If you’ve read the full Climate Wars series up to this point, you’re probably nearing a stage of moderate to advanced depression. Good! You should feel horrible. It’s your future and if nothing’s done to fight climate change, then it’s going to royally suck.
That said, think of this part of the series as your Prozac or Paxil. As dire as the future might be, the innovations being worked on today by scientists, the private sector, and governments around the world may yet save us. We have a solid 20 years to get our act together and it’s important that the average citizen knows how climate change will be addressed at the highest levels. So let’s get right to it.
You Shall Not Pass … 450ppm
You might remember from the opening segment of this series how the scientific community is obsessed with the number 450. As a quick recap, most of the international organizations responsible for organizing the global effort on climate change agree that the limit we can allow greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations to buildup to in our atmosphere is 450 parts per million (ppm). That more or less equals a two degree Celsius temperature increase in our climate, hence its nickname: the “2-degrees-Celsius limit.”
As of February 2014, the GHG concentration in our atmosphere, specifically for carbon dioxide,was 395.4 ppm. That means we’re only a few decades away from hitting that 450 ppm cap.
If you’ve read the entire series up to here, you can probably appreciate the impacts climate change will have on our world should we pass the limit. We will live in a wholly different world, one that’s far more brutal and with far less people alive than demographers have predicted.
Let’s look at this two degree Celsius rise for a minute. To avoid it, the world would have to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 50% by 2050 (based on 1990 levels) and by almost 100% by 2100. For the US, that represents a nearly 90% reduction by 2050, with similar reductions for most industrialized countries, including China and India.
These hefty numbers make politicians nervous. Achieving cuts of this scale could represent a massive economic slowdown, pushing millions out of work and into poverty—not exactly a positive platform to win an election with.
There is Time
But just because the targets are large, doesn’t mean they’re not possible and it doesn’t mean we don’t have enough time to reach them. The climate may get noticeably hotter in a short span of time, but catastrophic climate change could take many more decades thanks to slow feedback loops.
Meanwhile, revolutions led by the private sector are coming in a variety of fields that have the potential to change not only how we consume energy, but also how we manage our economy and our society. Multiple paradigm shifts will overtake the world during the coming 30 years that, with enough public and government support, could dramatically alter world history for the better, especially as it relates to the environment.
While each of these revolutions, specifically for housing, transportation, food, computers, and energy, have entire series devoted to them, I’m going to highlight the portions of each that the will impact climate change the most.
The Global Diet Plan
There are four ways humanity will avoid climate disaster: reducing our need for energy, producing energy through more sustainable, low-carbon means, changing the DNA of capitalism to put a price on carbon emissions, and better environmental conservation.
Let’s start with the first point: reducing our energy consumption. There are three major sectors that make up the bulk of energy consumption in our society: food, transportation, and housing—how we eat, how we get around, how we live—the basics of our daily lives.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, agriculture (especially livestock) directly and indirectly contributes up to 18% (7.1 billion tonnes CO2 equivalent) of global greenhouse gas emissions. That’s a significant amount of pollution that could be reduced through gains in efficiency.
The easy stuff will become widespread between 2015-2030. Farmers will start investing in smart farms, big data managed farm planning, automated land and air farming drones, conversion to renewable algae or hydrogen-based fuels for machinery, and the installation of solar and wind generators on their land. Meanwhile, farming soil and its heavy dependence on nitrogen-based fertilizers (created from fossil fuels) is a major source of global nitrous oxide (a greenhouse gas). Using those fertilizers more efficiently and eventually switching to algae based fertilizers will become a major focus in the coming years.
Each of these innovations will shave a few percentage points off of farm carbon emissions, while also making farms more productive and profitable for their owners. (These innovations will also be a godsend to farmers in developing nations.) But to get serious about agriculture carbon reduction, we’ve also got make cuts to animal poop. Yup, you read that right. Methane and nitrous oxide has nearly 300 times the global warming effect as carbon dioxide, and 65 per cent of the global nitrous oxide emissions and 37 per cent of methane emissions come from livestock manure.
