COP26 was not a fist in the air, nor the victory against climate change that humanity was counting on. Unfortunately, politics and commerce put a hard thumb on procedures, limiting possible action. Commitments to “phase out” coal, rather than a firm commitment to phase it out altogether, show how far we still have to go. But the event also served to highlight the extent of what needs to be done for humanity to survive beyond the next century.
One of the “victories” of the event was the belief that it was still possible to maintain global warming at 1.5 degrees. It is worth saying, however, that 1.5 degrees is not so much a goal to be achieved as an acceptance of impending catastrophe. In October, the IPCC explained that such an increase in temperature will lead to significant increases in the frequency of extreme heat waves, monsoon-like precipitation and widespread droughts. Extreme weather events that could have occurred once every 50 years a few centuries ago could become a regular and fatal event.
All the while, the facts remain unchanged: Humanity must avoid adding new carbon emissions while tackling the ones we have already emitted. This means an aggressive reduction in every man-made carbon emission process anywhere on Earth, total reform of agriculture, and an unprecedented deployment of carbon capture and storage technology. And, ideally, this process should have started almost two decades ago.
There are many disheartening facts about the world, but the one that always hurts is the fact that coal-fired power plants are always be lit green. Global Energy Monitor data has factories currently licensed or under construction in China, India, Indonesia, Turkey, Mongolia, Vietnam, Singapore, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Greece, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Poland , Kazakhstan, Colombia, Brazil and Mexico. Like Reuters said, every factory would have to operate for at least 40 years, severely damaging efforts to go carbon negative. Not only is it in everyone’s best interests that these factories not go online, but richer countries have a moral obligation to help provide the funding to help at least some of these names make their way to clean energy.
The problem is, electricity is going to be the most important resource of the 21st century, especially if we are to tackle climate change. Many key technologies, such as transportation, will shift away from fossil fuels in favor of electricity as the primary fuel source. The global demand for energy will increase, and we will have to produce this energy properly. The US Center for Climate and Energy Solutions estimates that by 2050, global energy needs will increase by 24%. So where are we going to get all this clean energy from?
Fusion has always been seen as a silver bullet that will completely eliminate our worries about energy production. Unlike nuclear fission, it produces little waste, requires little raw fuel and cannot produce a runaway reaction. Sadly, Fusion remains as elusive as the arms of La Venus de Milo or some good news. Duke Nukem Thu. ITER, the internationally funded French-built experimental reactor will not be completed before 2025 at the earliest and is still only a test bed. If successful – and this is a big if – we are still a decade away from any serious progress, by which time mass decarbonization will have to be well underway.
This means that any decarbonization of energy will have to come from the renewable technology we have today. Nuclear, wind, solar, geothermal, and tidal power all need to be scaled up to fill the void, but the scale of the task in the United States alone is staggering. According to EIA, the United States generated just under 2.5 trillion kWh using fossil fuels in 2020. If you wanted, for example, to replace all of that with nuclear power, you would need to build something in the region. of 300 reactors, or to increase the number of solar panels installed in the United States by about one hundred percent – and that’s before we talk about intermittency.
One thing we can do, however, is reduce our demand for energy to lessen the need for such a dramatic change. This can be, for example, as simple as insulating your home better (in cold climates) or improving the efficiency of air conditioning systems (in hot climates). Another smart move is to ditch the car in favor of public transport, walking, or getting on your bike. There is evidence that e-bike adoption is becoming big business, with Forbes saying sales are expected to drop from just under 4 million per year in 2020 to nearly 17 million by 2030.
However, none of this will matter much unless we also find a way to pay off the debts that humanity has accumulated over the past century. the IPCC estimates that we need to extract up to a trillion tonnes of atmospheric CO2 in the near future. This can be done with massive tree planting work, which needs to be done more, but this process may also require a little help.
This is why many startups have worked on industrial processes to extract CO2 from the atmosphere. At present, such a process is very expensive, but it is hoped that as the technology improves, the cost will start to drop. There are also concerns, of course, that the implementation of programs like this will give polluting companies and nations a free license to avoid reforms.
As much as we can hope that this technology matures quickly, the rate of progress has to become much faster has, uh, parcel faster. For example, Climeworks’ Orca, its new flagship carbon capture plant in Iceland, will extract 4,000 tonnes of CO2 per year. If we are to get to the point where we can avoid a climate catastrophe using only extraction, we will need this capacity to increase by about a hundred million times.
The purpose of this is, in general, to highlight how much our attitudes towards the climate need to change. If we are to be successful in defeating climate change, then we will have to put ourselves on a war footing – where resources are spent only to resolve the crisis – which few can imagine undertaking. But, as most of the resources point out, the only way to avoid damage after dragging your feet for so long is to do everything in your power to find a solution.
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