Climate change is an “unsolvable” issue due to the many variables, but let’s take a closer look. The human element (anthropogenic) is something we can change.
The first obstacle is the politicization of the debate and how and facts don’t always change people’s minds. That’s part of why climate change is still a debate. It’s a spectrum of debaters with extremists on both sides, often shouting uninformed or illogical arguments. Not that my opinion is that of an expert—this blog post is me thinking out loud and consolidating recent reading. I like to work out ideas as I go along. This is a complex topic with too many aspects to take into consideration at once.
At any rate, there are vested interests in preventing real change. Corporations deflect attention despite being the largest polluters. Plastic is a $4 trillion industry and much of the production is single-use plastics. A 2006 Mother Jones article says “In 1953, the packaging industry… joined up with other industry leaders, including Coca-Cola and the Dixie Cup Company to form Keep America Beautiful (KAB), which still exists today. KAB was well-funded and started a massive media campaign to rail against bad environmental habits on the part of individuals rather than businesses. And that meant cracking down on litter.” Professor Finis Dunaway writes: “Ever since the first Earth Day, the mainstream media have repeatedly turned big systemic problems into questions of individual responsibility. Too often, individual actions like recycling and green consumerism have provided Americans with a therapeutic dose of environmental hope that fails to address our underlying issues.”
- Oil – 34%
- Coal – 27%
- Natural gas – 24%
- Renewable (Hydro) – 7%
- Renewable (others) – 4%
- Nuclear – 4%
Non-renewables are a big business so there’s a financial incentive to keep oil-profiteering going. “According to market research by IBISWorld, a leading business intelligence firm, the total revenues for the oil and gas drilling sector came to $2 trillion in 2017… [it] currently makes up something between 2% and 3% of the global economy.” Renewables are a lot smaller. “In 2004, the world invested 47 billion USD. By 2015, this had increased to 286 billion USD… Investment has grown across all regions, but at significantly different rates.” An article in The Guardian mentions that “Renewables are expected to grow by 7.1% each year over the next two decades, eventually displacing coal as the world’s top source of power by 2040.”
Some will argue that 2040 isn’t soon enough. Regardless of target year, something needs to be done soon. Emissions increase greenhouse gases to warm the planet (including the oceans), airborne pollutants contribute to millions of deaths each year, and fossil fuels are a finite resource. There are a lot of factors which go into the concept of climate change, but there’s agreement that (1) pollution worsens health (2) we’ll run out of oil and coal. It doesn’t make sense to continue using them if we don’t have to. “The BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2007… indicated a ratio of proven reserves to production in the Middle East at 79.5 years, Latin America at 41.2 years and North America at 12 years.”
Oil is the #1 energy source and still projected to increase. A recent study from the International Energy Agency found that “From 2010-2018, SUVs were the second-largest contributor to the global increase in carbon emissions behind the power sector, the study found. This places SUVs ahead of trucks and aviation in terms of carbon footprint…. 48% of car sales in the United States last year were SUVs, which was the highest percentage worldwide, but other countries are catching up. Large cars can be seen as a status symbol, and sales are rising in countries like China and India where the middle class is growing.”
And, of course, this isn’t just about carbon emissions. Other forms of pollution are potentially a greater hazard. According to a 2016 study from Columbia University, farms are the largest source of airborne pollution, largely from fertilizer. I’m not sure what research is going into making new types of fertilizer. Farm equipment that isn’t powered by fossil fuels seems easier to achieve. Along with innovations in vertical farming, rooftop aquaponic systems, and lab-grown meats.
Ending pollution is a tough one, partly because the current solutions (like plastic bags) are cheap and effective. As a nation we’re working on it, though. Tote bags made of canvas or hemp, reusable straws, potentially returning to metal utensils, paper/glass cups, etc. Private companies are attempting to clean up the oceans and literally suck carbon from the air. Cities should expand and improve public transportation infrastructure because cars aren’t the best solution in that environment. New York City is implementing congestion taxes and temporary car bans. Whether this works remains to be seen. I think it’s a roundabout way of trying to solve the core issue: reducing use of non-renewable resources.
This leads to the second main obstacle. Renewables aren’t ready yet for widespread usage. One, there aren’t solutions for expired wind and solar equipment, or how to clean up the manufacturing process. From Scientific American: “The Department of Energy has begun to sort out the nation’s next big recycling problem: what to do with batteries used by electric cars…. Less than 5% of materials from EV batteries are being recycled… the most valuable lithium-ion battery component—cobalt—must be imported, mainly from Congo.”
Wind and solar have inefficiencies: “The dilute nature of water, sunlight, and wind means that at least 450 times more land and 10-15 times more concrete, cement, steel, and glass, are required than for nuclear plants… solar panels create 200-300 times more hazardous waste than nuclear, with none of it required to be recycled or safely contained outside of the European Union.” And they’re expensive.
