SCIENTIFIC AND SPIRITUAL DIMENSIONS OF CLIMATE CHANGE
A STUDY COURSE
Mitigating Climate Change
By now you know that climate change is a very complex issue: There are many causes and a wide range of harmful effects. Working on a solution is equally complex. There is no simple prescription to solve the problem of global warming. However, it is quite possible to effectively mitigate it by taking a holistic approach. This means reducing emissions in all sectors of human activity. We already discussed numerous beneficial actions individuals can undertake to reduce their personal carbon footprint. While it is very important that individuals begin leading a sustainable life, it is not sufficient. It would take too long until everyone on the planet is educated about climate change and motivated to change the way they live. Moreover, many changes must be made on a much larger scale, in the local community, as a nation, and particularly on the global level. In this class you will learn about some areas where it is imperative that society takes action.
Section 1: Mitigation and Adaptation
There is a need for humanity to take action on climate change in two ways:
- We need to reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. This is called mitigation.
- We need to reduce vulnerability to climate change impacts. This is called adaptation.
Greenhouse gases are emitted from many sectors in society: Power plants, deforestation, transport, agriculture, industry, buildings, waste. Everywhere, emissions must be significantly trimmed. Much can be accomplished with energy conservation and efficiency, and by the use of carbon free energy and new technology. This will require a re-thinking and re-organizing of almost everything we are doing as a society and as individuals.
Climate change is already under way. Adaptation is necessary. For example: In many areas, farmers may need to change their crops to plants that are more drought resistant or can stand higher temperatures. In low-lying areas, zoning plans may need to consider sea-level rise. Human settlements may have to be moved and certain areas evacuated. Many poor countries will need technical and financial support from rich countries. However, there are limits to adaptation. If we continue with business as usual (if we don't reduce our greenhouse gas emissions), many of the effects of climate change will be too great for our ability to adapt.
Discussion: How could climate change affect the region you are living in? What kind of adaptation measures would be helpful to mitigate the impact?
The remaining sections of this class are all part of mitigation efforts. Adaptation to a changing climate and building resiliency to better cope with rising sea levels and stronger storms is very important, but there is not enough time in this course for discussing this further.
Watch this Video:
Everything you need to know about the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report - WG3: Mitigation of Climate Change 9 min.
Section 2: Energy Generation and Use
The production of energy is responsible for the largest share of greenhouse gas emissions compared to all other sectors. It is responsible for almost 26% of total emissions. (1)
The quickest and most cost effective measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are energy conservation and efficiency. It is estimated that far reaching conservation practices combined with energy efficiency could save 40% of energy!
We need worldwide efficiency standards for household appliances. “The standards would be raised every few years to take advantage of the latest technological gains in efficiency. The principal reason that consumers do not buy the most energy-efficient appliances is because the improved design and insulation increase the upfront costs. If, however, societies adopt a carbon tax reflecting the health care costs of breathing polluted air and the costs of climate change, the more efficient appliances would be economically much more attractive.” (2)
“Within the industrial sector, there is a hefty potential for reducing energy use. In the petrochemical industry, moving to the most efficient production technologies now available and recycling more plastic can cut energy use by 32 percent. With steel, gains in manufacturing efficiency can cut energy use by 23 percent. Even larger gains are within reach for cement, where simply shifting to the most efficient dry kiln technologies can reduce energy use by 42 percent.
The retrofitting of buildings can reduce energy use by 20–50%! Such a reduction in energy use combined with the use of green electricity to heat, cool, and light the building means that it may be easier to create carbon-neutral buildings than we may have thought. (3)
Carbon Free Energy
A few generations have already used up about half of the Earth’s oil reserves. The remaining oil will take more energy to extract. Furthermore, as the easily accessible oil fields are becoming depleted, new drilling increasingly occurs in dangerous off shore places and in fragile ecosystems. This is the major reason why drilling accidents like the one in the Gulf of Mexico are so devastating and why, in the long term, oil is getting increasingly more expensive.
Recently, oil prices sank because of the application of unconventional technology which allows the exploitation of shale oil. Hydraulic fracturing combined with horizontal drilling increased US oil production by 1.7 million barrels between 2008 and 2012.(4) This technology is highly controversial though and has already resulted in serious water contamination and high methane emissions. Hydraulic fracturing also requires huge amounts of freshwater, often in areas that already suffer from water scarcity. With growing populations and growing economies we will run out of oil sooner than later anyway. Now, the threat of climate change forces us to act even more quickly to get away from fossil fuels.
The CO2 concentration of the atmosphere will stay elevated because of human carbon emissions for a very long time. In fact, CO2 concentration will stay elevated by about 25% of the cumulated anthropogenic carbon emissions for thousands of years. (5) That’s why the quick reduction (and ultimately elimination) of CO2 emissions should get first priority. Phasing out coal-fired power plants (and not building new ones) should get first priority in mitigating global warming according to NASA scientist James Hansen. There are many other environmental and health benefits with abandoning the burning of coal, as these power plants emit huge amounts of toxic chemicals, especially mercury.
Now is the time to move to carbon free energy, usually called renewable energy. “Renewable energy technologies tap into natural cycles and systems, turning the ever-present energy around us into usable forms. The movement of wind and water, the heat and light of the sun, heat in the ground, the carbohydrates in plants—all are natural energy sources that can supply our needs in a sustainable way. Because they are homegrown, renewables can also increase our energy security and create local jobs.” (6) It is necessary to use the already available technology to build wind turbines and solar energy systems on a large scale as quickly as possible. At the same time, much more research needs to be done in the area of renewable energy. As it takes energy to create the capital equipment (wind turbines, solar cells etc.) for our sustainable energy future, we should use the relatively cheap fossil fuel energy while we still have it to do exactly that.
