Kuntzman: Reevaluating how we fight climate change

Caroline Kuntzman, Staff Columnist

In the wake of global climate protests and Greta Thunberg’s speech at the United Nations, recent approaches to climate change advocacy seem to be shifting toward advocating for aggressive governmental action instead of individual accountability. With scientists suggesting that carbon emissions will need to be halved by 2030 to keep the average global temperatures from increasing more than 1.5 degrees Celsius than prior to the industrial revolution, swift action and government intervention will be crucial to meet this goal. Fifty-seven percent of greenhouse gas emissions produced by human activity in the United States are related to our transportation and electrical systems, both of which could be reduced by government investments. 

Theoretically, if both of these industries became carbon neutral, the U.S. could decrease greenhouse gas emissions by more than 50 percent. We could then ignore the other problematic aspects of our economy for the next ten years, and focus on developing net zero emissions for all aspects of American life by 2050. 

Unfortunately, this ideal world is unlikely due to the existing system of transportation in the U.S. Our current economy depends heavily on shipping goods across the country quickly. Electric vehicles and high-speed trains could help reduce the damage, but it would require a source of energy other than fossil fuels to charge the vehicles. Also, because high-speed trains demand relatively straight tracks, the majority of the existing tracks in the U.S. would need to be modified. However, eminent domain laws make it challenging for the government to acquire the land necessary to build long railroad tracks. Because major American cities are very spread out, it would be difficult for the government to buy enough land in a straight line to have a high-speed railroad. 

Converting our electricity generating systems to be net zero is also challenging, as our current grids primarily use coal, oil and natural gas to produce electricity. Renewable and perpetual sources such as hydroelectric, solar, wind, nuclear and geothermal energy all have potential, but they also all have significant drawbacks. Solar and wind energy are not always geographically available. Hydroelectric power usually requires building dams, which can cause significant damage to ecosystems. Nuclear power presents human health risks, and geothermal energy just isn’t available in most parts of the U.S. None of these alternatives offer easy answers for how to stop using carbon fuels to produce electricity. This is without considering the other challenges of reconfiguring our electrical system, such as the logistics of building or modifying power plants. Doing either of these tasks will require a lot of time, money and resources.

In short, we shouldn’t expect our transportation or electrical systems to have net zero emissions by 2030. Ideally, we will reduce their carbon footprints, but we shouldn’t count on these two industries alone to deliver the 50 percent reduction of carbon emissions; we need to consider other industries as well. 

The other 43 percent of the U.S.’ carbon footprint comes from industry, commercial and residential use, and agriculture. While they could all be regulated by the government, these three fields are all largely influenced by consumer demands. If the public was educated on the damage of their living habits to the environment and the risk of a global temperature increase above the 1.5 degree threshold, demand for sustainable products would grow. This consumer demand would put pressure on companies to implement more sustainable practices, especially if it was advantageous to do so in the market economy. As more companies start producing sustainable products, competition will grow, and it should help lower prices and offer a wider variety of sustainable products. Similarly, if consumers decide they want to eat more sustainable crops, farmers may be more inclined to grow them. 

Expecting government or consumers alone to completely decrease greenhouse gas emissions is unrealistic, but if both sides work together, we may be able to meet the 2030 deadline. If government policies fail to halve carbon emissions by this time, consumer actions could allow us to meet this goal. This is without considering the possibility of failing to sufficiently decrease emissions. A 2019 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report estimates that there is only a 50 percent probability of meeting the 2030 deadline of keeping global temperatures below 1.5 degrees. Given the tremendous ecological damage expected to occur if temperatures increase this much, we shouldn’t gamble on a 50 percent chance. We must strive to reduce carbon emissions as much as possible instead of focusing on a specific number.