Co-authored with Tony Bishop, Cofounder and Director of UK-based electric aviation firm FLIMAX
Political parties have a bunch of problems, and climate change is definitely one of them. Climate impacts are rising, not falling. Carbon emissions aren’t being cut back enough. It takes time and money to fix things that spew greenhouse gasses and fix homes and buildings that are in the way of climate impacts like flooding.
Many of the necessary changes take a long time to have effect. Others cost a lot of money. And a bunch of them impact voters and special interest groups in ways that become unpleasant for the political parties.
To that end, we have assembled a list of easy and cheap things politicians can do now to move the needle on climate action and to please voters. It’s a subset of the short list of climate actions that will work.
For national leaders, an easy one is to stop subsidies for oil and gas. The International Monetary Fund found that direct subsidies rose to US$1.3 trillion in 2022, up from an average of $0.6 trillion in preceding years. 2022 also saw record profits of $4 trillion in 2022, up from an average of $1.5 trillion globally.
It’s a pretty easy sell to voters that governments giving lots of money to very profitable corporations is a bad policy. And that $1.5 trillion can be used for a lot of better things. With peak fossil fuel demand looming this decade per the International Energy Agency, the industry is a special interest group that’s going to be waning, so it’s time to forge new alliances.
Hydrogen for energy and carbon capture funding are mostly fossil fuel industry subsidies in disguise, so make sure any money spent in that space does just enhance industry profits.
It’s easy to stop new oil and gas exploration. The world already has discovered and operational reserves of coal, oil and gas sufficient to put us well over 3° Celsius of warming. Some of the subsidies mentioned above are tax breaks for exploration. No exploration, no tax breaks and no subsidies.
Operating nuclear power plants are good sources of low-carbon, low-pollution electricity, and despite some perspectives are safe as well. Keeping them going despite political pressure to close them prematurely makes sense. Keeping a close eye on the risks of a Fukushima-scale event which will end up costing Japan’s economy in the range of $1 trillion is a good idea. We do need to cope with reducing reliability; they need cooling water, and as the French have discovered, climate change is causing critical droughts.
For most countries building new nuclear plants is not a solution to climate change or energy requirements. They are expensive, inflexible and have economic risks that renewables, storage and transmission just don’t have. Nuclear is a distraction, and an expensive one. It commits billions to something which won’t be operational until well after 2030 when electricity has to decarbonize before that. Small modular reactors, despite what you may have heard, are unlikely to be cheap and don’t exist right now.
It’s fairly easy to assemble support for a policy to maintain existing plants, consider refurbishment and intentionally sideline efforts to build new ones. Don’t waste money and human time on new nuclear.
Regulations often require local transmission, limit existing generation to inflexible roles (the legacy concept of baseload power) and try to pretend that generating all energy inside the country is key. The grid of the future crosses country borders much more than today and leans into big high-voltage direct current (HVDC) interconnections across continents.
The private money Xlinks project linking Morocco to the UK has just been declared a project of national significance by the government, supplying a reliable 8% of the UK’s electrical power. There are no political downsides to building transmission interconnects with well-behaved neighbors which have lots of other trade ties with your country or province.
One of the biggest slowdowns for getting low-carbon energy added to the grid is regulatory approval. Reform the rules around networks to increase interconnects and speed up connections for new renewables.
Eliminating sub-national barriers to electricity transmission is something most national governments can do. In the USA, HVDC lines from wind farms on the Great Plains to the major population centers on the east and west coasts were blocked because state regulations required transmission to be built by utilities which sold electricity inside the state. The amount of effort and time to get and HVDC line built from Canada’s hydro to New York’s demand had to overcome similar challenges.
Onshore wind and solar are the cheapest form of electricity we’ve ever invented. Rural areas have put up barriers to them, but mostly not because of voters. It’s the elite in their country estates who are annoyed that their rural agrarian fantasy landscapes are changing who are the problem. It’s fairly easy to sell the bottom 80% of rural dwellers on the advantages of local economic development, direct payments for local facilities, new jobs and ongoing revenue. Eliminate national policies inhibiting wind and solar and lean into policies which allow them.
For gas utilities, direct them to create a plan for the strategic and careful shut down of their gas distribution grids. They are entering into a utility death spiral where they will have fewer and fewer customers as heat pumps and induction stoves eat their market, yet they’ll have to maintain the entire network of understreet pipes. Utrecht in the Netherlands is a great example of how to do it, so talk with leaders there.