In recent years, solar energy has advanced with astonishing speed. The technology has become better and less expensive and is being widely implemented, for example:
- "More than 46,000 solar panels have been laid out across 45 acres of land to fuel the operations of Cochin airport, India’s fourth largest in terms of international passenger traffic." (7)
- U.S. solar employs more workers than any other energy industry, including coal, oil and natural gas combined, according to the U.S. Department of Energy's second annual U.S. Energy and Employment Report, published in January 20017. (8)
- Even the Baha'i House of Worship in India now produces about one quarter of its energy use with solar power. It is the first major public site in Delhi to have installed a “net metre”, which means that it is connected to the city grid. (9)
The will to use renewable energy has gained strength both for environmental as well as for economic reasons. Progress is being reported from all corners of the world:
- In South Australia, wind and solar have become the new “base load” power. (10)
- Costa Rica was powered for 76 straight days on carbon-free electricity from June 16 to Sept. 2, 2016. (11)
- In Uruguay renewable energy sources provide 94.5% of the country’s electricity. Prices are lower than in the past relative to inflation. There are also fewer power cuts because a diverse energy mix means greater resilience to droughts. (12)
Commitment is growing to transition to renewable energy:
- On 14 June, 2016, the Norwegian Parliament voted to reduce and offset carbon emissions so that its emissions are net zero by 2030. (13)
- In May 2017, The California Senate passed a bill that will mandate that all of its power will come from renewable energy, such as solar and wind power, by 2045. (14)
- Salt Lake City committed to transition to 100 percent renewable energy sources by 2032. (15)
- After Sweden suffered extreme heatwaves last summer and one of the worst bushfires in the country's history, its government has committed to taking action to protect its citizens from the effects of climate change in the future. Sweden now plans to become "one of the first fossil-free welfare states in the world." (16)
Many innovative ideas are being tried out.
- For example, Portland generates electricity from turbines installed in city water pipes. (17)
- Two custom-designed wind turbines are generating power for the Eiffel Tower producing the equivalent to the power used by the commercial areas of the Eiffel Tower’s first floor. (18)
Replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy doesn’t have one easy solution. No other non-nuclear energy source is as powerful as fossil fuels. A range of different energy sources needs to be used. The choice of energy sources will depend on their local availability. A new energy infrastructure needs to be built based on renewable energy in order to satisfy long-term energy needs in a climate friendly way.
Section 3: Transportation:
“Society currently relies almost exclusively on petroleum-based fuels, such as gasoline, for transport. This fuel use is responsible for 13% of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions.” (19)
In addition, in many of the world’s cities like Beijing or Mexico City the quality of daily life is deteriorating because of heavy air pollution. Breathing the air in some cities is equivalent to smoking two packs of cigarettes per day. In the United States, the number of hours commuters spend sitting in traffic going nowhere climbs higher each year.
Some cities have already taken successful measures in addressing their traffic problems and often at the same time other pressing issues: Bogotá, Colombia, achieved a greatly improved quality of life by putting the interest of people before cars. Within just 3 years, the city banned the parking of cars on sidewalks, created or renovated 1,200 parks, introduced a highly successful bus-based rapid transit system, built hundreds of kilometers of bicycle paths and pedestrian streets, reduced rush hour traffic by 40 percent, planted 100,000 trees, and involved local citizens directly in the improvement of their neighborhoods. (20) In Paris, authorities have set up an official city-wide bike-rental system to encourage the use of bicycles instead of cars. Britain and France are planning to ban new diesel and gas cars by 2040, India by 2030, and Norway by 2025. (21)
Very important for curbing greenhouse gas emissions is a good public transportation system. A prerequisite for an efficient public transport is good city planning and the avoidance of urban sprawl.
Japan is leading the world with its high-speed bullet trains, which achieve a speed of up to 306 km (190 miles) per hour. “On some of the heavily used intercity high-speed rail lines, trains depart every three minutes. Japan’s high-speed rail network stretches for 1,360 miles, linking nearly all its major cities. Once high-speed links between cities begin operating, they dramatically raise the number of people traveling by train between cities. For example, when the Paris-to-Brussels link, a distance of 194 miles that is covered by train in 85 minutes, opened, the share of those traveling between the two cities by train rose from 24 percent to 50 percent. The car share dropped from 61 percent to 43 percent, and CO2 -intensive plane travel virtually disappeared.” (22)
Fuel efficiency standards for cars should be raised to the highest possible with current technology. The price of energy should reflect its true cost to society. A current estimate of the full cost of gasoline to society is about $15 a gallon (2.4 British pounds per liter). Once such hidden costs are incorporated in the pricing system, alternative energy will become financially much more attractive. The use of electric cars could be encouraged with financial incentives. However, electric cars will only help mitigate climate change if the electricity comes from clean energy sources. Hopefully, higher prices for less polluting cars will help to reduce the numbers of cars on the world’s street. Car pooling and sharing are also necessary, as well as people adopting less car dependent lifestyles.
Section 4: Sustainable Agriculture
“The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants."(23) The Bible
"Whoever brings dead land to life, that is, cultivates wasteland, for him is a reward therein." Muhammad
The beginning of our civilization happened about 10,000 years ago, at a time when the Earth’s climate became more stable. Our civilization depends on agriculture, which requires a climate with only minor variations. As we have seen in class 3, most changes in climate are detrimental to agriculture and threaten global food supply.
Although agriculture will be one of the first casualties of climate change, it is also a major contributor of greenhouse gases. “Overall, land use and land use changes account for around 31% of total human-induced greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere.” (24) Both this section on agriculture and the next section on reforestation address land use.
Current agricultural practices and the whole food economy are greatly contributing to global warming. One way of practicing stewardship is with sustainable agriculture. “Growing plants can remove huge amounts of carbon from the atmosphere and store it in vegetation and soils in ways that not only stabilize the climate but also benefit food and fiber production and the environment.” (25)
Organic agriculture can significantly reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Synthetic fertilizers release greenhouse gases into the air. But the organic approach sequesters carbon: It takes carbon out of the air and puts it back in the soil. The use of compost increases organic matter and therefore leads to more fertile soils and better water retention capacity, which makes plants more flood and drought resistant. (26)
Organically grown crops can better withstand the higher temperatures caused by global warming. Many experts believe that organic agriculture is not only a tool to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, but also a way to alleviate poverty and improve food security in developing countries.
A study found that “beef cattle raised organically on grass emit 40% less greenhouse gases and use 85% less energy making beef than cattle raised on grain.” (27)
Livestock are responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, a bigger share than that of transport. The major reason for the high carbon dioxide emissions by livestock is “deforestation for the expansion of pastures and arable land for feed crops. It generates even bigger shares of emissions of other gases with greater potential to warm the atmosphere: as much as 37 percent of anthropogenic methane, mostly from digestive processes of cows, and 65 percent of anthropogenic nitrous oxide, mostly from manure. (28)
Besides climate change, other serious problems are associated with meat production: Farms and food processing plants have grown into gigantic factories. This development has not been in the interest of people: Farm hands and employees often work under slave like conditions; the quality of the food is greatly diminished; salmonella poisonings have become more frequent; chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides are polluting soil and water and affect human health; they contribute, for example, to the rising cancer rates. Human health is compromised by the regular administration of antibiotics and growth hormones to livestock. For example, the regular use of antibiotics for livestock is already causing serious human health problems and even deaths because some dangerous bacteria have developed antibiotic resistance. Also, if thousands, often tens of thousands of animals are living in the extremely close proximity of a factory farm, the danger of disease is high. That’s why new diseases like avian or swine flu are emerging. Moreover, the vast amount of animal waste not only releases substantial amounts of greenhouse gases, especially methane, but is also very toxic. “In North Carolina, hogs outnumber citizens, and they produce more fecal waste than California, New York, and Washington combined.” (29) “The livestock sector also contributes to water depletion; currently, the livestock sector accounts for 8 percent of human water use globally.” (30)
“Researchers found that the difference between a vegan diet and a red-meat diet in terms of greenhouse-gas emissions equaled the difference between driving a sedan and driving a sport-utility vehicle.” (31) The benefits of a vegetarian diet were expressed by the voices of religion and of science way before the climate crisis came to our attention.
“The food of the future will be fruit and grains. The time will come when meat is no longer eaten.” (32) 'Abdul'l-Baha
"Nothing will benefit human health and increase chances for survival of life on earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet." (33) Albert Einstein
It is still possible to raise some livestock in a sustainable way. However, meat can only play a small part in feeding a growing world population. In sustainable agricultural practices, smaller sized local farms grow a diversity of crops and animals. The manure of the animals is a welcome fertilizer for the plants. Here just one example: “In many densely populated Asian nations, where demand for seafood is growing fastest, fish farming is a natural addition to existing rice farming operations. This isn’t new. Archeological evidence shows that Chinese farmers have been raising fish in rice paddies for nearly 3,000 years. Vegetable scraps and crop residues are fed to fish, which in turn produce waste that is used to fertilize the fields. Farmers can also use fewer pesticides and herbicides, since fish help control pests by consuming their larvae and eating weeds and algae that compete with rice for nutrients. (Fish farming also helps to control malaria, since fish eat mosquito larvae.)” (34)
A decentralized agriculture cuts down on costs and CO2 emissions resulting from the transportation of food. A further positive effect of a decentralized agriculture is that it greatly increases food security. (More on decentralization in class 7, section 6.)
Section 5: Reducing Deforestation and Planting Trees (35)
“If anyone has a palm shoot in his hand on the last day he should plant it.” (36) Muhammad
"When we plant trees, we plant the seeds of peace and seeds of hope." (37) Prof. Wangari Maathai
There are two main ways in which trees and forests are vital for tackling the climate change crisis: through the avoidance of carbon dioxide emissions by conserving forests (as opposed to deforestation), and by planting trees to sequester or soak up carbon from the atmosphere.
As regards the avoidance of emissions, forest ecosystems are estimated to store about 70% of global terrestrial carbon, and tropical forests alone store about 25% of all terrestrial carbon. The peat forests of Southeast Asia are particularly important for carbon storage - a hectare of tropical peat forest stores between 3,000- 6,000 tons of carbon.
The prevention of carbon emissions via forest conservation used to be called ‘avoided deforestation’ (AD), but it is now known as ‘Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation’ (REDD). One of the few things on which there was wide agreement at the UNFCCC meeting at Copenhagen in December 2009 was that REDD must be a key part of any solution to climate change; several donors committed significant funding to help developing countries develop their national REDD programmes.
