clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
An activist challenges energy policy on February 4, 2018 in Berlin, Germany.
An activist challenges energy policy on February 4, 2018, in Berlin, Germany.
Carsten Koall/Getty Images

Filed under:

10 ways to accelerate progress against climate change

From pricing carbon to shifting diets, here’s what we need to prioritize now.

The United Nations reported this week that the world is continuing to drift further off course in limiting climate change, despite growing alarm about the impacts of rising temperatures. With greenhouse gas emissions continuing to increase, even more drastic reductions are needed to meet the goals of the Paris climate agreement.

“Any further delay brings the need for larger, more expensive and unlikely cuts,” wrote Inger Andersen, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme in the Emissions Gap Report 2019. “We need quick wins, or the 1.5°C goal of the Paris Agreement will slip out of reach.”

And the impacts of climate change are already here. Climate scientists told us late last year in the National Climate Assessment that the United States is already experiencing the severe and costly consequences of a changing climate. In a separate United Nations report released in October, scientists reported that limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius would require a gargantuan global effort to halve emissions — and that we have roughly 12 years to do it. But how?

Let’s make something clear: The emissions we need to focus on now are the ones at the industrial, corporate level.

According to the Carbon Majors Database, 71 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions since 1988 can be traced back to just 100 fossil fuel companies. Hitting the 1.5°C or 2°C goals means these corporations, their customers, and other large enterprises must phase out fossil fuels (more aggressively than what Shell laid out in its vision for a zero-carbon world).

Governments will also have to come up with tax schemes to generate new revenue for investment in and incentives for renewable energy, reforestation, and carbon removal technologies. And we need to vote for leaders who will deliver on them.

The Trump administration is obviously contributing little to these efforts, trying its best to roll back Obama’s suite of climate policies and enable the continuation of fossil fuel dominance. But a growing number of younger leaders around the world understand what’s at stake and are pushing for more ambitious goals, like the ones outlined in the Green New Deal.

Here are some examples of strategies that are working and need to be rolled out worldwide:

1) Price carbon emissions

By adding a cost to emitting greenhouse gases, you create an incentive to produce less of them and switch to alternatives.

It’s hard to convince someone to pay for something if they can get it for free. Right now, much of the world can dump their greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at no charge. And we don’t have many straightforward ways to value the carbon that trees and algae help pull out of the atmosphere.

Though the new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report didn’t explicitly discuss the economics of fighting climate change, the authors highlighted at a press conference that attaching a price tag to greenhouse gases is a critical step in limiting warming. “Carbon pricing and the right economic signals are going to be part of the mix,” said Jim Skea, co-chair of IPCC Working Group III.

Even fossil fuel giant ExxonMobil is campaigning for a carbon tax.

To date, at least 40 countries have priced carbon in some form. Some have done it through a carbon tax. Cap-and-trade schemes for carbon dioxide are also underway, like the European Union’s Emissions Trading System. China now runs the world’s largest carbon trading market. Even some regions in the United States have cap-and-trade schemes, like the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative among eastern states.

But, as our colleague David Roberts wrote on Twitter, “A price on carbon of some sort is, wonks almost universally agree, an important part of a comprehensive climate strategy. But the details make all the difference in whether it’s regressive or not, effective or not, popular or not, passable or not.”

wind turbines Shutterstock

2) Subsidize clean energy, and end subsidies for dirty energy

Renewable energy sources like wind and solar power have already become dramatically more affordable. In the United States, renewables are cost-competitive with fossil fuels in some markets. In Europe, new unsubsidized renewable energy projects are coming online.

From a market standpoint, it might seem like the time is near for pulling the plug on subsidies to renewables. But if your goal is to fight climate change, it makes more sense to keep giving cleaner energy sources a boost.

The fossil fuel industry is meanwhile still getting a number of direct and indirect subsidies. In the US, these subsidies can amount to $20 billion a year. Globally, it’s about $5.2 trillion per year, according to the International Monetary Fund. Getting rid of government support for these fuels seems like a no-brainer. But yes, the massive political influence of fossil fuels means this will continue to be extremely hard.

3) Close coal plants, and cut off the fossil fuel supply in other ways

The world is still opening tens of thousands of megawatts of coal-fired power capacity every year.

Each of these plants represents decades of further greenhouse gas emissions. Although the rate of new coal power plants is declining, that’s not enough. We still need to shut down the oldest, dirtiest coal power plants and prevent new ones from coming online.

According to the IPCC, to stay on track for climate goals, global coal consumption would have to decline by two-thirds by 2030.

And while natural gas emits about half the greenhouse gases of coal, the quantity isn’t zero, so these generators are in the cross-hairs too.

