What can we do about Climate Change?
In the face of a crisis so massive as climate change, it's easy to feel hopeless. What can one person do in the face of such a huge, world-sweeping catastrophe? Governments are moving, but slowly, and current policies won't do nearly enough to tackle the oncoming crisis. However, in diving into research around climate change, whilst there is undoubtedly a lot to be very concerned about, it's also clear that there is lot we can do. Activism is the best known example - get enough people on the streets, and government will change, regardless of whether it wants to - just see what Extinction Rebellion and FridaysForFuture have accomplished in just a year or so in terms of awareness amongst the public. Climate change has gone from a fringe topic to something on everyone's radar, even if universal acceptance of it has not fully landed.
I come from a software/technology background - I've worked in startups for the majority of my career, and have been immersed in the entrepreneurial world. Whilst Silicon Valley is its own unique bubble, startups have taught the world that we can disrupt big, slow moving industries by being small, nimble and innovative. What could be bigger and slower than the combined bureaucratic momentum of all the world's governments together? We have the technology, and we can make a difference - we can innovate out of this mess. It won't be easy, and we're not going to get away scot-free - we will be facing fallout from climate change for decades, if not centuries to come. We may not overcome climate change completely. But you know what? It sure beats doing nothing. In many ways, working in climate change is refreshing - there's little competition, and even where there is, the opportunities are so large that there's nothing to fear from others working in the same space.
Rather than ramble further, let's dive in and look at some pressing areas, the ways in which they can be tackled.
What is it?
The production of heat and electricity, for homes, businesses, and industry. Electricity powers almost everything we do, from industrial machines to hospitals to our homes and businesses. Similarly, heat is used not only for heating homes and offices, but in a multitude of industrial applications. As a sector, it's the biggest single source of emissions, and is ripe for innovation. However, it's traditionally a massively capital-intensive industry, and heavily regulated.
What can we do?
Renewable energy has gained the most attention in recent years. By that, I mean solar and wind power primarily, along with geothermal, hydroelectric, and a few other more niche forms of power generation. Solar and wind power have grown massively thanks to subsidies, which has driven the per-unit price of these sources down enormously, so that they are now close to parity with coal and gas in some parts of the world. However, more innovations are needed in areas like acquisition and installation, where costs haven't fallen as fast. Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) is another opportunity - this involves concentrating sunlight into heat, and either using it directly, or turning that into electricity. It can be much simpler than Photovoltaic solar panels, and works well in places such as Africa, India and South America, where there are large populations who live away from grid access. CSP also interfaces well with energy storage - more on that in a bit. Solar water heating can also be effective even in countries like the UK which aren't particularly sunny - households putting solar water heaters on their roofs can eliminate most of their water heating bills through much of the year.
Geothermal is a fairly small-scale technology right now, but the opportunities are massive. Geothermal beats many other renewable sources in that it is stable year round, so doesn't need over capacity or energy storage to be truly effective.
Energy can also be generated from gases from landfill sites, and from incinerating waste. This is definitely not an ideal solution, but beats putting rubbish in the ground for centuries, and letting the gases leak away. Modern incinerators with CCS technology can capture most of the emissions released, allowing it to be stored or reused in industrial processes.
On the more expensive and experimental end we have nuclear. I've discussed nuclear in a few different places - it's expensive currently, and has a very poor public image, for a complex set of political and social reasons. New Generation IV technologies, such as Molten-salt reactors, offer a cleaner, safer approach to nuclear. However, researching and developing such technology is going to be extremely expensive, and it remains to be seen if enough governments can be persuaded to accept the tech on a large enough scale to be cost effective.
Fusion is the final holy grail - if we crack this nut, we have our dream - near infinite, cheap energy. However, fusion has been 40 years away for the last 40 years, and despite huge funding and a multitude of efforts, it's still a long way from implementation.
What is it?
Currently, the energy grid is on-demand - the power we use is generated seconds before. This means that supply and demand are really closely coupled - excess supply is wasted if there isn't demand (e.g. solar and wind), and if demand is high, then supply must be increased (by turning on 'peak' power generation - often fast responding gas-turbine power). By storing electricity and heat, we can decouple demand and supply, making for a more flexible grid, and allowing more renewables to be used more of the time.
What can we do?
I actually just wrote a post on the various types of energy storage, so I won't go into too much detail here again. There are a lot of different technologies around, all with different energy densities, and optimal storage times, from pumped hydroelectric storage to molten salt. Pumped hydroelectric storage is the most mature and largest scale mechanism, but is constrained by geography. With the rise in Li-ion batteries, battery based storage is growing fast, with Li-ion and other chemistries being researched. Flow batteries are also an option for grid storage, as they scale massively. Flywheels and supercapacitors aren't great for long-term storage, but work really well for frequency regulation and voltage management, and implementing these at scale is a growing area.