But REDD is also quite controversial, partly because it has the potential either to contribute to reducing poverty (for example, it could result in significant economic support for indigenous groups who are the most effective forest guardians), or it could increase poverty depending on how REDD is carried out.
Carbon sequestration in a forestry context refers to the net absorption of CO2 from the atmosphere during the growth phase of planted trees; this acts as a “carbon sink” (or sponge) for industrial and other carbon emissions. While carbon sequestration is most pronounced in the growing phase, mature tropical forests are also important carbon sinks according to recent research.
“There are already many tree planting initiatives under way that are driven by a range of concerns, from climate change to desert expansion, to soil conservation, to making cities more habitable. These include the worldwide Billion Tree Campaign launched in 2007, urban tree planting initiatives in many cities, the Great Green Wall being planted in China, and the Saharan Green Wall of Africa, as well as a big push to expand tree plantations within a number of countries.
The Billion Tree Campaign was inspired by Kenyan Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai, who had earlier organized women in Kenya and several nearby countries to plant 30 million trees. From 2006 - 2011, the Billion Tree Campaign has planted over 12 billion trees worldwide.(37A)
“South Korea is in many ways a reforestation model for the rest of the world. When the Korean War ended, half a century ago, the mountainous country was largely deforested. Beginning around 1960, under the dedicated leadership of President Park Chung Hee, the South Korean government launched a national reforestation effort. Relying on the formation of village cooperatives, hundreds of thousands of people were mobilized to dig trenches and to create terraces for supporting trees on barren mountains. Se-Kyung Chong, researcher at the Korea Forest Research Institute, writes, “The result was a seemingly miraculous rebirth of forests from barren land. Today forests cover 65 percent of the country, an area of roughly 6 million hectares.” (38)
We should keep in mind though that planting forests is only a partial and temporary solution to climate change. Growing trees in a young forest absorb a lot of CO2 , but once the forest matures, they absorb far less. Planting forests will only compensate for a small fraction of emissions. The most urgent measure is to stop deforestation, especially in Indonesia and the Amazon, as deforestation accounts for about 12-15% of all greenhouse gas emissions.
As regards tackling deforestation, there is a reasonable consensus on what is needed, but many of the actions or measures needed will require major political will, including on the part of developing country governments, since they involve tackling vested interest groups (e.g., loggers, ranchers, people involved in illegal charcoal production, etc.). The most important measures are:
- More land intensive and labor using agricultural production;
- Improved governance (law and order in forest areas, including clamping down on illegal logging, increased transparency and accountability, etc.) and land tenure reforms which favor the rural poor and promote sustainable natural resource management;
- More careful planning of major roads and infrastructure projects in tropical forest regions;
- Reducing the consumption of beef;
- Paying forest communities or farmers for the environmental services they provide as a result of looking after the forests – these payments can be for climate stabilization, biodiversity and hydrological or water-related benefits.
Even more fundamentally, a sustainable solution to the problems requires tackling much of the inequity which encourages people at all levels to exploit rather than nurture their natural resources, as well as thinking of more enlightened ways of tackling the population explosion. We cannot look at a problem like deforestation and come up with simple solutions, in view of the complex and interdependent nature of the causes.
Section 6: Garbage – an Obsolete Concept
Waste is contributing to global warming in more than one way. Landfills release methane, garbage trucks emit CO2 , and most of the things we throw away could be recycled to produce consumer goods with much less energy than from new materials. Society got used to throw away towels, napkins, plates, cups, handkerchiefs, shopping bags etc. Even reusable products and machines are usually not manufactured with longevity in mind, only with reduction of production costs.
“The throwaway economy is on a collision course with the Earth’s geological limits. Aside from running out of landfills near cities, the world is also fast running out of the cheap oil that is used to manufacture and transport throwaway products. Perhaps more fundamentally, there is not enough readily accessible lead, tin, copper, iron ore, or bauxite to sustain the throwaway economy beyond another generation or two.
The challenge is to replace the throwaway economy with a reduce-reuse-recycle economy. Officials should worry less about what to do with garbage and think more about how to avoid producing it in the first place.” (39)
San Francisco is at the forefront of American cities in waste reduction. It recovers 72 percent of the materials it discards and has created the first large-scale urban collection of food scraps for composting in the country. The city’s goal is to achieve zero waste by 2020. (40)
It is possible to develop a comprehensive reuse and recycle economy. Products can be designed so that they last for a long time and that after their lifespan, they can be disassembled and their materials reused again.
Section 7 Economic Changes
Mitigating Climate change also demands transforming our economic system.
Our current financial system is based on loans and interest. It requires continuous growth to work. “Debt is the reason the economy has to grow in the first place. Because debt always comes with interest, it grows exponentially – so if a person, a business, or a country wants to pay down debt over the long term, they have to grow enough to at least match the growth of their debt. Without growth, debt piles up and eventually triggers an economic crisis.” (40A) However, it is impossible to have unlimited economic growth on a finite planet. That's why, tackling the climate problem requires a rethinking of our economic system.
One specific problem in the current system is that the “external” economic costs of burning fossil fuels are not incorporated in the price of fossil fuels. These are the costs of fossil fuels to society. They include the costs of cleaning up oil spills, the cost of health care for all the people who are getting sick from air pollution, and the costs incurred by natural disasters caused by climate change, etc. This cost is usually referred to as the Social Cost of Carbon. Section 8, #4, will discuss the carbon fee, a proposed solution for this problem.
