"COP 28 Climate Change Conference" by Peter Kuper, PoliticalCartoons.com

A decade ago, climate activist and author, Bill McKibben, crisscrossed the country in a speaking tour called “Do the Math.” The tour attracted tens of thousands and focused on key data that defined the climate crisis. He reported the number of additional gigatons of carbon pollution that could be emitted before Earth’s temperature would exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) — the level of warming beyond which scientists say climate impacts would be catastrophic. That number was 585 gigatons of carbon.

Alongside that number, he reported the gigatons of carbon pollution represented in the reserves of the world’s fossil fuel companies — that is, what they already owned, had borrowed against, and reported to shareholders — 2,795gigatons of carbon.

If those reserves were burned, McKibben argued, it would usher in catastrophe — a hot, dystopian, chaotic world that would imperil life as we have known it.

Ten years later those numbers are even worse. According to Action Tracker Initiative, the remaining 1.5ºC carbon budget has dwindled to somewhere near 400 gigatons of carbon pollution, an amount we are expected to run through by 2030. Today, the fossil fuel industry controls coal, oil and gas reserves that, if burned, would produce 3,700 gigatons of carbon pollution. That’s 10 times the amount that scientists say would take us past the temperature targets set in the Paris Climate Agreement.

(To put the concept of “gigatons” into perspective, according  to Energy Education, one gigaton is equivalent to the weight of 200 million elephants, or 3 million Boeing 747 jets.)

Even more worrying is the estimated market value of fossil fuel reserves that would become stranded assets (left underground) to meet climate goals — $100 trillion dollars. With so much money at stake, it’s not surprising that fossil fuel interests have worked for decades to discredit global warming science, spread misinformation, and used their political power to delay the inevitable transition to clean energy. To avoid the worst impacts of climate change, scientists say 90 percent of coal and 60 percent of oil and natural gas reserves have to stay in the ground.

How do these numbers inform policy? A powerful rogue industry has imperiled our planet. Their unrivaled influence in the financial and political arenas means they will be able to protect their pernicious business model for many years to come. No doubt the public will eventually end up on the hook to pay fossil fuel companies to keep their fuels in the ground. Banks deemed “too big to fail” were bailed out by the public to preserve our financial system. To preserve a livable planet, governments may have little choice but to bail out this industry. This would, of course, constitute a huge injustice for the public since coal, oil, and gas companies have racked in enormous profits while paying nothing for the disease, death, and destruction their products cause.

On the positive side, there are a few numbers that offer hope and suggest policy options that could lead to a clean energy future. One critical number is $33 per megawatt hour (MWh). It represents the price of utility-scale solar power which is now cheaper than all other forms of power generation in many parts of the world. The rapidly decreasing cost of renewable energy will incentivize the replacement of older, dirtier power plants run on coal and natural gas. Since 2010 the price of solar and wind power have dropped precipitously: solar by 90 percent, wind by 70 percent. Compared to the $33 per MWh for solar, the levelized price per megawatt hour for wind is $39, natural gas, $59, and coal $108.

According to the Lazard cost of energy assessment, by every measure — cost of energy, cost of energy and firming, marginal cost of energy, and cost of capital — wind and solar are the cheapest options. And that’s without including the costs of carbon pollution of their fossil fuel competitors and excluding the subsidies offered in the Inflation Reduction Act signed into law last year.

Another important economic factor is the number $369 billion, which represents the minimum amount of money allocated in the Inflation Reduction Act to accelerate the transition to a clean, electrified America. Since the authorized subsidies are essentially uncapped, total spending through these programs could approach $1 trillion.

These numbers indicate that lower prices for clean renewable energy will eventually drive fossil fuels out of the market.  They suggest that it may be simple marketplace economics that frees our world from the powerful grip of the fossil fuel industry and their political allies. Market-place competition has worked to dramatically reduce the costs of renewables. Economic policies, like the Inflation Reduction Act, will spur clean energy development.

Economists have consistently recommended market-based policies to accelerate the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy. These include policies that levy a tax on coal, oil, and gas companies to pay for their carbon pollution, re-distribute the revenue to support those households most vulnerable to higher energy costs, and establish a border carbon adjustment mechanism to incentivize a global solution. Market-based policies, long advocated by Republicans, could also provide the potential for bipartisan climate action.

With powerful vested interests in control of the financial and political arenas, influencing economic markets may be the most workable path to clean energy. But time is short. These actions may be too little and too late. Soon, scientists warn, we will exceed planetary temperatures that will produce climate impacts that are catastrophic and irreversible.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has concluded that acting on climate is not being restricted by a lack of scientific knowledge or technological options, but by politics and fossil fuel interests. If marketplace economics is the path to climate mitigation, we must urge our elected officials to advocate for economic policy approaches before it’s too late.

Robert Taylor previously worked as an economic analyst for Shell oil company and is a freelance journalist who specializes in environmental issues. He was a contributor to Reaching Net Zero: What it takes to solve the global climate crisis, published in 2021.


Please note this login is to submit events or press releases. Use this page here to login for your Independent subscription

Not a member? Sign up here.