Global warming is a devilish problem, because our greenhouse gas pollution comes mostly from fossil fuels which infect every area of our civilization.
But though daunting, fossil fuels are where we must focus the big solutions, ones that really stand a chance of being effective… we won’t get anything done if we chase the trivial-many instead of focussing on the vital-few.
Here’s my best guess at what the big, focussed solutions are. This postulates that the simplest logic model is: a) on the demand-side “look for efficiencies,” and b) on the supply-side “look to substitute clean for dirty.”
1A. Electricity… improve efficiency: Studies show the fastest, cheapest and most-effective way to reduce greenhouse gases from the electric grid is efficiency. This includes the exciting emerging fields of green buildings, the Internet of Things (IoT) and Smart Cities on the power-demand side, as well as efficiency improvements to the distribution grid and in power plant operation on the supply-side. Efficiency is sometimes referred to as the “first fuel,” because it can be done relatively quickly. But it is also easy to sell, as it almost always reduces the costs of doing business or home ownership: There really are dollar bills laying around, waiting to be picked up – for example in the US 26% of all electricity is used on air conditioning, yet HVAC systems on large commercial, industrial and government buildings are rarely even the tiniest bit “smart,” let alone that they keep the filters clean which would reduce energy use… remember: A small change to very big number is itself a big number. Business opportunity, anyone?
This is not to say pushing efficiency means we shouldn’t push clean energy, which is at an exciting inflection point in its flight path. So next we have…
1B. Electricity… substitute-clean-for-dirty: Kill coal, the filthiest fuel, and encourage the market to replace it in the short run with half-as-polluting natural gas. Simultaneously, work vigorously to gradually replace both with clean energy renewables like solar, wind, battery storage, improved hydroelectric and “fourth generation” nuclear energy, which though at least ten years out before we see demonstration projects, nevertheless holds out the hope for small standardized reactors using safer materials which cannot be turned into weapons, use liquid Sodium instead of vast amounts of water for cooling, and produce much less waste. That’s later of course, but right now: Jump with both feet on today’s historic inflection point which signals the flip of solar to be cheaper, sans subsidies, than fossil fuels.
2A. Transportation… improve efficiency: Improve the mileage standards of all vehicles, whether with four wheels, on rails, traveling on water or in the air. Full stop, no arguments. It’s not like we don’t know how… for example with advance plug-in hybrid cars like the 133 MPGe Toyota Prius Prime and the 106 MPGe Chevy Volt. As with the power grid, studies show vehicle efficiency to be the fastest, cheapest and most-effective way to reduce greenhouse gases from travel.
(Although GWBP tries to be nonpartisan, it is very important to fight to keep the new Federal government from wimping out on the excellent CAFE standards the Obama Administration put in place: Over the life of the car, future low fuel economy standards represent an enormous new tax on working families, and must be stopped in their tracks with extreme prejudice.)
2B. Transportation… substitute-clean-for-dirty: Shift over from petroleum engines to electric motors or vehicles running on 100% hydrogen fuel cells. Buy a bike or a fresh pair of walking shoes. In your city, advocate for the local government to make service vehicles electric: There is no better and cheaper way to fund around-town driving than going electric, as many retirees have discovered. Full disclosure, I bought a used Nissan Leaf eighteen months ago, and pay a penny a mile for electricity versus the $0.12 per mile I used to pay with my old RAV4… and besides, electric cars accelerate like a bat out of hell and are dead sexy to drive. As well, look at how young people use Uber, Lyft and so on instead of bothering to own a car at all!
(If we had to, we could almost stop right here, as electricity and transportation are a handful. Of them, 1A and 2A are the most powerful, as studies have shown that efficiency improvements historically yielded as much as five times the savings as substitution improvements, and may be as much as double going-forward, at least during the near term. Plus efficiency is easier to sell, as it puts cash back into consumer and business bank accounts, not to mention being fast to implement.)
3. Fully-refundable carbon tax: Turns out there are thousands of hidden distortions in our economic system where no one ever pays the true cost, including pain costs, of fossil fuels. The pollution simply goes on someone else’s backs. Big Oil and Big Coal want to keep it that way, and don’t want you to know the vast extent of the subsidies they quietly receive. So let’s level the playing field, and finally have a fair market: A fully-refundable carbon tax which for the first time correctly prices all fossil fuels products, as recommended recently by wise elders, statesmen George Schulz and James Baker, secretaries of State under Presidents Reagan and George H. W. Bush respectively. This for the first time will result in wise decisions about efficiency and substitution by everyone at every level of the economy. And, a bonus, everyone gets a check each quarter when the carbon tax is refunded to the taxpayers, as they are currently doing successfully in British Columbia’s popular program.
4. Eat less meat, substitute clean for dirty: Turns out meat production, especially beef, creates a rediculous amount of greenhouse gas pollution. Simply cutting out several meat-based meals each week will reduce greenhouse gases (plus will reduce the rate of heart disease and cancer).
As well, if you work in agriculture, think about how to use Ammonium Nitrate fertilizer more sparingly: When overused, it outgases into Nitrous Oxide, the third biggest greenhouse gas… using less fertillizer is also easier on the farmer’s wallet.
5. And finally, Planetary Reforestation, from Stewart Brand’s excellent Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto. Among his tips (Smart Cities and fourth-generation nuclear power are mentioned above) is one that I like a lot: Whenever possible, aid the planet in healing… that is: Planetary Reforestation. It has two parts: a) staunchly protect what natural areas remain, and b) encourage Nature to grow back, for example abandoned farms or letting old salt ponds return to nature around my home near the San Francisco Bay. These green areas allow plants to pull CO2 out of the atmosphere through photosynthesis… the most important green areas of course being the warming, threatened oceans (ocean algae is the most pervasively important plant) and the Amazon, which is under serious assault from development and now, worryingly, persistent drought.
6. Oh, OK, one more: Reach out to those on the other side, see if you can transform a blocker or a person who is apathetic into an ally! These are extraordinarily high-payoffs, if you can pull it off. As the Allies proved after WWII by reaching out to former enemies Japan and Germany with compassion and an eye to the future, we earned the loyalty of two of the last 70 years’ strongest partners. Be resourceful, compassionate, (patient!), and above all, a good listener. In particular, find common ground and speak to people’s core values, for example pointing out that we will have fewer brush wars and refugees and better national security if fragile nations around the world don’t suffer failing agricultures because of climate change. And that there are BETTER American job-creation prospects in the advanced energy sector than the plateaued-out fossil fuel industry can ever hope to match. More on this in future posts.
Over the next year I will report on the work of climate economists and see what THEY think the top, most-effective and focussed strategies are… there are some smart people working on the climate crisis. An early and promising data source for this is the April 2017 release of Project Drawdown’s new book, ranking-by-effectiveness of 100 solutions – something I am very much looking forward to reading, digesting (and communicating!).
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How does one get started saving the planet? Start by deeply knowing your own sources of personal power: 1) To save the planet, Change Yourself First; 2) To save the planet, Invest Your Working Life; 3) To save the planet, Use Your Voice and take advocacy seriously! Never miss a chance to vote, and never stop influencing your government and businesses locally, at the state level, and at the national level.
And in all cases and at all times, cast aside the learned-helplessness that infects so much of modern life…
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