Zaara Ahmed, '25
By the time this article is published, we will have a pretty good idea whether COP 26 (the 26th UN Climate Change Conference, taking place from October 31-November 12) is just “blah blah blah,” as climate activist Greta Thunberg called it, or if our leaders have any intention of allowing our generation and those that follow to live in a planet habitable by human beings. What we have heard so far does not give us a lot of hope. India’s nationalist leader, Narendra Modi, has already asserted that India, the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases after China and the United States, will not reach its net zero target (only producing the amount of greenhouse gasses that can be absorbed by plants) before 2070. That is 20 years too late, meaning that we are on our own.
Let’s take a step back. Six years ago, 196 countries agreed to the Paris Agreement, an international treaty on climate change which aimed to limit global warming to well below 2, and preferably to 1.5, degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels (the average of the period 1850–1900). This legally binding treaty entered into action on November 4, 2016. Countries agreed to outline the actions they would take to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to reach the goals of the Paris Agreement by 2020.
If we have any chance of limiting the global temperature to the level outlined in the Paris Agreement, we will have to reach net zero by 2050. That means that the amount of greenhouse gas we produce cannot be more than the amount of greenhouse gas that is removed from the atmosphere. In other words, we must stop burning fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) and focus our energy on inventing, refining and perfecting technologies to produce clean energy and remove the amount of greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere.
One way to do this is by developing clean energy substitutes for fossil fuel. Alternatives include using solar photovoltaic (commonly known as solar power), hydro power, biofuel, wind, and nuclear power. Hydropower is generated by harnessing the energy of flowing water and is the largest source of renewable energy in the world, according to the International Energy Agency. In Norway, 99% of electricity comes from hydropower. Solar photovoltaic cells that convert sunlight into electricity have the second largest share among renewables. China leads the world in solar power capacity, while roughly one-eighth of Bangladesh’s population uses solar home systems. Wind turbines generating electricity constitute another important share of the global renewable energy mix. 32 countries in the world, including the US, have nuclear reactors that deliver electricity. All these renewables have pros and cons. If we are to shift out of fossil fuel and into these alternatives, we will have to ensure that these technologies are refined and able to meet the increasing needs of a growing population at a price that is acceptable to all. It’s a tall order, but it’s not impossible.
Another way to reduce carbon emission is to develop technology that removes carbon from the atmosphere and stores it underground or reuses it, decarbonizing fossil fuels. This is formally known as carbon capture, utilization, storage, and sequestration (CCUS). It basically does what trees and plants do, albeit using technology rather than natural means. Currently, this technology is still under-developed, expensive, and unreliable, so much research and development is needed to make it a viable option. Elon Musk, the owner of TESLA and currently one of the two richest people in the world, recently pledged to donate $100 million to developing the best carbon capture technology.
Now that we know that it is up to us to save our planet, we need to prepare ourselves as best we can to bring about a major revamp of the global energy system. Our future relies on our capacity to invent more efficient sustainable alternatives to oil, coal, and gas, as well as coming up with cost-effective ways to remove carbon from the atmosphere. Just as importantly, we must develop future generations of leaders who care about equity, inclusivity, and sustainability--people who are unafraid to challenge the status quo, and who welcome transformational change. No more “blah, blah, blah.” I just hope it’s not too late.
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