Suppressing greenhouse gases is a mission impossible


WASHINGTON — Anyone who tells you that dealing with climate change is simply a matter of sweeping away the obstructionism of oil companies is living in a dream world. The real obstacle is us — our vast dependence on fossil fuels and the difficulty of extricating ourselves without crippling the world economy.

It’s true that the Trump administration has withdrawn from the Paris climate agreement, making any transition harder. But the problems transcend President Trump’s disengagement, as a new study from the oil giant BP makes clear (

Reading it, you might think it came from an environmental group. The study’s central conclusion, writes BP chief executive Bob Dudley, is that many anti-global warming policies fall “well short of” what’s “necessary to achieve the Paris climate goals. We need a far more decisive break from the past.”

The study projects global energy supply and demand to 2040 to see if environmentally friendly policies make significant progress against global warming. It assumes a larger role for “renewables” — mostly wind and solar power — and other policies that would dampen fossil fuel consumption. Consider:


• Electric cars make large advances compared with a negligible role today. By 2040, the number of electric vehicles worldwide hits 300 million out of 2 billion total vehicles (roughly a doubling of today’s total). More important, these electric vehicles account for a disproportionate share of driving, about 30 percent. As a result, there’s no increase in oil and liquid fuel demand for cars and light vehicles, despite an assumed doubling in worldwide travel.

• There’s a continued boom in solar and wind power. From now until 2040, these renewables are the fastest-growing source of energy, increasing five-fold. As a share of global primary fuel consumption, the gain is from 4 percent to 14 percent. Their impact on electricity generation is even greater, rising from 7 percent in 2016 to 25 percent in 2040.

• Electric utilities continue to switch to natural gas as their primary fuel from coal, which has much higher carbon emissions. About half the growth in natural gas consumption reflects this switching.

Against this backdrop, you would expect significant progress in curbing greenhouse gases. Not so.

Just the opposite: Total use of fossil fuels (oil, natural gas and coal) is projected to increase almost 20 percent between 2016 and 2040. The electric cars, renewables and fuel switching merely offset some — but not all — of the added energy demand from population and economic growth. The BP study assumes a world population of 9.2 billion in 2040, up from 7.4 billion in 2016. Over the same period, the global economy doubles its output.

What this means is that greenhouse gases are still pouring into the atmosphere, albeit at a slower rate. There’s a slight shift away from fossil fuels. In 2016, these fuels provided 85 percent of world energy. The projection for 2040 is 74 percent, even with favorable assumptions about renewables and electric vehicles.

Virtually all the energy increase is projected to come from developing countries for factories, offices, homes, air conditioners and heaters. India and China alone account for half the increase in energy use by 2040.

Governments, says Spencer Dale, BP’s chief economist, should discourage the use of fossil fuels through either a carbon tax or a “tax and trade” system. That could unleash hordes of companies and entrepreneurs to find ways to limit emissions. “If we don’t like something [greenhouse gases], the easiest way to get less of it is to put a price on it,” Dale says.

Indeed, this could herald a “decisive break” from the past. But it might also break public opinion, at least in the United States. How high would prices have to go to prove Dale’s point? To succeed, the price increase might have to be fairly stiff — say, $2 or $3 a gallon for gasoline — and that might be far more than Congress would adopt or many Americans would accept.

Suppressing greenhouse gases is, at best, a thorny policy issue encompassing technology, atmospheric science, international relations and practical politics. Put them all together and, at worst, it could be mission impossible.

Robert Samuelson is a columnist with The Washington Post.

Robert Samuelson