Drought and Fires LI: Niger, 2007 © Sayler/Morris
Can Individuals Stop Climate Change? A Discussion on Responsibility
Anyone who is interested in stopping climate change will inevitably encounter the following questions: “What are governments doing to stop climate change?” and “What is really needed to achieve a change in climate policy?” In conversation with 42 Magazine, Prof. Dr. Anthony Patt explains why governments have to act, instead of asking individuals to change their consuming behavior.
Prof. Patt, can I as an individual tackle climate change?
Anthony Patt: There are some steps we can take as individuals, but ultimately stopping climate change means reducing CO2 emissions to zero. If a few people change their consumption in little ways, that falls far short of what is needed. So we need collective action for two reasons. First, to make it possible, easy, and affordable for individuals to act, namely consuming things produced with and running on renewable energy instead of fossil fuels. Second, to eventually ensure that everybody does this, and not just those who care strongly about climate change.
So even if a large number of people decided to fly less and become vegetarian, it wouldn’t change anything?
It helps, but unfortunately it doesn’t go far enough. Take flying, for example. To get emissions to zero, it means that nobody can fly anywhere, or we need airplanes that run on renewable energy. I think the second option is far more feasible and likely, at least within the next thirty or forty years, and would require jet fuel to be produced from solar energy. Right now, there is no airline that uses this kind of fuel, and in fact it will take at least a decade or two before this becomes possible and at all affordable. This will require a whole new infrastructure for producing these kinds of fuels, in sufficient quantity. Until we have that, the less we fly, the better. You can think of eating meat in a similar way.
So is infrastructure a critical factor for stopping change?
Yes, I think so. Take driving, for example. To stop climate change, we either need to stop driving or to drive without fossil fuels. Both require new infrastructure. More bike lanes, or better public transportation, would allow us to drive less. The cars we still do drive need to be manufactured in a carbon-neutral way. We need enough renewable energy infrastructure to supply our factories. When we drive those cars, they need to run on renewable energy. The most practical way for that is if they are electric, using renewable electricity. So again we need to replace our fossil fuel infrastructure with renewable energy. And instead of gas stations, we need charging stations. So we need to build a lot of new infrastructures and get rid of some of the infrastructure we already have.
Are there pioneering countries which have already done this?
Yes, absolutely. When it comes to driving, for example, Norway is the country which has gone the furthest so far, and they have been incredibly successful. In Oslo, for example, they have converted many of their roads to pedestrian zones, and people are driving less in the city. And they have also been working for ten years now to change all of the cars still on the roads to electric. They did this at first by reducing the taxes on electric cars, and some other measures like offering them free parking. They installed lots of charging stations, including where people park overnight in the city. By 2018, about 50% of new cars sold were electric. It is now possible that in another ten years, that could rise to 100%. Of course, Norway is a small country, but what they have done is really important. First, the growth of electric cars so far has led to their becoming cheaper, as well as technological improvements like longer-lasting batteries. That means that more people will want to buy electric cars in the future, instead of gasoline or diesel ones. Second, they have shown us that it is possible to move towards zero emissions. Other countries can follow their example, and it will be easier and less expensive than it was for Norway. You can see similar stories in all sectors: buildings, manufacturing, renewable energy supply.
“I don’t see the CO2 tax as harmful, but I also don’t find it very helpful”
So do we need a CO2 tax on gasoline to make this happen here?
I don’t see the CO2 tax as harmful, but I also don’t find it very helpful. The reality is that most of us are locked into how much fossil fuel we use in our daily life. If apples double in price, for instance, we just choose pears instead. When it comes to fossil fuels, however, we depend on them, and the options to stop using them are limited. People have to drive every day: to work, to go see friends or for grocery shopping. To change that, given our current infrastructure, people would have to make big decisions in life, such as to stop working or socializing. Even a big gasoline tax, making driving more expensive, has a fairly small effect, and we observe this empirically. If people have to pay more, they will. What can make a far bigger change is to open up new options to people. It is already less expensive to own and drive an electric car, and a higher tax on gasoline wouldn’t change this. There are other reasons that people don’t buy electric cars, and these are the things that need to change.
Can you identify the problems we need to solve?
