"Are We There Yet?"

Dear G7 ‘Leaders’ (?), 

Are we there yet?

That question doesn’t usually mean, ‘Have we arrived?’ It asks where we are and what amount of progress has been made.  The G7 national leaders have started us all on a journey so they have made ‘Are we there yet?’ the question du jour now, and for a long time to come.

In the G7, we have the countries that have been industrialized the longest and most heavily. The group is not organized on that basis, but the fact remains. The economies of these countries represent nearly two thirds of global economic activity and the bulk of that which could be considered ‘developed world’. They met for the 41st time on June 7 and 8. Their political leaders talked and had their pictures taken. At the end, they issued a final communiqué). The communiqué says that the global economy needs to be completely de-carbonized by 2100 and that we have to be seventy percent of the way there by 2050. These things are stated starkly and unambiguously.

There is only one important aspect to the G7's determinations in this regard: destination. It's true that eighty-five years is a long time, so who cares when we don't have to stare down the barrel of the policy gun for decades?  Even the interim commitment of a 70% reduction in carbon emissions is thirty-five years out. Lots of people care.

There are many individuals and organizations that despise the G7; they go to the meetings and protest at the gates. Much of this animus derives from the fact that the G7’s power resides in its economic proportion rather than population and that the economic clout is wielded by an even smaller number of players within the G7. How can it be, the protesters ask, that such small numbers of individuals within small population groups get to decide things that affect the whole world? Good question. But the G7’s decisions on emissions reduction are good, aren’t they? They will serve some of the world’s most important needs and desires. The forgivably jaded response to that might be a harrumph or ‘Maybe!’ So much claimed, but so much in the future.

Well, do we need to be so skeptical and pessimistic? These commitments do now exist and maybe that gives us a way of forcing change. Goals that are remote in time are still goals—or they are lies; you don’t get to say that a goal is real and then do nothing to set about achieving it. In pilot parlance, if we are re-planning to a new destination or an alternate while in flight, we don’t keep heading in the wrong direction—and burning fuel while we’re doing it—we start plotting waypoints that reflect the change in course toward the new destination.  It will take time and airspace to turn and get headed the right way, but we do start the turn. Anything else is nonsense.

The fact is that every single decision that we make now can be (and absolutely should be) examined in light of the de-carbonization destination. And so it can be examined on the basis of whether it fits, long term, or whether it makes the rest of the needed change more difficult. We do not have to get all of the carbon out of everything we do this afternoon. We can’t. But we should hold ourselves to a standard of not making things worse, and making sure that each thing that we do does not foreclose on being able to get to zero carbon emissions by 2100. That implies very high and immediate hurdles now. No G-7 leader can commit to 'zero-2100' and then do things that ignore it. At least they can't do it without challenge.—if the popular right to challenge is exercised. The ground has shifted: anti-carbon arguments are more credible, relevant, and--despite the eighty-five year horizon--much more immediate.

And, let’s face it, everybody knows. There are lots of examples of pathologically reluctant players accepting the message on climate and emissions reductions, and even getting specific about what to do. As discussed in a previous post, even the big oil companies recognize the requirement for change and their most prominent need has become certainty and consistency in rulemaking. Many of them, for example, are starting to say, we need a large pan-economy carbon tax.

Tax (or any other single thing) is not the ultimate truth here. But it is a good example of a step that allows all of us—governments, industries, and individuals—to recognize the effect of our actions against our stated goal.

Think about it: What the economy recognizes as positive value is energy itself—not the source of the energy.  So if taxation on carbon emission progressed and the revenue is spent on fostering new sources of energy, nothing is lost to the economy. But we need to get started. For example, We’re below ‘0’ in terms of taxing energy from fossil fuels: We're subsidizing them!

Thirty percent carbon in 2050 and zero in 2100 are a long way away. But the relevance of future goals is not in the future; the relevance of goals is immediate.  There is absolutely no point in saying that we will put the ball in the net unless everything that we do intends toward that.  These are the things that we can ask of our leaders: Have we turned the airplane? Why not? When? Are we moving the ball up the field?