Editor’s Note: Jeffrey Sachs is a professor and director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University and president of the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network. His most recent book is “The Ages of Globalization” (Columbia University Press, 2020). The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
By every standard, President Joe Biden’s climate change summit was a remarkable success. With great diplomatic dexterity, Biden and climate envoy John Kerry assembled world leaders representing 82% of world carbon emissions, 73% of the world population and 86% of world economic output to commit to bold climate action.
Biden deftly used the occasion to set the US economy on the path of bold decarbonization by 2030. And all of this was accomplished by videoconference, a daily act for schoolchildren and office workers, yet a much-needed breakthrough for a gathering of world leaders.
The summit represents a tipping point. The world’s largest economies – the United States, Canada, the European Union, China, Japan, Korea, India, United Kingdom, Brazil – are finally aligning around the goal of deep decarbonization, meaning the shift of the energy system from fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas) to zero-carbon sources (solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, biomass and nuclear).
Cynics might claim that we’ve been here before – big political talk about climate action but with little prospect of follow up. Yet such cynicism is not well placed. The stark dangers of a warming planet, coupled with the breakthroughs in low-cost, zero-carbon technologies, are convincing political and business leaders not to be left behind in the great global energy transformation already underway.
It’s a powerful signal of this new energy consensus that electric vehicle producer Tesla has a $690 billion market capitalization, more than eight times General Motors’ $82 billion market capitalization. Any country that delays decarbonizing will be left with stranded assets and shrinking markets for its exports.
We are still a long way from achieving this goal, but the debates over the objective – net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, the timing (by around 2050), and even the basic pathways to success – are largely over.
The key reasons for the new geopolitical consensus are clear. Earth has already warmed dangerously – by around 1.2° Celsius, or 2.7° Fahrenheit over the past 250 years – and will continue to warm at around 0.2° C per decade or higher unless the global energy system is decarbonized.
Yet rapid decarbonization is now feasible at low cost thanks to remarkable technological advances in solar and wind power, battery storage, electric vehicles and more. Even better for the economy, the green (low-carbon) economy will produce a lot more jobs in the rising clean energy sectors than will be cut in the declining fossil fuel sectors.
All governments are to make long-term pledges on decarbonization at a global summit this November in Glasgow. Biden’s meeting of 40 leaders was a prelude to the that gathering, which will include all 193 United Nations member states. The message from the White House meeting to the 150 or so governments not present is crystal clear: Prepare to arrive in Glasgow (in person or perhaps online) with plans for a clear pathway to net-zero emissions by mid-century.
There is a crucial engineering backdrop to the strong consensus that was on display at the White House gathering. Governments are doing their technical homework. Lo and behold, they are finding that decarbonizing the energy system is not some pie-in-the-sky dream, but is rather a practical and achievable task, with six basic steps in the transformation:
First, stop building any new fossil fuel-based power generation (such as coal-fired power plants) and replace all mothballed power plants and new generation capacity with zero-carbon power (such as wind, solar, nuclear, etc.).
Second, electrify transport. All of today’s automakers and many aspiring automakers of the future know that the automotive future lies in electric vehicles. Major auto producers will shift fully from internal combustion engines to battery electric vehicles by around 2035.
Third, electrify buildings. New buildings will be fit with electric heat pumps and electric cooking, and old buildings heated with home heating oil and natural gas will be retrofitted for electricity.
Fourth, improve energy efficiency through smart appliances, improved building design, better materials and other cost-effective energy savers.
Fifth, produce “green” fuels such as hydrogen using zero-carbon electricity for use in industrial applications that can’t be electrified directly. Hydrogen or other zero-carbon fuels will be used in sectors such as aviation, ocean shipping and steel production.
Sixth, adopt nature-based solutions to store more carbon dioxide in forests and soils by creating more protected nature reserves and by shifting from extensive (land-using) agriculture to intensive (land-saving) agriculture.
The various commitments announced at the White House meeting follow these six basic steps. The US pledge to cut emissions by half by 2030 is based especially on the first step: to shift decisively to zero-carbon electricity this decade, taking account of the plummeting costs of zero-carbon power generation in the US.
Biden’s infrastructure plans also invest in other steps. For example, they support the transition to electric vehicles through investments in charging stations and R&D for advances in battery technology.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro did a U-turn at the White House. After long parroting Trump’s anti-environmentalism, Bolsonaro abruptly fell in behind Biden by announcing Brazil’s intention to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 and to scale-up nature-based solutions in Brazil’s vast Amazon rainforest.
Chinese President Xi Jinping not only underscored China’s commitment to reach net-zero emissions by 2060, but also to draw down coal use after 2025, a major step forward, and one that will likely put China on the path to reach net zero by 2050, alongside the US.
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Russian President Vladimir Putin and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi both promised climate action but offered few new details. Russia is of course heavily dependent on fossil fuels, yet Putin knows that Russia needs to change as foreign markets for Russia’s gas exports inevitably decline. India is still coal dependent, yet the Indian government recognizes India’s vast solar power potential, its high vulnerability to global warming and the serious risks of losing export markets if India delays its energy transformation.
Cooperation beats Cold Wars. A few more Zooms by world leaders and who knows what they might accomplish to build a safer, fairer and more sustainable world.