like the United States and the United Kingdom, climate change remains at the bottom of political agendas, and even in other developed countries mustering the political willpower to conduct expensive R&D into carbon capture tech and implement economically painful but environmentally necessary carbon taxes is lacking. As a consequence of this global tragedy of the commons, there has as of yet been little movement by the world’s largest carbon emitters to realistically meet the IPCC’s benchmarks. It is perhaps also worth noting that the IPCC has historically been over-optimistic in its warming projections, and has been accused of not taking into account ice-cap albedo loss and the possibility of large-scale methane (another greenhouse gas) releases from melting permafrost into account when making their projections.
To break the fourth wall to end things, when I write, even on dour topics, I always try and present an optimistic option for you, the reader. There isn’t one here; I don’t know of a technologically realistic and politically achievable path to the IPCC’s benchmarks, and in my research for this article, I couldn’t find one. That doesn’t mean we should give up: even if projections are not met it will still be thoroughly worth it to limit warming; it is estimated that every 0.5°C rise will accrue between 150 and 200 million untimely deaths by 2100, not even counting the more or less inevitable hundreds of millions of climate refugees. Things may be bad, but remember that it can always be worse.