What we need to avoid a climate catastrophe

COP26 was not a fist-in-the-air moment, and not the victory against climate change humanity had been waiting for. Unfortunately, politics and commerce have taken a hard line on procedures, limiting possible action. Commitments to “phase out” coal, rather than a firm promise to eliminate it completely, show how far we still have to go. But the event also served to highlight the magnitude of what must happen if humanity is to survive beyond the next century.

A “victory” of the event was the belief that it was still possible to keep global warming at 1.5 degrees. However, it is worth saying that 1.5 degrees is not a goal to achieve, but it is an acceptance of impending doom. In October, the IPCC stated that such a temperature rise will significantly increase the frequency of extreme heat waves, monsoon-like rainfall and widespread droughts. Extreme weather events that occurred once every 50 years a few centuries ago can become a regular and fatal occurrence.

All the while, the facts have remained unchanged: humanity must avoid adding new CO2 emissions while also tackling the emissions we have already emitted. That means an aggressive reduction of every man-made carbon emission process anywhere on Earth, total agricultural reform and an unprecedented rollout of carbon capture and storage technology. And ideally, that process should have started nearly two decades ago.

There are many discouraging facts about the world, but one that always hurts is the fact that coal-fired power plants are still green lit. According to Global Energy Monitor data, there are currently plants authorized or under construction in (deep breath) China, India, Indonesia, Turkey, Mongolia, Vietnam, Singapore, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Greece, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Poland, Kazakhstan, Colombia, Brazil and Mexico. As Reuters says, any factory is expected to run for at least 40 years, severely damaging attempts to go carbon negative. Not only is it in everyone’s best interest that these factories don’t go online, but richer countries have a moral obligation to help provide the funding to help at least some of those names move towards clean energy.

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The problem is that electricity will become the most important resource of the 21st century, especially if we want to tackle climate change. Many key technologies, such as transportation, will ditch fossil fuels in favor of electricity as their primary fuel source. The world demand for energy will increase and we will have to generate that electricity cleanly. The US Center for Climate and Energy Solutions estimates that global energy needs will increase by 24 percent by 2050. So where do we get all this clean power?

Fusion has been held forever as a magic bullet that will completely remove our concerns about power generation. Unlike nuclear fission, it produces little waste, requires little raw fuel and cannot cause a runaway reaction. Unfortunately, Fusion remains as elusive as the arms of The Venus de Milo or any good new Duke Nukem game. ITER, the internationally funded French-built experimental reactor, will not be ready until 2025 at the earliest and is still just a test bed. If it succeeds – and that’s a big if – we’ll be ten years away from serious progress, by which time massive decarbonization should already be well underway.

That means any decarbonisation of energy will have to come from the renewable technology available to us today. Nuclear, wind, solar, geothermal and tidal energy all need to be ramped up to fill the gap, but the magnitude of the task in the US alone is staggering. According to the EIA, the US generated just under 2,500 billion kWh from fossil fuels in 2020. For example, if you wanted to replace all of that with nuclear energy, you’d have to build everything in the vicinity of 300 reactors. or increase the number of solar panels installed in the US by about a hundred percent – and that’s before we talk about intermittent power.

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However, one thing we can do is reduce our demand for energy to reduce the need for such a dramatic shift. For example, it could be as simple as insulating your home better (in cold climates) or improving the efficiency of AC systems (in warm climates). Another smart move is to ditch the car in favor of public transport, whether on foot or by bike. Evidence suggests that e-bike adoption is becoming a major problem, with Forbes saying sales are expected to grow from just under 4 million a year in 2020 to nearly 17 million by 2030.

None of this will matter much, though, unless we can also find a way to pay off the debts that humanity has built up over the past century. The IPCC believes that we need to extract up to a trillion tons of CO2 from the atmosphere in the near future. This can be done with massive tree planting jobs, of which more need to be done, but this process too may need some help.

That is why a number of start-ups have been working on industrial processes to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. At the moment, such a process is very expensive, but it is hoped that as technology improves, costs will come down. There is, of course, also a concern that carrying out such plans will give polluting companies and countries a free license to avoid reforms.

As much as we may hope that this technology matures quickly, the pace of progress must be much faster, much faster. For example, Climeworks’ Orca, its new flagship carbon capture facility in Iceland, will extract 4,000 tons of CO2 per year. If we want to get to the point where extraction alone can avert a climate catastrophe, we need to increase this capacity by about a hundred million times.

The point of this, broadly speaking, is to outline how much sharper our attitudes to climate need to change. If we want to succeed in beating climate change, we will have to wage the kind of war – where resources are spent on nothing but solving the crisis – that few can ever imagine. But, as most sources indicate, the only way to avert the damage after hesitating for so long is to pull out all the stops in search of a solution.

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