Climate: It’s All in the Timing

Thu, 10/07/2021 - 4:30pm

About this blog:

  • Sarah Miller

    I’m Sarah Miller, a semi-retired international energy and business journalist and editor, and now a Camden resident. Having spent a career learning about old energy, I’ve turned to new energy in recent years. In doing so, I’ve come to see how important fossil fuels and the way they work were to the structure of 19th and 20th Century economies and societies. I’ve also started to imagine what cleaner, more distributed energy forms could mean for the structure of 21st Century economies and societies. The climate crisis is frightening, but the energy and social transitions that accompany it can bring us a better world -- if communities like ours here on the Midcoast work in a bottom-up, “distributed” way to make it so. That’s what Tales from the Transition is all about.

    I am active in the community through the Camden Energy and Sustainability Committee, the Camden Philosophical Society, the board of Bay Chamber Concerts and Music School, and the climate activist group Climate Matters Maine. I am a former president of the Camden Conference. The views expressed in this blog, however, are strictly my own.

Speed is the key to everything when it comes to climate action. That’s the message from UN experts. That’s the message from the worldwide proliferation of deadly floods, droughts and wildfires. And that’s the message we up here in so-far relatively sheltered Maine should be taking from the warm breezes we’re getting in early October, historically the time for first frost in the Midcoast. 

What speed means in the context the energy transition is picking the low-hanging fruit – fast. Luckily, that fruit is copious in three increasingly affordable forms: efficiency gains, renewable power and electric vehicles (EVs). The much-discussed hard-to-decarbonize stuff like concrete, steel and container ships can wait if we move fast now on the large and easy things.

Start with efficiency gains. As those will know who tuned into the “Let’s Talk About Energy” series organized early this spring by the Camden Energy Committee (now “in abeyance”) with the Camden Public Library, these run the gamut from window inserts, to insulating homes and other buildings, to driving less and walking and biking more. They also encompass less energy-intensive manufacturing, making more stuff close to markets rather than oceans away, and repairing rather than throwing out old things, as encouraged by the Belfast Repair Cafe.

By crimping growth in electricity use, this allows solar and wind to eat into natural gas and coal consumption, instead of merely satisfying new demand. The impact will be bigger the harder each of us tries.

Then comes renewable power generation. Electricity accounts for 40% of global carbon emissions. Solar and/or wind power is now cheaper in most places than the natural gas-fired electricity on which Maine is so reliant. The higher the fossil fuel price – as with a near doubling for US natural gas this fall and an even bigger surge in Europe --  the more evident renewables’ cost advantage becomes. More electricity storage is needed with these intermittent power sources, but battery costs are plunging, too, and a frenzy is on to develop longer-duration storage. 

Oil’s biggest use is for transportation, and that brings another nearly 25% of carbon emissions. But there again, the solution is at hand. EV sales worldwide are projected to roughly double this year, and within one to three years, EVs should be cheaper to buy upfront than conventional passenger vehicles. They’re already cheaper to operate, thanks to lower maintenance and fuel costs. With electric SUVs and pickups on their way, the US will be catching up with Europe and China soon enough.

Paired with efficiency gains, getting coal and gas out of power generation and oil out of transport would slash carbon emissions by roughly two-thirds – more, if efficiency gains are pursued vigorously. And most of this can be done in a decade or so, given a real sense of urgency.   

Many countries are already targeting massive increases in renewable electricity and EV sales by 2035 or 2040. Those targets can, and will in many cases, be advanced by another five to 10 years. Take Maine: Already, the then-ambitious-looking goals Maine Gov. Janet Mills announced in 2019 – reductions of 45% in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and 80% by 2050 – now look downright lame. President Joe Biden is going for a 50% cut by 2030. While Biden is using a 2005 base that’s higher than Mills’ 1990 starting point, the federal target is genuinely much tougher. Maine needs to up its ambitions.

In this sense, all the talk of “net-zero emissions by 2050” is unhelpful, at best. It’s fine to have a few inventors and under-employed oil companies studying ways to get rid of the “difficult” last 10%-30% of emissions 25-30 years from now. But cumulative levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere determine the severity of climate change, and even zero emissions by 2050 won’t keep average worldwide temperature change below 1.5° C if it’s back-end loaded.

This urgency to get “nearly zero” emissions soon, rather than aiming to be “net zero” at some distant date, is also part of the reason for Green Peace’s declared opposition to “carbon offsets,” a tool favored by airlines, oil companies and a few others to gain public acceptance of their continued use and production of fossil fuels by paying others to grow or retain trees, or otherwise supposedly zero-out their carbon emissions. Not flying as much now, or producing as much oil now, is the answer, not paying somebody else to clean up after you.

Now is the time to act, and all of us are the ones who can and must act. That’s the thinking behind the push to “upgrade ambitions” under the Paris Climate Accords as the end-October United Nations gathering on the climate in Glasgow, Scotland, approaches. Let’s upgrade our ambitions in our Midcoast Maine home, towns and businesses, too.