Renewable Energy, Tech Innovation Needed to Slow Climate Change

Article By : Maurizio Di Paolo Emilio

Over the last 50 years, global temperatures have risen due to increased greenhouse gas emissions. A shared commitment and technological innovation can help reverse the impact of climate change.

Mitigation and adaptation to climate change are two of the century’s most pressing issues. The energy issue, or more specifically, overall energy use and reliance on fossil fuels, is at the root of these problems. To succeed in controlling global warming, the world must utilize energy in a more effective way, relying on green energy sources for transportation, heating, and cooling.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently issued an alarm: atmospheric concentrations of CO2 are at the highest in the last 2 million years, while greenhouse gases (methane and nitrogen dioxide) were at their highest levels in the preceding 800,000 years. Hence, Earth temperatures have risen at an unparalleled rate over the last 50 years compared to the last 2,000 years.

“Over the last 50 years or so, the global increase in temperature and certain other aspects of climate have unequivocally been caused by increased anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions,” said Kerry Emanuel, an MIT professor of atmospheric science. In an interview with EE Times, Emanuel said one consequence is armed conflict resulting from political destabilization owing mostly to shortages of food and water. “This is also the view of the U.S. Department of Defense, which is why they consider climate change to be among the most important current national security risks.”

A consensus is emerging about the reality of climate change and its consequences, but gaps remain in public understanding. Emanuel noted that ideology and misinformation are rife, to the detriment of the entire planet.

climate change
Kerry Emanuel, MIT professor of atmospheric science.

CO2 Emissions

Carbon Dioxide (CO2) is composed of a single carbon atom covalently bonded to an oxygen atom on either side. CO2 has many vibrational and rotational states because of this structure, which makes it a potent greenhouse gas. Under normal conditions, it is vital. CO2 particles basically act as a filter; they are transparent to sunlight, but absorb radiation emitted by the planet and transform it into thermal energy. Human activity has introduced excessive amounts of CO2, warming the planet. Forests help regulate the climate by absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere, but logging and livestock also contribute to the extreme greenhouse effect.

Counteracting global warming requires sustained reductions in the concentration of COand other greenhouse gases that remain in the atmosphere for thousands of years. The path to decarbonization requires global clean-energy supply chains and technological innovation.

Still, attention to climate change has proven difficult given so many other pressing challenges.

“I agree,” Emanuel replied, “but almost all of these major concerns are overlapping. One example is doing something about the 8.7 million annual premature deaths that the [World Health Organization] estimates result from respiratory problems arising from fossil fuel combustion. Combating this entails many of the same strategies and new technologies for fighting climate change.”

Population control is another example. “A big part of the projected increase in greenhouse gas emissions comes from increasing population, yet experience shows that increased per capita wealth can drive down population growth, [for example] through women’s education. Increasing per capita wealth requires increased per-capita energy consumption, and we are back to a strong overlap with the global warming problem,” Emanuel added. “Carbon-free energy must not only replace existing power generation but absorb large projected increases in power consumption.”

Belgium, France and Sweden are among a handful of countries that managed to completely decarbonize their electricity generation. They did so very quickly, in about a dozen years,” noted the climate expert. “This was in response to the first Middle East oil crisis and was designed to achieve energy security, not to address global climate change, which was then not really on anyone’s radar.

“And it was done largely with combinations of nuclear and hydropower,” Emanuel continued. “In principle, we can do the same thing now on a more global scale, but using nuclear in combination with other renewables [like] solar and wind in addition to hydro. But we have to go much further than these earlier examples and decarbonize transportation, industry, and agriculture.”

Governments can act on two fronts now. “The first is to tax the obvious health and climate externalities of fossil fuels, so that their cost more accurately reflects the actual cost of producing and burning these fuels. But this will not be enough. Governments must also incentivize innovations in energy production and storage, and carbon capture and storage to stimulate rapid development and deployment of carbon-free energy and carbon capture technology.

“They must do so in ways designed to actually conquer the problem and not bend toward ideologically driven solutions. Markets alone are responding much too slowly,” Emanuel asserted.

To avoid further increases in the greenhouse effect, we must embark on a true decarbonization revolution that involves a low- or zero-carbon energy transition based on renewables. This evolutionary process must take place not just on a technological level, but also on a cultural and social level, steps that will require significant changes in our everyday lives.

Energy-related greenhouse gas emissions can also be decreased by lowering overall energy consumption through energy conservation and greater energy efficiency, such as by increasing home insulation or utilizing more efficient modes of transportation. Speed is of the essence: In order to avert the worst effects of climate change, we must act now. The more greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere, the less likely we are to be able to curb the worst effects of climate change.

Climate change is the greatest challenge facing our generation. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions can be achieved through tangible and shared commitment at a global level, and must to be supported by technological innovation.

This article was originally published on EE Times.

Maurizio Di Paolo Emilio holds a Ph.D. in Physics and is a telecommunication engineer and journalist. He has worked on various international projects in the field of gravitational wave research. He collaborates with research institutions to design data acquisition and control systems for space applications. He is the author of several books published by Springer, as well as numerous scientific and technical publications on electronics design.


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