It is also clear and evident that fossil fuel subsidies must end. “A fossil fuel subsidy is any government action that lowers the cost of fossil fuel energy production, raises the price received by energy producers, or lowers the price paid by energy consumers.” (40B) According to a US government report, the US pays USD 4.7 billion in tax provisions alone for the fossil fuel industry annually. This number does not include other fossil fuel subsidies. (40C) It is estimated that, “internationally, governments provide at least $775 billion to $1 trillion annually in subsidies”. (40D) These subsidies put fossil fuels at an economic advantage compared to other energy sources. Of course, it doesn't make any sense to put public money towards finding and burning more fossil fuels at a time when it is so urgent to reduce and eventually abandon their use.
The economic initiative of divestment is very promising. Several universities, financial institutions, charities, and religious organizations have started to divest from fossil fuels. British universities are leading the world in that effort. (40E) The assets of religious organizations that are divested usually include congregational endowments and staff pension funds. The United Church of Christ was the first major religious organization in the U.S. to vote to divest from fossil fuel companies. Rev. Jim Anthal wrote "This resolution becomes a model for all faith communities who care about God's creation and recognize the urgent scientific mandate to keep at least 80 percent of the known oil, gas and coal reserves in the ground. . . By this vote, we are amplifying our conviction with our money." (40F) Many other religious organizations around the world have already or are considering divestment from fossil fuels.
Section 8: Four Difficult Issues
Some measures to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions are complex and controversial. This course does not endorse any policy; it only wants to inform about the scientific facts. In the next class we will talk about spiritual and ethical principles. It is left to the participants to make up their own individual opinion on the following topics. Here are some of the facts on bio-fuels, nuclear power, carbon capture and storage, and the legal measures cap and trade versus regulations by government agencies (for example with a carbon tax):
1. Bio-fuels have already become a large industry in some countries. The experience has shown that it is necessary to use that resource responsibly so that companies’ profits are not made at tremendous costs to the world's poor and to the environment.
Bio-fuels are a renewable and theoretically carbon neutral energy source because the amount of carbon dioxide created by the burning of bio-fuels is equal to the CO2 absorption capacity of the plants. Bio-fuels are derived from sugar, starch (especially corn), or oil seed crops.
The increasing demand for land for bio-fuel plantations is causing deforestation and destruction of some of the last and largest primeval forests, which are being logged and burned to clear land for these bio-fuel plantations. In Indonesia, millions of acres of primordial rainforest are at stake. The government plans to clear vast tracts of this forest for oil palm plantations for bio-diesel for export to Europe, threatening the existence of wildlife including orangutans, rhinoceros and tigers.
The logging and burning of forests for bio-fuel plantations releases huge quantities of greenhouse gases,which are unlikely to be offset by the bio-fuels created from the crops grown on these former forest lands for many years. The burning of the forests of Indonesia each year (largely for oil palm plantations) makes it the world's third largest producer of global carbon emissions, even though most of the population lives in poverty.
Indigenous peoples who depend on forests for food, medicine, shelter, livelihoods or culture are being forcibly displaced from their lands in some countries to make room for bio-fuel plantations.
“The biotechnology industry is using rising demand for bio-fuelas a new way to sell their problematic genetic engineering technology. One company is genetically engineering trees for release in the Southeast US and Brazil that have specifically been modified to produce cellulosic ethanol. Studies on the risks of releasing GE trees into the environment in plantations are virtually non-existent. However, the escape of engineered pollen and seeds from these plantations into native forests up to hundreds of miles away is inevitable and irreversible. The results of this genetic contamination are predicted to be very serious both for humans and wildlife.” (41)
In many countries, corn and sugar are grown for bio-fuels on agricultural land. “Producing and using first-generation bio-fuels can release more greenhouse gases than are absorbed during biomass growth. These emissions occur when new land is cleared for cultivation; when fertilizer and pesticides are manufactured, transported, and applied; when energy is used to run farm machinery, pump irrigation water, and operate refineries; and when the fuel is transported and used. The total global warming footprint depends on what feedstock is used, how and where this feedstock is grown, any land-use changes, and how the fuel is processed. Some estimates suggest that corn ethanol provides only a 12 to 18 percent net reduction in emissions compared to gasoline, but these figures assume that the refineries are fueled by natural gas. If more-polluting coal power is used, the lifecycle emissions are higher than those associated with gasoline.” (42)
Bio-fuels are creating competition between food for people and fuel for cars, leading to skyrocketing grain prices and increasing numbers of people who cannot afford to eat. As one example, the amount of grain needed to create enough ethanol to fill the tank of a single SUV could feed one person for an entire year. There simply isn't enough grain to feed all of the people and all of the cars. Already now, bio-fuels are partly to blame for the increasing global food crisis.
However, bio-fuels could have a small but important place in mitigating global warming if produced responsibly, for example from waste materials. Also several perennial plants like switchgrass, which grow on marginal lands and don’t require fertilization, could be used in a sustainable way and without competition with food crops.
2. Due to the pressure of cutting greenhouse gases quickly, some concerned people are advocating nuclear energy. Here again it is necessary to be fully informed about all the facts:
Nuclear energy is not completely carbon free. It is true that the operation of a nuclear power plant doesn’t emit CO2. However, the construction of such a plant uses a lot of concrete, which releases vast amounts of CO2 during its production. Once the plant is built, uranium needs to be mined and transported, both of which processes require fossil fuels. Its waste will have to be transported as well.
