What Are the Best Global Warming Solutions for the Economy?
Things You Can Do Today
Global warming solutions reduce the impact of rising atmospheric and oceanic temperatures. The warmest 30-year period in the Northern Hemisphere over the last 1,400 years was between 1983 and 2012. Global warming cost the U.S. government more than $350 billion between 2007 and 2017. It will cost $112 billion per year in the future, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
Although 71 percent of Americans believe global warming is real, they don't know the best solutions.
There are three categories. They are coping strategies, solutions to reduce future greenhouse emissions, and methods of removing existing greenhouse gases. But the most powerful solutions are also ones that anyone can start today.
Many cities are already implementing coping strategies. They must reduce the impact of flooding and rising sea levels caused by global warming.
China is combating increased flooding with 30 new "sponge cities." In 2015, it launched the Sponge City Initiative. The government funded $12 billion to create water reuse projects. By 2020, it wants to have 80 percent of China's cities reusing almost three-quarters of their rainwater. The project will mitigate both flood damage and drought at the same time.
The City of Miami Beach, Florida, launched a five-year public works program to combat rising sea levels. The streets flood during high tide. The $500 million program will raise roads, install pumps, and redo sewer connections.
Reduce Future Greenhouse Emissions
In the Paris Climate Accord, nations promised to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.
The United States could do much more to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. In 2016, natural gas generated 34 percent of the 4.079 trillion kWh of total U.S. electricity production.
Coal-fired plants came next, generating 30 percent. U.S. nuclear plants generated 19.7 percent, but prevented 573 million tons of CO2 emissions. Hydroelectricity contributed only 6.5 percent, while other alternative sources including wind power only added 8.4 percent. A 1 percent increase of global wind power could reduce 84.6 gigatons of carbon dioxide.
The government should impose Pigouvian taxes on greenouse gases emitters. The taxes should be high enough to reflect the true cost of petroleum products.
Refrigerant management was the most impactful solution, according to The Drawdown Project. Hydrofluorocarbons have 1,000 to 9,000 times greater capacity to warm the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. In October 2016, more than 170 countries agreed to the Kigali Accord. They agreed to phase out HFCs in high-income countries in 2019 and all others in 2028. Propane and ammonium are available substitutes.
The Kigali accord will reduce global warming by nearly one degree Fahrenheit but cost $903 billion by 2050. Ninety percent of refrigerant emissions happen at the end of their useful life. Effective disposal of those currently in circulation is essential. They can be purified for reuse or transformed into other chemicals that do not cause warming.
On April 13, 2018, the shipping industry agreed to lower emissions from ships. By 2050, emissions will be 50 percent of the 2008 level. The industry emits 800 million tons of carbon dioxide annually, or 2.3 percent of the world's total. To reach its goal, the industry must replace oil with biofuels or hydrogen. It will need more energy-efficient designs.
Improved battery technology could eliminate gas-hungry combustion engines. In 2018, Sila Nanotechnologies created a silicon-based lithium battery. It holds 15 percent more energy than the best battery out there. BMW will use the battery in its electric vehicles by 2023. Sila is working on a battery that achieves a 40 percent improvement.
California required all new homes to have solar power by 2020. It will add $8,000 to $12,000 to the cost of a house.
It will also reduce electricity bills. California's rate structure favors renewable sources. It will add $40 a month to the mortgage payment but save $80 a month in electric bills. New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Washington, D.C., are also considering similar legislation. California is already the leader in installed solar capacity. It provides 15 percent of the state's electricity and employs 86,000 workers.
A new report in Energy and Environmental Science shows how the United States could convert to an 80 percent solar and wind-based energy system. It would require a significant advancement in energy storage technologies or hundreds of billions of dollars invested in renewable energy infrastructure. The researchers looked at 36 years’ worth of hourly sun and wind data in the continental United States. It gave them a better understanding of the geophysical barriers faced by renewable systems in the country.
The biggest challenge is storing enough energy to supply power when the wind and the sun aren't available. The United States has a power demand of 450 gigawatts. The United States would need to build a network of energy storage facilities able to bank 12 hours of solar energy at a time. It would need to have a storage capacity of approximately 5.4 terrawatt-hours. It’s the same size as the Tesla Gigafactory, Elon Musk’s giant battery production facility in Nevada. It would cost over $1 trillion.
Build structures with cool or green roofs. Cool roofs are painted white. Green roofs have a lot of plants on them. Some are even covered with earth and plants. They use less energy than standard buildings and emit fewer greenhouse gases. Researchers say white roofs reduce temperatures by 2.6 degrees Fahrenheit. But they could also reduce rainfall or lead to the need for more heating in the winter.
Educate girls through high school. Girls who drop out of school in fifth grade to marry have five or more children. Girls who complete high school have two children on average. That leaves fewer people to emit greenhouse gases.
Lower Existing Greenhouse Gases
Reducing emissions isn’t enough to stop global warming. Existing CO2 levels must be lowered from current levels of 400 parts per million to the preindustrial maximum of 300 parts per million.
For example, the Paris Climate Agreement had wanted to limit warming to 1.5 degrees above preindustrial levels. Temperatures have already exceeded that. To reach that goal, we must first stop adding CO2 to the atmosphere. To do that, we would have to do three things:
- Eliminate coal as a fuel for electric generation by 2050.
- Use solar and wind power for 60-80 percent of generation.
- Capture the carbon dioxide emitted by biofuel plants and store it underground.
To reverse rising temperatures, humanity must then remove 30 years’ worth of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by 2100.
Removing greenhouse gases requires geoengineering of the planet and atmosphere on a grand scale. Carbon sequestration captures and stores existing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. There are five ways that are most often discussed.