It really depends on the area of life we are looking at. With electric cars, for example, the cars themselves need to become a bit better, with longer ranges, but this is already happening as the global market grows. For the market to grow in Switzerland, however, we also need to see an increase in charging infrastructure. With electricity supply, new solar and wind facilities are already less expensive than new coal or natural gas generating stations, but the big problem is that solar and wind energy are intermittent: the sun doesn’t always shine when we need it to. So for that, we need to improve and expand the options for energy storage, and also transmission grid. Wind energy from Northern Europe, for example, is the most abundant in winter, exactly when solar energy is least available, so we ought to be working towards letting these two sources of energy balance each other out, which means a slightly different power grid. In some areas, the technology is simply immature. That’s the case with renewable fuels for flying, for example.
…and these technologies are probably still too expensive.
Yes. That’s a major issue. The technology to make jet fuel from air, water, and sunshine exists in the laboratory. It will never become affordable as long as it stays in the laboratory. That happens through private competition in the market place. It’s a chicken and egg problem, though. So we need public policies to create some demand for the product, even while it is still really expensive, to get it out into the market. That’s what past subsidies for solar and wind energy did, for example. Now they are affordable, and subsidies aren’t really needed any more.
What do you think about compensation measures, such as planting trees to reduce CO2 emissions of flying?
Compensation is better than nothing, but in no way is it a long-term solution. If we were to keep on using fossil fuels for things like flying, and plant trees to compensate, we would quickly run out of land area. For flying, we need policies that will begin to make alternatives to jet fuel a real possibility. In other areas, it is already not only possible but in many cases less expensive, to get by without fossil fuels. In Switzerland, one of the largest sources of CO2 emissions is home heating, burning oil and gas. Many communities are replacing that with district heating systems, using waste incineration or wood chips. Elsewhere it makes complete sense to switch to heat pumps and geothermal systems, running on renewable electricity. All of these take an initial financial investment, but they pay for themselves over time.
And that’s a positive development, isn’t it?
Indeed, it is. These are good news! Heating is the area in which we are closest to stopping greenhouse gas emissions. There is almost nothing standing in the way, except for a couple of laws. We need to prohibit the use of fuels and install new heating systems where we currently use natural gas and heating oil. That is the easiest area of climate change where we can act. It just needs political regulation. The European Union is already about to require this, and Switzerland could be next.
“Government policies have been really important for stopping climate change”
Consequently, climate change can only be stopped if governments intervene?
Government policies have been really important for stopping climate change, and will continue to be so for the next few decades. Government research funding has given us the technologies we need to replace fossil fuels, and support for new technologies and infrastructure is what is gradually making these more available. Once it is easy and affordable to do something with fossil fuels, like heating a house already, or driving a car in a few years from now, then regulations can make sure that everyone switches over. There is a widespread belief that governments haven’t done anything about climate change, in part because many people equate climate policy with putting a tax or a cap on CO2 emissions. The reality is that many governments have done quite a lot of other things, and these have put us in a good position to entirely replace fossil fuels over the next 20 to 30 years. Of course making this happen will require a lot more work, but I am optimistic that it can happen. That would stop climate change at a level that would still protect most of our ecosystems, as well as our coastal cities and food systems.
What are the challenges with regard to the goal of eliminating fossil fuels?
Before we can forbid the use of fossil fuels, we face challenges that are specific to each sector. As I said, in the heating and building sector, this work is behind us now because for 30 years, people have developed technologies for efficient buildings that do not use fossil fuels. In every other area, there are challenges to face before we can get to that point. Regarding mobility, we could stop using fossil fuels in road mobility by switching to electric cars. This could be very soon if we solve the infrastructural challenges I mentioned before. In Switzerland, most of our electricity is already renewable, and almost none of it comes from fossil fuels. But if you buy a car made in Germany, it will have been manufactured with energy from coal. There are challenges to replacing coal power with renewables.
There are really two sets of challenges. The first is simply producing enough renewable energy, and that means a lot of windmills and solar panels. This often takes new sources of finance, and also attention to the issue of public resistance. For example, research has shown that people often oppose windmills when they see that a corporation will make money from their landscape, but support them when they are a community project, and they feel that they can participate in the decision. The second challenge with renewable electricity is their reliability. As I mentioned before, one solution is energy storage, but another is trading in renewable electricity between regions with different capacities for hydropower, wind, and solar energy.
Strong government cooperation is therefore the key to change in the phase-out of fossil fuel use?
Definitively! Swiss power companies are already investing in wind parks in northern Europe, and this makes good sense. But for these investments to really work out effectively there needs to be cooperation between Switzerland and the EU with respect to a common power market. Of course, we need to be sure that the terms are fair, but such arrangements could be very important for maintaining a secure electricity supply while we are replacing our nuclear power plants with renewables, as well as replacing our gasoline cars with electric ones.
