20 years lost in the environment (45)
By Jeffrey Sachs
I have one basic message, which is not exactly a surprise and that is that we are in very deep trouble. Things are not working and the international system is not solving problems that humanity has never had to solve together.
At Rio+20, we could not go celebrating and we had to go with our heads held down taking in the reality that the Rio Summit 20 years ago which produced three tremendous treaties: to avert human-induced climate change, to avert the destruction of biodiversities and to avert the desertification of the earth’s drylands have all failed to do what they set out to do.
Twenty years on, not one of these treaties is working yet. As a result, we have more urgent tasks at hand because we have squandered 20 years.
I think one of the main problems is that we don’t realize the scale of the challenge that we face. This is not an issue to feel good about because of a demonstration project here or a nice example there, as the world is overwhelming us in the reality of environmental wreckage and risk far more than we are accomplishing by our combined efforts over these 20 years.
And I want to take climate change as the core case to put forward, but one could also talk about the loss of biodiversity and indeed many other ills that are at front and center as well.
The climate change is of course an issue of the emission of greenhouse gases, mostly from sources of the fossil economy and that global fossil fuel economy continues to grow rapidly and that is at the heart of all successful middle and high level economies in the world.
Nature of the challenge
Fossil fuel made the modern economy possible and it has carried economic growth for two centuries. And the infrastructure system, the energy and transport systems and the industrial processes that we live on are largely driven by a fossil fuel economy.
The point is therefore sometimes hard to appreciate the real nature of the challenge that we have in front of us.
Currently, the world is emitting about 32 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year and with that rate of emission the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide is rising two to three parts per million each year.
From the pre-industrial level of 280 parts per million, we are not at about 395 parts per million.
Many climate scientists say that the safe level to avoid dangerous enthroprogenic interference is in the rear-view mirror, probably at a level of around 350 parts per million.
And yet we continue to see a relentless rise in greenhouse gas concentrations and CO2 concentrations because of the rapid growth of the world’s economy.
The role of fossil fuels, which are the main sources of CO2 emissions, are so deeply entrenched that our economic structures are shockingly similar despite what seems to be wasteful when you come down to it.
In the world as a whole, we use about 0.2 kilograms of oil equivalent for each dollar of national production measured in purchasing power parity
And for that kilogram of oil equivalent, we emit about 2.4 kilograms of carbon dioxide when it is burned because the mix of coal, oil and natural gas that goes into producing that kilogram of oil equivalent energy.
When you combine 0.2 kilograms of oil equivalent per dollar of GDP and 2.4 kilograms of carbon dioxide per kilogram of oil of oil equivalent and you multiply them together, you get approximately 0.46 kilograms of carbon dioxide for each dollar produced in the world.
And since the world economy is currently running at $68 trillion and you multiply by that, you get the 32 billion tons of carbon dioxide.
Now, when you look around the world, there is not much difference in how our energy systems work. At a world's average, it is 0.19 kilograms of oil equivalent per dollar of GDP; in China it is 0.2; it is 0.2 in Korea; and 0.19 in the United States.
Hard-wiring of energy
The hard-wiring of energy is not so different across the vastly different sets of economies because we have industry, transport and buildings that have similar technologies that exist in all of these economies.
If you look at the energy mix, there is a little bit of difference because the world as a whole produces 2.4 kilograms of CO2 per kilogram of oil equivalent of energy. In Korea, it is 2.2; 2.4 in the U.S.: and 3.1 in China because of the higher concentration of coal in the energy basket. But not so much difference across the economies.
This means that to change direction is to change deeply the hard-wiring of our economic systems. This is what we need to do.
Consider the following: The world economy is growing at about 4 percent per year. That is a doubling every 18 years. By 2050, we will have approximately a four-fold increase of GDP and of world production if development continues as we hope it does.
That would mean a world economy of $270 trillion at today’s purchasing power prices.
Now what the climate models and scientists tell us is that simply continuing with the carbon and energy concentrations that we have would be a path of suicide and recklessness. We would not have a viable food supply for the world in such a trajectory. We would have profound instability. We will not have only 200 million Africans suffering from extreme drought in the south horns of Africa but we would have all regions around the world incapable of assuring their food security.
Efficient energy use
And yet, what do we have to do? If you look at the most efficient economy right now in energy use, instead of 0.2 kilograms of oil equivalent per dollar, its 0.1: That’s where Japan is, and that’s where Denmark is, at half of the world’s average.
Suppose we get to a $270 trillion world output and we cut to 0.1 rather than 0.2 of energy efficiency, the world becomes as efficient as the most efficient economies today.
Even if we are to have a chance for safety, we will have to have half our emissions at most in the world by mid-century.
If you do the arithmetic, what would be required is a reduction of about 80 percent of the carbon concentration of that energy.