Some countries are already taking steps to shut off fossil fuel power. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has assembled a panel to figure out when the country can close all of its coal plants. The United Kingdom, meanwhile, has pledged to end its coal use by 2025.

Economists have also argued that countries should use supply-side tactics to restrict the supply of fossil fuels in other ways, too: like opting against new oil and gas pipelines, refineries, and export terminals.

4) Electrify everything and get more efficient

Energy efficiency is the lowest of the low-hanging fruit in fighting climate change.

Increasing fuel economy, insulating buildings, and upgrading lighting are all small incremental changes that add up to dramatic reductions in energy use, curbing greenhouse gas emissions.

It’s also often the cheapest tactic.

“The combined evidence suggests that aggressive policies addressing energy efficiency are central in keeping 1.5°C within reach and lowering energy system and mitigation costs,” according to the new IPCC report.

Buildings, for example, account for roughly one-third of global energy use and about a quarter of total greenhouse gas emissions. To stay on track for 1.5°C of warming, indoor heating and cooling demands would have to decline by at least one-third by 2050.

Many countries already have building codes that require new structures to use state-of-the-art HVAC systems, double-pane glass windows, and energy-saving appliances. But most of the buildings that are standing now will still exist in 2050, so retrofitting existing homes and offices to use less energy needs to be a major policy priority.

Another way to use our resources more efficiently is to electrify everything: oil heaters, diesel trucks, gas stoves. That way, as our sources of electricity get cleaner, they pay climate dividends throughout the rest of the electrified economy. And products like electric cars are far more energy-efficient than their gasoline-powered counterparts.

However, we need financing, incentives, and penalties to push the global economy to do more with less.

5) Invest in innovation

Perhaps the best tools to fight climate change haven’t been invented yet — a battery that can store gobs of energy for months, a solar panel that’s twice as efficient, a crop that makes biofuels cheaper than petroleum, or something even better, beyond our imaginations.

So while we clamp down on heavy emitters and deploy cleaner alternatives, we also need to come up with new answers to climate change.

That means investing in basic research and development. It also means helping nascent technologies get out of the laboratory and onto the power grid, whether through loans, grants, or regulations.

The United States already has a framework for this. The Department of Energy runs the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), a small federal program that funds high-risk, high-reward energy projects with an eye toward fighting climate change. It’s backed projects ranging from flow batteries to wide bandgap semiconductors.

While analysts have argued that programs like ARPA-E increase America’s competitiveness and that the world needs more innovation initiatives for clean energy, the Trump administration has repeatedly tried to zero out its $353 million budget. Congress has nonetheless kept it in place and gave the program a boost in the last spending bill.

proterra bus
California-based Proterra has sold hundreds of its all-electric buses.

6) End production and sales of cars, trucks, and buses that run on fossil fuels

Within a few decades, we are likely to see a worldwide transition away from vehicles that run on gas toward ones that use electricity.

But there’s a lot of uncertainty about how quickly it will happen. And governments have to hurry it along by phasing out the production and sale of gas and diesel vehicles altogether and helping consumers purchase EVs instead.

Fortunately, there’s a lot of momentum building. In 2017, both China and India, along with a few European countries, announced plans to end sales of gas and diesel vehicles. China is hustling toward that goal by providing incentives to manufacturers of electric car and bus makers, as well as subsidies to consumers who purchase EVs to the tune of $10,000 per vehicle on average.

The US is lagging, as per usual, despite the fact our transportation sector today emits more carbon than any other sector of the economy. California, however, is going full speed ahead on EV policy. Its target is 5 million zero-emissions vehicles by 2030 and 250,000 zero-emission vehicle chargers — including 10,000 DC fast chargers — by 2025.

A rainforest in Borneo, Malaysia was destroyed to make way for oil palm plantations.

7) Require “zero deforestation” supply chains

Tropical forests in Latin America, Southeast Asia, and Central Africa are essential for keeping carbon in the ground and maintaining the climate.

And the current rate that we’re clearing them — to make way for cattle ranches, as well as palm oil, soy, and wood products — is putting us on a course for rapid climate change, with intensifying cycles of extreme droughts, more heat, and more forest fires.

All told, deforestation accounts for an estimated 15 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions.

Halting deforestation can’t be done from afar; it requires working closely with local communities who live in and rely on forests. But governments and corporations can also be pressured to buy commodities only from forest regions certified as “deforestation-free.”

Norway, for instance, now has a “zero deforestation policy,” where it has committed to ensuring “that public procurements do not contribute to deforestation of the rainforest.” Hundreds of companies have made zero-deforestation commitments, too, but we still have a long way to go before they’re airtight and working.