Radioactive waste from nuclear power plants stays highly toxic for hundreds of thousands of years. It is probably possible to build a somewhat safe storage site that can last several hundred years. However, a few hundred years is nothing compared to the lifespan of the waste’s toxicity. How will future generations cope with the radioactive waste we have already produced? And they will not have the fossil fuels available to deal with the problem.
Although nuclear energy has been used in many countries for many decades, no country in the whole world has found a safe place or a safe method for the storage of its waste.
There is always the danger of an accident due to human error or technological failure. One of the worst nuclear accidents happened in Chernobyl in 1986. In the aftermath, more than 130 000 people were evacuated from a 30-km (18.6 mile) zone around the reactor. The WHO estimates that around 4 million people in Belarus, Russia and the Ukraine have been affected by the nuclear disaster. Roughly one million are undergoing medical treatment for consequential health impairments. A direct link between the accident and thyroid cancer among children is recognized internationally. The nuclear disaster at Chernobyl effectively deprived Belarus of 22 per cent of its agricultural land and 21 per cent of its forests. The official Chernobyl Committee in Minsk, which is responsible for dealing with the consequences of the disaster, estimates the total damage for the Republic at USD 235 billion. This is more than ten times the gross national product of 1997 and about 60 times the annual national budget. (43)
Everyone will remember the nuclear meltdowns at the Fukushima nuclear power plant after the Tsunami in March 2011 and the following release of significant amounts of radioactive materials. Vast areas of the environment were polluted exposing the affected population to health risks and displacing many from their homes.
Nuclear power plants are a potential threat to peace and security: The enriched plutonium of nuclear power plants can be used to make nuclear weapons. Also, a terrorist attack on a nuclear power plant cannot be ruled out.
Nuclear power plants require huge amounts of cooling water. Increasing water shortages are a great threat to their operation. In addition, as the used water is returned to the river, it raises its temperature damaging its ecosystem. As the oxygen content in the warmer water is reduced, it can result in killing all the fish. That’s why nuclear power plants in Europe often have to reduce their production during heat waves. This problem will be exacerbated greatly in the coming decades when heat waves will be more severe and river flow reduced in the summers because of the disappearance of glaciers.
Nuclear energy is very expensive. Until now it could compete economically with other energy sources because it has been heavily subsidized by governments and because expenses of building safe storage facilities and maintaining them for hundreds of thousands of years are not included in their financial statements, nor are the costs of past or possible future accidents.
The building of a new nuclear power plant requires huge amounts of money which will no more be available for investment in renewable energy, both in research and in projects.
Despite all these threats, it’s important to stay open minded to new scientific research. For example, James Hansen, who heads NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and is regarded as one of the world’s leading climate scientists, believes that our first priority of action to lower greenhouse gas emissions should be energy conservation and efficiency, and the use of renewable energy. However, he and many others think that these efforts may not be sufficient to lower our emissions enough to prevent dangerous climate change. He suggests intensifying research on “4th generation” nuclear power. This type of nuclear power could also help us solve the nuclear waste problem that we have already created because it would use that waste as fuel. This would eliminate the need for further mining. Moreover, the remaining radioactive waste would have a much smaller volume and a half-life of decades rather than hundreds of thousands of years. (44) This research still needs to be done and we cannot rely on that option.
3. Carbon Capture and Storage: One ingenious way of mitigating climate change would be to somehow getting rid of all that CO2. Scientists have been exploring various ways to capture CO2 from industrial sources, especially from coal-fired power plants. The captured CO2 would be pressurized into a liquid. The next step would be to pump it into geological formations such as deep saline aquifers more than 2000 feet (610m) underground or into depleted oil and gas fields, or injected into deep-sea sediments where it would be stored for a long time.
Several technical problems and environmental risks arise with Carbon Capture and Storage. CO2 would need to be transported to the storage site requiring an extensive transportation system unless it’s possible to build a power plant near the storage site. CO2 could leak, or migrate and pollute drinking water. The cost of CCS is extremely high. It requires huge amounts of water. The process of separating and compressing the CO2 is highly energy-intensive. It would reduce a power plant’s energy output by a quarter or more.
A major problem with CCS is that its technology will not be available until 2020 or 2030. We don’t even know yet whether it will be technically or economically feasible. And we are not in a position to wait with reducing our greenhouse gas emissions. Nevertheless, the respected Union of Concerned Scientists advocates for more research on Carbon Capture and Storage: “CCS technology holds sufficient promise that commercial-scale demonstration projects can and should be undertaken. These projects can inform subsequent decisions about whether mass deployment of CCS is warranted and cost-effective.” (45)
Renewable energy may turn out to be economically more feasible. While doing research on CCS it is imperative not to build any more new coal fired power plants without CCS and to curtail greenhouse gas emissions on a grand scale in all sectors of human activity. (46)
4. Laws that limit greenhouse gases are indispensable. Currently, two basic options are discussed in many countries, one is the Cap and Trade System, the other one a Carbon Tax.