Essentially, we would have to become as efficient as the most efficient economies in the world and decarbonize at the same time to accommodate both growth and the deep reduction of emissions that we need. That's what a green economy and green growth really implies. It is really deep, deep decarbonization of energy systems.
There is no place on this earth that is remotely on this path right now, no matter if countries are doing clean energy systems, solar power systems, nuclear or wind power, none of them, with the possible exception of Denmark – I would say because of its great wind resources and great governance – are on the trajectory that we need.
We don’t even set goals that way nationally. We set goals to 2020 which is a very easy game to play because it does not force us to think about the depth of change that is needed.
In the United States, the trick is to close down some coal plants and use more natural gas but that is a dirty joke. From an environmental point of view, that doesn’t even begin to address the real challenge of decarbonization that we face globally.
So my point is that this is an issue that is so unprecedented, so deep in its structure, we are so close to the edge that we, humanity, have not really taken on this base reality in our discussions, negotiations and political processes; our white papers are not even close.
Of course, I come from a country which has denied this reality for the last 20 years where one political party insists that it doesn’t even exist and the other party dares not speak the name of climate, so that the world's largest economy is out of this story in any real way.
And in the rest of the world of talking nobody is actually doing anything at the depth that is required. This is a fundamentally unsolved problem and almost no government in the world and no country in the world have even identified pathways that are realistic in how to decarbonize.
Of course, technologically, we can think about how that can be done. In fact, it is surprising at how low cost this can be. Not for free: it would cost real resources.
I don’t believe for a moment that this green economy is free in the sense of today’s market prices but it is less costly than denial.
But in my view, it is reckless that we don’t pay the price that is required. And we can see how this can be done: nuclear power, and renewable energy, carbon capture and sequestration, mass electrification of transport systems and green buildings. The range of technologies exists.
They are expensive, we don’t have good storages and many of these carbon capture sequestrations are on paper or a few demonstration models, nothing of scale. No one is building in scale and no one of planning in scale. Many countries are closing down their nuclear programs, but we are not going to run the global economy on intermittent energy sources because you need base energy to run an economy and so we have unsolved problems at the fundamental level.
We can see where we need to go but we are not on that trajectory right now.
The UN framework process has failed for 20 years. There have been fine treaties but have not been successful in turning the needle in terms of global emissions.
What we need is a mass mobilization of society rather than international laws and diplomatic negotiations.
I believe that we have left climate change in the hands of lawyers for the last 20 years and the lawyers are good at prolonged negotiating and they have spent the last 20 years on negotiating what is binding, how you measure it and what is verifiable and almost nothing has been accomplished. Certainly nothing compared to the scale of the challenge.
What we should think about is waking up the eyes of world society, especially young people and universities, experts and businesses to the scale of the reality.
We should not be thinking about new new legally binding agreements but sustainable development goals that our morals and global goals need for our shared survival. Because, at least that way, we will be able to state the way that the world wants to save itself, that these goals are not to be negotiated or whether they are binding or not. That is what the world stands for.
And based on those goals, we create a new generation of problem-solving tools, bring together expertise, activism and social mobilization to understand the depth of the challenge, the magnitudes and the technological options and to induce our society to take steps without asking who moves first.
CO2 emissions in Seoul
South Korea is the 9th largest CO2 emitter in the world.
It experienced a growth in fossil fuel CO2 emissions with an average annual growth rate of 11.5 percent from 1946-1997. Coal consumption accounts for 43.5 percent of South Korea’s fossil fuel CO2 emissions.
Since the nation is the world’s 5th largest importer of crude oil, oil consumption has been a major reason for CO2 emissions since late 1960s. Then natural gas became the major source for emission of CO2, as it increased the imports of liquid natural gas in 1987.
Due to the reduced production of secondary petroleum fuels and reduced imports of crude oil, South Korea’s emissions fell 14.7 percent from 1997-1998. Since 1998, fossil fuel emissions have risen 37.7 percent and in 2007 it reached an all time high of 137 million metric tonnes of CO2. Now South Korea emits about 514 million metric tons of CO2 and it is Asia’s fourth biggest polluter.
South Korea (1.4 percent per year) is the only OECD country other than Mexico for which average emissions growth exceeds 1 percent per year. The Ministry of Knowledge Economy reported that South Korea’s per capita CO2 output of 10.1 tons ranked it 23rd place word wide, up from 25th place in 2006.
Jeffrey David Sachs is an American economist and director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University. One of the youngest economics professors in the history of Harvard University, Sachs became known for his role as an adviser to Eastern European and developing country governments during the transition from communism to a market system or during periods of economic crisis. Subsequently he has been known for his work on the challenges of economic development, environmental sustainability, poverty alleviation, debt cancellation and globalization.