Wednesday, November 08, 2017

A cautiously optimistic view of the fight against climate change

The Guardian has identified what it calls "the seven megatrends that could beat global warming", and only one of them is currently going in the wrong direction.
Our global lifestyle and technology needs to change drastically if we are to keep global warming down to below the 2°C increase that climatologists tell us is essential to avoid some of the more existential threats of climate change. But in many respects things are actually going surprisingly well, even if we do need to ramp up the speed of change (oh, and replace a certain president and his government...)
So, what are those seven megatrends?
  • Renewable energy uptake continues apace, and is one of the best-developed and most promising aspects of the fight against climate change. Costs of solar and wind power in particular have plummeted in recent years (and continue to fall), and the future for the industry looks rosy.
  • Coal, one of the most climate-damaging ingredients of our modern lifestyle, has peaked, and is declining rapidly in what looks like a death spiral. World coal production peaked in 2013 - largely a result of the improved costs of renewable energy - and continues to decline, despite the best efforts of a certain D. Trump.
  • Electric cars are finally being taken seriously, and the EV market is surging (although still in its early phase), spearheaded by China. Virtually all major car-makers have committed to an electric future, and, although the EV market share is still tiny overall, projections of growth rates suggest that 80% of new cars will be electric by 2030. Hybrids, and a general improvement in fuel efficiency, are also contributing to weaning us off our oil dependency.
  • Batteries, both for electric cars and for storage of intermittent renewable power, are essential to a green future. Costs of lithium-ion batteries (which are still expected to be the main battery technology for the foreseeable future) have tumbled in recent years, and look set to continue. New technologies are also being developed all the time.
  • Good progress is being made on energy efficiency - in homes, transport and industry - particularly in the EU, where overall energy efficiency has improved by about 20% since 2000. Much more work remains to be done, though, especially in the industrial sector.
  • Curbing our planetary meat addiction is essential if we are to reduce methane production from livestock farming. There have been recent advances in lab-grown meat, and a steady increase in demand for vegetarian/vegan meat and dairy substitutes, although, realistically, both of these developments are still in their infancy.
  • The megatrend that is not yet pointing in the right direction concerns the destruction of forests, which contributes an estimated 10% of global GHG emissions: annual tree loss has roughly doubled since 2000. Stopping deforestation and plating new trees is potentially the cheapest and fastest way of reducing carbon dioxide emissions, but, despite good progress in China, India and South Korea, investment in trees is severely underfunded compared to other efforts, and the need is becoming urgent.
So, the overall report card reads like a typical "good work, but can do better". Former UN climate chief Cristina Figueres and several other influential commentators remain staunchly optimistic, or at least cautiously optimistic. But it does sometimes seem like we are pointed in the right direction but barely moving.

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