Nov 19, 2020 - Energy & Environment

How running helps to explain climate change

Illustration of hand holding a stopwatch with a globe on the face

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Running a race can help illustrate how efforts on climate change should change over time.

The big picture: Climate change, unlike most other public-policy challenges, is cumulative. The longer we wait, the bigger the problem it becomes and the larger the measures needed to address it.

Where it stands: I’m going deeper on something I briefly covered in my Monday column, looking at the concept of time via a running analogy.

Four years of the Trump administration slowed action on climate change in two ways:

  1. Repealing federal regulations curbing greenhouse gas emissions.
  2. Spending four years without enacting more federal policy to keep addressing the problem.

The intrigue: It’s the lost time that’s actually more critical to the equation than the regulatory rollbacks. Let’s imagine a grand race to address climate change.

  • I presented that basic analogy to Trevor Houser, partner at consulting and research firm Rhodium Group, who then extrapolated the concept more with actual numbers.
  • Any distance race works--cycling, swimming, etc.--but running is the simplest (and my favorite), so we're using that.
“Let’s say the Obama administration was running at 5 miles an hour, in terms of policy action. A Clinton administration would have continued running at 5 miles an hour or faster, but instead the Trump administration ran backward at 1 mile an hour. The repealing regulations are the 1 mile an hour, but the real gap is 6 miles an hour.”
— Trevor Houser, Rhodium Group

How it works: Now, a Biden administration would have to run between 9 and 11 miles an hour — roughly twice as fast — to be on track to the president-elect’s goal to have a net-zero carbon economy by 2050, Houser says.

  • “A lot of why the Biden administration has to run so much faster is not because Trump was moving backward as much as they just weren’t running for four years,” Houser said.

By the numbers: These are the numbers that form the basis of the analogy.

  • Under the Obama administration, U.S. net greenhouse gas emissions fell by 1.5% a year. So 1.5% equals 5 miles an hour, per Houser.
  • The average annual reduction in emissions between 2020 and 2030 must be between 2.7% and 3.3% to reach Biden’s goal of a net zero-carbon economy by 2050, according to Houser’s calculations.

The bottom line: Of course, running races have specific lengths and eventually end. Climate change isn’t a race and it will probably last forever in some form, which makes this a tiring slog, to say the least.

Go deeper: On climate change, Biden is stuck between urgency and politics

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