Unfortunately, with global demand for meat being what it is, cuts to the numbers of livestock we eat probably won’t happen anytime soon. Luckily, by the mid-2030s, global commodity markets for meats will collapse, cutting demand, turning everyone into vegetarians, and indirectly helping the environment at the same time. ‘How could that happen?’ you ask. Well, you’ll need to read our Future of Food series to find out. (Yes, I know, I hate when writers do that too. But trust me, this article is already long enough.)
By 2030, the transportation industry will be unrecognizable compared to today. Right now, our cars, buses, trucks, trains and planes generate about 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions. There’s a lot of potential for lowering that number.
Let’s take your average car. About threefifths of all our mobility fuel goes to cars. Two thirds of that fuel is used to overcome the car’s weight to push it forward. Anything we can do to make cars lighter will make cars cheaper and more fuel efficient.
Here’s what’s in the pipeline: car makers will soon make all cars out of carbon fiber, a material that is significantly lighter and stronger than aluminum. These lighter cars will run on smaller engines but perform just as well. Lighter cars will also make the use of next generation batteries over combustion engines more viable,bringing down the price of electric cars, and making them truly cost competitive against combustion vehicles. Once this happens, the switch to electric will explode, since electric cars are far safer, cost less to maintain, and cost less to fuel up compared to gas powered cars.
The same evolution above will apply to buses, trucks, and planes. It will be game changing. When you add self-driving vehicles to the mix and a more productive use of our road infrastructure to the efficiencies noted above, greenhouse gas emissions for the transportation industry will be significantly slashed. In the US alone, this transition will cut oil consumption by 20 million barrels a day by 2050, making the country completely fuel independent.
Commercial and Residential Buildings
Electricity and heat generation produces about 26 % of global greenhouse gas emissions. Buildings, including our workplaces and our homes, make up three-fourths of the electricity used. Today, much of that energy is wasted, but the coming decades will see our buildings triple or quadruple their energy efficiency, saving 1.4 trillion dollars (in the US).
These efficiencies will come from advanced windows that trap heat in the winters and deflect sunlight during the summer; better DDC controls for more efficient heating, ventilating, and air conditioning; efficient variable air volume controls; intelligent building automation; and energy efficient lighting and plugs. Another possibility is to turn buildings into mini power plants by converting their windows into see-through solar panels (yup, that’s a thing now) or installing geothermal energy generators.Suchbuildings could be taken entirely off the grid, removing their carbon footprint.
Overall, cutting energy consumption in food, transportation, and housing will go a long way in reducing our carbon footprint. The best part is that all these efficiency gains will be private sector led. That means with enough government incentives, all of the revolutions mentioned above could happen that much sooner.
On a related note, cutting energy consumption also means governments need to invest less in new and expensive energy capacity. That makes investments in renewables more attractive, leading to the gradual replacement of dirty energy sources like coal.
There’s an argument that consistently gets pushed by opponents of renewable energy sources who argue that since renewables can’t produce energy 24/7, they can’t be trusted with large scale investment. That’s why we need traditional base-load energy sources like coal, gas, or nuclear for when the sun doesn’t shine.
What those same experts and politicians fail to mention, however, is that coal, gas, or nuclear plants occasionally shut down due to faulty parts or maintenance. But when they do, they don’t necessarily shut off the lights for the cities they serve. That’s because we have something called an energy grid, where if one plant shuts down, energy from another plant picks up the slack instantly, backing up the city’s power needs.
That same grid is what renewables will use, so that when the sun doesn’t shine, or the wind doesn’t blow in one region, the loss of power can be compensated for from other regions where renewables are generating power. Moreover, industrial sized batteries are coming online soon that can cheaply store vast amounts of energy during the day for release during the evening. These two points mean that wind and solar can provide reliable amounts of power on par with traditional base-load energy sources.
Finally, by 2050, much of the world will have to replace its aging energy grid and power plants anyway, so replacing this infrastructure with cheaper, cleaner, and energy maximizing renewables just makes financial sense. Even if replacing the infrastructure with renewables cost the same as replacing it with traditional power sources, renewables are still a better option. Think about it: unlike traditional, centralized power sources, distributed renewables don’t carry the same negative baggage like national security threats from terrorist attacks, use of dirty fuels, high financial costs, adverse climate and health effects, and a vulnerability to wide scale blackouts.
