In this excerpt, top atmospheric scientist Dave Lowe discusses why he thinks we can create a sustainable future amid political inaction.
I’m a pessimist when it comes to the political will and leadership needed to steer the planet toward a prosperous future. I’ve heard politicians’ rhetoric repeatedly concentrating on short-term agendas at the cost of long-term preparation. The mass media will encourage responsible journalism and take a hard line against climate deniers in 2021. Many journalists keep governments accountable for achieving climate change objectives.
Hard science evidence, on the other hand, is often distorted and cherry-picked by politicians. I’ve spoken to a lot of people about it, and they compare it to walking through treacle.
Is it possible that their lackluster decision-making is due to the nature of democracy itself, with its short electoral terms and lack of incentives for incumbent leaders to make difficult and long-term decisions?
I’m filled with dread as I look around and see New Zealand’s highways clogged with massive diesel trucks and an ever-increasing number of petrol-powered SUVs and vehicles. This does not need to be the case.
What is it about life on a finite earth that humans don’t or won’t understand, despite the fact that studies and warnings indicate that continuing in this manner will result in the planet’s habitats collapsing?
When you consider the true cost of environmental damage, politicians’ arguments that carbon mitigation is too costly seem bizarre. When we burn fossil fuels, we never consider the long-term effect of the harm excess CO2 does to the environment. If you pollute a waterway in certain nations, you must clean it up or pay a large fee to compensate for the harm – this expense must be factored into the cost of doing business.
When it comes to releasing CO2 into the environment, there is little or no upfront and immediate cost. Are we annoyed by people polluting rivers because it is so visible, when CO2 is a clear gas?
I’ve been irritated by policymakers’ lack of progress on carbon emissions reductions for much of the last few decades. In the other hand, I am very confident when it comes to human creativity. Climate change can already be combated with the resources we already have.
Renewable energy electricity generation has advanced dramatically over the past two decades, to the point that it is now cheaper than coal-burning power plants, even before the cost of environmental degradation is factored in. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), renewable energy sources such as hydro, solar, wind, biomass, and geothermal produced nearly 30% of OECD electricity in 2019.
Engineers’ expertise and experience would be critical in the urgent shift to a low-carbon future. I’ve talked to several groups of engineers about climate change over the years, including oil and gas engineers.
You’d think that a conversation between a climate scientist and a gas engineer will result in a battle, but that hasn’t been my experience.
The same gas and other engineers who have been vilified by the green movement have the expertise that a modern sustainable economy needs.
Their skills are transferable to an economy that uses “green hydrogen” on a large scale, for example. Green hydrogen is already being used in steelmaking, energy storage, and transportation in Germany and a number of other countries. It is provided by electrolysis of water using excess electricity derived from wind and other renewable energy sources.
People are amazed when I tell them about this technology and its possibilities. They’re perplexed as to why they’ve never heard of it. Hydrogen fuel cell technology has been around for a long time – I recall seeing it for the first time several years ago. Why hasn’t it been implemented? Several explanations come to mind, like oil company conspiracy theories, but I believe there is a simple explanation. It’s because fossil-fuel-based goods tend to be so much cheaper than renewable alternatives, and the true cost of the climate crisis is never considered as the products are sold to consumers.
So, what is the true cost of releasing a few tonnes of CO2 into the environment, say during a long-haul flight between Auckland and London or by driving a diesel-powered SUV for a year? Depending on if you ask an economist, politician, engineer, or climate scientist, there are several different responses to the issue. If you ask a chemist how to extract a tonne of CO2 from the atmosphere and how much it will cost, they’ll probably throw up their hands in horror and come up with a figure of NZ$1,000 per tonne and a very complicated apparatus. A climate scientist will respond with another question, such as, “How much do you think the 2020 wildfires in Australia, California, Colorado, Siberia and the Arctic cost?”.
A New Zealand economist will cite the existing carbon price, which was about NZ$37 per tonne in early 2021, according to the New Zealand emissions trading scheme website. That sounds ridiculously cheap to me, calculating the cost of carbon emissions into our one and only environment in purely economic terms.
We’ve been brainwashed into believing that there are no viable economic and societal alternatives to fossil fuels. Engineers and economists, on the other hand, may point to a number of options, and we must choose the ones that will ensure a sustainable future in this decade.
A new area known as “transition engineering” has developed, in which engineering and scientific concepts are used to create technologies that do not jeopardize the ecological, social, and economic systems on which future generations depend.
Engineering strategies would be particularly useful in addressing the increasingly increasing transportation-related pollution. In 2016, liquid fuels such as gasoline and diesel for cars and trucks, jet fuel for aircraft, and bunker fuel for ships accounted for over 20% of total CO2 emissions globally. Transport, which is growing at a faster pace than any other industry, presents a significant challenge to reducing pollution in accordance with the Paris Agreement.
Transport emissions must decline to keep global temperature rise within a range that avoids the worst climate impacts, according to IPCC and other climate modeling. It is important to make the transition to zero-emission transportation. Clean energy, enhanced vehicle performance, improvements in how we transport people and products, and the construction of sustainable cities are some of the solutions.
Electrification reduces CO2 and particle emissions from tailpipes, which are harmful to our lungs. It takes advantage of the opportunity to decarbonize the power grid.
Without a question, cutting carbon emissions to avoid the worst effects of climate change would be a monumental task. There is no single solution to this dilemma. It will take a concerted effort from all sectors of society, including governments, engineers, scientists, economists, teachers, and farmers, among others. We should be positive about the rapidly evolving technologies that can help us minimize carbon emissions, such as hydrogen generation and storage from excess energy, sugar synthesis from CO2 and water, knowledge and nanotechnology, bioengineering, and educational science, to name a few.
The challenges ahead are formidable but I truly believe that, given the will and with concerted action, human beings are more than capable of building a sustainable future.
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