Some governments have already taken well-intentioned first steps towards limiting CO2 emissions with a carbon cap. “Cap and trade is a market-based policy tool for controlling large amounts of emissions from a group of sources. A cap and trade program first sets an aggressive cap, or maximum limit, on emissions. Sources covered by the program then receive authorizations to emit in the form of emissions allowances, with the total amount of allowances limited by the cap. Each source can design its own compliance strategy to meet the overall reduction requirement, including the sale or purchase of allowances, installation of pollution controls, and implementation of efficiency measures, among other options. Individual control requirements are not specified under a cap and trade program, but each emission source must surrender allowances equal to its actual emissions in order to comply. Sources must also completely and accurately measure and report all emissions in a timely manner to guarantee that the overall cap is achieved.” (47)
Companies are issued emission permits. They are allowed to trade these carbon credits. Many people have pointed out that in practice, this system of carbon trading hasn’t resulted in true global emissions reductions, as emissions are often just shifted to other areas. Some countries could easily abuse the system by “exporting” its emission problems (usually to developing countries) and avoiding emissions at the source. Some projects have also been controversial; especially those that cut down old growth forests replacing them with fast growing trees or monocultures like palm trees. Another major problem with this system is that it is very complicated and therefore difficult to monitor. (48)
Some economists point out that a transparent cap and trade system has the potential of effectively reducing CO2 emissions, especially if the caps will be gradually, but significantly lowered to reduce emissions by 80% by 2050. Cap and trade may be a good transitional tool to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, especially when they are used for renewable energy projects.
Not everyone agrees. This is the opinion of NASA scientist James Hansen: “A carbon cap that slows emissions of CO2 does not help, because of the long lifetime of atmospheric CO2 . In fact, the cap exacerbates the problem if it allows coal emissions to continue. The only solution is to target a (large) portion of the fossil fuel reserves to be left in the ground or used in a way such that the CO2 can be captured and safely sequestered. A rising carbon price is essential to ‘decarbonize’ the economy, i.e., to move the nation toward the era beyond fossil fuels. The most effective way to achieve this is a carbon tax(on oil, gas, and coal) at the well-head or port of entry. The tax will then appropriately affect all products and activities that use fossil fuels. The public’s near-term, mid-term, and long-term lifestyle choices will be affected by knowledge that the carbon tax rate will be rising. The public will support the tax if it is returned to them, equal shares on a per capita basis. No large bureaucracy is needed. A person reducing his carbon footprint more than average makes money. A person with large cars and a big house will pay a tax much higher than the dividend. Not one cent goes to Washington. No lobbyists will be supported. Unlike cap-and-trade, no millionaires would be made at the expense of the public. The tax will spur innovation as entrepreneurs compete to develop and market low-carbon and no-carbon energies and products. The dividend puts money in the pockets of consumers, stimulating the economy, and providing the public a means to purchase the products. A carbon tax is honest, clear and effective. It will increase energy prices, but low and middle-income people, especially, will find ways to reduce carbon emissions so as to come out ahead. Effects will permeate society. Food requiring lots of carbon emissions to produce and transport will become more expensive and vice versa, encouraging support of nearby farms as opposed to imports from half way around the world.” (49)
Other experts in the field of climate change agree that a carbon tax is indispensable because it makes environmentally destructive behavior more expensive. At the same time, it rewards environmentally responsible actions. When such a carbon tax is gradually increased it could become the best tool to move away from fossil fuels to renewable energy and to bring society back to a lifestyle in harmony with nature.
Several countries and districts have already successfully established some type of a carbon tax, among them British Columbia, Costa Rica, Ireland, and Finland. (50)
The word “tax” has been tainted with a negative connotation. However, in a fair system, a tax is a contribution of individuals and businesses to the common good. In turn, everyone benefits from government services like good schools, public transportation, or public safety services. And, of course, everyone will benefit if we can avert the threat of irreversible catastrophic climate change.
As participants of this study course you are encouraged to take some action to help mitigate climate change. This service project can be very simple. You may confine it to just your group or invite others to participate. You may choose an educational project reaching out to a community of your choice (faith community, youth group, school, neighborhood), or a project to promote energy efficiency and conservation, or any other idea you may have. An important objective of this group project is to create unity while planning and implementing it. Today, just brainstorm about what you would like to do. Write down some of your ideas. Think about these ideas until you get together next time.
