What burgers and bananas can teach us about fighting climate change

We can’t just build renewables. We have to stamp out fossil fuels.

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Ben Wolkon is a principal at MUUS Sustainable Investments. This contributed content represents the views of the author, not those of Canary Media.

I recently went out to dinner with a new acquaintance who ordered a hamburger and fries. I’ve avoided eating hamburgers for years due to concerns over the planet-warming methane belched by cows. But I also never want to be that guy” who pontificates over other people’s food choices, so I said nothing about his order.

It was much harder to stay quiet about what he did next, though. My dining companion reached into his backpack, pulled out a banana and proceeded to eat it while we waited for our meal to be served.

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With what I just ordered, I had to mix in something healthy!” he explained, mouth full of half-chewed banana.

Let’s put aside the lunacy of this fruit-based twist on BYOB. (It was, in a word, bananas.) What I actually want to focus on is the fact that the Banana Move is an excellent analogy for how we should, and shouldn’t, think about the energy transition and decarbonization. Allow me to explain.

Recently, we’ve seen more and more headlines about the expansion of clean energy: renewables’ year-over-year growth, or a record-size solar project, or a jump in electric car ownership. These achievements are obviously great, and they are necessary. But on the other hand, these milestones mean very little unless we’re also dramatically and rapidly reducing fossil fuel use, the biggest driver of climate change, at the same time. We can’t just celebrate that we’re building more substitutes for fossil fuels; we need to actually eliminate fossil fuels.

In other words, if we construct huge solar farms but still keep operating coal and gas power plants, we’re doing the equivalent of eating enough hamburgers to trigger a heart attack — but mixing in some bananas along the way. It’s nice that bananas are healthy, but the totality of our actions would still be deadly.

The En-ROADS climate simulator, which our team at MUUS works with as part of MIT’s Climate Pathways Project, can demonstrate how that’s the case. En-ROADS is a free, easy-to-use model that allows people to solve” climate change by adjusting sliders that represent different policy interventions. It’s based on an extensive array of scientific research and climate models, and can run tens of thousands of equations at once to tell users the projected environmental and economic effects of countless potential climate solutions.

Here’s the En-ROADS default setting, showing the world under a business-as-usual emissions scenario. This outcome would be within the range of the high-emissions” scenario outlined in the latest report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. You can see that fossil fuel use increases disastrously, and global temperatures rise by 3.6 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.

And here’s what would happen if we heavily subsidized renewable energy to the maximum extent possible in the model to accelerate its growth but didn’t do anything else to reduce the use of fossil fuels. The outcome does not look a whole lot different.

The simulator shows us that maximum renewables subsidization, with no other action, only takes us from the 3.6°C base case to a slightly lower 3.5°C. The Paris Agreement sets a goal of holding warming to 1.5° to 2°C, so this approach hardly makes a dent. Why? We’ve increased renewables but taken no actions to shut down fossil fuels. We’re eating bananas without ditching the hamburgers. To have any reasonable measure of success in addressing climate change, we need much less of the bad thing, not just more of the good thing.

By contrast, the charts below show what would happen if on top of subsidizing renewables, we also eliminated coal-fired power plants and halved oil and gas use globally over the next decade, while increasing energy efficiency in buildings and industry.

En-ROADS tells us this would put us on a pathway to a temperature increase of 2.3°C. It’s still not where we need to be, but a plan that slashes fossil fuel usage certainly gets us much closer to a desirable outcome.

So now you might be asking: If we did all of that work to reduce oil, gas and coal use, and increase renewables and efficiency, but we’re still not under 2°C, what do we have to do to get there?

Using En-ROADS, we can see there are a number of potential pathways involving everything from electrifying vehicles and buildings to reducing deforestation, enacting carbon prices and more. All of these steps would help us limit warming, and as the new IPCC report tells us, every fraction of a degree of warming we avoid makes a serious difference in long-term human well-being.

To bring this article full circle, we can help get to a below-2°C scenario by heavily reducing methane emissions, which come from — among other things — the cattle industry, the source of our hamburgers.

Check out En-ROADS and learn more about the different pathways we can take to a livable planet.

Ben Wolkon is a principal at MUUS Sustainable Investments, investing in companies focused on climate change and sustainability. He would love to hear from any climatetech startup founder reading this.