When the 21st United Nations Climate Change Conference opens in Paris on November 30, annual global emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) will be about 32 billion metric tons. This figure is 10 percent higher than the 29 billion tons that were emitted in 2009, when the last major UN climate conference took place in Copenhagen.
There is no escaping the conclusion that we are playing Russian roulette with the environment by allowing CO2 emissions to continue to rise. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change provides conservative benchmarks as to what is required to stabilize the average global temperature at its current level of around 60.3 degrees Fahrenheit, which is 3.6 degrees (2 degrees Celsius) above the preindustrial average of 56.7 degrees. According to the IPCC, global CO2 emissions need to fall by about 40 percent below current levels within 20 years, to around 20 billion tons, and 80 percent by 2050, to seven billion tons.
In the run-up to the Paris conference, 156 countries—including the United States, Russia, India, Japan, South Africa, Brazil, and all of Western Europe—have pledged to cut their CO2 emissions. But taken together, these pledges are not nearly enough to bring global emissions down to 20 billion tons by 2035. On top of that, even these inadequate pledges are not likely to be made legally binding in Paris. Political leaders throughout the world, in short, continue to court ecological disaster rather than mount a viable climate-stabilization program.
This situation is shameful under any circumstances, but it is especially so because a simple and viable path to climate stabilization is right before us. The global economy can bring global emissions down to the IPCC target of 20 billion tons within 20 years if most countries—especially those with either large GDPs or populations—devote between 1.5 and 2 percent per year of GDP to investments in energy efficiency and clean, low-emission renewable-energy sources. The consumption of oil, coal, and natural gas will also need to fall by about 35 percent over this same period—i.e., at an average 2.2 percent rate of decline per year. These investments aimed at dramatically raising energy-efficiency standards and expanding the supply of clean renewable-energy sources—what we can term a global green-growth program—would also generate tens of millions of new jobs in all regions of the world. That’s because building a green economy requires hiring workers at much greater rates than maintaining the world’s currently dominant fossil-fuel-based energy infrastructure. In its essence, this is the entire global green-growth program.
Of course, if it’s all so simple, then why do global emissions keep rising? Raw greed and corrupt politics loom large, of course. But there is more at play, including serious misunderstandings on the left as to what can and should be done.
Three Barriers to Climate Progress
There is one fundamental reason why most countries throughout the world, at all levels of development, are unwilling to cut their CO2 emissions sufficiently, notwithstanding the ever-mounting ecological threat. It is because the only way countries can achieve serious emissions cuts is to stop burning so much oil, coal, and natural gas to produce energy. Confronting this reality, in turn, creates three problems that are distinct but interrelated, and all are formidable in their own right.
The first is that workers and communities whose livelihoods depend on people consuming fossil-fuel energy will face major losses—layoffs, falling incomes, and declining public-sector budgets to support schools, health clinics, and public safety. The second is that profits will fall sharply and permanently for the colossus fossil-fuel companies, such as ExxonMobil, Shell, and the range of energy-based businesses owned by the US mega-billionaires David and Charles Koch. The world’s publicly owned energy companies—including Saudi Aramco, Gazprom in Russia, and Petrobras in Brazil, among others—together control about 90 percent of the world’s total oil reserves. These companies will take still larger hits to their revenues. The third problem pushes us beyond the fossil-fuel industry and into broader issues of jobs and prospects for economic growth. According to most analysts, economies will face higher energy costs when they are forced to slash their fossil-fuel supplies. It will therefore become more expensive to operate the full gamut of buildings, machines, and transportation equipment that drives all economies forward.
How do we successfully attack these three problems? The challenges are daunting. But there is also very good news here: They are not nearly as daunting as most analysts claim, including those on the left.
For example, in a widely cited Nation article in 2014, “The New Abolitionism,” the progressive journalist Chris Hayes argued that the losses fossil-fuel companies will have to bear to bring global CO2 emissions down sufficiently will be equivalent to those experienced by US slave owners as a result of the Civil War and abolition. As we will see, this is a huge overstatement, both in terms of the amount of money at play as well as the corresponding magnitude of the political struggle before us. Leftists are also increasingly embracing the view that the solution to climate change is to oppose economic growth in general and advance an alternative “de-growth” agenda. Versions of this approach are developed, for example, by the influential political economists Tim Jackson, in his 2009 book Prosperity Without Growth, and Juliet Schor, in her 2010 work Plentitude. Ironically, their views converge with the arguments long advanced on the right that achieving climate stabilization will inevitably lead to fewer job opportunities and the end of economic growth. The main difference between these left and right de-growth perspectives is that the right denounces this prospect while the left embraces it.
