Column: Affordable ways to avoid climate catastrophe
Cutting greenhouse gas emissions to keep the world from heating to catastrophic levels is entirely possible and would save money. Although emissions continue to rise, there’s still time to reverse course. Ways to slash them by more than half over the next seven years are readily available and cost-effective — and necessary to keep the global average temperature from rising more than 1.5 C.
The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Sixth Assessment Report includes a chart that shows how. Compiled by the world’s top scientists using the most up-to-date research, it illustrates potential emissions reductions and costs of various methods.
At the top are wind and solar power, followed by energy efficiency, stopping deforestation and reducing methane emissions. Nuclear energy, carbon capture and storage and biofuels bring much poorer results for a lot more money.
Wind and solar together can cut eight billion tonnes of emissions annually — “equivalent to the combined emissions of the US and European Union today” and “at lower cost than just continuing with today’s electricity systems,” the Guardian reports.
Nuclear power and carbon capture and storage each deliver only 10 per cent of the results of wind and solar at far higher costs. It’s telling that those less effective, more expensive pathways are the ones touted most often by government, industry and media people who are determined to keep fossil fuels burning or are resistant to power sources that offer greater energy independence.
Making buildings, industry, lighting and appliances more energy efficient could cut 4.5 billion tonnes of emissions a year by 2030 — and there’s no doubt that simply reducing energy consumption could add to that.
Because forests, wetlands and other green spaces sequester carbon, stopping deforestation could cut four billion tonnes a year by 2030, almost “double the fossil fuel emissions from the whole of Africa and South America today,” the Guardian reports.
Cutting methane emissions, especially those that leak from fossil fuel operations, could cut three billion tonnes. This is especially important because methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide over the short term. It also shows that fracking for fossil gas and production of so-called “liquefied natural gas” are not viable solutions.
Other ways to lower emissions include switching to sustainable diets, such as eating less meat (1.7 billion tonnes), shifting toward public transit and active transportation (which has more potential than electric cars) and better agricultural methods.
We’re constantly told that quickly transitioning from coal, oil and gas is not realistic and that renewables aren’t ready to replace them, and that we need expensive, often unproven or dangerous methods like nuclear and carbon capture and storage. But those claims ignore the rapid pace at which renewable energy and storage technologies have been advancing — and dropping in price.
We could get even further than this research suggests by using less energy and fewer products that require energy to produce and transport. Shifting from a consumer-based system is especially important in light of the fact that even renewable energy is not impact-free. Mining for materials, replacing aging infrastructure and making space for installations means our ultimate goal should be to use less.
Likewise with electric cars. Although electric cars are far better than fossil-fuelled, all personal vehicles waste resources, require massive infrastructure and are not efficient at moving people around, regardless of how they’re powered.
But what this chart and mountains of other research show is that even with current technologies, methods and systems, cutting emissions and avoiding catastrophic consequences of climate disruption are entirely possible and affordable.
If we fail to reach the goal of reducing emissions by 50 per cent by 2030, it won’t be for lack of options.
The problem isn’t a shortage of solutions, or exorbitant costs, or any benefits of fossil fuels over renewable energy; it’s a lack of political will, and to some extent, public support. This is driven to a large degree by the efforts of industry to protect its interests in raking in huge profits and perpetuating a system that mostly benefits a small and dwindling number of people at the expense of human health, well-being and survival.
Nature is speaking, and science is confirming that we have no time to lose. We can’t afford not to change.
David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation. Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Senior Writer and Editor Ian Hanington.
Learn more at davidsuzuki.org.
Editor's Note: Below — that IPCC chart:
And here is a view from space showing a small segment of our layer of atmosphere: