When it comes to the political will and leadership required to propel the world towards a sustainable future, I am pessimistic. Over and over again, I have heard the rhetoric of politicians who focus on short-term goals at the expense of planning for the future. In 2021, major media outlets are promoting responsible journalism and taking a hard line with climate deniers. Many journalists hold governments to account on climate change goals. Yet politicians still manipulate and select hard scientific data. I have spoken to many and compare the experience to walking through molasses.
Does their soft decision-making have to do with the structure of democracy itself, with its brief electoral terms and the lack of incentives for incumbent politicians to make hard and binding decisions for decades to come?
When I look around and see the roads of New Zealand, packed with huge diesel trucks and an ever-increasing number of gasoline-powered SUVs and vehicles, I feel dread. It does not have to be this way. What is it about living on a finite planet that humans do not understand or will not understand, after all the studies and warnings show that continuing in this way leads to the inevitable collapse of the planet’s ecosystems?
When you look at the true cost of damaging the atmosphere, claims by politicians that action to cut carbon is too costly becomes bizarre. When we burn fossil fuels, we have never considered the final cost of the damage to the atmosphere caused by excess CO2. In many countries, if you pollute a waterway, you have to clean it up or pay a hefty fee for the damage; That cost must be factored into the cost of running your business. In the case of emitting CO2 into the atmosphere, you can do so for little or no initial and immediate cost. Do people who pollute waterways offend us because it is literally in your face while CO2 is a transparent gas?
For most of the last few decades, I have been disappointed by the inaction of politicians on reducing carbon emissions. But on the other hand, I am very optimistic when it comes to the extraordinary ingenuity of human beings. We already have the tools to combat climate change. The past two decades have seen massive advances in renewable electricity generation to the point where these sources are now cheaper than coal-fired power plantseven before the cost of damage to the atmosphere is taken into account. The International Energy Agency (IEA) reported that, in 2019, almost 30% of the OECD’s electricity was supplied from renewable sources such as hydroelectric, solar, wind, biomass and geothermal.
The skills and experience of engineers will be crucial for the urgent transition to a low-carbon future. Over the years, I have spoken to many groups of engineers, including oil and gas engineers, about climate change. You would think that a climate scientist talking to a gas engineer would lead to a discussion, but that has not been my experience.
Those same gas engineers and others who have been so maligned by the green movement have the vital skills needed in a new sustainable economy.
Its skills are transferable to an economy that makes large-scale use of “green hydrogen,” for example. Green hydrogen, produced by electrolysis of water using excess electricity derived from wind and other renewable energy sources, is already being used in steelmaking, energy storage and transportation in Germany and several other countries.
When I talk to people about this technology and its possibilities, they are amazed. They wonder why they have never heard of him. Hydrogen fuel cell technology has been around for a long time; I remember seeing it for the first time decades ago. Why has it not been used? Several reasons come to mind, including conspiracy theories about oil companies, but for me there is a simple answer. It is because products made with fossil fuels appear to be much cheaper than sustainable alternatives; the true cost of the climate emergency is never factored in when products are sold to customers.
So what is the true cost of the damage to the atmosphere when you emit a couple of tons of CO2, perhaps during a long-haul flight between Auckland and London or when using a diesel-powered SUV for a year? There are many different answers to that question depending on whether you ask an economist, politician, engineer, or climate scientist.
If you ask a chemist how and how much it would cost to remove a ton of CO2 from the atmosphere, he would probably raise his hands in horror, get a figure of NZ $ 1,000 per ton and a very complex apparatus. A climate scientist would answer the question with another, such as, “How much do you think the 2020 wildfires cost in Australia, California, Colorado, Siberia, and the Arctic?” And a New Zealand economist would quote the current carbon price on the New Zealand emissions trading scheme site, which in early 2021 was around NZ $ 37 per tonne. That sounds ridiculously cheap to me, measuring in crude economic terms the cost of damage from carbon emissions in our only atmosphere.
We have been forced to think that there are no alternatives to fossil fuels for the functioning of the economy and society. But engineers and economists can point to several alternatives, and we must embrace the ones that provide a sustainable future this decade. A new field has emerged known as “transition engineering,” where engineering and scientific principles are used to provide systems that do not compromise the ecological, social, and economic systems that future generations will depend on.
Engineered solutions will be especially valuable in dealing with the rapid growth in emissions from transportation. Worldwide, liquid fuels such as gasoline and diesel for cars and trucks, jet fuel for aviation, and bunker fuels for shipping accounted for more than 20% of total CO2 emissions in 2016. Transportation , which is growing at a faster rate than any other sector, poses a great challenge. to the reduction of emissions in accordance with the Paris Agreement. To keep global temperature rise within a range that avoids the worst climate impacts, the IPCC and other climate models show transport emissions must decrease. The transition to zero-emission transport is critical. Solutions include clean fuels, improving vehicle efficiency, changes in the way we move people and goods, and building sustainable cities.
Electrification removes CO2 emissions from the tailpipe and particles that damage our lungs. Take advantage of the potential to decarbonize the electricity grid.
There is no doubt that reducing carbon emissions to avoid the disastrous impacts of climate change will be a gigantic undertaking. There is no single solution to this problem. It will require a concerted effort from all parts of society, especially from governments, but also from engineers, scientists, economists, teachers, and farmers. We can be optimistic about the rapidly emerging technologies available to help reduce carbon emissions, including the generation and storage of hydrogen from surplus electricity, the synthesis of sugars from CO2 and water, information and nanotechnology, bioengineering, and educational sciences, to name a few. The challenges ahead are formidable, but I sincerely believe that, with willingness and concerted action, human beings are more than capable of building a sustainable future.
Dave Lowe is an atmospheric chemist and lead author of the 2007 Nobel Prize-winning IPCC Fourth Assessment Report on Climate Change. This essay is an edited excerpt from his book The Alarmist: Fifty Years Measuring Climate Change (VUP, NZ $ 40)
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism