Few issues seem to be as divisive as climate change. Although the science is unequivocal, political polarisation has taken climate change hostage. Fortunately, there are solutions that people on both sides of the climate divide might be able to agree on. Here are six solutions that could help advance these goals.
When rain falls on streets, parking lots, or other impermeable surfaces, it cannot be absorbed. Green infrastructure uses plants, trees and soils on green roofs, in trenches, and on green streets, to manage excess stormwater in urban areas.
“It’s an easily solvable problem by doing more planting, which then helps climate change,” says Steve Cohen, executive director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute.
As stormwater flows over parking lots and sidewalks, it picks up heavy metals, bacteria, and other pollutants. It carries those pollutants as it drains into sewers and pipes, and ends up polluting the water bodies it enters.
If the runoff contains nitrogen and phosphorus from fertiliser, it can cause eutrophication, a type of water pollution wherein algae bloom and then die, consuming oxygen and creating a “dead zone” where nothing can live. The US EPA estimates that eutrophication costs the country over $USD2.2 billion each year in reduced property values and lost recreational opportunities.
In urban areas, green infrastructure creates permeable expanses where water can be absorbed instead of flooding the sewers.
The vegetation filters out pollutants, helps keep streets cooler, cleans the air, restores biodiversity, sequesters greenhouse gases and increases property values, health, and well-being. Green roofs can reduce energy demand as well as cooling and heating costs.
Restored and created ecosystems such as streams, rivers, and wetlands are considered green infrastructure as well. While they perform the same functions as urban green infrastructure, they also help prevent flooding and recharge aquifers.
Green infrastructure can be a cost-effective way to protect clean water.
MODERNISATION OF THE POWER GRID
The power grid needs to be modernised so that it can be smarter, more efficient, and more resilient to extreme weather; it needs to be able to better integrate renewable energy sources and be more secure.
A modernised grid could ensure that important circuitry uses water-proof or weather-resistant technology. It could incorporate microgrids, smaller independent systems that can operate even if the larger system fails.
Modernising the grid would also enable it to better incorporate distributed energy, where power is generated by solar panels on homes or buildings or wind turbines instead of by centralised utilities; and a modernised grid would deploy energy storage technology to even out the intermittent nature of wind and solar energy.
A modernised grid would also provide increased defence against cyberattacks. It would have smart two-way communication enabling operators to run the system more efficiently, which would mean lower costs for utilities and for customers; it would make it possible for the system to identify outages and restore service more quickly.
“Modernising the grid is extremely important for the growth of renewables because of where the renewables will be located geographically,” said Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School.
“A smart grid can also go a long way towards addressing the intermittency problem of wind and solar, which will improve our overall electric system reliability. It is especially important because decarbonisation will also require moving to electric vehicles, and electrifying such direct fossil fuel uses such as space heating and cooling and water heating. All of this could double the demand for electricity, compelling a great increase in transmission capacity.”
Renewable sources like wind and solar are considered decentralised or distributed systems because they are made up of individual wind turbines or solar arrays. As such, they are more resilient and less vulnerable to large-scale disruption than centralised utilities.
They provide a free and inexhaustible supply of energy that emits no global warming emissions or other pollutants. Because they are clean, they protect our air and water and safeguard the environment.
That’s not the only economic benefit. In the US in 2014 alone, solar power created 50 percent more jobs than oil and gas pipeline construction and petroleum and natural gas extraction combined; and as of 2015, solar energy employed more people than coal mining. Solar job growth has climbed 123 percent over the last six years, and is continuing apace.
The International Monetary Fund estimated that globally, fossil fuels are receiving $USD5.3 trillion of subsidies due to costs that governments (and ultimately taxpayers) end up paying toward the impacts of air pollution, floods, droughts, and storms exacerbated by climate change. Most economists and policy experts agree that the most effective and cheapest way to curb the carbon dioxide emissions that are warming the planet is to “put a price on carbon.”
In other words, a clear and consistent policy would stimulate the private sector, encouraging business and the financial community to invest in clean energy. Their investments would result in economic and job growth since clean energy is one of the fastest growing sectors of our economy.
CARBON CAPTURE AND STORAGE
The term “clean coal” generally refers to carbon capture and storage. It involves capturing carbon dioxide from coal-fired power plants, processing and transporting it, and storing it where it theoretically will not leak, usually underground.
Carbon can be captured from fossil fuel power plants before the fossil fuel is combusted through a gasification process; post-combustion, the CO2 is separated from the flue gas with a filter made from a solvent that absorbs CO2. After the CO2 is captured, it is compressed and transported via pipes to a storage site.
Currently, it is mainly oil and gas companies that practice underground storage, or geological sequestration. In a process known as enhanced oil recovery, CO2 is injected into depleted oil or gas reserves to drive the remaining oil to the drilling site or improve its flow.
However, most commercial efforts for carbon capture and sequestration have been plagued by years of delay and billions in cost overruns, while the technology itself does not eliminate all coal emissions.
Energy efficiency is the easiest and most cost-effective way to cut energy use and save people money.
Buildings are responsible for 32 percent of energy use globally, and almost 80 percent of that energy is wasted due to lights and electronics left on or poor insulation. Retrofitting buildings to better conserve energy and make lighting more efficient is often paid back in five to seven years, on average.
Moreover, energy efficient buildings attract investors and are valued more highly than other buildings because they cost less to operate; they also have higher occupancy rates because tenants want buildings with lower utility rates.
Energy efficiency allows utilities to save money by not having to build more power plants, power lines, and substations to produce energy, and this also ultimately lowers electric rates for consumers.
Renee Cho is a blogger with Columbia University’s Earth Institute. This abbreviated version of the original article was reprinted with permission.