The tools to tackle climate change are at our fingertips

How warm do we want it to get?

The developed world has both the means and the technology to bring carbon emissions under control. It should lead by example.

The conventional wisdom on climate change has been that fast, decisive action is unaffordable. Shifting to cleaner energy will dampen economic growth, the argument goes, and impose an unacceptable burden on the taxpayer, who will have to fund all the solar plants, wind farms, and other green solutions needed to keep the lights on while we are phasing out fossil energy.

Developing nations have tended to use this argument as an alibi for inaction, claiming that, without decisive action by the rich countries, it is unreasonable to expect them to curb their emissions before their societies catch up with the west.

Over time, such arguments have begun to ring increasingly hollow. In the United States, the shale gas boom has not only brought an economic revival, it has cut emissions to levels last seen in the 1990s, exploding the notion that a shift to less polluting sources of energy will be bad for the economy.

At the same time, the costs of harvesting renewable energy have been falling fast and, in some countries, solar, wind and the like are becoming competitive with fossil energy.

Then there is technology; energy consumption, and therefore emissions, can be cut considerably by upgrading existing power plants and judiciously phasing out old ones (in the US, most are well past their sell-by date). Less remarked upon, but equally compelling is the potential gains from improving the efficiency of our factories and industrial processes. The simple expedient of installing motors equipped with a variable speed drive, which adjusts speed based on load, can reduce energy consumption and costs considerably. The same applies to HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) systems, which account for 40 percent of buildings’ energy consumption.

Despite much foot-dragging, these developments are increasingly being felt. Renewable energy now accounts for around half of all the new generating capacity in the US and countries such as Germany and Japan have placed renewables at the center of their energy policies. Industry is also investing in cleaner technologies both because the savings on their energy bills quickly pay for themselves many times over and because public pressure for sustainable practices is growing.

In short, the US and Europe are now approaching the point where, with concerted action, carbon emissions could be brought under control. This has been recognized by President Obama, who in late June re-affirmed America’s emissions targets* and unveiled plans to limit power-plant emissions, eliminate the worst toxins and encourage investment in clean energy.

For its part, the European Union has taken an even more overt stance by solidifying its emissions targets in law and pledging to reduce them even further if other “major emitting countries” – read the US, China and increasingly India – “commit to undertake their fair share of a global emissions reduction effort”.

Behind the EU’s “offer” and presumably in the back of President Obama’s mind, is the uncomfortable reality that the US and Europe are now effectively a sideshow when it comes to climate change. Even if they surpass their targets, the developing world’s emissions will continue to increase at an unsustainable rate.

If the west wants to tackle climate change, therefore, it has no alternative but to clean up its own act and show the rest of world that investing in cleaner energy and efficiency is a sound economic proposition.

* In 2009, President Obama made a commitment to reduce US greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. The EU’s target is to cut emissions to 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2020.

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About the author

Jonas Hughes

I am a writer and editor in the Corporate Communications department of ABB. I have worked as a journalist and communicator in Switzerland, Britain, North America and South Africa, and am interested in how technology affects the lives of ordinary people.
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