A Cool Look at Energy and Global Warming – Masoud Mostajabi

Gaps remain in our knowledge about climate change, but the clear majority of scientists are currently convinced that the gradual rise of the Earth’s temperature has been especially evident since the late eighteenth century when the invention of power-driven machinery kick-started the Industrial Revolution and so caused an increase in the human-made gases that alter the atmospheres insulating effects. Gas molecules such as carbon dioxide (CO2) and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) create a greenhouse roof by trapping the heat remitted from the Earth which would otherwise escape into outer space. Since the 1950s, the emissions of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels such as natural gas, oil, and coal in order to produce energy, have climbed steadily and risen fourfold. As of 2005, the energy sector accounted for 75 percent of the worlds atmospheric greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (with 70 percent of the global emissions from fossil fuel combustion) and 96 percent of the worlds CO2 emissions. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) here in the United States, by 2010, fossil fuel combustion amounted to 79 percent of US GHG and 94 percent of US CO2 emissions with 5 percent of US GHG emissions coming from the methane released by coal mining and oil and gas systems. In addition, according to Michael Jenkins (2007), President and CEO of Forest Trends, deforestation has contributed to climate change as it has accounted for, “17 to 25 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions…second only to energy use”.

With that said, in 2009 alone, coal combustion accounted for 43 percent of the global energy-related CO2 emissions, oil at approximately 37 percent, with natural gas at 20 percent. Most proposals that seek to stabilize GHG concentrations, eventually want to see global CO2 emissions drop close to zero. Thus, in the long run, the demand for fossil fuel use to be paired with efforts to capture and sequester emissions will be needed. However, in the short run, shifting economies and consumers away from the biggest contributor to CO2 emissions, namely coal, to natural gas can cut emissions roughly in half. That in mind, curbing GHG emissions from energy-related CO2 emissions must be our central focus in mitigating change.

Efforts in identifying the lowest-cost technologies in order to reduce energy-related CO2 emissions have recently focused on alternative energy development. However, it is important to keep in mind that the development of alternatives are not immune to environmental opposition. For example, nuclear power enjoyed acceptance for decades by the environmental community until a major accident in Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi power plant brought intense opposition with a focus on safely disposing of radioactive waste and reactor safety. Additionally, renewable energy may also have opposition due to the land needed. Scientists such as Vaclav Smil have argued that 1 kilowatt of solar power requires 100-250 square meters of land and that the equivalent of that power in wind requires approximately 1000 square meters of land. In comparison, coal uses 1-10 square meters and gas at 0.5-5 square meters for the equivalent power generated. To be sure, solar and wind do not encompass the risks associated with something like an oil spill or contaminated water due to poorly drilled wells. However, I argue that until the bridge is gapped between low-cost and alternative clean energy, we must find ways, in the short-term, that seek to lower CO2 emissions in a productive manner. Altogether banning of fossil fuels is neither feasible nor ethical at our current state no matter how drastic a situation many of us may feel.

Thus, ideas that propel us in the right direction to solve human-caused global warming should be found until this bridge is created. At the Paris Agreement, Professor Peter Burdon of the University of Adelaide, claimed that governments should make moves that ensure companies are moving at a pace that suits the climate, rather than business, by creating carbon pricing such as a global carbon tax. Further, ideas such as the “CO2 take-back” scheme by University of Oxford Professor Myles Allen (originally by UN sustainability advisor Nick Robins) may create future policies that support the reduction of CO2 emissions in a healthy, ethical manner. The author admittedly claims this idea may be a “fantasy scenario” in which fossil fuel companies are obligated to take back an equivalent amount of created CO2 and dispose of them in a safe manner that does not allow for it to end up in the atmosphere. However, these are concepts that may truly be applicable and practical in the coming decades as technological innovation allows for the creation of low-cost substitutions for the worlds growing energy demands.

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