In reality, one critical step to creating a successful global climate-stabilization movement is to recognize that these perspectives are themselves obstacles to progress. Defeating the oil companies will be grueling, but it will not require another civil war. Victories are already mounting. Even more basically, it is not true that there must be large, painful trade-offs between stabilizing the climate on the one hand and supporting jobs and economic growth on the other. Quite the contrary: A global green-growth project is the one climate-stabilization strategy that can realistically succeed and is available to us right now.
Climate Stabilization Through Green Growth
Of course, executing this green-growth plan is easier said than done. To begin with, energy-efficiency investments in all regions of the world will need to span each country’s stock of buildings, transportation systems, and industrial processes. Efficiency levels will need to rise in office towers and homes (among other places), in residential lighting and cooking equipment, and in the performance of automobiles and provision of public transportation. Expanding the supply of clean renewable energy will require major investments in solar, wind, geothermal, and small-scale hydropower, as well as in low-emissions bioenergy sources, such as ethanol from switchgrass, agricultural wastes, and waste grease. By contrast, expanding the supply of high-emissions bioenergy sources, such as corn ethanol and wood, provides no benefit relative to fossil-fuel sources. Dependency on these high-emissions bioenergy renewables needs to be slashed at the same rate as fossil fuels.
There are large differences in the emissions levels generated by burning oil, coal, and natural gas, respectively, with natural gas generating about 40 percent less emissions for a given amount of energy produced than coal and 15 percent less than oil. It is therefore widely argued that natural gas can be a “bridge fuel” to a clean- energy future, through switching from coal to natural gas to produce electricity. Such claims are wrong. At best, an implausibly large 50 percent global fuel switch to natural gas would reduce emissions by only 8 percent. But this doesn’t take account of the leakage of methane gas into the atmosphere that results when natural gas is extracted through fracking. Recent research has found that when more than about 5 percent of the extracted gas leaks into the atmosphere through fracking, the impact eliminates any environmental benefit from burning natural gas relative to coal. One study that focused on fracking projects in Texas and North Dakota found leakage rates in the range of 9 to 10 percent. If leakages continued at such rates, as would be likely if global fracking operations expanded, the overall emissions impact from natural gas would be worse than that from burning coal.
We therefore come back to a climate-stabilization strategy focused on efficiency and clean renewable investments. Increasing these investments by 1.5 percent of global GDP will require the creation of effective industrial policies for countries at all stages of development. This would mean large-scale public investment in clean energy—for example, to raise efficiency standards in government-owned buildings, dramatically expand good public-transportation systems, and substitute clean renewable energy for oil, coal, and natural gas with the government’s own purchases. Providing abundant and affordable financing for private businesses will also be critical. The situation with energy-efficiency investments makes this clear. On average, such investments pay for themselves within three to five years. But they still require financiers to put up the funds to cover up-front investment costs.
Countries that successfully advance policies to invest between 1.5 and 2 percent of GDP in energy efficiency and clean renewables should not face any more difficulties in maintaining healthy economic growth than if they kept burning oil, coal, and natural gas at their current rates. To begin with, energy-efficiency investments make it cheaper to cook meals; heat and cool homes and offices; travel by cars, buses, and trains; and operate industrial machinery.
Similarly, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) reports that, in all regions of the world, average costs of generating energy with most clean renewable sources are now at rough parity with those of fossil fuels. This means that households, businesses, and public enterprises that substitute clean renewables for fossil fuels will not need to pay more to meet their energy needs. This is without even factoring in the environmental costs of burning fossil fuels. Part of the overall green-growth agenda should therefore include either a carbon tax or a hard limit on carbon emissions, so that these environmental costs are incorporated into fossil-fuel prices. Through a carbon tax or cap, fossil-fuel prices would rise above those for most clean renewables, which would then encourage investments in renewables and efficiency still further. Not all clean renewable-energy sources are now at a rough-cost parity with fossil fuels. Solar energy is the most significant case in point. But solar-energy costs are falling sharply as increased investment levels spur innovation, and will fall still faster as global solar production expands.
Green Growth and Jobs
These investments in energy efficiency and clean renewables will greatly expand job opportunities for countries at every level of development. Research that I have conducted with co-authors has found this relationship to hold in Brazil, China, Germany, India, Indonesia, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, and the United States.
For the United States, for example, we found that increasing investments by around $200 billion per year to raise energy-efficiency standards and expand clean renewable production—about 1.2 percent of current GDP—would drop US emissions by 40 percent within 20 years, while creating a net increase of 2.7 million jobs. This is after taking full account of the jobs that would be lost as oil, coal, and natural-gas production fell by 40 percent.