Investments in energy efficiency and renewable can wean the industrial world off coal and oil by 2050, save governments trillions of dollars, grow the economy through new jobs in renewable and smart grid installation, and reduce our carbon emissions by around 80%. At the end of the day, renewable power is going to happen, so let’s pressure our governments to speed up the process.
Dropping the Base-load
Now, I know I just trash-talked traditional base-load power sources, but there are two new types of non-renewable power sources worth talking about: thorium and fusion energy. Think of these as next generation nuclear power, but cleaner, safer, and far more powerful.
Thorium reactors run on thorium nitrate, a resource that’s four times more abundant than uranium. Fusion reactors, on the other hand, basically run on water, or a combination of the hydrogen isotopes tritium and deuterium, to be exact. The technology around thorium reactors largely already exists and is being actively pursued by China. Fusion power has been chronically underfunded for decades, but recent news from Lockheed Martin indicates that a new fusion reactor might be just a decade away.
If either of these energy sources comes online within the next decade, it will send shockwaves through the energy markets. Thorium and fusion power have the potential to generate massive amounts of clean energy that can be more easily integrated with our existing power grid. Thorium reactors especially will be very cheap to builden masse. If China succeeds in building their version, it will quickly spell the end of all coal power plants across China—taking a big bite out of climate change.
So it’s a tossup, if thorium and fusion enter the commercial markets within the next 10-15 years, then they will likely overtake renewables as the future of energy. Any longer than that and renewables will win out. Either way, cheap and abundant energy is in our future.
A True Price on Carbon
The capitalist system is humanity’s greatest invention. It has ushered in freedom where once there was tyranny, wealth where once poverty was. It has raised mankind to unreal heights. And yet, when left to its own devices, capitalism can destroy just as easily as it can create. It’s a system that needs active management to ensure its strengths are properly aligned with the values of the civilization it serves.
And that’s one of the big problems of our time. The capitalist system, as it operates today, isn’t aligned with the needs and values of the people it’s meant to serve. The capitalist system, in its current form, fails us in two key ways: it promotes inequality and fails to put a value on the resources extracted from our Earth. For the sake of our discussion, we’re only going to tackle latter weakness.
Currently, the capitalist system places no value on the impact it has on our environment. It’s basically a free lunch. If a company finds a spot of land that has a valuable resource, it’s essentially theirs to purchase and make a profit from. Luckily, there is a way we can restructure the very DNA of the capitalist system to actually care for and serve the environment, while also growing the economy and providing for every human being on this planet.
Replace Outdated Taxes
Click the two links above if you want to geek out on this stuff, but the basic gist is that by adding a carbon tax that accurately accounts for how we extract resources from the Earth, how we transform those resources into useful products and services, and how we transport those useful goods around the world, we will finally place a real value on the environment we all share. And when we place a value on something, only then will our capitalist system work to care for it.
Trees and Oceans
I've left environmental conservation as the fourth point since it’s the most obvious to most people.
Let’s be real here. The cheapest and most effective way to suck carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is to plant more trees and regrow our forests. Right now, deforestation makes up about 20% of our annual carbon emissions. If we could lower that percentage, the effects would be immense. And given the productivity improvements outlined in the food section above, we could grow more food without having to cut more trees for farmland.
Meanwhile, the oceans are our world’s largest carbon sink. Unfortunately, our oceans are dying both from too much carbon emissions (making them acidic) and from over fishing. Emissions caps and large no-fishing reserves are our ocean’s only hope of survival for future generations.
Current State of Climate Negotiations on the World Stage
Presently, politicians and climate change don’t exactly mix. The reality of today is that even with the above-mentioned innovations in the pipeline, cutting emissions will still mean purposefully slowing down the economy. Politicians who do that don’t normally stay in power.
This choice between environmental stewardship and economic progress is hardest on developing countries. They've seen how first world nations have grown wealthy off the back of the environment, so asking them to avoid that same growth is a hard sell. These developing nations point out that since first world nations caused most of the atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations, they should be the ones to bear most of the burden to clean it up. Meanwhile, first world nations don’t want to lower their emissions—and put themselves at an economic disadvantage—if their cuts are cancelled out by runaway emissions in countries like India and China. It’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation.
