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Why we can't just do it: the truth about our failure to curb carbon emissions

This article by Richard Heinberg, Stable Planet Alliance Patron and Senior Fellow at the Post Carbon Institute, was first published 22 March, 2023 at Common Dreams. Read it in its original form here.

We're at a crisis point. A sacrifice is needed, and only a sacred cow will do. But we know the problem with sacred cows.

We all know what needs to be done: reduce carbon emissions. But so far, we members of global humanity just haven't been able to turn the tide. The latest IPCC report documents that carbon emissions are still increasing, despite all the promises and efforts of the past few decades. The report tells us there's only a narrow (and rapidly shrinking) pathway to averting climate catastrophe. That path requires us to cut emissions 50 percent by 2030, and to reach net zero emissions by 2050. So far, we're going in the opposite direction.

Why is this so hard? Because it would require sacrifice. Why would it require sacrifice? Let's walk through the logic:

1. Lowering emissions requires reducing our extraction and burning of fossil fuels. But right now, 85 percent of our energy comes from fossil fuels, and energy is what makes the economy go and grow. 2. Replacing fossil fuels with low-emissions energy sources like solar and wind would still give us energy, but right now it takes fossil energy to build solar panels, wind turbines, batteries, and all the other electrical infrastructure we would need to replace the fuel-based infrastructure we now have. 3. Renewable energy sources require energy investment up front for construction; they pay for themselves energetically over a period of years. Therefore, a fast transition requires increased energy usage over the short term. And, in the early stages at least, most of that energy will have to come from fossil fuels, because those are the energy sources we currently have. 4. Again, the only way to reliably reduce emissions is to cut fossil fuel extraction and combustion directly and immediately. As we have seen over the past decades, just waiting for renewables to replace fossil fuels is too slow. Global emissions increased last year despite a record nearly 10 percent growth in renewables. 5. So, if more fossil energy will be needed for the energy transition, but we need to extract less coal, oil, and gas overall, that means that, at least over the next couple of decades, much less fuel will be available for non-transition purposes—i.e., for transport, manufacturing, and food production, which are the mainstays of the economy.

That's why we can't just do it. That's why, when governments get to decision points like having to approve or deny permits to drill for oil in Alaska, the decision often goes in favor of more fossil energy extraction.