Need for Speed: Buying Time for the Clean Energy Revolution

05/30/2008 05:12 am 05:12:01 | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Here in the US, we may finally get it. We are turning off our lights, doing without plastic bags, driving less, and staying up-to-date on every new breakthrough from solar ribbons to fuel cells to climate neutral campuses. Every newspaper, magazine, company, and blog seems to have a green focus. It gives me great hope that the US is finally returning to its preeminent status as the land of innovation, and its citizens are re-emerging as the forward-thinking leaders and entrepreneurs of tomorrow. It's great!

But while these cool, new, futuristic technologies may eventually be cheap enough to provide warmth, food, shelter, transportation, power, and enjoyment to 300 million Americans and 6.5 billion global residents, right now they are still unavailable to the vast majority of global citizens - who still have no cars, no plastic bags, and no campuses.

And while we wait for the solutions of tomorrow, we are missing the boat on age-old ideas and technologies to solve the problem of global climate change that are literally lurking right under our noses.

The Need for Speed

Durwood Zaelke, President and founder of the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development, Director of the International Network for Environmental Compliance and Enforcement (INECE), and head of the Board of my employer, the National Association of Environmental Law Societies (NAELS), is a hard man to keep up with.

Recent phone calls to check in have found him in Dublin, Monaco, Bali, Honolulu, DC, Santa Barbara, Cape Town, Copenhagen, and the bush in Kenya. In fact, I'm not sure where he is right now, although I know this Monday he was in DC at the Kennedy Center picking up two awards for his groundbreaking climate and ozone work at the 2008 U.S. EPA Climate Protection and Ozone Layer Protection Awards.

According to Zaelke, there is a reason for this frantic pace - an intense need for speed in solving the climate crisis. Zaelke, and a growing community of international leaders, see enormous missed opportunities to tap into the low-hanging fruit of greenhouse gas reductions.

The Times They Are A-Changin'

The US Energy Information Agency pegged global, energy-related CO2 emissions at 27 billion metric tons (BMT) in 2004. The US, the EU, Russia, and Japan lead the way among developed countries - totaling about 12 BMT. China and India are the most prolific emitters among developing countries - combining for nearly 6.0 BMT.

This dynamic, however, is slated to change over the coming decades. The Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA) projects that global energy related emissions will rise above 40 BMT by 2030, with developing countries surpassing developed countries around 2020. So, in crafting global solutions over the next several decades, it is important not to forget the sizeable and growing contributions from billions in the developing world, even as we address the much higher per capita emissions and the cumulative historic emissions of the developed nations.

Low Hanging Carbon - 3 No Brainers

According to Zaelke, and Tom Spencer, Vice-Chairman for the Institute for Environmental Security, there are three key areas where simple technologies can produce startling results - particularly in the developing world.

1. Developing Cities: Soot or Black Carbon (BC)

According to Zaelke's research team, "emissions from black carbon BC are the second largest contributor to global warming after carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, and reducing these emissions is the fastest strategy for slowing climate change in the near-term."

In the 1950's, the US and developed countries emitted an enormous amount of BC through their industrial processes. Thanks to new pollution controls, however, this has been reduced by more than 80%. New laws, scheduled to take effect in 2015 and 2020, will go even further.

The new leading cause of BC is in developing nations, where China and India now produce the lion's-share, 25-35%, of global BC emissions. And the trend is getting worse - as rapidly-developing China has doubled its output between 2000 and 2006.

A full 60% of these BC emissions come from two sources - 42% from open biomass burning (when people cut down forests or savannas and burn most of what they cut) and another 18% from burning bio-fuels in their homes. Other emissions come from incomplete combustion of fossil fuels, including dirty diesels--trucks, buses, cars, as well as ships.

And the effects for global warming are disastrous. While airborne, this soot absorbs the sun's rays and heat up - leading to hotter days. Once it comes down, BC stops bright-white snow and ice from reflecting the sun's rays away from the Earth's surface, which are instead absorbed. The consequences? Further increases in temperature, decreasing snow-pack in the Himalayas, accelerating the disintegration of the Greenland Ice Sheet, and melting Arctic Sea Ice.

And even if the notion of rising sea-levels, severe droughts, and extreme weather events doesn't scare you (although it should!), how about the loss of much of the water which grows Asia's rice, whose price has doubled in the last half-year, threatening the food security of many of Asia's 4 billion people!

2. Developing Countrysides: Bio-char

Bio-char is a millennias old agricultural practice, which involves burning bio-waste in a controlled environment with no oxygen rather than practicing slash-and-burn forest clearing. Instead of latching on to oxygen in the air, and turning into CO2, the carbon is sequestered in the soil - either staying there or combining with other nutrients to grow plants. Ancient civilizations in the Amazon utilized this practice to make their soils more productive. Today, scientists and environmentalists want to utilize bio-char as a means of sequestering carbon, while farmers reap the co-benefits of enhanced soil productivity.

With some help, expanding populations in developing countries can clear land (felling forests and slashing savannas) and burn what they don't use in the ground instead of in the open air. According to Spencer, switching from slash-and-burn to slash-and-char can prevent 12% of annual carbon emissions from land use changes - which amounts to a full 2% of global emissions. In the process, developing countries can reduce BC. In fact, when bio-char is combined with bio-fuel production, it becomes a carbon negative process, that actually takes CO2 out of the atmosphere. In an ever-warming world, this is one idea that is pretty cool!

3. CFCs and HCFC Banks: Phasing-Out Old Appliances

The Montreal Protocol, one of the most effective international environmental treaties in the Earth's history, has phased out 95% of ozone-depleting substances in developed countries and 50-75% in developing countries. As a result, it may have already delayed the consequences of climate change for up to 12 years.

Between now and 2015, old, out-of-date air conditioners and other products and equipment will emit an estimated 7.4 billion tons of CO2 equivalent - or more than 1 billion tons per year. Many of these emissions can be prevented by recycling and reclaiming the damaging chemicals in these out-of-date appliances, and replacing them with energy efficient and ozone friendly equipment already in use in developed countries.

The Consequences of Waiting

Already, representatives from Micronesia and the Alliance of Small Island States are warning that if we wait too long, their countries may be gone. Seriously.

According to the recent Congressional testimony (pdf) of Masao Nakayama, Permanent Representative of the Federated States of Micronesia to the United Nations, "the topic of climate change is very much on the minds of our leaders and our people in Micronesia. Climate change is about our very existence - our existence as a country ...We now must ask ourselves, 'How long will our country, and our culture, continue to exist?'"

According to Nakayama, "US leadership can be the catalyst for a tipping point in climate governance, which in turn can produce a tipping point in technological innovation - the equivalent of Moore's Law for computer technology, but in this case for clean energy and other climate friendly technologies."

Very simply put, "This is what we need, and this is what we know the US, more than any country in the world, is capable of providing, including leadership for the 'fast start' strategies needed to avoid abrupt climate change."

And Nakayama is actually optimistic about "climate leadership in the US, including from Congress...Strong leadership from the US is key to strong international commitments in the Bali treaty process under the UN. This leadership can come from the next US President, or it can come from the US Congress, We hope it comes from both."

So, for those of you reading this in the United States, please take a minute today to think outside of your campus, city, county, state, and nation to see where the billions of hours or research, advocacy, and action are going. And help provide the basic level of support necessary for the international community to get going on its own "fast start" strategies. Write to your leaders and implore them to act now to exploit these and other opportunities to mitigate climate change in the near-term, while continuing to develop and negotiate a global climate regime for the future.

Before Micronesia, the Alliances of Small Island Nations, and other low-lying countries become modern-day Atlantis and this climate crisis spins out of control.