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Smokestacks in China. Photo: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

The costs of keeping global warming below 1.5°C would exceed the economic benefits up through the year 2100, according to a new study.

Why it matters: One of the biggest challenges to climate action is time delay: we need to pay now to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but we won't experience the full benefits of those actions for generations into the future.

By the numbers: In the study, published in PLOS One, researchers project keeping warming below 1.5°C would result in a net loss to the global economy of approximately $40 trillion through 2100, compared to policies that would keep warming to 2°C.

  • That's because "transitioning from energy-dense fossil fuels back to more dilute and intermittent renewable sources of energy like solar and wind requires more in terms of land, human time and machinery to produce the same amount of energy," Patrick Brown, a climate scientist and a co-author of the paper, tweeted.
  • That lowers general economic well-being, which in turns tends to fall hardest on the poorest in the world.

Between the lines: By the 22nd century, however, as the potential effects of climate change continue to compound, the benefits of stronger climate action begin to exceed the economic costs.

  • By 2300, the researchers calculate the net benefits would reach thousands of trillions of dollars.

The big picture: Because CO2 warms the atmosphere for decades to centuries, there's a built in time delay to the physics of climate change that in turn reinforces political obstacles to action.

  • When we pay to reduce carbon emissions now, the full effects aren't felt until the future, which means the present generation has to sacrifice to help save the next ones.

Yes, but: The authors admit climate change will have major costs that are difficult to fit into an economic model, like widespread biodiversity loss, while cutting carbon emissions could have more immediate co-benefits beyond climate change, like reducing toxic levels of air pollution.

The bottom line: There are many reasons why climate change is considered a wicked problem, but its time delay is one of the wickedest.

Go deeper

Biden outlines plan to reverse Trump policies on first day of presidency

President-elect Joe Biden at the Queen theater in Wilmington, Delaware, on Saturday. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

President-elect Joe Biden will roll back some of President Trump's most controversial policies and address "four overlapping and compounding crises" in his first 10 days in office — the pandemic, the economic downturn, climate change and racial inequity.

Driving the news: The plan is outlined in a memo from incoming White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain Saturday. Following Biden's inauguration Wednesday, he'll "sign roughly a dozen actions to combat the four crises," Klain said.

John Kerry: U.S.-China climate cooperation is a "critical standalone issue"

President Biden's special climate envoy John Kerry said Wednesday that the U.S. must deal with China on climate change as a "critical standalone issue," but stressed that Beijing's human rights and trade abuses "will never be traded" for climate cooperation.

Why it matters: The last few years have brought about a bipartisan consensus on the need for the U.S. to confront China's aggression. But as the world's largest greenhouse gas emitter, China will be a vital player if the world is going to come close to reining in emissions on the scale needed to meet the Paris Agreement goals of limiting warming to 2°C above pre-industrial levels.

In cyber espionage, U.S. is both hunted and hunter

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

American outrage over foreign cyber espionage, like Russia's SolarWinds hack, obscures the uncomfortable reality that the U.S. secretly does just the same thing to other countries.

Why it matters: Secrecy is often necessary in cyber spying to protect sources and methods, preserve strategic edges that may stem from purloined information, and prevent diplomatic incidents.