The End of Global Warming: How to Save the Earth in 2 Easy Steps

The optimist's case for rescuing the planet

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You may not believe me, but I have news about global warming: Good news, and better news.

Here is the good news. US carbon emissions are decreasing rapidly. We're down over 10% from our emissions peak in 2007. Furthermore, the drop isn't just a function of the Great Recession. Since 2010 our economy has been growing, but emissions have kept on falling. The reason? Natural gas. With the advent of "fracking" technology, the price of gas has plummeted far below that of coal, and as a result, essentially no new coal plants are being built. Although gas does release carbon, it only releases about half as much as coal for the same amount of electricity. This is why -- despite our failure to join the Kyoto Protocol or impose legal restrictions on CO2 -- the United States is now outpacing the rest of the developed world in reducing our contribution to global warming.

Now for the better news. A technology is in the pipeline that has the potential to eliminate CO2 emissions entirely. Solar power, long believed to be unworkably expensive, has actually been falling in cost at a steady exponential rate of 7 percent per year for the last three decades straight. Because of this "Moore's Law for solar", electricity from solar panels now costs less than twice as much as electricity from coal, and only about three times as much as electricity from gas. Furthermore, technologies now in the pipeline seem to ensure that the cost drop will continue.

Within the decade, solar could be cheaper than coal. Within two decades, cheaper than gas. When that happens, assuming we also have electric cars, it is game over for carbon emissions.

Am I being optimistic? Not especially. Global warming might still destroy the world. But technology has given us a fighting chance and this has big implications for at least four groups of people: Environmentalists, conservatives, economists, and policymakers.

Environmentalists have been the main force behind the fight against carbon emissions. But, as it became apparent that there would be no drastic voluntary worldwide curtailment of industrial society, many seem to have fallen into a funk of despair. Perhaps that despair will be justified in the end...but instead of cowering in the closet and holding their heads in their hands and saying "Oh God, we're all going to die," environmentalists should be doing what they can to seize the chances that we do have. And those chances are all related to technology. Natural gas may be the enemy in the long run, but in the short run it is our most powerful friend. Gas has succeeded in sending U.S. emissions tumbling; what else has managed that feat? Instead of panicking over the environmental dangers of fracking (toxic chemicals that can seep into groundwater), environmentalists should focus on finding ways to limit those risks.

This means working with gas companies, which often are also the same oil companies that have funded denial of global warming. Environmentalists will be understandably wary about partnering with such entities. But remember, the true enemy is not corporations; it's global warming. If Exxon can help fight warming by replacing coal with gas, then they are temporarily on the side of the good guys. (And take heart; the fall in solar costs, if it continues, will eventually render all of this fighting irrelevant.)

Conservatives, meanwhile, need to recognize that solar is for real. Modern American conservative ideas were mostly formed in the late 70s and early 80s, when solar really was prohibitively expensive. But things change. At one point, computers were so big that CEOs laughed out loud at the idea of a "personal computer"... but a few years later, Moore's Law had made those dreams into reality. Similarly, the conservative conventional wisdom - that solar will only ever survive by leaning on the crutch of government subsidies - is an anachronism whose expiration date has arrived. Solar is now so advanced that Germany, although it is cutting subsidies, is installing capacity at a breakneck pace; solar now provides over 4% of the electricity consumed by that cloudy, high-latitude country, and over 10% at peak times. Meanwhile, solar installations in the U.S., though helped by regulation and subsidies, are approximately doubling every year, without causing civilization to collapse. This trend will only make more sense as the exponential cost drop continues.

Presented by

Noah Smith is an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University. He writes regularly at Noahpinion.

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