From Forbes: “While Germany has deployed some of the most solar and wind in the world, its emissions have been flat for a decade while its electricity has become the second most expensive in Europe. More recently, Germany has permitted the demolition of old forests, churches, and villages in order to mine and burn coal. Meanwhile, the two nations whose electricity sectors produce some of the least amount of carbon emissions per capita of any developed nation did so with very little solar and wind: France and Sweden. Sweden last year generated a whopping 95 percent of its total electricity from zero-carbon sources… nuclear and hydroelectric power. France generated 88 percent of its total electricity from… nuclear and hydroelectric power.”
Hydroelectric seems decent, but it’s too location-dependent. California for example. During periods of drought, they’re forced to use fossil fuels instead of their renewable sources. A Wall Street Journal opinion article pointed out issues with California’s power in general: “Californians are learning to live like the Amish after investor-owned utility PG&E this week shut off power to two million or so residents to prevent wildfires amid heavy, dry winds…. For years the utility skimped on safety upgrades and repairs while pumping billions into green energy and electric-car subsidies…. Credit Suisse has estimated that long-term contracts with renewable developers cost the utility $2.2 billion annually more than current market power rates. PG&E customers pay among the highest rates in America.”
Interesting ideas for solar and wind exist but they’re not “solved.” Deceptive marketing and promises are everywhere, with the term “greenwashing” becoming more common. Solar road technology seems to be stalling out after failed trials. Even solar bike paths aren’t working. Solar windows aren’t viable. Floating wind farms may be an option. If their high costs descend, and they don’t use so much fossil fuel for manufacturing/transportation. A recent pilot program cost $263 million for 5 turbines. However, costs seem to be decreasing and people believe wind farms will be price-competitive with fossil fuels. It’s expected to become a bigger business: “The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) predicted in 2016 that offshore wind power will grow to 8% of ocean economy by 2030, and that its industry will employ 435,000 people, adding $230 billion of value.”
Compared to other forms of clean energy though, offshore wind power is the most difficult to install and maintain. There’s also the question of environmental impact: “While the offshore wind industry has grown dramatically over the last several decades, there is still a great deal of uncertainty associated with how the construction and operation of these wind farms affect marine animals and the marine environment.”
As author Michael Shellenberger says, “renewables can’t power modern civilization… they were never meant to. One interesting question is why anybody ever thought they could.” He advocates nuclear power, in part because of technological advancements which make future plants (Gen IV) safe, efficient, economical, and carbon-free. They don’t even leave nuclear waste because the reactor can use waste as fuel. Bill Gates, among others, have been working on Gen IV nuclear plants. They believe they’ve solved all potential problems. Red tape currently holds up the construction and implementation process. A recent Netflix special “Inside Bill’s Brain: Decoding Bill Gates” details some of this. If Bill Gates succeeds, he’ll save millions of lives, all while circumventing the climate change debate.
Another billionaire trying to fix the fossil fuel crisis is Elon Musk with Tesla and SolarCity. He has more obstacles than Gates—keeping his companies profitable, solving solar power, and the question of manufacturing-related pollution remains. Tesla vehicles don’t always have clean electricity, either. The important thing is that he’s trying. Musk is a controversial figure, but he’s correct when he says “The bizarre thing is that obviously we’re going to run out of oil in the long-term. There’s only so much oil we can mine and burn… why run this crazy experiment where we take trillions of tons of carbon from underground and put it in the atmosphere and the oceans? This is an insane experiment. It’s the dumbest experiment in human history.”
Green hydrogen fuel is growing in popularity as the technology improves. Scientists have worked on this idea since the 1800s and it’s finally gaining traction. A few hydrogen fuel cell cars are sold (in limited areas). Electric cars are further ahead and I imagine widespread adoption of electric vehicles is easier. Everyone uses electricity and a lot of infrastructure is in place across the globe, while hydrogen is starting almost from zero. The Chinese government doesn’t seem enthusiastic about it; in October 2019 they said “Despite the financial support, China’s fuel-cell industry has not made breakthroughs and has not seen rapid development.”
So what’s the solution to climate change? It looks like we’re already on the right track. Combining Gen IV nuclear power and electric vehicles might have the largest impact. The EPA says 57% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation (mostly petroleum) and electricity production (mostly coal and natural gas). Industrial, commercial, and residential emissions make up 34%, primarily from burning fossil fuels for heat and energy. (With a smaller percentage from waste handling, creating products, and certain chemical reactions.) Lastly, about 9% of emissions are from agriculture (mentioned above). Removing fossil fuels from the USA’s economy would reduce emissions by well over 60%.
We don’t have to reduce emissions to zero. So far. It just has to be enough to secure our planet’s future.