The current fight against ‘climate change’ can only fail

A rapid transition away from fossil fuels to all ‘renewable energy’ is, quite simply, naive

By Bjorn Lomborg, Wall Street Journal, May 9, 2024

Rich countries, global institutions and the private-jet set haven’t always been obsessed with climate change. Their preoccupation began in the early 1990s, at the end of the Cold War. That wasn’t a coincidence. The Soviet Union fell, communism was vanquished, and peace prevailed among major powers. As Francis Fukuyama brashly claimed, history had ended. All that remained was fixing climate change.

Proponents of climate action advocated ending reliance on the fossil fuels that had powered two centuries of astonishing growth. These activists conceded that this would cost hundreds of trillions of dollars but insisted that massive renewable-energy growth was in the pipeline. This would be the last great push to a glorious future.

How naive. Time hasn’t been kind to the idea that climate change was humanity’s last problem or that the planet would unite to solve it. A rapid global transition from fossil fuels is, and always has been, impossible. There are several reasons that make it so.

Developing nations still need fossil fuels

Many developing nations never shared the Western elite’s obsession with reducing emissions. Life for most people on earth is still a battle against poverty, hunger and disease. Corruption, lack of jobs and poor education hamper their futures. Tackling global temperatures a century out has never ranked high among the priorities of developing countries’ voters—and without their co-operation, the project is doomed.

Geopolitical changes since the 1990s have also limited climate ambitions. Russia, Iran and North Korea have emerged as a destructive and destabilizing axis opposed to global security. Despite their occasional claims to the contrary, none of these nations will support global climatechange-mitigation efforts.

According to a McKinsey report, achieving the vaunted net-zero emissions target by 2050 would require Russia to adopt policies that cost more than a quarter of a trillion dollars a year— around three times as much as Moscow spent on its military last year. Don’t hold your breath.

China ramping up use of fossil fuels

Beijing talks a good game about climate change, but China’s economic growth has relied on burning ever more coal. China is the world’s pre-eminent greenhouse-gas emitter and produced the largest increase of any nation last year. Renewables made up 40% of China’s primary energy in 1971. By 2011 they had fallen to about 7%, as coal use increased. Renewables have since inched up to 10%. Strong climate action could cost China nearly a trillion dollars annually. No wonder Beijing is dragging its feet.

This dynamic means that most of the world, particularly India and much of Africa, will continue to focus on becoming richer through fossil fuels. Russia and its allies will ignore the West’s fixation on climate change. China will simply make money from selling the West solar panels and electric cars while only modestly curbing its emissions. As rich countries attempt to export the cost of climate policy to poor countries through carbon-adjustment taxes, they will further drive a wedge into an already fractured world.

Lower Western growth means less money for climate fight

Meantime, Western countries have less money left for the climate fight. Annual per capita growth in the West declined from 4% in the 1960s to 2% in the 1990s. Since 2000, on average, it has hovered slightly above 1%. This comes as Western countries must spend more on defense, with conflicts brewing in Europe and the Mideast. They must also put more investment into healthcare as their populations age, beef up education to counter Covid-learning losses, and retool their infrastructure to prepare for the future.

The economics of ambitious climate action have always been deficient. More politicians are realizing what Claire Coutinho, Britain’s secretary for energy and net-zero, has acknowledged: “You cannot heap costs onto struggling families to meet climate targets.”

Others haven’t awakened to this reality. Zealots born in a time of relative calm continue to push for deindustrialization—and immiseration—to tackle climate change. They are failing, not least because carbon reductions need to be sustained across decades and through shifting majorities.

In Europe voters are threatening to turn on those who have argued for less growth and prosperity in the name of climate change. With time, the same may happen in the U.S. as voters learn the pocketbook pain necessary to achieve the climate lobby’s goals.

A Better way: Use fossil fuels for economic growth

We need a better way forward. The best solution isn’t to cut ourselves off from fossil fuels prematurely and embrace inadequate green alternatives. It is to ramp up investments in green innovation, eventually driving the cost of clean energy below that of fossil fuels. That strategy wouldn’t merely be cheaper; it would also allow others, including India and African nations, to make the shift.

The West won the Cold War in large part by making economic growth a priority. Western nations need to stop hemorrhaging their resources on climate policies that enrich China. We still excel at innovation.

Taking a fraction of the trillions green advocates want to spend and directing it toward climate research and development could fix the problem in the long run. That would allow us to use the unspent trillions on better things and drive economic growth through broad-based innovation in defence, health and education.

Bjorn Lom­borg is pres­i­dent of the Copen­hagen Con­sen­sus, a vis­it­ing fel­low at Stan­ford Univer­sity’s Hoover In­sti­tu­tion and au­thor of “Best Things First.”

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