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What we learned this year about avoiding a climate catastrophe

COP26 was not a moment of fist in the air or the climate change victory that humankind had hoped for. Unfortunately, politics and business are giving the procedure a hard thumb and restricting the possible measures. The commitment to “phase out” the coal, rather than a firm commitment to eliminate it entirely, shows how far we still have to go. But the event also served to show the extent of what needs to be done if humanity will survive beyond the next century.

A “victory” of the event was the conviction that global warming of 1.5 degrees is still possible. However, it is worth saying that 1.5 degrees is not a goal to be achieved, but the acceptance of an impending catastrophe. In October, the IPCC stated that such a rise in temperature will significantly increase the frequency of extreme heat waves, monsoon-like rains, and widespread droughts. Extreme weather events that occurred every 50 years a few centuries ago could become a regular and deadly event.

The facts remain unchanged: humanity must avoid adding new CO2 emissions while addressing those that we have already emitted. That means aggressively reducing every human-made CO2-emitting process anywhere on earth, completely reforming agriculture, and introducing unprecedented carbon capture and storage technologies. And ideally, this process should have started more than two decades ago.

There are many daunting facts about the world, but one that always hurts is the fact that coal-fired power plants are still getting the green light. Data from Global Energy Monitor has facilities currently approved or under construction in China, India, Indonesia, Turkey, Mongolia, Vietnam, Singapore, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Greece, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Poland, Kazakhstan, Colombia, Brazil and Mexico. As Reuters says any facility will run for at least 40 years, which seriously undermines efforts to go carbon negative. Not only is it in everyone’s best interests that these plants not go online, but wealthier nations have a moral obligation to provide the means to assist at least some of these names as they move toward clean energy.

Tunvarat Pruksachat via Getty Images

The problem is that electricity will be the most important resource of the 21st century, especially if we are to fight climate change. Many key technologies, such as transport, will abandon fossil fuels in favor of electricity as the primary fuel source. The global demand for energy will increase, and we have to generate this electricity cleanly. The US Center for Climate and Energy Solutions assumes that global electricity demand will increase by 24 percent by 2050. Where do we get all this clean electricity from?

Fusion has forever been cherished as a silver bullet that will completely eradicate our energy generation concerns. In contrast to nuclear fission, it produces little waste, requires little raw fuel and cannot cause a reaction that has gotten out of hand. Unfortunately, Fusion remains as elusive as The Venus de Milo’s arms or a good new Duke Nukem game. ITER, the internationally financed experimental reactor built in France, will be completed in 2025 at the earliest and is still just a test field. If it is successful – and this is a big if – we are still a decade away from serious progress and by then mass decarbonization must already be in full swing.

This means that any decarbonization of electricity must be done with the renewable technology that is available to us today. Nuclear, wind, solar, geothermal, and tidal energy all need to be ramped up to fill the void, but the scale of the task in the US alone is staggering. According to the RRP, the US generated almost 2,500 billion kWh from fossil fuels in 2020. If you wanted to replace all of that with nuclear power, for example, you’d have to build about 300 reactors or increase the number of solar panels installed in the US by about a hundred percent – and that’s before we talk about intermittentness.

Urtopia e-bike.

James Trew / Engadget

However, one thing we can do is reduce our energy needs in order to lessen the need for such a dramatic shift. For example, this can be as simple as better insulating your home (in cold climates) or improving the efficiency of air conditioning systems (in warm climates). Another smart move is to leave your car in favor of public transport, on foot, or on a bike. There is evidence that the introduction of e-bikes is going to be a big deal with Forbes Sales are expected to rise from just under 4 million in 2020 to just under 17 million in 2030.

However, all of this will not mean much unless we also find a way to pay off the debts that humanity has accumulated over the past century. the IPCC believes we will need to extract up to a trillion tons of CO2 from the atmosphere in the near future. This can be done with massive tree planting work that still needs to be done, but this process, too, may need a little help.

This is why some startups are working on industrial processes to extract CO2 from the atmosphere. At the moment, such a process is very expensive, but it is hoped that the cost will decrease as the technology improves. There is also, of course, a concern that running programs like this polluting company and nations gives a free license to avoid reform.

As much as we can hope this technology will mature quickly, progress has to be much faster, uh, much faster. For example, Orca from Climeworks, its new flagship CO2 capture facility in Iceland, will extract 4,000 tons of CO2 per year. If we want to reach the point where we can avert a climate catastrophe through funding alone, we have to increase this capacity by a hundred million times.

By and large, the aim is to outline how much more sharply our attitude towards the climate needs to change. If we are to succeed in defeating climate change, we have to embark on a kind of war base – where resources are only used to solve the crisis – that few can imagine. But as most resources show, after such a long delay, the only way to avert the damage is to seek a solution.

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