Ocean Mist

Issues and trends shaping our environment, health and economy

17 Nov 2021

Reinventing the wheel

Posted by Michael Keating

COP26 in Glasgow gave the world a giant wakeup call about how much we have to do to stop climate change from crippling our civilization. The scope and scale of changes we need to make are so great it is like reinventing the wheel. Many things that work well, have built our economies and supported our lifestyles are destroying our environment. We must replace them to avoid a harsher and more dangerous world. To save ourselves from a more hostile environment this generation will have to make the greatest changes in the shortest time in human history.

Pollution from energy use is the biggest culprit in causing climate disruption and will be the hardest thing to fix in time. About 80 per cent of the world’s commercially produced energy comes from fossil fuels: coal, oil and natural gas. Their production and burning release carbon dioxide and methane, which are warming the planet causing more erratic and violent weather. In 2015 world leaders said they will work to limit the global temperature increase to no more than 2 degrees with a goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius higher than pre-industrial levels. We are already at 1.1 degrees and are on track to blow past both targets. To stop dangerous levels of climate disruption we need to cut emissions by about half this decade and nearly totally by 2050. It means repowering most of the world: getting rid of gas and diesel cars, trucks and buses and changing aircraft, ships and trains to clean power. It means the end of burning gas to heat homes and other buildings and to cook food. It means changing the way we make such essential materials as steel and cement. It also means changing agriculture and stopping deforestation.

It’s impossible to make such huge changes overnight, but we must start the process immediately. This is a gigantic task that will last for years. Many politicians are probably unaware of just how big. Those that do understand appear reluctant to tell the public about the scope and scale of changes needed. Some political leaders still support the expansion of fossil fuel production. Most local governments routinely approve buildings with too little insulation and with gas heating, instead of mandating maximum insulation and systems such as heat pumps and electric heat. All this will cost vast amounts of money and cause years of disruption.

Governments need to map out a pathway for change so we can see what is feasible. They will need to provide financial support for the transition just as they did during the COVID-19 crisis. This will be hard in rich nations and extremely difficult in developing nations, such as India, where coal provides 70 per cent of energy. So, leaders in rich countries not only have to sell the idea of a major change in spending at home they also need to convince voters to support spending on clean energy in other countries. In the past they have been able to raise support for spending billions on foreign wars, often with poor outcomes. They need to put the same level of effort into raising funds to fight climate change overseas as necessary to protect their own nations not only from extreme weather but from a flood of climate refugees.

The good news is that such changes will bring many benefits and a more sustainable society. In addition to keeping climate change from spiralling out of control, the air will be much cleaner, and deaths and illnesses from air pollution will plummet. Whenever I see an electric car go by, I know I won’t be breathing noxious fumes from a tailpipe. Ending dependence on foreign oil should eliminate the need to send armies to protect oil wells. Renewable means no more worries about depleting fossil fuels and having to destroy more of the environment to find new supplies.

One way or another the world we know today is coming to an end. Climate change has begun. The only question is how much worse will we let it get. Do we want to live in a world of increasing heat waves, droughts, forest fires, floods, famines, sea level rise and climate refugees? How much of an effort will we make to keep a relatively safe environment?

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