- Plant trees. Worldwide, forests store 1 billion to 2 billion tons of carbon each year. It only partially offsets the 10 billion tons people emit. The downside is it is slow and takes a lot of land. Similarly, use farming techniques that put carbon back into the soils.
- Filter the carbon out of the air using chemicals that bind with it. President Trump's Fiscal Year 2019 budget gives companies a $50 tax credit for every metric ton of carbon they capture and bury underground. But it's less than the cost of carbon capture, which is $60 to $70 a metric ton. The process requires machines that move enormous amounts of air, since carbon makes up 0.04 percent of the atmosphere. It works at power stations because carbon dioxide makes up 5-10 percent of their emissions. The Petra Nova station in Texas will be the world's largest coal power plan. It will capture 90 percent of its carbon dioxide. But the captured C02 will be pumped into depleted oil wells. It will recover 60 million barrels of oil, which will release new C02 when it's burned. The C02 gas must then be transported to storage facilities. It costs $11 per metric ton of C02. Retired oil fields have the best conditions. Volcanic basalt is also a good medium. The ocean's floor is made of it. Trump's tax credit could spur research into emerging energy technologies. Startups are exploring how to use excess CO2 to produce alternative fuels and building materials.
- Dump nutrients into the ocean to grow more phytoplankton. These tiny plants capture carbon. But it is also pollution.
- Capture carbon from burning biofuels. This could add carbon to the air once the cost of growing and harvesting the plants is taken into account.
- Crush carbon-absorbing rock, such as olivine. But it would be very expensive to crush enough rock to make a difference.
Solar radiation management reduces the sunlight and heat that hits the Earth. One way is to add more pollution into the atmosphere. Pollution also cools the Earth. Particles like soot reflect the sun's heat before it gets a chance to reach the earth. These particles also help to form clouds, which reflect the sun's rays back to earth. But the greenhouse gases are winning out. We've done a good job of getting rid of particle pollution, but not carbon dioxide. So some scientists want to amp up the strength of particulate formation. But even the experts aren't sure exactly how this would affect the earth's temperature. They aren't even sure which particulates are best for creating clouds.
Volcanoes send particulates into the stratosphere, where they remain for a year. When Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines erupted in 1991, the Earth's temperature dropped by 0.4-0.6 degrees Celsius. We would have to not only put the particulates into the stratosphere but maintain it for decades.
Another problem is that the particulates destroy ozone, which protects the earth from cancer-producing radiation. Another problem is that it wouldn't reduce the effects of CO2 on the ocean. For example, it makes the ocean more acidic, which destroys coral reefs. It would also block solar energy, needed to make solar cell technology work.
Others want to put particulates into the troposphere to create clouds. That would reduce temperatures, but also change rain patterns. For example, it could create droughts in rainforests, furthering increasing CO2 emissions. These analyses are supported by the National Academies of Science and by Daniel Cziczo, Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Once nations and companies realize they will save money by reducing CO2, there will be more incentive to do so. Those benefits exist. A 2018 MIT study found that China could save $339 billion by implementing its Paris agreement pledge. The savings result from fewer deaths from air pollution. The health and productivity savings would be four times greater than the China's costs of meeting those goals.
What You Can Do
Some people feel overwhelmed by climate change and think "Why bother?" Michael Pollen, author of an April 20, 2008 New York Times article with the same question, “Why Bother?” sees it as a gift not a curse. He adds, "Why bother means game over. I actually see it as game on. It's a different point of view. Climate change is feedback, and any system that doesn't incorporate that feedback is stupid and fails and dies. Here, we have feedback, and the feedback it's giving us is a pathway to a much better world than the one we live in now."
Solutions to climate change create a cleaner, healthier world with more jobs, food, and life on the planet. Meeting the challenge will create a breakthrough in human thinking. But it means we must shift our way of seeing ourselves in relation to each other and the planet.
If you want to support efforts to reduce global warming, there are five simple but effective steps you can take.
First, enjoy a plant-based diet with less meat. Cows create methane, a greenhouse gas. Monoculture crops to feed the cows destroy forests. The Drawdown Coalition estimated that would have absorbed 39.3 gigatons of carbon dioxide. As a result, the beef-based Western diet contributes one-fifth of global emissions. If cattle were their own nation, they would be the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases. According to a 2016 study, emissions could be reduced by 70 percent with a vegan diet and 63 percent for a vegetarian diet that includes cheese, milk, and eggs. It would also reduce rising health care costs by $1 trillion.
Second, reduce food waste. The Drawdown Coalition estimated that 26.2 gigatons of CO2 emissions would be avoided if food waste was reduced by 50 percent. Unused food creates methane as it decomposes in landfills. Forests would not have to be cut down for farmland, preventing 44.4 gigatons of additional emissions.
Third, cut fossil-fuel use. Where available, use more mass transit, biking, and electric vehicles. Or keep your car but maintain it. Keep the tires inflated, change the air filter, and drive under 60 miles per hour. These simple steps will reduce your emission of greenhouse gases. The Economist’s April 9, 2007 article, "Mean Machine," discusses great tips on how to drive on the “green side.”
Fourth, legally hold the government accountable. In 2015, a group of Oregon teenagers sued the federal government for worsening global warming. They claimed that by doing so, the government violated their rights, and those of future generations, under the U.S. Constitution. The suit claims that the government promoted regulations that supported the proliferation of 25 percent of the world's carbon emissions. It asks the court to force the government to create a plan to change course.
Last but not least, become more informed. Here are some good sources of news and solutions:
- Climate Central
- InsideClimate News
- Extreme Weather & Our Changing Climate
- The Weather of the Future
- The Water Will Come
- New York Times answers to frequently asked questions about climate change
- New York Times Climate Change newsletter