Four things we need to solve climate change

Like solving Rubik’s cube, fixing climate change involves several simultaneous actions. Here are the primary challenges and how to deal with them.

Carbon emissions take up the majority of any climate change discussion. The Paris Climate Accord is all about limiting emissions, car makers try to design cars that pollute less, and everyone seems to agree on the need to eliminate coal burning power plants though we keep building them. But there’s already too much carbon in the air and the rest of the environment and reducing emissions is very much different from reversing the trend. Slowing emissions gets us to the same place — a vastly changed environment — just slower.

Solving climate change is like solving a Rubik’s Cube. You must solve all sides of the problem at once else you’ll get one perfect side where all the tiles are the same color, but the other sides will look like a dog’s breakfast. If we’re serious about limiting climate change, we need a complete solution and that requires multiple approaches. Here are the principle parts of a solution.

Reduce the use of fossil fuels as much as possible

No kidding, right? But how? We still need fossil fuels, but not for burning.

If you think we can simply quit fossil fuels cold turkey, think again. You might be able to build an electric car but Boeing and Airbus won’t be introducing an electric passenger aircraft that flies from New York to Los Angeles in six hours. We’ll still need fossil fuels not only for air travel and defense, but also for making things.

Coal, petroleum and natural gas are all feed stocks in a huge array of materials production. Did you know that it takes seven gallons of petroleum to make one average car tire? Tire production uses five gallons of petroleum to make the synthetic rubber and another two to drive the chemical process. Everywhere you look there are similar stories to tell about cement manufacture, plastics, synthetic materials, paints, varnishes, glass making and pharmaceuticals, just for starters. We’ll need fossil fuels for the foreseeable future. We just don’t need to burn them.

Spin up an economy that uses renewable electricity as its primary energy source

If we’re not burning fossil fuels but using them to make things, that’s good because the pollution isn’t zero but it’s manageable. But there’s another problem. Coal will run out in a century depending on how fast we use it and petroleum will run out in your lifetime. The 2014 BP Annual Report said there was then a 53-year supply of petroleum left in the ground or about 1.687 trillion barrels. The use estimate was based on then current demand which increases at 2 percent annually. Given that reality isn’t it better to save the petroleum for things like jet travel, defense and rubber than to burn it? This puts some giddy up on converting to a (nearly) all-electric economy, wouldn’t you think?

Renewables are at a point where they can handle the load. We just need to deploy more devices like electric cars.

Work on taking carbon out of the environment

Rather than considering emissions as a one-way street, think of emissions as an equation involving making some and actively removing some. Getting to zero is good but having a negative number would be better. Removing carbon isn’t hard though what to do with it once it’s captured is a big problem. Mechanical removal leaves us with a gas or liquid that people propose pumping underground into old oil fields. But Oil comes from porous sedimentary rocks and experience with fracking tells us that these rocks can leak. If stored carbon leaks we’re back at square one or worse. It’s better to consider the carbon cycle.

Green plants can do the job because they’ve been doing it for billions of years. The coal, oil and gas we use today aren’t called fossils for nothing. They were once living things that got buried in ancient swamps and shallow seas. Green plants are still performing this magic and there are ways to get them to do more. Green plants also come with their own energy source, the Sun. But what about land?

You might think that almost all arable land is already in use and you’d be right. But what about the oceans? They cover almost three-quarters of the planet’s surface and way out in the middle there isn’t a lot of life primarily because the water lacks one element, iron. Experiments with iron fertilization show that green plankton can bloom with a little iron in the water, and when it dies, some of it sinks to the bottom to restart the petroleum making process.

Better still, plankton is considered the grass of the sea. Big fish might eat smaller fish in the oceans but the smallest fish eat plankton. So do whales. The point is that fertilizing the ocean could also cause a boom in marine life something to consider if you’re wondering where dinner will come from at mid-century when there are 10 billion people on this little planet.

Fertilizing parts of the ocean with iron could be a major part of solving global warming. Unfortunately, there are international treaties in place preventing iron fertilization because iron was regarded as a pollutant when some of the treaties were written. Surely we can work on this.

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Have a heart to heart talk

The fossil fuel industry is very powerful, and it has literally trillions of dollars invested in infrastructure like coal mines, power plants, pipelines, refineries and tankers. Solving climate change isn’t likely to happen until we have a work around for those soon to be stranded assets.

There’s time for an orderly transition to renewables and if we acknowledge that the petrochemical industry will continue in a different form, managing the decline of the assets in question will form a much smaller problem. But we need to start talking to each other about the inevitability of changing energy paradigms.

Time for some good news

Changing the energy paradigm and solving climate change is the greatest money-making opportunity in history. It’s a massive infrastructure project plus a manufacturing project that will take decades and require big inputs from blue collar workers who will build the electric and water grids and new mass transit, shore up the agriculture sector and manufacture all sorts of new electronic devices. The transition will leave us with greatly enhanced productive capacity.

The technologies needed to implement these ideas are already here. There are public companies generating electricity from wind, solar, and geothermal. There have been credible demonstration projects for removing carbon from the environment, some better than others. What’s needed now is for us to scale up what we have to global proportions. Left to do? Take responsibility and lead.

Researcher, author of multiple books including “The Age of Sustainability” about solutions for climate change. Technology, business, economics.

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