The Future Is Being Rewritten by Green Investment and Climate Devastation

LMiami-Dade County made a commitment to eliminate its entire carbon footprint by the end of this fall. It was an ambitious target, but also a symbolic one: a private utility company, Florida Power and Light, provides the region’s electricity and operates free of county oversight. “We had no control,” says Jim Murley, the county’s chief resilience officer. But then something seemingly miraculous happened: in June, the utility said it would cut emissions on its own—and even faster than county officials had promised. “We were just stunned,” says Murley.

Many activists, academics and politicians have attempted to change the course of history by trying to get rid of fossil fuels. Overnight, it’s as if everything has changed, and for the first time in a long time, there’s a glimmer of hope. It is more economical to use renewable energy in many cases because the price has dropped sharply. Russian invasion of Ukraine has highlighted the dangers of dependence on fossil fuels. Finally, the government has taken a decisive step. Inflation Reduction Act, USA will invest hundreds of billions to bring the nation closer to decarbonizing. The European Union’s REPowerEU initiative will do the same across the Atlantic. They will all stimulate trillions of private investments.

TIME Photographer: Will Warasila

However, the newfound hope is temperated by a rising sense of despair over the extent of damage that has already been done. In August, unprecedented flooding left a third of Pakistan underwater in what U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres described from the ground as the worst “climate carnage” he had ever seen. Europe has been hit hard by drought, with many crops dying and rivers drying out. Officials in France, Germany and Spain have implemented water restrictions. Cities across California faced record-high temperatures in September, hitting 115°F in several places and leaving the state to beg residents to cut their electricity use to avoid rolling blackouts. Science is not something you can ignore. It’s only going to get worse.

Continue reading: Pakistan Flooding raises difficult questions about who should pay for catastrophic climate impacts

With climate change, as with anything else, it’s hard to draw a bright line between one era and the next. However, the recent investment made in greening our economy and the rapid acceleration of climate-related devastation point to a brighter future. “Life has changed,” Gina McCarthy told me on Sept. 8 before stepping down as President Biden’s top climate adviser. “Everybody’s trying to get their head around an entirely different paradigm.”

Extremes will define the new world. Finally, the world is building a sustainable global economy. This offers hope for a better tomorrow. Scientists have long been warning us about the terrible human consequences of climate change. These are only getting worse. These two events can still be influenced by us. Our best hope for progress is to minimize despair.

It wasn’t always a sure bet that the world would embrace the energy transition. The U.S., as the world’s only superpower, its largest economy, and its second largest emitter, set the pace over the years with a series of failed attempts to enact climate policy. A number of countries around the world made promises to lower their carbon emissions, only to see them all fail. As activists marched and scientists’ warnings mounted, hope started to look misguided.

Which is why this summer’s passage of the Inflation Reduction Act represents such a departure. This law not only signals that America’s energy transition has started, but also that it is likely to accelerate. Tax incentives worth hundreds of billions will lower the price of clean energy and encourage companies to reduce their carbon footprint. The U.S. is expected to reduce its carbon emissions by 40% from 2005 levels in 2030 according to modelers.

More important, the economic transition signal is sent to private firms. Based on this signal, firms will spend trillions of dollars. A report from Third Way, Boston Consulting Group, and Breakthrough Energy identifies six nascent technologies spurred by the law— including electric vehicles, low-carbon hydrogen, and clean steel—that will together have a cumulative $60 trillion market by 2050. This investment will result in remade communities and millions more jobs. There is also the possibility of reducing emissions by far more than models predict. Even in places like Florida and Texas, the economics of renewable energy is besting ideology: it’s just cheaper. Each state presented a blueprint to the Biden Administration for an electric vehicle charging network. “Yes, Texas. Yes, Oklahoma. They didn’t argue,” says McCarthy. “They said, ‘Damn, I have to be in this.’”

Continue reading: A New Climate Tech Ecosystem Will Be Created by the Inflation Reduction Act

International leaders are also responding to this signal. India promotes a carbonmarket plan to cut emission, Germany approves a $180billion program to encourage clean energy and Australia adopts its first climate legislation since a decade. While international tensions are affecting some green collaboration, other countries such as the U.S. or China race to be the leaders in clean energy and clean manufacturing. “This is a healthy competition from a climate-change point of view,” says Fatih Birol, the head of the International Energy Agency (IEA).

However, even as the world economy is rebuilt, it will be difficult to reduce the impact of climate change on the people living around the globe. Investment and innovation will need to catch up with the destruction that we’ve already unleashed on the world, especially in the Global South. In April, hundreds were killed by tropical storms in the Philippines. The heatwave in India in April cost many farmers large amounts of their crops. 50 million East Africans are now facing hunger from a prolonged drought. According to the Africa Development Bank, Africa could see a 30% drop in its annual GDP due to climate change.

The future direction of the world in this new age will affect billions of people’s lives. So far, the picture doesn’t look good. “We are living in the era of loss and damage,” says Tasneem Essop of the Climate Action Network. “What is becoming even more clear, unfortunately, is that ruling elites in rich countries just do not give a damn about the lives of people living in the Global South.” Some, perhaps most, in the North consider this a sad but distant reality. This is also changing. The wealthy are finally waking up to the fact that extreme weather here at home will not be tolerated. A drought is gripping the western United States. The flooding in Switzerland is decimating communities and shutting down water supplies to Jackson, Miss. It is the heat that kills.

If you’ve been reading and thinking about climate change, you’ve heard of tipping points: thresholds that, when crossed, will trigger nonlinear changes in the climate. Permafrost melting could accelerate global warming by releasing carbon that has been trapped for too long. The collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet could raise sea levels up to 10 ft. A Sept. 9 study published in the journal Science found that both of these tipping points, along with four others, are likely to be triggered at somewhere between 1.5°C and 2°C of warming. The earth has warmed 1.1°C since the Industrial Revolution. A May report from the World Meteorological Organization found that we have a 50-50 chance of hitting the 1.5°C threshold in five years.

There are also other tipping points. Greta Thunberg stated to me in 2019 she was hoping to cause a social tipping moment where the public would be outraged, and government to take action. As technology costs fall, so can tech. According to the IEA, a system that collects solar power cost $106 per watt to build in 1975; in 2020 it cost 20¢. We would be able to pull ourselves back from the edge if we could achieve a similar rapid revolution in direct air capture, battery storage and other technologies. The future is marked by both optimism and fear in the new era. To ensure the best possible future, we must make every effort to reach positive tipping points.

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