The climate crisis is worsening and the welcome focus on long term goals can not distract from the need to act right now
There's a focus in climate policy circles on how to do the hard stuff. How to decarbonise aviation and shipping. How to build zero carbon industrial clusters. How to phase out gas boilers. How to maintain public and political support while all this is done.
This is understandable. Unless we overcome these big complex challenges temperatures will keep rising, regardless of any progress we make in other areas. Plus humans are instinctively restless and inquisitive. If we feel one part of a problem is even partially resolved there is a temptation to move onto the next challenge. For many people, and arguably politicians in particular, a hypothetical conundrum in the 2030s is a lot more interesting to wrestle with than a mundane planning problem in the here and now.
But there is a risk here. Because - and it feels like this should be obvious - we also need to do more, faster, now.
Yesterday a genuinely terrifying report detailed how the global oil and gas industry is indulging in a game of mutually assured destruction where it is all of us that are at risk of ending up destroyed. Despite the welcome talk of net zero targets and diversification in parts of the industry, exploration plans are continuing to be green lit and the sector as a whole is on track to burn through its carbon budget for a 1.5C world by 2037.
As the IEA similarly warned earlier this week, global emissions are rising again, are set to hit record levels by 2023, and the chance provided by the pandemic to put the world on a path to net zero emissions is being squandered.
Meanwhile, the Saudi government is effectively declaring war on the atmosphere and talking openly about drilling every last molecule of its oil and gas.
The only hope at this point is to destroy demand for those molecules as fast as humanly possible. To prove the wisdom of a previous Saudi oil minister, who wisely noted that "the stone age didn't end for lack of stone, and the Oil Age will end long before the world runs out of oil".
And yet, as a separate analysis from BloombergNEF this week detailed, surging investment in clean energy infrastructure - largely focused on wind and solar capacity - is still at levels that are between a half and a third of what is required. Currently investment stands at around $1.7tr a year and while there is significant uncertainty over how the transition will play out between $3.1tr and $5.1tr is likely to be needed.
The need to tackle the really hard parts of the decarbonisation challenge will come soon enough, but for now the absolute priority has to be building out the clean infrastructure that we know is cost competitive and effective as swiftly as physically possible. That means wind and solar capacity, batteries, energy efficiency upgrades, and electric vehicles (which we now know are cheaper than petrol and diesel vehicles).
Those businesses and governments with the deepest pockets need to move first and fastest. They need to throw everything possible at destroying fossil fuel demand. They must invest in the low carbon infrastructure that works now, so as to create the space and the market signals for the technological moonshots that we need to come online in the 2030s.
Decarbonising heavy industry and transport is hard. Transforming every home on the planet is hard. Working out how to operate a near fully renewables-reliant grid is hard. Retiring a fossil fuel industry that has dominated the global economy for centuries is really hard.
But building out cost competitive and popular technologies that are proven to work? Investing in infrastructure that saves people money? Well, that's hard too, but it should be the relatively easy part of this grand endeavour.
Ministers and business leaders are quibbling over policies and investments that amount to a rounding error in national and corporate accounts, while parts of the oil industry threaten to drill us all into an oblivion of rolling climate crises. With 100 days to go to COP26, the failure of governments, businesses, and indeed all of us, not to move faster in deploying the technologies that we know work and we know we need is both a travesty and a tragedy.
A version of this article originally appeared in the BusinessGreen Overnight Briefing newsletter, which is available to all BusinessGreen subscribers.