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10 Solutions for Climate Change

Ten possibilities for staving off catastrophic climate change

By David Biello on November 26, 2007

S H A R E L A T E S T
S H A R E
L A T E S T

Credit: NASA

Theenormityofglobalwarmingcanbedauntinganddispiriting.Whatcanone

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bothatPrincetonUniversity,cameupwith15so­called"wedges"fornationsto

utilizetowardthisgoal—eachofwhichischallengingbutfeasibleand,insome

combination,couldreducegreenhousegasemissionstosaferlevels—thereare

personallifestylechangesthatyoucanmaketoothat,insomecombination,can

helpreduceyourcarbonimpact.Notallarerightforeverybody.Someyoumay

alreadybedoingorabsolutelyabhor.Butimplementingjustafewofthem

couldmakeadifference.

ForegoFossilFuels—Thefirstchallengeiseliminatingtheburningofcoal,

oiland,eventually,naturalgas.Thisisperhapsthemostdauntingchallengeas

denizensofrichernationsliterallyeat,wear,work,playandevensleeponthe

productsmadefromsuchfossilizedsunshine.Andcitizensofdeveloping

nationswantandarguablydeservethesamecomforts,whicharelargelythanks

totheenergystoredinsuchfuels.

Oilisthelubricantoftheglobaleconomy,hiddeninsidesuchubiquitousitems

asplasticandcorn,andfundamentaltothetransportationofbothconsumers

andgoods.Coalisthesubstrate,supplyingroughlyhalfoftheelectricityusedin

theU.S.andnearlythatmuchworldwide—apercentagethatislikelytogrow,

accordingtotheInternationalEnergyAgency.Therearenoperfectsolutions

forreducingdependenceonfossilfuels(forexample,carbonneutralbiofuels

everybitcounts.

Sotrytoemployalternativeswhenpossible—plant­derivedplastics,biodiesel,

windpower—andtoinvestinthechange,beitbydivestingfromoilstocksor

investingincompaniespracticingcarboncaptureandstorage.

InfrastructureUpgrade—Buildingsworldwidecontributearoundonethird

ofallgreenhousegasemissions(43percentintheU.S.alone),eventhough

investinginthickerinsulationandothercost­effective,temperature­regulating

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stepscansavemoneyinthelongrun.Electricgridsareatcapacityor

overloaded,butpowerdemandscontinuetorise.Andbadroadscanlowerthe

fueleconomyofeventhemostefficientvehicle.Investinginnewinfrastructure,

orradicallyupgradingexistinghighwaysandtransmissionlines,wouldhelpcut

greenhousegasemissionsanddriveeconomicgrowthindevelopingcountries.

Ofcourse,ittakesalotofcement,amajorsourceofgreenhousegasemissions,

toconstructnewbuildingsandroads.TheU.S.alonecontributed50.7million

metrictonsofcarbondioxidetotheatmospherein2005fromcement

production,whichrequiresheatinglimestoneandotheringredientsto1,450

degreesCelsius(2,642degreesFahrenheit).Miningcopperandotherelements

neededforelectricalwiringandtransmissionalsocausesglobe­warming

pollution.

Butenergy­efficientbuildingsandimprovedcement­makingprocesses(suchas

usingalternativefuelstofireupthekiln)couldreducegreenhousegas

emissionsinthedevelopedworldandpreventtheminthedevelopingworld.

MoveClosertoWork—Transportationisthesecondleadingsourceof greenhousegasemissionsintheU.S.(burningasinglegallonofgasoline produces20poundsofCO 2 ).Butitdoesn'thavetobethatway.

Onewaytodramaticallycurtailtransportationfuelneedsistomovecloserto

work,usemasstransit,orswitchtowalking,cyclingorsomeothermodeof

transportthatdoesnotrequireanythingotherthanhumanenergy.Thereis

alsotheoptionofworkingfromhomeandtelecommutingseveraldaysaweek.

Cuttingdownonlong­distancetravelwouldalsohelp,mostnotablyairplane

flights,whichareoneofthefastestgrowingsourcesofgreenhousegas

emissionsandasourcethatarguablyreleasessuchemissionsintheworst

possiblespot(higherintheatmosphere).Flightsarealsooneofthefewsources

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ofglobe­warmingpollutionforwhichthereisn'talreadyaviablealternative:

jetsrelyonkerosene,becauseitpacksthemostenergyperpound,allowing

themtotravelfarandfast,yetittakesroughly10gallonsofoiltomakeone

gallonofJetAfuel.Restrictingflyingtoonlycritical,long­distancetrips—in

manypartsoftheworld,trainscanreplaceplanesforshort­tomedium­

distancetrips—wouldhelpcurbairplaneemissions.

ConsumeLess—Theeasiestwaytocutbackongreenhousegasemissionsis

simplytobuylessstuff.Whetherbyforgoinganautomobileoremployinga

reusablegrocerysack,cuttingbackonconsumptionresultsinfewerfossilfuels

beingburnedtoextract,produceandshipproductsaroundtheglobe.

Thinkgreenwhenmakingpurchases.Forinstance,ifyouareinthemarketfor

anewcar,buyonethatwilllastthelongestandhavetheleastimpactonthe

environment.Thus,ausedvehiclewithahybridengineofferssuperiorfuel

efficiencyoverthelonghaulwhilesavingtheenvironmentalimpactofnewcar

manufacture.

Paradoxically,whenpurchasingessentials,suchasgroceries,buyinginbulkcan

reducetheamountofpackaging—plasticwrapping,cardboardboxesandother

unnecessarymaterials.Sometimesbuyingmoremeansconsumingless.