If we could stop deforestation, restore some of the forests we’ve cut down, and improve forestry practices, we could remove 7 billion metric tons of carbon from the atmosphere annually — equal to eliminating 1.5 billion cars, according to the Climate and Land Use Alliance.

8) Keep aging nuclear plants running

Nuclear power currently is responsible for about 20 percent of US electricity — and 50 percent of its carbon-free electricity. As Vox’s David Roberts has noted, the US could lose a lot of this power if some 15 to 20 nuclear plants at risk of closing shut down in the next five to 10 years. Which means that, “saving it, or at least as much of it as possible, seems like an obvious and urgent priority for anyone who values decarbonization.”

Fortunately, Dave also looked at how we could keep these plants open. Near the top of the list is a relatively modest national carbon price (see No. 1 above).

But since we can’t count on a carbon price in the immediate future, it’s worth looking at the other state-level hacks — like zero emissions credits, paid for by a small tariff on power bills — already being deployed to keep nuclear plants running.

Other countries are also wrestling with the future of their nuclear plants. Germany committed to shutting down all of its nuclear reactors by 2022, but the country is now likely to miss its emissions reduction targets. France is now weighing whether to extend the operating life of some of its aging nuclear power plants.

9) Discourage meat and dairy consumption, encourage plant-based diets

Producing animal products, particularly beef and dairy, creates the majority of food-related greenhouse emissions, while the food supply chain overall creates 26 percent of total emissions. The most obvious way to bring these emissions down would be to engineer a massive shift in dietary patterns, reducing our meat and dairy consumption and shrinking the livestock sector.

“GHG emissions cannot be sufficiently mitigated without dietary changes towards more plant-based diets,” as Marco Springmann of the Oxford Martin Program on the Future of Food and co-authors wrote in a paper published Wednesday in the journal Nature.

But again, this is not so much about individual choices. This is about asking our leaders, institutions, and employers to make dietary change a priority to truly shift markets and lower emissions. Trouble is, no country has had significant success yet with reducing its meat consumption. And as Springmann and his co-authors note, “providing information without additional economic or environmental changes has a limited influence on behavior.”

The kinds of changes we need, they write, include “media and education campaigns; labeling and consumer information; fiscal measures, such as taxation, subsidies, and other economic incentives; school and workplace approaches; local environmental changes; and direct restriction and mandates.”

It’s that last one, “direct restriction and mandates,” that’s most interesting, most daring, and most essential to try immediately.

Some countries like China are beginning to work meat consumption reduction goals into their dietary guidelines. The US should do that too in its next update in 2020. There’s also the Cool Food Pledge, a platform launched in September by the World Resources Institute, to help food service providers slash food-related emissions by 25 percent by 2030. So far, a few companies and institutions have signed up, including Morgan Stanley, UC Davis Medical Center, and Genentech.

Companies and governments could also follow WeWork’s lead and stop serving or paying for meat at company events.

We need many more experiments like this. We still have no idea how to go about dietary change on the scale that’s necessary to reduce livestock-related emissions.

10) Remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere

Every scenario outlined by the IPCC report counts on pulling carbon dioxide out of the air. However, many of technologies needed to do this are in their infancy.

Carbon dioxide removal (CDR) tactics range from the straightforward (like planting forests) to the novel (like scrubbing carbon dioxide straight from the air).

Governments will need to invest more in CDR technology to improve its effectiveness and bring down costs. Policies like renewable portfolio standards, feed-in tariffs, and investment tax credits can help drive the deployment of CDR, as Julio Friedmann, a researcher at Columbia University who studies carbon capture, noted in recently in The Hill. But the biggest thing CDR companies need to blossom is a price on carbon.

Further reading

Dive into the Vox archives to learn more about these issues:

Carbon pricing

The 5 most important questions about carbon taxes, answered

40 countries are making polluters pay for carbon pollution. Guess who’s not.

Closing coal plants

It’s time to think seriously about cutting off the supply of fossil fuels

Scientists Weigh Call for Much Deeper Cuts to Coal Pollution


Friendly policies keep US oil and coal afloat far more than we thought

Europe is building more wind and solar — without any subsidies

Carbon dioxide removal

Sucking carbon out of the air won’t solve climate change

It’s time to start talking about “negative” carbon dioxide emissions


The simple argument for keeping nuclear power plants open

Down to Earth

Good news! Scientists are throwing a sex party ... for giant marine snails.


Why is Biden blocking the cheapest, most popular EVs in the world?


Texas fires happen in the winter. Just never at this scale before.

View all stories in Climate

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.