Businesses know two things very well. As much as they might rail against it, things are changing rapidly and they need more certainty than they are getting. The end of internal combustion engines, gas-fired boilers and similar things is coming. Many countries already have clear deadlines and while automotive and heating manufacturers are grumbling and pushing back, they are moving.
Setting transition targets and sticking to them is key. Not flipflopping is inexpensive, but the alternative is dear. An example of what not to do is Ontario in Canada. When a new administration came in, they killed the carbon pricing scheme the province was using. That didn’t kill carbon pricing, it just meant that all of the regulatory compliance work businesses had already done was thrown out the window and they had to comply with the federal approach. Even Ford is pushing back against the UK’s change in internal combustion sales bans.
There’s a lot of unnecessary paperwork in the way of onshore wind, solar and storage projects. Closed-loop, off-river pumped hydro has huge storage capacities with small, low-impact reservoirs. Anywhere you have hills over a couple of hundred meters high is a candidate for it, and the water just gets reused. Put regulatory resources applied to new nuclear onto those real, near term requirements.
Most countries have regulations for electricity that are very local. Getting markets to work effectively for trading electricity much more freely across much greater distances is something national governments can do. Assembling coalitions around freer and larger markets for electricity and other grid needs like storage is fairly easy.
National jurisdictions set housing and building standards for new development. It’s cheap and easy to update those to include better insulation and a requirement that they have heat pumps instead of gas connections and are ready for EV charging with connections at parking spots. Depending on where you are, ensuring that they are solar ready might be an idea too. Those national standards will flow down through existing channels to cities across the country. It’s cheap and easy to extend them for major renovations of existing buildings as well, so that heat pumps and EV charging spread quickly. Preventing local residential organizations from banning visible rooftop solar panels is also easy nationally.
The chemicals we use in heat pumps, refrigerators and air conditioners are amazing. But they are also climate change bombs, with impacts thousands of times worse than carbon dioxide. Countries have mostly signed onto the Kigali Amendment of 2016 to eliminate them, but countries can do more and cheaply. Global manufacturers need to know that governments are forcing the market in order to change their products and export them. In the same national building codes, put low global warming potential refrigerants as a requirement.
Carbon-dioxide based hot water heat pumps are amazing, but hard to buy in many countries. Propane-based minisplit heat pumps have a climate impact about 100,000 times smaller when they leak than current ones in most countries. In BC, a climate leader otherwise, the Vancouver Economic Commission identified this problem and is trying to get new heat pumps to market. But despite its relative affluence, it’s a tiny part of North America. Put fixed standards on refrigerants and let international manufacturers know what they are. Put the standards into the national building codes.
Electric cars are here and selling rapidly. And cities already have electricity running all over the streets to street lights, traffic lights and sensors. Cities like London have installed EV charging points in existing street light poles. Others have installed EV chargers in many parking spots. Everyone who lives in an older apartment or condo building has some problems with charging, especially if the building doesn’t have a garage of its own. Require an increasing percentage of all street parking to have basic electrical connections for EV charging. It’s simple and a good vote getter in towns and cities across the country.
Cities and regional jurisdictions love to build new infrastructure. New bridges, new highways and new streets are always good local vote getters. But they don’t work to reduce congestion, as every country in the world has established time and again globally. All they do is provide more room for cars, so people buy more cars. At a national level, cities and provinces typically come looking for taxpayer money for these new construction projects.
Don’t give cities and provinces money to build new infrastructure for cars. Make that a policy. All infrastructure money from the national level must be spent on things which get people out of cars, like subways, electric buses, bike lanes, 15 minute cities and the like. Spend the same money, but spend it wisely.
Drones are changing rural work rapidly, but run into problems from national agencies like the Federal Aviation Authority. Big drones are being used to rapidly replant areas burnt out by wildfires, and used for much more efficient and effective spraying of crops. Removing national barriers to big drones flying out of line of sight, supporting firms and organizations doing this work and removing regulatory thickets from them has big advantages.
Similarly, civil aviation regulators are wasting time and money on certification of electric vertical take off and landing passenger aircraft instead of real solutions to aviation’s climate issues. Direct them to stop wasting precious resources on evtol certification.
These actions are easy to do. They are not expensive to do. They are easy to sell to voters. They lean into the special interest groups of the future, not the interest groups of the past. And they are the right things to do. As a political party, make these part of your platform and action plan. As a politician, pick the ones that you are most capable of moving forward.