With unprecedented heat waves in the US and Europe and flash floods and forest fires in Europe and China, the global climate is clearly deteriorating. Storms of the century happening almost every year. This is the general consensus among the scientific community. There are skeptics, particularly with vested interests in the status quo of the fossil fuel industry. The recently concluded COP26 climate summit in Glasgow brings in some cautious optimism. Also, the recent book “How to avoid a climate disaster” by Bill Gates sheds some light on the problem and possible solutions coming to the fore.
The climate is being influenced by greenhouse gases being put into the atmosphere by relentless human activity. Like the factories churning out tons of goods to satisfy human demand. The human need for mobility is being satisfied by the transportation sector. Vast expansion of agriculture and construction industry to support the teeming billions of human beings. And the need to light and heat/cool homes. All of them contribute carbon dioxide to the environment. Methane is another greenhouse gas resulting from natural gas leaks.
Sunlight passes right through most greenhouse gases without getting absorbed. Most of it reaches the earth and warms up the planet Earth in turn radiates some of the energy back towards space at night. This radiation gets blocked by the greenhouse gases and heats up the atmosphere. The sunlight coming to the Earth and the Earth’s radiation back to space are at two different frequencies. One of them gets through and the other gets blocked. It is like two different TV channels, one of them we receive clearly and the other cannot get through.
Plastics form an environmental problem, although not directly related to the warming of the Earth.They are made from carbon, but can take hundreds of years to degrade. There is just a lot of accumulating of vast amounts of garbage on the surface and in Oceans. Which is having an impact on marine life.
Manufacture of steel, cement and fertilizers are very energy intensive processes. The solution which the industry is moving towards is electrifying most of the processes and then getting electricity from alternate sources like solar and wind. Even automobiles and now scooters are moving towards electric models. And the battery charging infrastructure is coming up like petrol and diesel filling stations. This building of infrastructure is happening in major polluting countries like India, China and the US. With the businesses like Reliance, Tatas and Adanis sensing a good opportunity to invest.
Indian escooters are a good example of going electric. Medium duty vehicles like buses, delivery and garbage trucks are light enough that electricity is a viable option. They run relatively short routes and park in the same place every night. Shenzhen, China has electrified its entire fleet of more than 16,000 buses. Rivian is an Amazon supported US company which is making electric trucks.
The world leaders at COP26 all pledged to reduce the dependence on coal and increase the targets for alternative energy sources. PM Modi in particular setup a target for generating 500 gigawatts (equivalent to about 2 billion motors powering typical food processors) by 2030. And making India carbon neutral by 2070. While the 2030 goal is very laudable, the longer term goal is all a paper exercise for now.
The world leaders have agreed to reduce methane emissions. These emissions come from leaks of natural gas wells as well as the pipelines. It is not difficult to detect and plug such leaks. Another major source of methane is the cows. Since the meat eating population depends a lot on cows, moving towards artificial meat will help a lot towards this cause. A US company called Beyond Meat is an example (yours truly made a small investment recently as a symbol of optimism).
Another major factor contributing towards the warming of the planet is deforestation. Forests are carbon sinks. Forests like the Amazon are being cut down to make way for agriculture and to satisfy the demand for timber. Deforestation releases carbon into the atmosphere. There was an agreement by the world leaders to end deforestation by 2030. This the most significant achievement of the climate summit.
Although the targets were not as good as what we would have liked, the summit does represent progress. There was agreement to come back next year and compare targets. One sticking point was the finance for all these solutions. Who is going to pay ? The developed countries are expected to pay as per earlier agreements. They fell short on their contributions so far. But the need of the hours is more than what they promised earlier, certainly not less.
There is a role for both the government and private sector to pitch in to solve the problem. Governments need to come up with the right incentives. The private sector is investing as they see the light at the end of the tunnel. Overall, it is a tough battle. Human greed versus survival. By and large, there seems to be an agreement on the problem and let us see how the solutions will play out.
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