The IPCC climate change report is coming out on Monday. Our feeds are going to be filled with horrible things that a warming climate will do. The news is not going to be good. However, I wanted to focus on a few solutions, a short list of what works. What should we be doing? It’s not the how, but the what. There are many paths that lead to these realities. To dramatically cut emissions in the 2020s, we need aggressive and immediate action. Fortunately, there are solutions that can help with this. We just need the will to execute, which is being sapped by the people in this necessary transformation, predominantly the fossil fuel industry. Addressing climate change is going to be a race against time. Although the climate is already changing, it’s not too late to avoid the worst of it. The good news is that the technical and policy solutions to climate change already exist, and the costs of renewable and clean technologies have fallen dramatically. There’s also a lot of room for energy conservation, especially in countries like Canada and the United States that use excessive amounts of energy. We need to hold our leaders accountable for taking bold action on climate change. We need to demand a healthy, sustainable future so everyone can thrive. Here is a short list of solutions that we can focus on.
Convert all energy services to work directly from electricity instead of fossil fuels. Transportation, industry, and agriculture. All of it. All gas appliances must go. All road transportation must be electric. Most trains and many planes must shift to electric. Electricity creates biofuels or hydrogen for the subset of transportation that can’t be electrified. All heat from electricity. The US throws away 2/3 of all primary energy, mostly in the form of waste heat from fossil fuels used in inherently inefficient combustion processes. We only have to replace a third of the actual primary energy we use today to maintain our lifestyle and economy.
Overbuild Renewable Generation
All other forms of generation –with the exception of nuclear– were overbuilt, so we’ll do the same with wind and solar, which will be inexpensive, and a bit of geothermal and biomass. After all, only $3 trillion of renewables would provide all primary energy for everything the US does today.
Build Continent-Scale Electrical Grids and Markets
And improve existing ones. HVDC became much more viable with high-speed hybrid circuit breakers in 2011, and is an essential technology for long-distance, low-loss electrical transmission. It can replace some AC transmission and be buried along existing right-of-ways.
Build a Fair Amount of Hydro Storage
And some other storage too. While storage of electricity is an overstated concern given overbuilt renewables and continent-scale grids, some is still required. Pumped hydro resource potential is far greater than the need, is efficient, and uses very stable, known technologies. Shifting existing hydro-electric dams to be passive, on-demand storage as opposed to baseload is also key. Fast response grid storage can be provided by existing lithium-ion technologies, as Tesla has proven in California and Australia. By 2050, we’ll have roughy 20 TWh of batteries on wheels in US cars alone, available both for demand management to reduce peak demand, soak up excess generation, and to provide vehicle-to-grid electricity as needed.
Plant a Lot of Trees
We have cut down about 50% of the six trillion trees that used to grow on earth. Planting a trillion trees would buy us a lot of time as they sucked about a ton of CO2 from the atmosphere per tree over 40 years.
Change Agricultural Practices
High-tillage agriculture is a process that keeps releasing carbon captured by the soil back into the atmosphere. Switching to low-tillage farming would buy us a lot of time as the CO2 captured by farmland would stay in the soil a lot longer, and some of it would be permanently sequestered.
Fix Concrete and Steel
8% of global CO2 emissions come from making Portland cement. It’s absolutely critical to urban densification and industry, so we won’t stop making it. But it’s a huge source of CO2, about half from the energy and half from CO2 that bakes off limestone as it is turned into quicklime. Electrifying that energy flow helps a lot, but capturing that CO2 is one of the few places where mechanical carbon capture makes sense. Steel will mostly be fixed by aggressively turning internal combustion cars and other fossil fuel infrastructure into new steel using electric minimills. 70% of North American steel is already made this way.
Price Carbon Aggressively
The simplest way to get a lot of people and industries to shift away from emitting lots of CO2 is to make it expensive. That’s what carbon taxes do.
Shut Down Coal and Gas Generation Aggressively
Getting rid of coal is already happening, but it’s by far the biggest single source of CO2 emissions. Aggressive actions to eliminate burning coal are needed. For gas, the question is how few gas plants can we build, how many of them can we run on biologically sourced methane and how fast can we shut them down.
Stop Financing and Subsidies for Fossil Fuel
Exploration, extraction, and use: just cut it out. The US alone spends tens of billions of dollars annually on subsidies of various kinds for the fossil fuel industry, and hasn’t done a thing about it since committing to eliminate them in 2009. The G7 and G20 have committed to eliminating subsidies, but progress has been very slow. The World Bank continues to finance coal, oil, and gas projects, despite commitments to end them.
Eliminate HFCs in Refrigeration
The Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer targets the unforeseen side effects of displacing ozone-depleting CFCs with high global warming potential HFCs. Project Drawdown puts this at #1 on its ranked list of solutions by cost vs benefit. The US has not ratified this Amendment, although 65 other countries have.
Climate disruption puts human life at risk worldwide. Our health, food systems, economies and communities are all at enormous risk. But climate change poses the greatest threat to those least responsible for it — people who are already vulnerable to socio-economic challenges, such as poor communities, communities of colour, women and youth.
To mitigate climate change, or avoid the worst consequences of a warming world, we must reduce the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. That means reducing emissions. If we want to limit warming to 1.5 C, we must cut global emissions by half by 2030 and reach net-zero (when there’s a balance between emissions produced and emissions removed from the atmosphere) by 2050.
Burning fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas is the largest source of emissions, so we need to stop extracting and burning these resources. We can do this by conserving energy and by choosing clean electricity over fossil fuels. We can also reduce emissions in the atmosphere through nature-based climate solutions like planting trees and restoring wetlands and forest ecosystems.
Because the climate is already changing, we also need to adapt. This involves preparing for the effects of climate change, including extreme weather events, sea level rise and food insecurity. Each region, city or town will require different solutions for adaptation, which is why municipalities are leading this work.