For India, we found that, through increasing energy efficiency and clean renewable investments by 1.5 percent of GDP every year, CO2 emissions could be stabilized at their current low level, which is one-tenth that of the United States on a per capita basis. This would occur even with India’s GDP growing at an average of 6 percent per year—a growth rate that produces a near-tripling of average incomes within 20 years. Over the 20-year program, these investments would also create an average of about 10 million more jobs per year than if India continued to rely on its existing fossil-fuel-dominant energy infrastructure. India could also eliminate nuclear energy altogether through this green-growth program.
In the case of Spain, in a study that we produced for the progressive anti-austerity party Podemos, we showed how green growth could be a cornerstone for a broader anti-austerity agenda. For example, we found that, through increasing investments in energy efficiency and clean renewables by 1.5 percent of GDP, Spain could reduce its emissions by more than 60 percent within 20 years, while generating an increase of about 400,000 jobs, compared with maintaining its existing energy infrastructure. This program would also enable Spain to steadily curtail its heavy dependency on imported oil. At present, Spain’s oil-import bill expands rapidly whenever the economy starts growing. This becomes a major barrier to busting out of its ongoing austerity trap.
“Small Is Beautiful”
Throughout the world, the energy sector has long operated under a variety of ownership structures, including public/municipal utilities, various forms of private cooperatives, and private corporations. Public ownership already dominates the global fossil-fuel industry. But this hardly means that Saudi Aramco, Russia’s Gazprom, or Brazil’s Petrobras are prepared to fight climate change. National development projects, lucrative careers, and political power all depend on continuing the exploitation of large fossil-fuel revenues.
Green-growth investments will nevertheless create significant opportunities for alternative ownership forms, including various combinations of smaller-scale public, private, and cooperative ownership. For example, community-based wind farms have been highly successful for nearly two decades in Germany, Denmark, Sweden, and Britain. A major reason for their success is that they operate with lower profit requirements than big private corporations.
Falling costs for clean renewable energy, solar in particular, are also creating important opportunities for people to install and operate their own small-scale “distributed energy” systems, which rely less and less on electrical grids. In January, the Financial Times reported that “across the US, about 45,300 businesses and 596,000 homes have solar panels.… Over the past four years, the numbers have risen threefold for businesses and fourfold for homes, as the cost of solar power has plunged.” The prospects for distributed energy are still greater in developing countries such as India, where more than 40 percent of rural households do not have access to grid-based electricity. Distributed renewable energy will enable rural communities to leapfrog over grid-based systems entirely, just as mobile-phone technology has enabled them to stop depending on corporate-controlled landline phone companies.
The Problems With De-Growth
As expressed by Giacomo D’Alisa, Federico Demaria, and Giorgos Kallis in their new book Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era, “The foundational theses of degrowth are that growth is uneconomic and unjust, that it is ecologically unsustainable and that it will never be enough.” These concerns are real, and de-growth proponents are making important contributions by addressing them forcefully. But on the specific issue of climate change, they are far too sweeping in their indictment of economic growth. Consider some very simple arithmetic: We know that annual global CO2 emissions need to fall from the current level of 32 billion tons to 20 billion tons within 20 years. Now assume that global GDP contracts by 10 percent over the next two decades, following a de-growth scenario. That would entail a reduction of global GDP four times larger than what we experienced over the 2007–09 financial crisis and Great Recession. In terms of CO2 emissions, the net effect of this economic contraction, considered on its own, would be to push emissions down by precisely 10 percent—that is, from 32 to 29 billion tons, exactly the global emissions level when the Copenhagen climate summit convened in 2009. So the global economy would still not come close to bringing emissions down to 20 billion tons by 2035.
Clearly, even under a de-growth scenario, the overwhelming factor pushing emissions down will not be a contraction of overall GDP but massive growth in energy efficiency and clean renewable-energy investments (which, for accounting purposes, will contribute toward increasing GDP) along with similarly dramatic cuts in fossil-fuel production and consumption (which will register as reducing GDP). Moreover, any global GDP contraction would result in huge job losses and declines in living standards for working people and the poor. Global unemployment rose by more than 30 million during the Great Recession. I have not seen any de-growth proponent present a convincing argument as to how we could avoid a severe rise in unemployment if GDP were to fall twice as much as it did during 2007–09.
For nearly 40 years now, the gains from economic growth in virtually all countries have persistently favored the rich. Nevertheless, the prospects for reversing inequality in all countries will be far greater when the overall economy is growing than when the rich are fighting everyone else for shares of a shrinking pie. Even thinking in strategic terms alone, attempting to implement a de-growth agenda would have the effect of rendering the global clean-energy project utterly unrealistic politically.
A Superfund for Fossil-Fuel Workers
In order for the global green-growth project to succeed, it must provide adequate transitional support for workers and communities whose livelihoods currently depend on the fossil-fuel industry. The late US labor leader and environmental visionary Tony Mazzocchi pioneered thinking on what is now termed a “just transition” model for these workers and communities. Mazzocchi developed the idea of a Superfund for workers who lose their jobs as a result of necessary environmental transitions. The term refers to the US environmental program that was implemented in 1980 to clean up sites at which corporations had dumped hazardous wastes from petrochemical, oil, and nuclear- energy production. As Mazzocchi wrote as early as 1993: “Paying people to make the transition from one kind of economy—from one kind of job—to another is not welfare. Those who work with toxic materials on a daily basis…in order to provide the world with the energy and the materials it needs deserve a helping hand to make a new start in life.”
The critical point is that providing high-quality adjustment assistance to fossil-fuel-industry workers will represent a major contribution toward making a global climate-stabilization project viable. It is a matter of simple justice, but it is also a matter of strategic politics. Without such adjustment-assistance programs operating on a national scale, the workers and communities facing retrenchment will, predictably and understandably, fight to defend their livelihoods. This, in turn, will create unacceptable delays in proceeding with effective climate-stabilization policies.
Well-funded “worker Superfund” policies therefore need to be incorporated into each country’s green-growth program. For the US case, I estimate that a generous Superfund would be in the range of $1 billion per year, which would barely make a dent if annual public and private spending levels totaled around $200 billion. In addition, the impact on workers and communities from retrenchments in the fossil-fuel sectors will not depend only on the support provided through an explicit Superfund budget. The broader set of opportunities available to workers will also be critical. The fact that clean-energy investments will generate a net expansion in employment in all regions of the globe means that there will be new opportunities for displaced fossil-fuel-sector workers within the energy industry. But more than this, the best form of protection for displaced workers is an economy that operates at full employment. In a full-employment economy, the troubles faced by displaced workers—regardless of the reasons for their having become displaced—are greatly diminished simply because they should be able to find other decent jobs without excessive difficulty.
Divestment and Reinvestment to Defeat Big Oil
The giant fossil-fuel corporations will obviously take a big hit under green growth. But overstating what is at stake doesn’t help matters. In fact, it is critical to have a clear grasp of the scale of the losses that fossil-fuel companies are likely to face.
A 2013 study published jointly by Carbon Tracker and the Grantham Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics examined the current holdings of the 200 largest private-sector fossil-fuel companies, as listed in the world’s various stock exchanges. This study estimated that “60–80 percent of coal, oil, and gas reserves of [these] firms are unburnable.” From these figures, we can roughly estimate that these companies are facing around $3 trillion in lost value over the next 20 years, and the certainty of further subsequent declines.
Of course, $3 trillion is real money. The fossil-fuel companies are not about to relinquish it without a brutal fight. At the same time, $3 trillion is equal to only about 1.3 percent of the $225 trillion in total worldwide private financial assets as of 2012. Still more, the $3 trillion in losses that the fossil-fuel corporations would face will not happen in one fell swoop. The declines would be incremental over a 20-year period. On average, this amounts to asset losses of $150 billion per year. By contrast, as a result of the US housing bubble and subsequent financial collapse, US homeowners lost $16 trillion in asset values in 2008 alone—about 100 times the annual losses that fossil-fuel companies would face.
The fact that the decline in fossil-fuel asset values would occur incrementally over decades also means that investors will have ample opportunity to diversify their holdings. Many are already doing so. As one important example, in June 2014 Warren Buffett, the best-known corporate investor and third-richest person in the world, announced that his company, Berkshire Hathaway, was doubling its holdings in solar- and wind-energy companies to $30 billion. This is even while Berkshire continues to own big shares of conventional utility companies.
More significant has been the rapidly growing global fossil-fuel divestment movement, which includes foundations, universities, religious organizations, and municipalities located throughout the United States and Western Europe, as well as in Canada, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. These organizations have been pushed by grassroots activists to take principled stands with their investment portfolios, and they have embraced the challenge. The website Fossil Free reports that 456 institutions, whose total asset holdings add up to $2.6 trillion (including all other holdings in addition to previously held fossil-fuel assets), have committed themselves to divestment. Big Oil can buy politicians and scream all it wants, but it can’t stop investors from walking out.
The divestment movement needs to broaden its goals, to become just as actively committed to reinvestment in energy efficiency and clean renewables as it is to dumping fossil-fuel stocks. This is how we can force the global economy onto a workable path toward stabilizing the climate and generating tens of millions of jobs for working people and the poor throughout the world. All participants at the upcoming Paris conference need to hear this message, very loudly and clearly, over and over again, until it sinks in.