HOW SOCIAL CHANGE HAPPENS
INTERNATIONAL COOPERATION ON CLIMATE CHANGE
RENEWABLE AND EMISSION-FREE ENERGY
RENEWABLE AND EMISSION-FREE ENERGY
Technology has made remarkable breakthroughs in the renewable energy and emissions-free energy sector.
Given that we still need energy for societies to function healthily, the enlightened response to climate change is not to demonise fossil fuel corporations but to find alternatives that can produce the energy we need with the least emission of greenhouse gases.
Optimists about climate change see this as the solution – after all, the modern world has been progressively decarbonising as we find increasingly efficient ways to produce energy with the least amount of carbon emitted.
As seen from the data provided by Our World in Data below, there is a trend of plateauing global emissions among the biggest emitters of China and India while there is a decrease in global emissions in most of the developed world.
This is merely a start, but it highlights the trend of deep decarbonisation due to strong policy and new technologies.
The tragedy of the Commons and Carbon Pricing
The climate dilemma is a classic economic problem called the Tragedy of the Commons.
Because no one owns the atmosphere, people and companies have no reason to stint on emissions that allow each of them to enjoy their energy while harming everyone else. In other words, why should I play my part if other people won’t?
A solution to this is the imposition of carbon pricing – charging people and companies for the damage they do when they dump their carbon into the atmosphere, either as a tax or a national cap with tradeable credits. This way, prices of goods factor in their carbon emissions as carbon-intensive processes will cost more and will therefore be more expensive for the consumer. This incentivises companies to lower their emissions to compete with one another.
This also levels the playing field between fossil fuels and other renewable carbon-free energy sources as fossil fuels is currently cheaper, more abundant, more reliable, and more portable than other alternatives.
Read this introduction to renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, hydroelectricity, biomass and geothermal from National Geographic (registration required).
One of the challenges of renewable sources of energy such as solar and wind is its costs and unreliability.
The sun sets every night and gets clouded over, while the wind is often becalmed and not exactly consistent across different parts of the world. Furthermore, they take up substantial amount of space and will therefore be insufficient to provide our energy needs.
A potential solution involves an inconvenient and controversial alternative: nuclear power.
Nuclear power is the world’s most abundant and scalable carbon-free energy source. In contrast to other forms of renewable energy, it produces an immense amount of energy from a small bit of mass. Power plants themselves take up about one five-hundredth of the land needed by wind or solar. Mining the uranium for nuclear energy also leaves a far smaller environmental scar than mining coal, oil or gas.
However, nuclear energy has a bad name because everyone recalls the 1986 Chernobyl disaster that resulted in a few thousand early deaths from cancer. Interestingly, no one really highlights that the other two famous accidents, the Three Mile Island in 1979 and Fukushima more recently in 2011 killed no one. On the other hand, many deadly accidents happen to miners of coal or the burning of combustibles.
To look into the debate between renewable energy sources and nuclear energy sources, here is a good article on the perils and promises of both.
The future: green hydrogen?
Another potential emissions-free alternative energy source is hydrogen. Yes, the lightest element hydrogen. It is abundant on our planet and it could – in theory – be used to power almost anything, from cars to homes, agriculture to heavy industry.
While hydrogen is everywhere around us, it does not often exist as a single element. To extract it, we have to split water (H2O) molecules into hydrogen and oxygen through electricity. This process is called electrolysis. Green hydrogen is hydrogen that has been extracted by electrolysis powered by emissions-free energy sources such as solar or wind power.
Green hydrogen is getting quite a lot of attention as the ‘fuel of the future’ and the missing piece of the decarbonisation puzzle. Across the world, governments are contemplating strategies in using hydrogen while many giant companies are also hoping to invest big to cash in on this potential ‘boom’.
However, while hydrogen holds some promise as the ‘miracle fuel’, it is still a fuel for the future. Previous hype cycles around hydrogen have ended in failure due to a combination of its expensive cost, difficult storage, inefficiency and explosivity. Governments and companies will have to invest more to experiment and innovate infrastructure and technology to test the feasibility of hydrogen.
Australian billionaire and chairman of Fortescue Metals Group Andrew “Twiggy” Forest is one such ambitious corporate leader who is looking invest in green hydrogen. Listen to his interview with BBC HardTalk.
Audio from BBC Hardtalk. Andrew Forrest: Mega-polluter turned climate revolutionary. Stephen Sackur speaks to Andrew Forrest, an Australian billionaire mining magnate who is using a chunk of his fortune to push a green, hydrogen-based energy solution.