Home batteries, such as the Tesla Powerwall are allowing home-owners to store electricity from solar panels and use less grid energy, and now companies are looking at using batteries to load-balance usage - so that you can use power as you normally would, but draw electricity from the grid much more evenly, which makes the grid run more efficiently. Static battery storage can also reuse old electric car batteries, increasing their usable lifespan before they need to be recycled.
What is it?
Getting energy from (often remote) sources to individuals and businesses requires a lot of infrastructure, from the physical poles, wires and breakers, to management software and grid balancing, and much more. Electricity grids are getting more complex, as they evolve from power largely flowing one way (from power station to consumer), to a multi-way interconnected mesh of consumers and producers. This introduces a plethora of problems and opportunities for increased efficiency and innovation.
What can we do?
Smart meters are already rolling out - these don't just monitor how much electricity consumers use, but how demand changes over time. This opens up opportunities for smart devices to operate at better times - your washing machine could run overnight, for example, and use off-peak electricity, which not only saves consumers money but evens out the load on the grid. On a larger scale, smart grids aim to add connectivity and reporting to all elements of the grid, from transmission lines to switching equipment. This will allow not only better understanding of what power is going where at any one time, but potentially automation of power routing, failovers, as well as more accurate modeling and estimations of future power demand/supply.
Microgrids are another modern innovation that promises to improve the grid. Microgrids are small subsets of consumers and producers of electricity that can be entirely self-contained, and operate independently from the main grid if need be. This could be a single home or office building up to a small town. Splitting the grid into a series of interconnected smaller grids makes the grid as a whole more resilient - if links fail, the smaller grid can operate independently until the main grid is restored, rather than consumers losing power entirely. With the advent of smaller-scale electricity production like wind and solar, this becomes much more achievable. This also helps migrate the grid towards a future where power is generated not just at power stations, but at many solar/wind farms, individual rooftop solar installations, and countless other sources.
What is it?
Transport encompasses all of humanity's various means of moving ourselves and our goods around, from cars and trucks to planes, ships and more. Transport is one of the fastest-growing areas of emissions globally, and because it encompasses so many different areas, it is hard to tackle as a whole.
What can we do?
Virtually every different type of transport has a different potential solution. For many types of transport, electrification is the way to go. Battery energy density and cost is at a tipping point where short and medium journeys can be done in entirely electric vehicles - cars, vans, trucks, motorcycles and even ferries are being converted to electricity. Planes are tricky, as battery weight is still too large for electric planes to be realistic for long haul. However, short haul electric aircraft are starting to appear, and hybrid aircraft could reduce the impact of long-haul aviation. Shipping is ripe for innovation - ships run on dirty fuel oil, and are often inefficient. More efficient ships, hybrid ships, autonomous ships - all of these could produce significant saving as well as cleaning up the shipping sector. Trucking also could benefit from innovation. Whether that's hybrid trucks, autonomous trucks that convoy together or electric highways, there are multiple avenues to improve the industry.
Transport can also be tackled by changing behaviour. Moving shipping to electrified trains rather than trucks would reduce emissions. Improving mass transit options means less people use cars and personal transport, and high speed rail can replace much short-haul aviation if implemented well. Often, the solutions are already here, but not at sufficient scale, or easy enough to access that people will default to them. I'm reminded sometimes of the piracy issues in the early 2000s - companies responded by litigating against online pirates, to little success. However, Netflix came along and built a solution that was easier than piracy, and sure enough, most people were happy to pay for an easy solution.
Agriculture and Land Use
What is it?
Producing food is responsible for huge amounts of emissions, through emissions from soil and livestock. Clearing land for farming produces significant emissions, and often destroys natural forest ecosystems that can help sequester carbon. By changing how we farm and how we eat, we can reduce emissions significantly, as well as producing enough food for a growing global population.
What can we do?
Livestock, particularly cattle, are responsible for a good proportion of all human emissions. This can be reduced first and foremost by reducing meat consumption. Alternative meat products such as the Impossible burger help make meat alternatives more appealing to the general public, reducing the stigma of eating less/no meat. Techniques such as silvopasture and managed grazing can also reduce the impact of livestock and their emissions significantly. Conservation agriculture, as well as techniques like regenerative agriculture and tree intercropping can reduce the impact of agriculture on the soil, as well as regenerate land destroyed by intensive farming. By allowing such land to be reused, the demand for new farmland decreases, which reduces deforestation. More efficient irrigation can reduce water usage, whilst composting converts organic waste into soil, avoiding methane emissions. Reducing food waste is also a high priority - food waste is huge in developed nations, and reducing this means that the food we have can go further, once again reducing demand for more farmland.
