We have the technology to decarbonise transport. Inaction is our biggest threat

William Todts — September 29, 2021

Only radical action by governments can stave off catastrophic climate change

When the rain started to fall, no one was really worried. After all, Belgians are used to wet summers. But this wasn’t the usual drizzle. What hit the southeast of the country was an unprecedented deluge. Towns vanished, cars drifted through city centres, thousands were evacuated, dozens died. In neighbouring Germany the death toll and damage was even greater.

This summer’s scenes in Belgium and Germany, as well as southern Europe, remind us that, faced with nature’s might, we are very powerless indeed. It also illustrates the point scientists have made for decades: in the fight against climate change the cost of inaction is gigantic.

Belgium and Germany can likely muster the billions needed to rebuild towns and infrastructures damaged in the July floods. Or can they? As I write this, the Wallonian regional government has just asked the federal government for emergency assistance worth €1.2 billion to help rebuild the devastated regions. Perhaps aid will be granted this time. But even wealthy countries and their insurance industries can’t afford to rebuild towns every couple of years. 

And yet that is exactly what’s in store for us if we don’t act. The IPCC’s latest report paints a stark picture. In nearly 4000 pages of meticulously researched and peer reviewed analysis it explains how man made global warming has already caused temperatures to increase by 1°C.

The IPCC finds that it is now certain that global temperatures will rise to above 1.5°C. Only drastic emission cuts can avoid scenarios where global temperatures increase by 4°C. We cannot ensure ourselves against that type of warming. Neither can we adapt to it.

Mankind’s reaction to the growing evidence of global warming is often compared to that of a frog being boiled alive. Was this summer the moment where things got “hot” enough for us to wake up?

There is hope. This summer’s natural disasters could build support for a more ambitious European Green Deal. In Germany, climate was a central issue in the elections and the Green Party may join the next government. In the US, Joe Biden is finally taking action, setting, for example, a goal of 50% electric vehicles by 2030. China is ending support for offshore coal development. Next month nations will convene in Glasgow for COP26. There has never been a better moment for the world to get behind the climate war with the commitment and resources it needs.

T&E was always an organisation that promoted pragmatism, technology and reform. Thanks to this approach we now have all the technologies needed to decarbonise transport. But time is running out and so is our patience. So, what does the IPCC report mean for the green movement?

First, now that climate change is clear for all to see, the real threat is no longer “deniers” but what Michael Mann calls the “inactivists”. It’s the people, and often the corporations, creating fear and doubt about the solutions to the climate crisis. It’s companies like Bosch, known to most people for its washing machines and e-bikes but in reality mostly a (diesel) enginemaker that is teaming up with the oil industry to prevent a fast transition to 100% emissions free cars. It’s companies like Neste, a Finnish Oil company, that spend fortunes on advertising where they pretend they have a solution for aviation while at the same time selling biofuels made from palm oil. We must be far less tolerant of this kind of sabotage and call it out wherever we see it.

Second, in our collective mythology democratic governments are slow, inept and bureaucratic. Entrepreneurs are seen as the ones that make things happen. As a techno-optimist friend of mine put it: “Entrepreneurs will succeed where governments failed”. I don’t believe this is true, but companies can make a difference. For example, corporates buy more than half of new cars in Europe. Every company that has committed to “net zero” needs to stop adding new diesel and petrol cars to its fleet, not in 10 years, but right now. The same goes for corporate flying. The level of business flying that was taking place in 2019 was insane. We can’t ever go back to that. Corporations can make this happen and we’ll be happy to nudge them, gently if possible, less gently if needed.

Talking about discomfort, the green movement has some homework to do  too. It’s easy to call for high targets. It’s a lot harder to take responsibility for them. We can’t just dismiss a new EU plan to make Shell, Total and Exxon pay for their pollution because it’s unpopular. We can’t ask governments to ban combustion engines and then oppose all mining for battery metals like lithium, electric car factories and dismiss electric company cars. And we can’t seriously demand that we decarbonise our power grids, oppose all forms of power other than wind and solar, and then go AWOL when it comes to the massive permitting issues renewables face.

A few weeks ago, I was in Theux, a small town in the east of Belgium. The road to Theux is filled with kilometers of debris and litter. When we went to the local grocery store we found only its façade was still standing. The climate crisis is not something that is coming in the future; we are living it. It’s time for everyone to up their game.

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