How do we solve a problem like the climate emergency?

Saturday 2 November, 10:0011:30, Frobisher 1-3Solving 21st-century problems

Earlier this year, areas of central London were brought to a halt by a series of protests by Extinction Rebellion, a new group demanding urgent action on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The group demands that politicians ‘tell the truth’ about our climate and move to ‘halt biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025′. Moreover, there should be a citizens’ assembly created to deal with the issue because ‘governments have been unwilling to tackle a problem of this magnitude’.

Along with the success of Swedish school strikes activist Greta Thunberg, these protests have brought climate change issues to the forefront of political debate again. For example, in May, the House of Commons approved a motion that declared we now face a ‘climate emergency’. For many environmentalists, we need to give up on economic growth altogether.

Both Extinction Rebellion and Thunberg argue that the problem is a lack of political will. But is that true? Halting our use of fossil fuels will not be straightforward. According to statistics from the International Energy Agency (IEA) for 2017, 81 per cent of the world’s primary energy consumption came from fossil fuels – oil, coal and natural gas. Low-carbon sources made up the rest, but they include nuclear power and hydro power – both often unpopular with environmentalists. Just 1.8 per cent of global energy usage came from solar and wind, despite costly subsidies and policy assistance from governments in the developed world.

Part of the problem is that energy demand is rising almost too fast for the expansion of renewables to keep up. While the cost of renewables has fallen rapidly and much more solar and wind power is coming online, the world’s demand for energy is also growing fast. As a result, even if renewables continue to be promoted heavily, the IEA thinks that the proportion of fossil fuels used globally will fall (perhaps to 74 per cent by 2040), but overall consumption of fossil fuels is likely to rise, along with greenhouse gas emissions.

Solar and wind are both intermittent and, in the case of wind, unreliable. Burning biomass, like wood, is supposed to be carbon-neutral, but critics – including many environmentalists – say it is anything but. Ecomodernist commentators would like to see far greater use of nuclear power, which is more expensive than fossil fuels, but is at least reliable. Alternatively, some argue that, for the moment, global economic development is only possible with fossil fuels. Indeed, it may be that more economic growth, even powered by fossil fuels, will allow us to adapt to whatever climate changes occur.

How can we decarbonise our energy usage? Should we offer even greater subsidies and government intervention to support solar and wind? Is it time for a global rethink on using nuclear energy? Should we prioritise economic growth, particularly in developing countries, and accept that we may have to learn to adapt to a warmer world? Or do we have to face the prospect that we have to drastically reduce our energy use – and rein in our lifestyles – for the sake of the planet?