16 Aug 2022

Green shoots: Reasons to be optimistic on emissions

From Afternoons, 3:10 pm on 16 August 2022

For decades, environmental scientist and sustainability expert Dr Jonathan Foley has looked at the data about climate change with concern, sometimes despair. But now he says he's more optimistic than ever.

Foley is the executive director of Project Drawdown, which works to provide practical solutions to global warming.

Greenhouse gas emissions are declining and there are other causes for quiet optimism, he tells Jesse Mulligan.

Dr Jonathan Foley

Dr Jonathan Foley Photo: University of Minnesota

The world has to get to net zero in the next few decades and the signs are promising, he says.

"About 20 to 30 countries in the world are actually reducing their greenhouse gas emissions. And strangely, leading the pack right now I believe would be the UK, the UK has cut its greenhouse gas emissions by over 40 percent since the 1990s.

"In the United States we’ve cut ours by 20 percent since 2005, when it peaked basically just before the Great Recession. And we built back our economy and grew our economy and grew our population while simultaneously cutting greenhouse gas emissions.”

Most of those gains were without federal government help, he says.

“And now our federal government finally is investing in more action on top of that, which might get us closer to 40 percent 10 years from now.”

Not that everything is fine, and we can relax, he says.

“China's emissions are still the world's highest and growing a little bit though I think they'll plateau soon.

“We have India and other countries still growing their emissions, we have to help that as well."

For the first time he is seeing emissions curves bend, he says.

“I've been at this like 30 years and the first 29 of those years, I wouldn't have been able to say that.

“The predictions in the 1990s and 2000s and 2010s were all like, oh my god, it's bad. And it's just going to get worse and worse. And nobody gives a damn, nothing's going to change.

“And now suddenly, things are beginning to change - at least beginning. And that's how change happens right? slowly slowly, slowly then all at once. So maybe that's how we'll see change here, at least that's my strong belief.”

Notwithstanding the efforts of oil and gas companies to stall action, money is pouring in to renewables, he says.

“People are spending billions and billions of dollars today, not as much as we need to but it's starting, in renewable energy, or in more sustainable forms of agriculture, or more circular economies … where we use materials much more wisely and dispose of them much more wisely and reuse them in a much more closed loop kind of thinking. And that's really growing exponentially.”

The effects of that change are incredible, Foley says.

“For example, solar panels today are now the most efficient form of energy, and the cheapest form of energy humanity has ever created.

“Imagine that; solar energy is now the cheapest form of energy in all human history, followed second by wind. And that's amazing.”

This is a development that would have been difficult to imagine even 10 years ago, he says.

Same thing’s happening with wind, LED lighting, energy storage technologies. Now soon electric vehicles and heat pumps.”

This market-led approach is powerful, he says.

“If we're going to solve climate change, I strongly believe we have to beat fossil fuels and bad agriculture in the market, we have to make solutions that are better and safer and cheaper than the alternatives. So people choose them without a government mandate.”

Renewable and sustainable alternatives will win in this market, he believes.

“Renewable energy is the better solution, it's going to work, it's going to win. And I think that's going to be true in transportation and food and buildings and other things, we're gonna just do it better, cheaper, more efficiently, better for the environment, but also create jobs, and also maybe address equity and injustice issues around the world, and make a better world using 21st century tools, not the old colonial powers and power structures and exploitive technologies of the 19th century.”

Much work still needs to be done, particularly in agriculture which is responsible for about 25 percent greenhouse gas emissions, he says.

“In agriculture, the big culprits are mainly deforestation, still number one on that list, especially in places like Brazil and Indonesia. But second would be ruminant agriculture, the critters that burp methane, like sheep, and cattle, and you have quite a few sheep in New Zealand.”

Tough conversations are needed, Foley says.

“We have to have that conversation and look for the best possible solutions overall. But I have to acknowledge that's a tough one. It's a very hard conversation.

“But food waste, shifting diets, things like this are part of the answer and maybe new technologies in agriculture to produce animal agricultural products better, especially from cattle and sheep, meat and dairy kinds of things have to be done better, we just simply have to do that.”

Climate change is not the individual’s fault, but we can all be part of the solution, he says.

“We do need your help, and your agency and your work.

“So, everybody can be involved in climate change in a positive very can-do kind of way. And I would encourage everyone to think about how we can do that, especially in ways that make your life better, because it will.

"It's not game over, it's game on."