Big Moves To A Better Future
Originally published on The Green Medium on 2017-02-03 [link].
In our global move towards a more sustainable future, there are two main ways we can make an impact on mitigating climate change:
- Overcome our dependence on fossil fuels in favour of renewable energy sources
- Reduce our consumption - of everything
This is all obviously much easier said than done. So what are the ways forward popular movements have suggested to actually implement or encourage these two issues? This post will explore some things we can do at home and that we can think about implementing in the world around us.
The Carbon Market
In the world today, the dominance of free market driven economies means that market incentives are more likely to incentivize better behaviour. Governments usually follow market regulations with other frameworks to encourage better behaviour. This may be in the form of public commitments and educational campaigns. More explicitly, the three archetypes most commonly seen around the world are:
- Carbon pricing
- Energy efficiency programs
- Coal phase-out commitments
Economists overwhelmingly support carbon pricing as the best way to drive change (The Guardian, NY Times, World Bank and International Monetary Fund, Bank of England Governor). By appropriately accounting for the social and environmental cost of greenhouse gas emissions in the economy, there will be an economic driver to care about one's contribution to climate change.
Energy efficiency programs will help reduce energy consumption and improve consumers' energy literacy by becoming more relevant in our daily lives. We already judge vehicles by their fuel mileage; imagine a comprehensive rating for a home you'd like to purchase or subsidies to better insulate your house, which will make it more comfortable to live in (stays cool in the summer and warm in the winter).
Though energy efficiency could lead consumers to become lazy and 'rebound' to use more of a more efficient (and therefore often cheaper) product and yield a net positive change in consumption (known as the Jevons paradox), the evidence for such rebound behaviour is not conclusive. I'll cover energy efficiency in greater detail in my next post.
Coal releases harmful particulates and pollutant gases in the air 24/7. Its combined historical effect on human health has been much more significant than those related to nuclear power (see more here). By committing to phasing coal-fired electricity plants out and also providing incentives for renewables to replace that electricity generation capacity, we will clean up our electricity industry. Similarly, Alberta's oil sands will likely one day look to phase out too (edit: though not because of any government).
The Future Of The Global Economy
On a larger scale, as Feo argued in December, we have to rethink our global economic and also political structures. Sam is right in that the capitalism we are used to can make great progress - especially with the market mechanisms mentioned above, but we need to look at reformed capitalism. Carbon pricing alone is not enough to address issues like energy poverty in some developing nations.
Furthermore, our current scheme has benefited different social classes disproportionately. While many people have become richer, there are still millions living in poverty. Big economic thinkers and leaders are now taking action (World Economic Forum, China at WEF, Rockefeller Foundation, Huffington Post blog) to combat this disproportionate growth.
There are a lot of thoughts too about what a truly sustainable economy might look like, like the idea of a 'circular economy'. There's a lot of talk about universal basic income and artificial intelligence in this conversation too, but that deserves its own post too.
Low Hanging Fruit: Heat
Though our focus on renewables has been on renewable electricity production, more than 40% of all energy use actually goes to heating and cooling in countries like Canada, or the UK (this is 50% in Scotland)! The transportation sector eats up about 35% and electricity only 25%.
When we think about making an impact quickly, we should perhaps be paying more attention to insulating our homes, using programmable thermostats, and turning your thermostat down a little and putting on a blanket! Also, if you can, turn down the heat of your water heater and try to use cold water when you can (including for washing clothes). Check this tool out to see how well your house is insulated: MyHEAT (photo above).
There are also upcoming ideas to displace natural gas heating in North America! Solar thermal, geothermal, or electric heating might be on the horizon for us in the future (my family in rural China has run solar water heating since the early 2000's). Drake Landing Solar Community in Okotoks, Alberta, is currently piloting one of the first seasonal thermal storage projects in the world. They are storing solar energy during the summer in large underground glycol tanks and then using that in the winter.
Lastly, I want to draw some attention to district heating: the concept of heating buildings with water that is heated in a central location. Lots of countries like China and Bulgaria run this, but there's a lot of opposition to it as well in North America and the UK. Central heaters are more economical to make highly efficient and to implement things like nitrous or sulphur oxides emission scrubbers. They can also better utilize renewable energy for heating. In fact, the University of Alberta runs on this system as will Edmonton's upcoming Blatchford community.
Consumption Is Not Just About Efficiency
Lastly, I also want to share the core concept of Ian Angus's and Simon Butler's book I've been reading recently called "Too Many People?" Most people look to the world's exponentially growing population and worry about the rate of our food, water, and energy consumption in the future. Many, including environmentalists, believe that some form of population control is necessary in the developing nations to prevent catastrophe. Angus and Butler argue that this approach is an example of cognitive dissonance where those in developed nations shift blame away from themselves.
I see this point as a stark reminder that we have to remember all the people who are going to be affected by climate change. Women will be affected disproportionately so as will the poor. Residents of developing nations will be forced to change their ways of life while we in North America simply try to "innovate our way out of climate change" (a colleague coined this phrase). Consider this a call to action to change that.
In the next two posts, I'm going to cover some more about energy efficiency and energy literacy and awareness. Stay tuned!
I'm an engineering student living in the future. I care about dreaming big, finding truths, and building equity into our society.