According to David Keith, Harvard Professor and President of Carbon Engineering, from an economist’s perspective, if you spend a lot of money cutting emissions in your country, you end up distributing the benefits of those cuts around the world, but all the costs of those cuts are in your country. That’s why governments prefer to invest in adaptation to climate change over cutting emissions, because the benefits and investments stay in their countries.
Nations throughout the world recognize that passing the 450 red line means pain and instability for everyone within the next 20-30 years. However, there’s also this feeling that there’s not enough pie to go around, forcing everyone to eat as much of it as they can so they can be in the best position once it runs out. That’s why Kyoto failed. That’s why Copenhagen failed. And that’s why the next meeting will fail unless we can prove the economics behind climate change reduction are positive, instead of negative.
It Will Get Worse Before it Gets Better
Another factor that makes climate change so much harder than any challenge humanity has faced in its past is the timescale it operates on. The changes we make today to lower our emissions will impact future generations the most.
Think about this from a politician’s perspective: she needs to convince her voters to agree to expensive investments in environmental initiatives, which will probably be paid for by increasing taxes and whose benefits will only be enjoyed by future generations. As much as people might say otherwise, most people have a tough time putting aside $20 a week into their retirement fund, let alone worrying about the lives of grandchildren they've never met.
And it will get worse. Even if we succeed in transitioning to a low-carbon economy by 2040-50 by doing everything mentioned above, the greenhouse gas emissions we’ll emit between now and then will fester in the atmosphere for decades. These emissions will lead to positive feedback loops that could accelerate climate change, making a return to “normal” 1990s weather take even longer—possibly until the 2100s.
Sadly, humans don’t make decisions on those time scales. Anything longer than 10 years might as well not exist to us.
What the Final Global Deal Will Look Like
As much as Kyoto and Copenhagen may give the impression that world politicians are clueless about how to resolve climate change, the reality is quite the opposite. The top tier powers know exactly what the final solution will look like. It’s just the final solution won’t be very popular among voters in most parts of the world, so leaders are delaying said final solution until either science and the private sector innovate our way out of climate change or climate change wreaks enough havoc over the world that voters will agree to vote for unpopular solutions to this very big problem.
Here’s the final solution in a nutshell: The rich and heavily industrialized countries must accept deep and real cuts to their carbon emissions. The cuts have to be deep enough to cover the emissions from those smaller, developing countries who must continue to pollute in order to complete the short term goal of pulling their populations out of extreme poverty and hunger.
On top of that, the richer countries must band together to create a 21st century Marshall Plan whose goal will be to create a global fund to accelerate Third World development and shift to a post-carbon world. A quarter of this fund will stay in the developed world for strategic subsidies to speed up the revolutions in energy conservation and production outlined at the beginning of this article. The fund’s remaining three quarters will be used for massive scale technology transfers and financial subsidies to help Third World countries leapfrog over conventional infrastructure and power generation towards a decentralized infrastructure and power network that will be cheaper, more resilient, easier to scale, and largely carbon neutral.
The details of this plan might vary—hell, aspects of it might even be entirely private sector led—but the overall outline look much like what was just described.
At the end of the day, it’s about fairness. World leaders will have to agree to work together to stabilize the environment and gradually heal it back to 1990 levels. And in so doing, these leaders will have to agree on a new global entitlement, a new basic right for every human being on the planet, where everyone will be allowed a yearly, personal allocation of greenhouse gas emissions. If you exceed that allocation, if you pollute more than your yearly fair share, then you pay a carbon tax to put yourself back into balance.
Once that global right is agreed on, people in first world nations will immediately start paying a carbon tax for the luxurious, high carbon lifestyles they already live. That carbon tax will pay to develop poorer countries, so their people can one day enjoy the same lifestyles as those in the West.
Now I know what you’re thinking: if everyone lives an industrialized lifestyle, wouldn't that be too much for the environment to support? At present, yes. For the environment to survive given today’s economy and technology, the majority of the world’s population needs to be trapped in abject poverty. But if we accelerate the coming revolutions in food, transportation, housing, and energy, then it will be possible for the world’s population to all live First World lifestyles—without ruining the planet. And isn't that a goal we’re striving for anyway?
Our Ace in the Hole: Geoengineering
Finally, there’s one scientific field that humanity could (and probably will) use in the future to combat climate change in the short term: geoengineering.