“One policy instrument that has so far not worked very well is the European trading market in emission permits”
Do we already see political success that brings us closer to the goal of switching to renewable energies?
The short answer is yes, and the longer answer is that we still need to do much more, and some of the laws we have in place are not working very well. Policies already have given us nearly all of the technologies we need, have developed markets to lead many of these technologies to be affordable and reliable, and in some cases are beginning to prohibit the use of fossil fuels where they no longer are needed. Indeed, the success of some of these laws has created new challenges. European countries are now generating so much wind and solar power that the issues of electricity storage, transmission, and power market integration are becoming crucial. So now we need to address these issues. There are whole sectors where so far we have done very little, such as in construction and industry, agriculture, aviation, and shipping. Our experience shows that these sectors can benefit from the transition to renewable energy, but the political negotiation can be challenging because the benefits are unequal. One policy instrument that has so far not worked very well is the European trading market in emission permits. Taxes on CO2 emissions have also not led to much in the way of change, for the reasons I discussed earlier. But I am convinced if we build on the policies that have worked, and keep introducing them in new sectors, we can solve this problem within our lifetimes.
If it was up to you to act at political level, how would you proceed?
There are three kinds of policies. First, there are taxes and permit markets that put a financial penalty on burning fossil fuels. The second is support for new renewable energy technologies and related infrastructure, like charging stations. Third, we have laws that prohibit the use of fossil fuels in particular sectors, like the European Union is introducing for new building heating systems. Ultimately, that’s the goal we need to attain, in all sectors. A lot of people say we need the first – the financial penalties for using fossil fuels – but I do not see that working in practice, even if in theory it is a good idea. My own belief is that we need a combination of the second and the third: we first need to support the alternatives to fossil fuels, and then as these options become good enough, we can make it illegal to keep on using fossil fuels. This is an approach that we have seen working in plenty of other environmental areas. More and more European cities, for example, are banning older diesel cars because of air pollution and health concerns, now that people have cleaner options to go with.
Sometimes reality proves theories wrong. What consequences does this have for political action?
I think we have to continually look at what is happening around us, be prepared to be surprised, and sometimes change our minds. A good example is what just recently happened in Germany. Germany did a lot to support wind and solar energy, and this led to dramatic cost reductions not only in Germany but globally. A really good thing. But for a long time, this had no effect on German emissions. It had a strong coal industry, and it was politically impossible to shut down the coal power plants, even as more wind and solar were coming online. Many said that the wind and solar support had been an expensive waste of time. But then just in the last few months, the German government negotiated a plan with the coal industry to shut down all of the remaining power plants and mines, and to help the workers put out of jobs. I don’t think that would have been possible without the wind and solar industries also being strong. But it took time, and many of us were pessimistic about emissions in Germany until things suddenly changed.
How do you assess the role of non-governmental organizations in climate policies?
NGOs are incredibly important for generating political momentum as well as for political debates. They often work behind the scenes. The analysis of these issues can be incredibly complex, and politicians do not have enough resources of their own to analyze all of the issues they face. They depend on lobbyists from industries and NGOs to offer them ideas, to give them solutions. That is one role NGOs play. A second role is often to push private sector actors and to help them in the same kind of way. For example, there is a new alliance of businesses that are committing to moving to 100% renewable energy in their supply chains. It is a set of NGOs that initiated this, and are monitoring the companies to make sure that they fulfill their promises.
You seem quite optimistic. Where does your optimism come from?
Surprisingly enough, it comes out of what has happened in the last twenty years. It is true that emissions have not come down. But we did not have the technology and the systems solutions that could allow emissions to really come down. Our only option was to use less energy, and our energy savings could not keep up with the effects of economic growth, particularly in countries like China. But now we do have the technologies and the systems solutions. It is no longer first and foremost about saving energy. Today, we are able to really switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy, and the changeover is beginning to accelerate. To a large extent, it is because the change makes sense for other reasons as well, from reducing air pollution to simply saving money. Some countries are further than others, mainly because of the policies that they have put in place. I was recently in Scotland, for example, and learned that they have already reduced their emissions by almost 50%. Switzerland is not at the head of the pack, but we are also not at the back, and we have been making some progress. But now all countries are beginning to take action, and we are seeing action in more and more sectors of the economy. I really do think this is a problem we can solve.
Interview: Maria Lissek
Anthony Patt, born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1965, has been a Professor of Climate Policy at the Institute for Environmental Decisions and at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, Switzerland, since 2013. His research addresses questions of climate change policy, focusing on how costly the adaption to climate change is for society, as well as on mapping the benefits of innovative energy systems.