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The climate is changing. The world is getting hotter. And humans are responsible for it. These are not opinions—they are facts and, whether you believe it or not, we are all going to have to deal with the consequences of the previous and current generations’ actions.
Earth’s average temperature is expected to get three degrees Celsius warmer over the next 80 years, with important and devastating consequences for the planet.
Let’s consider some important facts that cannot be sugar-coated. Sea-level rise is going to be much worse than we thought even just five years ago; this is to do with Antarctica. The planet’s southernmost continent is covered by massive ice sheets, and they are collapsing faster than was previously modelled. Coastal areas around the world will be devastated.
But it is not just rising sea levels that threatens coasts and rivers; there are other kinds of natural disasters which affect people in coastal areas. In the Atlas of the Human Planet 2017, researchers estimate that 1 billion people across 155 countries are at risk of deadly floods, which continue to be the most frequent natural disaster in the world. 770 million people in danger of flooding live in Asia, 56 million in Europe, and about 14 million in North America.
Floods are not just caused by climate change; other human activities, large-scale deforestation, and changes to the topography are also aggravating the situation. Strongly linked to the changes in global climate is the increased occurrence of extreme weather events. This is not a sci-fi B-movie plot any more. Extreme weather is here, it’s real, and we should get used to it. We also can link it to climate change in real time.
So, what’s our reasonable outlook for the future? Well, the 1.5-degree Celsius increase is pretty much confirmed to happen. Unless a major revolution occurs, this cannot be stopped. But it’s not just the number that is scary—it’s the rate at which we are increasing the global average temperature. This rate is the fastest it has ever been in history. Ecosystems don’t have time to adapt.
Scenarios with an increase of more than 1.5-degrees Celsius, and at an even faster rate, are also becoming increasingly likely. The goals of the Paris Climate Agreement—which the US has decided to abandon for shortsighted and unfounded reasons—should keep us below the two-degree margin. Only time and the commitment of countries will tell us if this can be achieved.
While the state of the world looks dire and the future more uncertain than ever, we can find some solace in knowing that hundreds of thousands of researchers around the world are busy looking for solutions to the incredible challenges we are facing. Here are some of the ideas they have come up with:
Carbon-free energy production
The obvious solution to reduce carbon dioxide is to invest in energy production methods which release as little CO2 as possible. Coal, oil, and natural gas are the worst offenders, and methane emissions are roughly 25 times more potent at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. So, fossil fuels are bad.
The best options for lowering carbon emissions are wind power, solar power, hydropower, and nuclear power, but even these are not exactly equal when it comes to convenience. For example, hydropower has a lot of things going for it (e.g. you can use it as a ‘battery’ to deploy when there is a surge in demand), but it often requires dams which alter ecosystems and can even eradicate communities. So, good but not great.
Geothermal energy is great, if you’re close enough to sources of volcanism (and that might not be quite so great!). If you have geysers, you don’t even have to supply water. Iceland is an excellent example of these types of low-carbon emission power plants. According to the latest estimates, the Nordic country’s electricity is almost 100 percent derived from hydro and geothermal resources; 85 percent of the country’s primary energy is from renewables. In fact, Iceland has the world’s highest share of renewables in its national energy budget.
Of course, the staples of renewable energy sources are solar and wind power. The reasons behind us not using them are mostly political-masquerading-as-parochial concerns about the environment, animals, and the countryside’s landscape. Wind turbines are ugly, noisy, and kill birds. Ugliness is in the eye of the beholder, however, and the noise is greatly exaggerated, but let’s look at the actual numbers.
Turbines are estimated to kill, at most, 368,000 birds annually. That’s a lot, right? Well, cell phone and radio towers are estimated to kill about 6.8 million. In other words, wind turbines kill about six percent of the birds killed by other metal, man-made structures. But there’s more. If you want to blame the deaths of birds on somebody, it’s estimated that domestic cats kill between 1.4 billion to 3.7 billion birds every year.
