Saturday, April 19, 2014

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Climate Change: What Can Be Done?

What changes can be made to reduce the effects of climate change?
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Coping or Preventing?

Climate change interventions fall into two broad categories. On the one hand there are those which attempt to minimise the extent of climate change we are likely to experience, through reducing the emissions of greenhouse gases. These fall into the category of what is known as climate change mitigation options. The other broad category of interventions consider how we are going to cope with inevitable climate change and its knock-on effects – otherwise known as climate change adaptation.

Adaptation is arguably a far broader field than mitigation, in that the impacts of climate change are likely to be specific not only to the natural environment which is undergoing the change, but also on the communities in the area and their preparedness and ability to adapt. Broad categories of adaptation responses include improving infrastructure, improving water efficiency, changing agricultural crops, increasing levels of education and awareness and changing the way our economies are structured and the needs of society are met.

Energy for change

Mitigation options are, perhaps, those that are easier to categorise than adaptation. They are the focus here, as they deal with the cause of the problem rather than managing the effects. Such options are typically grouped by the sector from which the emissions to be mitigated arise. And the energy sector is by far the greatest emitter of greenhouse gases, in the form of carbon dioxide - most notably from coal-fired power generation, but also from fossil fuels used for transport and industrial processing. The capture of carbon dioxide from these sources and storing of it in geological formations or reacting it to form stable minerals is being explored, but is still a long way off large-scale, global availability.

Installation and commodification

Renewable energy technologies, such as solar, wind and hydropower all have a role to play here. Some challenges to global accessibility still exist - upfront capital cost, and the inability to provide baseload power, power that is required 24 hours per day, seven days per week, or alternatively to store the electricity generated. Gaining existing fossil fuel capital and infrastructure is a further hurdle.

However, once renewable technologies are installed, the cost of generation is negligible, unlike coal-fired power stations which need a constant supply of fuel. Co-firing of biomass into existing power stations, or building of dedicated biomass power stations, is a practice which is employed around the world.

The source of the biomass should be questioned prior to accepting it as a preferred option, particularly as biomass is a finite resource. Forest land should not be cleared to provide the biomass. And one must be aware of nmaking it a global commodit - there are concerns about biomass being imported from the developing world to the developed world to meet its emission targets, when the biomass could better be used at the point of production.

Nuclear energy is a further low-carbon option for baseload power generation. The big challenges here are public concerns around the use of uranium for nuclear warfare and the long-term management of hazardous/radioactive waste. Nuclear also comes with a very high upfront capital cost, along with the challenge of a global shortage of nuclear engineers for plant construction.

Efficiency concerns – domestic and industrial

Of course, prior to seeking out new electricity generation options, it is essential to first use electricity more efficiently. Domestic consumption has a role to play here - which can be partially offset through solar water heaters or sink pumps for hot water provision, as this represents a substantial proportion of electricity consumption in warm climates, with indoor heating playing a large role in colder climes.

Efficiency in industrial applications is arguably more important than domestic consumption, given the substantial contribution to stationary energy consumption. Waste heat from industry can either be recovered for its heating value, or used to produce electricity.

Mobilising difference

Moving away from electricity generation, mitigation of emissions from mobile energy consumption introduces a number of further options. Once again, behavioural change could reduce the need for movement in the first place, through sourcing products and services locally as far as possible, and reducing consumption of goods and services. Modal shift – moving from single user passenger vehicles to public transport and moving from air travel to land-based options – are two simple examples here.

Improving the efficiency of vehicles is essential, both in existing internal combustion engines, and in the move to hybrid and electric vehicles. Electric vehicles charged via a renewable electricity grid present the best option, but even charging off a largely coal-fired grid is more efficient than the current vehicle fleet.

A holistic view

Providing transport services off the back of biofuels has received much media attention. Whilst technically this does not represent a significant challenge, the full lifecycle costing of biofuels needs to be considered: depending on the raw materials, primary energy source and the process used in its manufacture, the energy investment in producing the fuel can mean that the overall net gain can be limited or even negative. Biofuels have come under further criticism by diverting land and crops used for food towards fuel production.

Given the migration of populations to urban areas, significant potential exists for design of cities towards lower carbon living. Densification of cities reduces the need for travel, as does local provision of services. Effective building design, both in terms of materials of construction and the energy efficiency of buildings can dramatically reduce the urban carbon footprint. Effective public transport and bicycle and pedestrian zones also contribute to reducing the footprint associated with mobility. With this, local sourcing of food reduces the impacts of transport.

Other sectors responsible for greenhouse gas emissions have their own solutions. Methane from livestock can be reduced through optimising feed and improved manure management. Options for managing land use change and agricultural practices can substantially mitigate emissions. Methane generated from waste in landfills can be captured and burned to provide renewable energy, or simply flared to convert methane to carbon dioxide, which has fewer effects for global warming.

New alternatives for climate change mitigation are constantly being developed. It is clear that no silver bullet exists, but rather we need to explore every possible option to reduce our emissions. At the centre of the change which is required is a shift in our desires as a society on the whole, and how these are going to be met. It is very likely that our future world is going to look very different to that which we know today.

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