What Is to Be Done About Global Warming? McKinsey Has an Answer

What Is to Be Done About Global Warming? McKinsey Has an Answer

The very brainy people at McKinsey & Co. have figured out how we can to cope with global warming.

All we have to do is:

1. Make buildings, cars, trucks, trains planes and factories a whole lot more energy efficient.

2. Generate 70 percent of global electricity from low-carbon fuels, including wind, solar, hydro, nuclear, and so-called clean coal which doesn't (yet) exist.

3. Avoid the deforestation of 170 million hectares of forest, equivalent to twice the land area of Venezuela, and plant new forests on 330 million hectares of currently marginal land.

And what would that accomplish? Here's what a new McKinsey report says:

Our analysis finds that there is potential by 2030 to reduce GHG emissions by 35 percent compared with 1990 levels, or by 70 percent compared with the levels we would see in 2030 if the world collectively made little attempt to curb current and future emissions. This would be sufficient to have a good chance of holding global warming below the 2 degrees Celsius threshold, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

In plain English, this means that these massive changes are just about the minimum that needs to be done before the impact of global warning gets scary.

McKinsey has been studying global warming for years. They have brought their expertise to bear to create, and maintain, a global data base of abatement measures, looking at more than 200 ways to reduce GHG emissions across 10 industry sectors and in 21 regions of the world, measuring both their impact on emissions and their cost. Really detailed stuff. You could spend hours just perusing the grafs.

I'm not going to attempt to summarize the study, called Pathways to a Low Carbon Economy. You can download a 19-page summary here.

Here, though, are a few of my takeaways:

Yes, this will cost lots of money, but we can afford it. If we pursue the most rational approaches to abating GHGs, McKinsey estimates the cost at 200 to 350 billion EU annually by 2030. (That's $262 billion to $460 billion, at current exchange rates. And it assumes that policymakers, businesses and people will be rational. Nuff said.) That's less than 1 percent of forecasted GDP (and about half the size of the current economic stimulus package making its way through Congress), although the study notes that the estimates are just that and subject to change, Still, don't let anyone tell you that solving the global warming problem will be cost-free.

Time is short. Every day, we're making matters worse, pumping more global warming pollution into the air. And, because we need a global solution that includes China and India, and because they won't act until the U.S. does, it's important that Congress pass GHG regulation this year. McKinsey says: "A 10-year delay in taking abatement action would make it virtually impossible to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius." We've done almost nothing for the last 10 years, unfortunately, so we're digging ourselves into a deeper hole.

Solving this problem is up to all of us. Or, at least, to those of us in the U.S. and Europe, who have the world's biggest per capita carbon footprints. Changing our behaviors -- and not just the kinds of energy we use -- could have a significant impact, says McKinsey. Key opportunities include reducing business and private travel, shifting road transport to rail, accepting higher domestic temperature variations (i.e., turning the thermostat down in winter and up in summer), reducing appliance use (watch less TV) and eating less meat. I'm probably doing no better than OK in this regard -- I drive about 6,000 miles a year in an energy-efficient Honda Fit (good) and eat very little meat (good) but I do a gazillion Google searches (not so good) and fly a lot (bad),

McKinsey doesn't recommend specific government actions. But the report makes clear that voluntary, i.e., free market, measures won't do the trick. It calls for efficiency standards to overcome the "market imperfections" that prevent energy efficiency opportunities with net economic benefits from being realized. It says the governments need to create stable and long-term incentives to promote low-carbon energy sources and discourage emissions of CO2. And it calls for incentives to preserve forests.

What are we waiting for?