What is it?
Whilst great strides have been made in equality in recent years, there are still huge numbers of women and girls who lack access to education, birth control and property. Not only are women and girls disproportionately vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, they are pivotal to addressing it. Also worth addressing are indigenous people, who are often marginalised and uprooted from their native lands. They live closest to nature, and are thus massively affected by climate change.
What can we do?
Ensuring women have access to education allows women to have a say in their lives - they are more informed about the world around them. They are able to work, bringing poor families out of poverty, and makes their agricultural plots more productive and their families better nourished. Barriers in this area include making education affordable and accessible, and overcoming cultural barriers that make schools unwelcoming and unsafe to girls in many parts of the world.
Better access to family planning allows women to choose whether and when to become pregnant, giving them the control over their own bodies and their families, and has a side effect of reducing population growth through a reduction in unwanted pregnancies and children. This is not about enforcing population limits but giving women control and dignity - a fundamental basic human right.
Women also make up around 43% of the agricultural labour force, and produce the majority of food crops in poorer parts of the world, but lack the access to land, education and technology that men have. Ensuring equal access to all these things could increase farm yields by 20-30%, and prevent 100-150 million people from going hungry. With farm plots working more efficiently, there is less pressure to deforest additional ground, reducing emissions.
Protecting the lands of indigenous people and allowing them to manage lands in traditional ways helps protect against deforestation, mining, oil and gas extraction, and much more. Indigenous people have long been on the front lines of such battles, but by protecting and enshrining their rights to the land they've always lived on, we can protect not only the people and their ways of life, but the lands they live on and manage.
Buildings and Cities
What is it?
More and more of us live in dense urban areas, and cities account for increasing amounts of energy use. By making improvements in how buildings are made, how they are heated and cooled, and even how cities are constructed, massive savings can be realised.
What can we do?
Higher efficiency buildings are a huge potential area for improvement, including better insulation, more efficient heating and cooling (using heat pumps and district heating where appropriate), reusing waste heat from power generation and making LED lighting as cheap or cheaper than less efficient alternatives. Automating building controls can also improve building efficiency by dynamically reacting to changing conditions, and retro-fitting old buildings with upgraded windows, insulation and lighting can not only save energy but money too.
Cities can also be designed to encourage less polluting behaviour, by fitting bike infrastructure, and making cities more amenable to walking. These not only make cities greener, but more pleasant places to live. Dense living in cities can be much more efficient per capita than spread out in the countryside, but we need to make cities both efficient and friendly to live, by reducing emissions and pollution, and making the environments more compelling.
What is it?
Many of the basic materials that go into the things we use and interact with every day - concrete, metals, plastics - are very emissions-heavy. By cleaning up the building blocks of our society, we make everything else less polluting by default.
What can we do?
Cement is one of the most carbon intensive industries, and globally we use ever more of it. However, CO2 can be pumped in during the curing process, sequestering concrete whilst reducing the emissions of the process, and producing a stronger end material. Iron and Steel production also produces large amounts of emissions, often through the use of coal both as a heat source and as a reducing agent to extract carbon from the steel. By moving to electric arc furnaces, and using techniques such as direct reduction to reduce the iron, both energy and emissions can be reduced.
Plastics are a huge problem in the modern world. Not only are single-use plastics used in huge amounts, but recycling levels for multi-use plastics are low, and it's not economically viable to recycle plastics, and the benefits of doing so are not clear cut. There's a huge opportunity for alternatives to plastics, as well as improvements in plastics reuse, and in biodegradable bioplastics made from renewable sources.
Refrigeration is another big area that could benefit from innovation. CFCs were banned in the early 90s, as they damage the ozone layer, and have been largely replaced by HFCs, which don't destroy the ozone layer, but are hugely potent greenhouse gases. There is a need for alternative refrigerants, as well as safe managment and disposal methods for those currently in use. As the planet warms, and developing countries become more wealthy, demand for air-conditioning will rise enormously, which if not tackled will cause a huge spike in energy demand (and therefore emissions). Therefore, more efficient and cheap air-conditioning would be incredibly beneficial.
Go Forth and Create!
This is a fairly high-level overview - I've tried to scatter links throughout so you can dive down deeper into areas that interest you further. I've almost certainly missed a bunch of areas, but that just shows how much potential and how many possibilities there are to make a difference in this space. It's probably apparent that I have more experience and interest in some areas than others, but I felt it was important to highlight as wide a selection as possible - there really is something for everyone.
I used Drawndown.org's excellent set of resources and summaries to inform much of this post - they have done a huge amount of research into the effectiveness of many of these areas. Lastly, don't be scared to think outside the box, the more minds, the more viewpoints we have on this, the more aspects we can tackle and solve, together.