In contrast, solar panels, people argue, are just ugly. So ugly. And expensive. So expensive. They ruin the aesthetic of a building and cost a lot of money. Again, we can debate ugliness, but the high cost is a completely made-up idea. Since their commercialisation in the ’70s, solar panels have become cheaper every year, and they have a 40-year guarantee. It is estimated that, by investing in solar panels for a household in Scotland, you’ll earn back what you put in within two years. In Scotland. Which is well-known for its long and sunny seasons…
Elon Musk’s companies have unveiled solar roof tiles, which are very pretty, and researchers are working on semi-transparent solar panels that could be used as windows on skyscrapers. But, while wind and solar are terrific and becoming crucial to worldwide energy production, they depend both on weather conditions and the time of the day. Without long-lasting battery systems, they cannot be considered 100 percent reliable. That said, if you are building a new home, it is already financially unsound not to include solar panels.
Last but not least: nuclear power. Nuclear fission power has the worst name in the energy industry, and yet it is statistically the safest way of producing energy in the world. More people die installing solar panels on roofs than in accidents involving nuclear power. The worst offender is coal, with 1,000 times more deaths for trillions of watts produced. Nuclear power plants can function for up to 60 years, and there is so much public scrutiny that they are kept at a level of safety found in no other kind of power plant. Nuclear fission is also an extremely reliable energy source, so if you want a future where fossil fuels have been abandoned, it is necessary to use nuclear power; we simply don’t have the means to achieve this goal without it. With all that said, there is always going to be the problem of dealing with radioactive waste. Some countries are constructing underground facilities to bury the waste, and there is an interesting discussion on how to make sure that people in the distant future don’t accidentally dig it up. Humanity doesn’t seem to have a universal sign for danger.
The ideal solution would be an energy source which is reliable, carbon-free, renewable, safe, and with no dangerous waste. All of these qualities are embodied in nuclear fusion and, after five decades of scientists saying that the technology is just 20 years away, we might now finally be ready to say that it will happen within the next 10. We are on the verge of mastering that which powers the Sun and all the stars.
Two different fusion approaches are currently showing promising results. One is shaped like a chunky doughnut (Tokamak), and the other is more of a twisty doughnut (Stellarator). The shape is called a torus and is important. It allows for plasma to be inserted and heated, and for the end products to be removed.
Fusion reactors will heat up light elements such as hydrogen and helium, and fuse them to create heavier elements. The reaction will release photons and neutrons, the neutrons will be stopped by special screens which will heat up, and the heat will be used to turn water into steam. So far it seems easy enough, but there are a few issues.
Heating up plasma is energy intensive; to keep it contained, you need strong magnets. How sturdy must your reactor be to withstand such extreme temperatures? How efficiently can you make the machine behave?
We are getting closer and closer to some satisfactory answers. In Germany, the Wendelstein 7-X stellarator has been tested with both hydrogen and helium plasma, and is showing a lot of promise. The United States holds most of the records for what has been achieved in Tokamak. The first full-scale nuclear fusion reactor, ITER, is being built in France as part as a European collaboration and will start generating energy in 2025.
Nuclear fusion promises cheap and guilt-free unlimited energy. And it is almost in our grasp.
Energy production shows that our future can be bright, but there’s more technology that can help us fight climate change. This is just one of the many things we can improve upon; there are other ways that technology is being used to remedy the effects of industrialisation.
Carbon dioxide is the most common of the greenhouse gases, which makes it the key player in global warming. So, the first solution should be to take it out of the atmosphere and store it where it cannot harm the planet. There’s only one catch: a lot of traditional ways to take carbon dioxide out of the air require lots of electricity, which often ends up emitting more carbon dioxide. So how can we avoid this carbon-based catch-22? There are a few ideas out there.
One approach is to capture CO2 emissions in industries and energy production. These are responsible for 56 percent of the world greenhouse gases. Carbon capture and storage can stop up to 90 percent of carbon dioxide from getting into the atmosphere, which means if we could apply carbon capture to all of these industries, we would cut emissions in half.