1. Information from Dire Predictions – Understanding Global Warming, the illustrated guide to the findings of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) by Michael E. Mann and Lee R. Kump, p. 159
2. Lester R. Brown, Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Earth Policy Institute, 2008. From Chapter 11. Raising Energy Efficiency
3. Lester R. Brown, Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Earth Policy Institute, 2008. From Chapter 11. Raising Energy Efficiency, THE ENERGY SAVINGS POTENTIAL
5. David Archer, The Long Thaw
6. Union of Concerned Scientists http://www.50simplethings.com/renewables/index.html
7. World’s First Solar Airport Generates More Power Than It Consumes http://ecowatch.com/2015/09/08/worlds-first-solar-airport-cochin/?utm_s…
8. Solar Employs More Workers Than Coal, Oil and Natural Gas Combined, https://www.ecowatch.com/solar-job-growth-2197574131.html?utm_source=Ec…
9. Bahai House of Worship Lotus goes green ..Now on Solar Energy http://ohindore.com/indore-latest/bahai-house-of-worship-lotus-temple-i…
10. Wind and solar become new “base load” power for South Australia http://reneweconomy.com.au/2016/wind-and-solar-become-new-base-load-pow…
11. Costa Rica hasn't burned any fossil fuels for electricity in two months http://mashable.com/2016/09/06/costa-rica-100-percent-renewable/?utm_ci…
12. Uruguay makes dramatic shift to nearly 95% electricity from clean energy http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/dec/03/uruguay-makes-dramat…
13. Norway Ratifies Paris Agreement, Promises to Go Carbon Neutral by 2030 read more: http://climate-l.iisd.org/news/norway-ratifies-paris-agreement-promises…
14. The Los Angeles Times, California plan for 100% renewable energy by 2045 clears key hurdle, 31 May, 2017 http://www.latimes.com/politics/essential/la-pol-ca-essential-politics-…
15. Salt Lake City Makes Historic Commitment to 100% Renewables by 2032 http://www.ecowatch.com/salt-lake-city-makes-historic-commitment-to-100…
16. Sweden to Become One of World’s First Fossil Fuel-Free Nation http://ecowatch.com/2015/09/25/%E2%80%8Bsweden-fossil-fuel-free/?utm_so…
17. Portland Now Generates Electricity From Turbines Installed In City Water Pipes https://www.good.is/articles/portland-pipeline-water-turbine-power
19. Dire Predictions – Understanding Global Warming, the illustrated guide to the findings of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) by Michael E. Mann and Lee R. Kump, p. 162
20. Information from Chapter 11, "Designing Sustainable Cities," in Lester R. Brown, Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006
21. Britain to Ban New Diesel and Gas Cars by 2040 https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/26/world/europe/uk-diesel-petrol-emissi…
22. Lester R. Brown, Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Earth Policy Institute, 2008. From Chapter 11. Raising Energy Efficiency, RESTRUCTURING THE TRANSPORT SYSTEM
23. Leviticus 25:23.
24. Farming and Land Use to Cool the Planet by Sara J. Scherr and Sajal Sthapit in State of the World 2009, p. 31, published by the Worldwatch Institute
25. Farming and Land Use to Cool the Planet by Sara J. Scherr and Sajal Sthapit in State of the World 2009, p. 31, published by the Worldwatch Institute
26. For more info see: http://www.organicconsumers.org/organic/stabalize062404.cfm
27. quoted in State of the World 2008 by the Worldwatch Institute, chapter 5, Meat and Seafood: The Global Diet's Most Costly Ingredients by Brian Halweil and Danielle Nierenberg, p. 65
28. information from Livestock's Long Shadow, FAO 2006, http://www.fao.org/docrep/010/a0701e/a0701e00.HTM
29. Deep Economy, Bill McKibben p. 60
30. Meat Contributes to Climate Change, UN Study Confirms, by Megan Tady, Dec. 7, 2006, http://newstandardnews.net/content/index.cfm/items/3956
31. Meat Contributes to Climate Change, UN Study Confirms, by Megan Tady, Dec. 7, 2006, http://newstandardnews.net/content/index.cfm/items/3956
32. Abdul'l-Baha, Compilations, Baha'i Scriptures, p. 452
34. State of the World 2008 by the Worldwatch Institute, chapter 5, Meat and Seafood: The Global Diet's Most Costly Ingredients by Brian Halweil and Danielle Nierenberg, p. 67
35. With thanks to the major contributor to this section: Michael Richards, natural resources economist, UK, Forest Trends www.forest-trends.org
38. Lester R. Brown, Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Earth Policy Institute, 2008. From Chapter 8. Restoring the Earth PROTECTING AND RESTORING FORESTS
39. Lester R. Brown, Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Earth Policy Institute, 2008. From Chapter 6. Early Signs of Decline, THROWAWAY ECONOMY IN TROUBLE
40. information from http://www.sfenvironment.org/our_programs/overview.html?ssi=
40B. Oil Change International, Fossil Fuel Subsidies: Overview, http://priceofoil.org/fossil-fuel-subsidies/
40C. United States ‒ Progress Report on Fossil Fuel Subsidies https://www.treasury.gov/open/Documents/USA%20FFSR%20progress%20report%…
40D. Oil Change International, Fossil Fuel Subsidies: Overview, http://priceofoil.org/fossil-fuel-subsidies/
40E. Fossil fuel divestment soars in UK universities, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/nov/22/fossil-fuel-divestm…
40F. United Church of Christ to become first U.S. denomination to move toward divestment from fossil fuel companies, http://www.ucc.org/gs2013-fossil-fuel-divestment-vote
41. Global Justice Ecology Project, https://globaljusticeecology.org/agrofuels-another-false-solution-to-climate-change/
42. Smart Choices for Bio-Fuels, a report by the World Watch Institute and the Sierra Club, http://www.worldwatch.org/files/pdf/biofuels.pdf
43. Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, The international communications platform on the longterm consequences of the Chernobyl disaster,
44. info from "Tell Barack Obama the Truth – The Whole Truth" http://www.columbia.edu/~jeh1/mailings/2008/20081121_Obama.pdf
45. "Coal Power in a Warming World", a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists,
46. for more information: "Carbon Capture and Storage" by Peter Viebahn, Manfred Fischedick, and Daniel Vallentin, published in State of the World 2009 by the World Watch Institute, and "Coal Power in a Warming World", a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists,
47. From an EPA Website that informed about cap and trade. It is no longer available: http://www.epa.gov/captrade/basic-info.html
48. Information from: http://www.newsweek.com/id/36517
49. James and Anniek Hansen in a public letter to Michelle and Barack Obama, 29 December 2008
50. The World Bank, Putting a Price on Carbon with a Tax http://www.worldbank.org/content/dam/Worldbank/document/SDN/background-note_carbon-tax.pdf
© Christine Muller and International Environment Forum