A Complete Overhaul of the Global Energy System

Until this point, climate change negotiations have attempted to make incremental changes to address the problem. The Kyoto Protocol and Cancun Agreements both attempted to take beginning steps—such as setting emissions targets–to mitigate climate change, such as through emissions reductions targets, and there are other ways that countries are attempting to mitigate climate change. Individual countries have attempted to use carbon trading schemes or the creation of carbon sinks to address the problem. But, while all of these actions will definitely help to alleviate climate change, what is needed is actually much larger: a transformation of the whole of the global economy (Sawin). Transformative changes are needed to avoid what the UNFCCC defines as “dangerous” climate change, because incremental changes will not be quick enough to avoid the 2 degrees Celsius warming limit, and because the global economy is dependent on fossil fuels, which must be change to avoid dangerous warming.

“Climate change is fundamentally a development issue, not a pollution problem,” states a Worldwatch Institute report entitled “Renewable Revolution: Low Carbon Energy by 2030” (Sawin) What this means is that, while there definitely is a pollution problem that comes with carbon emissions, the way to solve climate change is not necessarily to cut down on air pollution. In fact, in a study by MIT researchers found that pollution-related benefits can only decline so far as carbon policies become more stringent (Resutek). At some point, health-related benefits will stop coming with the reduction of emissions, which means that even though one city or region might have solved the problem of air pollution, its citizens and industries they could still be emitting a substantial amount of carbon into the atmosphere. While reducing local air pollution can definitely help, the best way to mitigate climate change is to alter the way the global economy works, and that could start with how items you see and use every day are produced. Consider this: Fossil fuels are required to produce the clothes you wear, the foods you eat and the computers, cars, appliances and countless other goods you use. Even the fertilizers used in your garden and on farms require fossil fuels in order to be produced (Things Made). Reducing our dependence on fossil fuels in the crucial production cycle of every day goods could go a long way toward alleviating global warming.

Of course, even if we reduced emissions only incrementally, the global energy system would eventually be changed in sufficient ways. The problem with this is that that change probably would not come fast enough. As the Worldwatch report states, “Many scenarios show a gradual shift to renewables that still envisions a major role for fossil fuels for most of this century” (Sawin). But as the graph below in figure 1 shows, that won’t be enough to keep warming below the 2 degrees Celsius limit agreed upon in the Copenhagen Accords and Cancun Agreements. To ensure that we stay within the 2 degrees Celsius limit, emissions must be peak in 2020, and be reduced rapidly from there on out. Of course, this is still possible, as it is not yet the year 2020, but, at the incremental rate that negotiations are moving, it will not be possible to have peak emissions in 2020, and then reduce them as rapidly as needed after 2020 (IPCC). To achieve this rapid reduction of emissions, the world needs a deeper developmental transformation of the global energy system, not gradual increments of emissions reduction.

Transformative changes are needed to avoid “dangerous” climate change. Incremental changes of emissions reductions, such as those in the Kyoto Protocol and the Cancun Agreements, will not move the global energy system away from fossil fuels fast enough to avoid breaking through the 2 degrees Celsius limit of average global temperature change agreed upon in the Cancun Agreements. Also, merely reducing emissions will not be enough to avoid dangerous climate change; A complete overhaul of the global energy system is needed to do this (Sawin). At present, the world economy is so dependent on fossil fuels that their use cannot be reduced if typical living standards are to be maintained. We will need to change over from fossil fuels into other renewable sources of energy (Sawin). Of course, this complete developmental transformation of the modern global energy system is only theoretical. In real life, there would be few countries that would agree to this kind of complete overhaul of the global economy. This is exactly the reason we have treaties like the Kyoto Protocol: It might not be as stringent as many scientists would like it to be, but it might be the best agreement because it attracts such wide participation. So, while transformative changes of the global economy would be optimal for avoiding dangerous climate change, it might be that incremental policy changes are more realistic for our world.

Figure 1
Figure 1, from http://www.wri.org/ipcc-infographics


Works Cited

IPCC. “Understanding the IPCC Reports.” World Resources Institute. IPCC, n.d. Web. 02 Nov. 2014.

Resutek, Audrey. “Study: Cutting Emissions Pays for Itself.” MIT News. MIT, 24 Aug. 2014. Web. 02 Nov. 2014.

Sawin, Janet L., William R. Moomaw, Travis Bradford, Eric Martinot, Richard Rosen, Kelly S. Gallagher, Youba Sokona, Leena Srivastava, and Monika Zimmerman. Renewable Revolution: Low-Carbon Energy by 2030. Rep. Ed. Lisa Mastny. Danvers, MA: Worldwatch Institute, n.d. Print.

“Things Made From Oil That We Use Daily (a Partial List).” Community Classroom. PBS, n.d. Web. 2 Nov. 2014.



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