There are other approaches to carbon capture. Using trees is often claimed to be a good method, but this is, unfortunately, not efficient. To offset all human-made carbon dioxide emissions, we’d need about 40 trees per year, per person—which is 280 billion trees. This is fewer than the whole Amazon rainforest (about 390 billion trees), and it would make a big dent in global emissions for a year, but I doubt that governments would invest in such a vast project. However, reforestation initiatives—though they won’t save the world by themselves—should be supported by all of us.
Teams are also looking at alternatives to trees. There are photosynthetic organisms that grow faster than trees, such as microalgae, or that can help store carbon dioxide directly in the soil. And if these methods are not enough, researchers are working on cheaper solutions to suck CO2 directly out of the air.
Many different groups (here, here, and here) are working on minimising the costs and energy requirements to enable physical or chemical mechanisms to steal carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This captured carbon dioxide could be used to create carbon-neutral fuel, or it could be buried back in the ground.
So what methods should we use? What should governments support? Literally all of them. Plant trees; suck carbon from the atmosphere; and make sure greenhouse gases cannot escape power plants! We’re hardly going to cut our energy usage, so we need all the help we can get to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
I absolutely adore hearing about geo-engineering projects. They make me feel that the world of science fiction is actually here. But let’s not confuse our emotional ideas of the future with the matter-of-fact best approach. Geo-engineering is a radical solution to the huge problems we face, but it might have even more dire consequences.
One often-cited solution is to cool down the atmosphere or inject something in the air that would balance out the effect of greenhouse gases. The inspiration for such a daring feat is the volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora (Indonesia) in 1815, which released so much volcanic ash, droplets of sulfuric acid, and water into the atmosphere that it obscured the Sun. This created a global cooling or volcanic winter; 1816 was known as ‘the year without summer’.
So, why couldn’t we do the same? Well, a comprehensive study in Nature Ecology & Evolution shows that this approach might work for the atmosphere but could be deadly for many species worldwide. On top of that, substances like sulfur only stay in the atmosphere for a few years compared to the century that carbon dioxide can hang around. Doing this would literally be like trying to Febreeze rotten eggs. Still, the idea is being studied by many as an extreme remedy if all else fails.
This is not the only attempt at geo-engineering. Our effect on the planet is vast and people are looking at ways to drastically change course. There are approaches to increase precipitation, which can help populations whose livelihoods are being threatened by expanding deserts. There are approaches to prevent extreme events from happening and even ideas to correct some of the side-effects of greenhouse gases such as ocean acidification. Not all of these ideas, however, are proving to be practical.
The underlying issue with geo-engineering is our overall limitation in terms of knowledge and modelling power. The atmosphere is a complex system whose complete understanding still eludes us. We wouldn’t even be at the point we are now if we truly understood this thin layer of air around our planet. We just don’t know enough, so geo-engineering is a very risky bet to take in our situation.
Maybe we should be dreaming bigger. Maybe we can take inspiration from The Simpsons and construct a giant sun-blocker, put it in space, and regulate the amount of solar luminosity we get. I can’t even begin to imagine how expensive this might be, but the idea is worth putting out there. Another idea is to produce artificial clouds to reflect the damn sun rays away. Or maybe we can turn the closest technology we have into a freeze gun, to science our way out of this.
I haven’t abandoned hope about the future of our planet, but the time to act is now. We are in the eye of a storm of our own making, and how we decide to navigate the perilous waters of the next few years will decide our fate. Doing nothing will make things worse—for every living creature on this planet.
We have the idea—found in many religions and put forward even in secular cultures—that humans are the masters and rulers of nature. Nothing could be further from the truth. Humans and nature are codependent. We haven’t moved past the point where we can ignore the natural world even if we wanted to. We need a healthy planet.
Our ability to change our environment is a tool which is neither good nor evil, but it has been used carelessly with very little thought about the consequences. Our eyes are open now. A change is possible. Are we investing in and supporting low-carbon energy sources? Are we making conscious choices for the future? These are the questions we need to ask ourselves and our politicians.
Some irreversible damage has happened already. Still more might be unavoidable. But there are so many changes that can be stopped. It can be done.