The dictionary.com definition for geoengineering is “the deliberate large-scale manipulation of an environmental process that affects the earth's climate, in an attempt to counteract the effects of global warming.” Basically, its climate control. And we’ll use it to temporarily reduce global temperatures.
There’s a variety of geoengineering projects on the drawing board—we have a few articles devoted just to that topic—but for now, we’ll summarize two of the most promising options: stratospheric sulfur seeding and iron fertilization of the ocean.
Stratospheric Sulfur Seeding
When especially large volcanoes erupt, they shoot huge plumes of sulfur ash into the stratosphere, naturally and temporarily reducing global temperatures by less than one percent. How? Because as that sulfur swirls around the stratosphere, it reflects enough sunlight from hitting the Earth to reduce global temperatures. Scientists like Professor Alan Robock of Rutgers University believe humans can do the same. Robock suggests that with a few billion dollars and about nine giant cargo aircraft flying about three times a day, we could unload a million tonnes of sulfur into the stratosphere each year to artificially bring global temperatures down by one to two degrees.
Iron Fertilization of the Ocean
The oceans are made up of a giant food chain. At the very bottom of this food chain are phytoplankton (microscopic plants). These plants feed on minerals that mostly come from wind-blown dust from the continents. One of the most important minerals is iron.
Now bankrupt, California-based start-ups Climos and Planktos experimented with dumping huge amounts of powdered iron dust across large areas of the deep ocean to artificially stimulate phytoplankton blooms. Studies suggest that one kilogram of powdered iron could generate about 100,000 kilograms of phytoplankton. These phytoplankton would then absorb massive amounts of carbon as they grew. Basically, whatever amount of this plant that doesn’t get eaten by the food chain (creating a much needed population boom of marine life by the way) will fall to the bottom of the ocean, dragging down mega tonnes of carbon with it.
That sounds great, you say. But why did those two start-ups go bust?
Geoengineering is a relatively new science that’s chronically underfunded and extremely unpopular among climate scientists. Why? Because scientists believe (and rightly so) that if the world uses easy and low cost geoengineering techniques to keep the climate stable instead of the hard work involved with reducing our carbon emissions, then world governments may opt to use geoengineering permanently.
If it were true that we could use geoengineering to permanently solve our climate problems, then governments would in fact do just that. Unfortunately, using geoengineering to solve climate change is like treating a heroin addict by giving him more heroin—it sure might make him feel better in the short term, but eventually the addiction will kill him.
If we keep the temperature stable artificially while allowing carbon dioxide concentrations to grow, the increased carbon would overwhelm our oceans, making them acidic. If the oceans become too acidic, all life in the oceans will die out, a 21st century mass extinction event. That’s something we’d all like to avoid.
In the end, geoengineering should only be used as a last resort for no more than 5-10 years, enough time for the world to take emergency measures should we ever pass the 450ppm mark.
Taking it All In
After reading the laundry list of options available to governments to combat climate change, you might be tempted to think this issue really isn’t that big of a deal. With the right steps and a lot of money, we could make a difference and overcome this global challenge. And you’re right, we could. But only if we act sooner rather than later.
An addiction gets harder to quit the longer you have it. The same can be said about our addiction to polluting our biosphere with carbon. The longer we put off kicking the habit, the longer and harder it will be to recover. Every decade world governments put off making real and substantial efforts to limit climate change today could mean several decades and trillions of dollars more to reverse its effects in the future. And if you’ve read the series of articles preceding this article—either the stories or geopolitical forecasts—then you know how horrible these effects will be for humanity.
We shouldn’t have to resort to geoengineering to fix our world. We shouldn’t have to wait until a billion people die of starvation and violent conflict before we act. Small actions today can avoid the disasters and horrible moral choices of tomorrow.
That’s why weas a society can’t be complacent about this issue. It’s our collective responsibility to take action. That means taking small steps to be more mindful of the effect you have on your environment. That means letting your voice be heard. And that means educating yourself on how a very little you can make a very big difference on climate change. Luckily, the final installment of this series is a good place to learn how to do just that:
WWIII Climate Wars series links
WWIII CLIMATE WARS: NARRATIVES
Southeast Asia, Drowning in your Past: WWIII Climate Wars P9
South America, Revolution: WWIII Climate Wars P11