Climate change might lead to a change of the political climate, too! Recently, the Swiss population (rather the citizens – as 25% of population are foreigners without voting rights) elected a new parliament, with a large shift towards green parties (both, social and liberal). It was the culmination of the climate movement over the last year. There is hope for higher priority in fighting the climate change - but will it be high enough? There is still no green majority and recent political discussions suggest some compromises that are typically Swiss, but might lack the power needed.
The Paris Agreement - Climate confessions
To limit the risks of climate change, most countries of the world agreed to fight climate change radically (at least in the future). By doing so, governments accepted climate change as a key challenge and confessed that their economic activities involving greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are problematic. However, we most probably will not meet the goals of the Paris agreement, as reflected by the outcome of the recent COP in Madrid.
So shall we expect kind of a judgement day? The recent IPCC reports are pessimistic with considerable uncertainties. However, climate change is happening and impacts will occur – the question is what we do about it.
Absolution through GHG emission compensation?
Nobody is perfect and by living, we cause GHG emissions: at least we need food and most materials contribute to climate change too. The Paris Agreement demands “carbon neutrality” at some point, requiring compensation.
If we compensate our emissions, e.g. flights, we pay to invest in activities to avoid other emissions or store carbon in natural stocks. However, many of the low-cost compensation activities can only be used once: the availability for flaring methane emissions of landfill, building biogas plants for organic waste or replacing coal by PV power is limited. The same applies to reforestation since available land is rare. This means whatever we “compensate today” cannot be compensated later. Once the forest is fully re-grown it builds a new steady state and cannot capture additional CO2
GHG emissions have an effect over centuries and we might have to compensate even more after complying with the Paris agreement, which will be more expensive.
In consequence, compensation is nowadays too cheap and may even lead to the problem of moral licensing: If I do something good, I allow myself to sin, as it gets balanced – I can fly more if I compensate the emissions.
The Bill, Please!
Based on a recent report in Nature, Switzerland invests almost 100 USD into foreign compensation projects for every ton of CO2 equivalent (CO2e) emitted domestically. By doing so, Switzerland is a world leader and even among top countries on an absolute level. However, this is not enough. A recent study examining the long-term costs for society estimated ~500 USD/ton CO2e, with high regional fluctuations (due to different regional vulnerabilities). And this is not including ecological impacts and of course is highly uncertain.
Some simple math: In 2018, the world emitted ~ 40 billion tons of CO2 equivalent (CO2e), while the world’s nominal GDP was ~85 trillion USD. It means a GDP of slightly more than 2000 USD/ton CO2e. We therefore would need ~25% of our GDP to pay for future costs to the society. Economists might go for discounting rates, but considering global economic growth rates, this is not significant.
Swiss GDP is ~4000 USD/ton CO2e from a consumption perspective and ~10’000 USD/ton CO2e from a territorial perspective (i.e. what is emitted within Switzerland), so we currently spend ~1% on CO2 compensation.
Make fossil fuel producers and the rich guys pay the bill
To reach the Paris Agreement I believe the world would have to tax fossil fuels at the production site. The Guardian recently pointed out that 20 fossil fuel companies are causing 1/3 of global GHG emissions. And I don’t talk about adding taxes of 20 cents / liter of fuel, but rather in the order 1 - 1.5 Euros / liter of oil (this would roughly cover a CO2 compensation cost of 500 Euros per ton, which might be realistic in the long-term). It would also make the use of plastic more expensive, which is a positive side effect.
You have to get happy consuming less – believe it or not!
Consumption is not the only purpose of life. Many people in high-income countries can significantly reduce their consumption of food, housing, mobility. This might have to happen if the developed world needs to spend 25% of GDP to compensate GHGs: everything gets more expensive, so we have to consume less.
Anyway, you can reduce your impact by consuming less and pay for expensive CO2 removals, such as the ~1000 USD/ ton CO2e for storing CO2 in stones as offered by climeworks (for gross storage), or for other compensation. The good thing: this consumption has very little rebound effect (i.e. we cannot spend the saved money on other goods).
In conclusion, to accept restrictions of your consumption you have to believe saving the climate is the right thing to do – but why not? Limiting climate change and preserving the environment is per se a good thing, even if it is costly from an economic point of view. To afford it, we have to make the richest percentages of the world pay the bill. And we need a cultural change to combat climate change!
P.S. For the wealthy non-believers: installing a Photo-Voltaic system on your roof is cost-neutral and replacing fossil power.