After years of overwhelming scientific evidence and real-world observations, it’s clear that global warming is an urgent problem that requires action now. While future technologies may arrive that make a transition away from a fossil fuel-based economy easier, we do not have to wait for them. The fundamental scientific, technical, and industrial knowledge base already exists that can begin solving our global warming challenge.
Many scientists believe that to avoid catastrophic impacts of global warming, we must cut carbon dioxide emissions globally by half by the middle of this century. That will limit carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations in the atmosphere to twice the concentration that existed before the Industrial Revolution, when our reliance on fossil fuels began in earnest. We are now fast approaching that limit.
Solving global warming, slice by slice
Solving a problem as big as global warming can seem daunting, but some now see the solutions as being a piece of cake—not as in easy, because it surely is a challenge—but rather as a way of looking at the problem. Two researchers from Princeton University, Stephen Pacala and Robert Socolow, have come up with a visual representation of global warming solutions called the “stabilization wedges” graph. In this graph, every piece of cake is a slice, or “wedge”, of a suite of global warming solutions that will help stabilize heat-trapping emissions at a safe level. Broken down into smaller pieces, global warming solutions become both more manageable, and show how the heat-trapping emissions cuts needed to avoid the worst effects can be achieved in the time needed.
Thousands of scientists are charting out similar solution scenarios to our global warming challenge. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are –a group of thousands of scientists established by the United Nations in 1988 to assess scientific, technical and socio-economic information relevant for the understanding of climate change—released a report on global warming solutions in May 2007 that provided a robust analysis of ways we can solve this challenge.
This analysis, and the views of many other experts, point to the major changes we need to make in what kind of energy we produce; how efficiently we use that energy; what we do about our cars, trucks and other transportation; how efficient our buildings become; and how well we use the land to create renewable fuels and pull carbon from the atmosphere. Read below for more information on all of these topics.
Making a smart power switch
As the world electricity demand continues to grow, infrastructure investment needed between now and 2030 is expected to total over $20 trillion. With the long lifetimes of power plants, these investment decisions will have enormous long term impacts on the amount of global warming pollution we allow into the atmosphere. If we bet on heavily-polluting traditional forms of energy, we’ll be locking in pollution for decades to come.
In 2005, a third of the U.S.’s greenhouse gas emissions were produced in generating electricity. Fossil fuels such as coal, natural gas, and oil were used to produce 71 percent of this electricity. Since the burning of fossil fuels releases large amounts of carbon dioxide—the leading cause of global warming—clean renewable energy must play an increasing role in electricity generation in the future. Currently, sources such as wind, solar, biomass, and geothermal make up just 2 percent of the electricity supply in the United States, but they are among the fastest growing sources of electricity globally.
While fossil fuels remain a large part of the energy mix, it is important to minimize their global warming impacts. Switching from coal to less carbon intensive natural gas or carbon-free energy like wind and solar would reduce emissions. In addition, deploying technology that allows the carbon pollution from coal plants to be captured before it escapes through the smoke stack and instead is stored underground would enable continued use of coal. While carbon capture and storage technology represents great potential, it still requires more research, testing and demonstration on a large scale.
Of course, the best energy resource is the energy you never had to use by becoming more efficient. Along with increasing the fuel efficiency of our vehicles, we must also increase the efficiency of appliances like air conditioners and refrigerators, and other energy-dependent sectors of our economy.
Getting from here to there more efficiently
Our cars, trucks and SUVs account for one quarter of U.S. CO2 emissions. Increasing the fuel economy of the automotive fleet has the potential to enhance energy independence and will reduce global warming pollution. Increasing fuel efficiency standards—which have essentially remained unchanged for the past 25 years—by 10 miles per gallon to 35 mpg within the decade wouldn’t just save oil, it would cut global warming emissions. By 2025, raising fuel economy to 35 mpg would reduce oil consumption by 2.3 million barrels per day, save consumers over $56 billion per year and reduce global warming pollution by the equivalent of 50 million vehicles.
Cars and trucks can also run on biofuels made from corn, sugar, or even more efficiently from wild grasses or agricultural wastes with a fuel called cellulosic ethanol. Cellulosic ethanol can reduce global warming emissions by 90% compared to regular gasoline. Incorporating more renewable fuels like these into the transportation sector would reduce global warming emissions. Rather than removing vast reservoirs of carbon from underground to power the vehicle fleet, biofuels would leverage the vast organic plant materials produced by forests, grasslands, and farms.
National, state, city, and community planning also plays an important role in how people choose to get around. Enhancing road and rail public transport systems, as well as increasing the accessibility of walking and bicycling, can reduce global warming pollution without reducing people’s mobility. Creating smart communities can create smarter energy choices.
Green buildings for a greener generation
Buildings currently account for 38 percent of carbon emissions in the United States—more than either the transportation or industrial sectors—and consume 70 percent of the electricity. Over the next quarter century, heat-trapping emissions from buildings are projected to grow faster than any other sector, with emissions from commercial buildings projected to grow the fastest—1.8 percent a year through 2030.
Since buildings have lifespans of 50 to100 years, it is important to make these structures as efficient as possible. By building more efficient buildings using a building efficiency ratings system as a guide, like LEED certification (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), the average building can cut electricity use by 32 percent and save 350 metric tons of carbon emissions annually.
Improvements within the building industry are a prime example of the way that reducing global warming pollution can also be profitable. Installing more efficient lighting, electrical appliances and heating and cooling devices, and improving insulation will all result in reduced energy bills that more than pay for the improvements.
Using the land to save the earth
Agricultural land—used for cropland, managed grassland, and permanent crops including agro-forestry and bio-energy crops—occupies 40 to 50 percent of the Earth’s land surface, and has the potential to help reduce global warming pollution.
Farming practices like conservation tillage and zero-tillage, where the land is disturbed as little as possible while farming, lead to less decomposition of organic materials and more carbon stored in the soil. Farmers also stand to make surpluses from the development of plant-based fuels.
Our world’s forests also can contribute to solving global warming. Since wood, leaves, and biomass are made up of mostly carbon, the earth’s forests collectively create a massive “carbon sink” that keeps green house gas emissions out of the atmosphere. Whenever the world loses forests, carbon is then released; when a forest is grown, it removes carbon from the atmosphere. Keeping our forests safe can help keep our atmosphere safe.
Unfortunately, right now, the forests are losing, and so is the atmosphere: between 2000 and 2005 there was a net loss of 28,000 square miles of forest area each year, an area greater than that of West Virginia. A continued loss of forest carbon sinks—which currently cover 30 percent of the earth’s land—makes stabilizing carbon emissions at a safe level increasingly more difficult.
For more information on global warming solutions you can be a part of, visit our What You Can Do section of the website.
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