There is one issue that affects virtually every person on the planet, regardless of race, religion, age, income, or place of residence: the climate. Whether it’s droughts, fires, water shortages, hurricanes and floods, crop losses, melting ice and rising sea levels, an ocean that heats up and becomes more acidic, or one of the many other environmental impacts associated with climate change, every person on the planet is already or will soon be affected by one or more of these global changes.
There is no longer any doubt that these changes are driven primarily by human activities, primarily the burning of fossil fuels – coal, oil and gas – which has continued at an increasing rate for over 150 years. In the hour you spend reading the Sunday newspaper, the world will have burned an additional 620,000 tonnes of coal, 275,000 barrels of oil, and in so doing, emitted an additional 500,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. And all of the carbon dioxide molecules trap heat, they have no political affiliation, and you can’t pump an extra 500,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every hour without expecting impacts.
While it’s tempting to blame all this energy use on everyone, other countries, other people, or your neighbor, Americans have been a major contributor for decades. While China surpassed us in annual carbon dioxide emissions about 15 years ago, we are still No. 2 in the world, followed by India. Together, these three countries generate 50% of all carbon dioxide released by humans.
We can’t stop or correct any of these climate changes anytime soon, but the sooner we reduce our carbon dioxide emissions by switching to renewable energy sources, the sooner we can start slowing down this giant chemistry experiment and its effects. effects. on all of us.
There is no shortage of articles, books, opinion pieces or interviews focused on these issues, often from the point of view or with the conclusion that we cannot switch to sustainable / renewable energy sources. fast enough to make a difference or to meet the goals that California and the federal government have set. There are several reasons for this, one being the well-funded campaigns of denial, deception, delay and distraction waged by the fossil fuel industries and their supporters for years. Another factor is the pessimism of many regarding renewable energies, which are part of human nature.
John Carey, a well-respected science journalist, recently published an excellent article in the Journal of the Atomic Scientists, which offers a refreshing and forward-looking take on the whole issue of renewable energy and the progress of recent years, as well as a comparison. with some other historic technological achievements, despite widespread pessimism.
In 1943, Thomas Watson, the president of IBM, declared that there could be a total world market for “maybe five computers”. Lord Kelvin predicted nearly 50 years earlier that “radio has no future”. Most humans have never been very good at predicting or even understanding the pace of technological or social change and what might emerge from those advancements. Has anyone dreamed that we would all now have in our pockets the power of a 90s supercomputer, allowing us to buy virtually anything online, watch excessively TV programs or share videos of our grandchildren or puppies.
Carey points out that John Kerry, President Biden’s climate envoy, is wrong when he says that half of future emission reductions will have to come from technologies not yet invented. We already have the basic technologies to deal with climate change and they are also becoming increasingly affordable and at an increasing rate. While there are occasional major breakthroughs, we have also become increasingly innovative with incremental improvements in materials, designs, manufacturing and installation processes. We can very well look back 25 years and ask ourselves why we thought it would be so difficult and expensive to switch to renewables.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) predicted in 2010 that the total global solar photovoltaic capacity would reach 410 gigawatts by 2035. By 2020, 15 years before its forecast, the number had already reached 707 gigawatts ( the Hoover Dam generates only 2 gigawatts).
Due to continuous developments, onshore wind power and new solar PV installations cost less than keeping many existing coal plants in service. From 2019 to 2020, the electricity production capacity of renewable energies increased by 50%. Denmark generated more than 50% of its electricity in 2020 from wind and solar. These did not depend on major technological breakthroughs, but rather on continuous improvement in materials and designs, economies of scale, industry interest and political will. We can do this to improve our lives and preserve the health of the only planet we have if we start aggressively now.
Gary Griggs is Professor Emeritus of Earth and Planetary Sciences at UC Santa Cruz. He can be contacted at [email protected] For previous Ocean Backyard reviews, visit http://seymourcenter.ucsc.edu/about-us/news/our-ocean-backyard-archive/.