By Deven P.
“Climate Change” became a household term in the last twenty years through academic attention, popular media, and eventually, mediatory policies. It refers to the negative effects of greenhouse gas accumulation in our atmosphere. At a high level, the problem develops when certain gasses are released into the ozone layer of the atmosphere. The resulting buildup of radiation from the strengthened atmospheric membrane causes global temperatures to rise.
The consequences of higher global temperatures manifest in many ways and could soon become irreversible. In 2016, the United Nations defined a clear objective to respond to the pressures of the topic: the global average temperature must be held “well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.” In response to this target, governments restricted airline and automobile emissions and some firms in the private sector slowly worked to reduce their products’ environmental impacts (environmental impact relating specifically to carbon dioxide emissions is known as a “carbon footprint”). A natural question arises from all this effort: which of our actions make a meaningful difference?
We know that some attempts to decrease our carbon footprint, despite being well-intentioned, will not help us comply with the UN’s target. The 2005 Kyoto Protocol and the 2016 Paris Agreement both involved an agreement between some of the worlds biggest greenhouse gas emitters to limit our global carbon footprint. Today, however, we remain on an emissions trajectory placing us well over our governments’ 2-degree target. According to the Climate Action Tracker‘s September 2020 update, our global policies currently provide a projection of 2.7 to 3.1 degrees Celsius by 2100, significantly higher than the 2 degree mark. With the absence of such policies, that number could reach as high as 4.8 degrees.
To understand America’s future role in this effort, we can look at which policies have worked in lowering the trajectory and which have not. Using the Energy Policy Simulator developed by Hal Harvey (CEO, Energy Innovation), we can see for instance that the current rate of global carbon dioxide emissions is 4,928 million metric tons per year,which is down from 5,737 in 2019. A full description of each included policy variable can be found here. The Paris Agreement’s 2-degree target is converted in the simulator to “26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels of emissions by 2025,” a target we are currently not in line to meet. Of the policies included in the simulation, a few stand out. The widely-considered “carbon tax” idea, for instance, does not meaningfully shift the trajectory curve downwards if only applied to transportation. Even with a $300/metric ton of CO2 emissions, the 2025 projected rate falls only from 5,572 to 5525 million metric tons per year. Applied to industries outside of transportation (encompassing all manufacturing), however, the same carbon tax produces a reduction of 5,572 to 5,125 million metric tons per year.
2020 presidential candidate Donald Trump has proposed no policies to change the trajectory of our CO2 emissions, in fact rolling back more regulations than he is enacting. Under his second-term administration, it can be assumed that the “business-as-usual” projection will remain largely unchanged. Presidential candidate Joe Biden, on the other hand, does recognize the importance of the climate change target, and his site mentions that he plans to allocate $2 trillion as part of a “Biden Plan” to invest in renewable alternatives to our current carbon platforms. The Biden Plan is mapped in the “Net Zero Emissions” scenario in the Energy Policy Simulator. This alternate set of policy projects a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28 percent from levels output in 2005. This target is expected to match the previously mentioned 2-degree target, meaning if the Biden Plan follows the Energy Policy Simulator’s projections, the United States will have done its part in meeting the world’s climate goals.
However, voters should be aware the Biden Plan would catalyze an abrupt move away from carbon-based energy and manufacturing. For instance, the policies composing the Net Zero Emissions model assume an ambitious 100% “Methane Capture” in the Natural Gas, Petroleum, Coal Mining, and Water & Waste industries. While this change is appealing if done in a controlled manner, when done too fast it may destabilize our fuel-input markets and force our already-receding economy into a deeper depression. Indeed, an environmental policy as extreme would be unprecedented, and no one knows for sure what the long-run impacts on both the environment and the economy would be. In the worst case scenario, the plan both fails to significantly change our emissions trajectory and contributes to an economic catastrophe.
All of this caution only goes to say that a presidential vote based purely on climate policy is not well-advised. The plausibility of a 2020 presidential candidate meaningfully reducing greenhouse gas emissions in a safe manner is uncertain. According to Samantha Gross at the Brookings Institution, the real change will come once the United States decreases the consumption of oil and gas products. This process will almost certainly take more than four years to meaningfully do. In the meantime, the safest action we can take to battle climate change is to invest heavily in alternative energy sources. □
- Image source
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- Energy Policy Simulator Documentation. (n.d.). Energy Policy Solutions; Energy Innovation. Retrieved October 31, 2020, from https://us.energypolicy.solutions/docs/
- Gross, S. (2020, January 27). The United States can take climate change seriously while leading the world in oil and gas production. Brookings. https://www.brookings.edu/policy2020/bigideas/the-united-states-can-take-climate-change-seriously-while-leading-the-world-in-oil-and-gas-production/
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