BeEfficient—Apotentiallysimplerandevenbiggerimpactcanbemadeby

doingmorewithless.Citizensofmanydevelopedcountriesareprofligate

wastersofenergy,whetherbyspeedinginagas­guzzlingsport­utilityvehicleor

leavingthelightsonwhennotinaroom.

Gooddriving—andgoodcarmaintenance,suchasmakingsuretiresare

properlyinflated—canlimittheamountofgreenhousegasemissionsfroma

vehicleand,perhapsmoreimportantly,lowerthefrequencyofpaymentatthe

pump.

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Similarly,employingmoreefficientrefrigerators,airconditionersandother

appliances,suchasthoseratedhighlyundertheU.S.EnvironmentalProtection

Agency'sEnergyStarprogram,cancutelectricbillswhilesomethingassimple

asweatherproofingthewindowsofahomecanreduceheatingandcoolingbills.

Sucheffortscanalsobeusefullyemployedatwork,whetherthatmeans

EatSmart,GoVegetarian?—CorngrownintheU.S.requiresbarrelsofoil

forthefertilizertogrowitandthedieselfueltoharvestandtransportit.Some

grocerystoresstockorganicproducethatdonotrequiresuchfertilizers,butit

isoftenshippedfromhalfwayacrosstheglobe.Andmeat,whetherbeef,

chickenorpork,requirespoundsoffeedtoproduceapoundofprotein.

Choosingfooditemsthatbalancenutrition,tasteandecologicalimpactisno

easytask.Foodstuffsoftenbearsomenutritionalinformation,butthereislittle

torevealhowfaraheadoflettuce,forexample,hastraveled.

UniversityofChicagoresearchersestimatethateachmeat­eatingAmerican

produces1.5tonsmoregreenhousegasesthroughtheirfoodchoicethando

theirvegetarianpeers.Itwouldalsotakefarlesslandtogrowthecrops

necessarytofeedhumansthanlivestock,allowingmoreroomforplanting

trees.

ofcarbontotheatmosphere.Thatrepresents20percentofhuman­made

greenhousegasemissionsandasourcethatcouldbeavoidedrelativelyeasily.

Improvedagriculturalpracticesalongwithpaperrecyclingandforest

management—balancingtheamountofwoodtakenoutwiththeamountofnew

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treesgrowing—couldquicklyeliminatethissignificantchunkofemissions.

Andwhenpurchasingwoodproducts,suchasfurnitureorflooring,buyused

goodsor,failingthat,woodcertifiedtohavebeensustainablyharvested.The

Amazonandotherforestsarenotjustthelungsoftheearth,theymayalsobe

humanity'sbestshort­termhopeforlimitingclimatechange.

Unplug—Believeitornot,U.S.citizensspendmoremoneyonelectricityto

powerdeviceswhenoffthanwhenon.Televisions,stereoequipment,

computers,batterychargersandahostofothergadgetsandappliances

consumemoreenergywhenseeminglyswitchedoff,sounplugtheminstead.

Purchasingenergy­efficientgadgetscanalsosavebothenergyandmoney—and thuspreventmoregreenhousegasemissions.Totakebutoneexample,efficient batterychargerscouldsavemorethanonebillionkilowatt­hoursofelectricity—

$100millionattoday'selectricityprices—andthuspreventthereleaseofmore

thanonemillionmetrictonsofgreenhousegases.

Swappingoldincandescentlightbulbsformoreefficientreplacements,suchas

compactfluorescents(warning:theselightbulbscontainmercuryandmustbe

properlydisposedofattheendoftheirlonglife),wouldsavebillionsof

kilowatt­hours.Infact,accordingtotheEPA,replacingjustoneincandescent

lightbulbineveryAmericanhomewouldsaveenoughenergytoprovide

electricitytothreemillionAmericanhomes.

OneChild—Thereareatleast6.6billionpeoplelivingtoday,anumberthatis

predictedbytheUnitedNationstogrowtoatleastninebillionbymid­century.

fromtheplanet.Continuingsuchpopulationgrowthseemsunsustainable.

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Fallingbirthratesinsomedevelopedanddevelopingcountries(asignificant

portionofwhichareduetogovernment­imposedlimitsonthenumberof

childrenacouplecanhave)havebeguntoreduceorreversethepopulation

explosion.Itremainsunclearhowmanypeopletheplanetcancomfortably

sustain,butitisclearthatpercapitaenergyconsumptionmustgodownif

climatechangeistobecontrolled.

Ultimately,aonechildpercoupleruleisnotsustainableeitherandthereisno

perfectnumberforhumanpopulation.Butitisclearthatmorehumansmeans

moregreenhousegasemissions.

FutureFuels—Replacingfossilfuelsmayprovethegreatchallengeofthe21st

century.Manycontendersexist,rangingfromethanolderivedfromcropsto

hydrogenelectrolyzedoutofwater,butallofthemhavesomedrawbacks,too,

andnoneareimmediatelyavailableatthescaleneeded.

Biofuelscanhaveahostofnegativeimpacts,fromdrivingupfoodpricesto

suckingupmoreenergythantheyproduce.Hydrogenmustbecreated,

requiringeitherreformingnaturalgasorelectricitytocrackwatermolecules.

Biodieselhybridelectricvehicles(thatcanplugintothegridovernight)may

offerthebesttransportationsolutionintheshortterm,giventheenergydensity

ofdieselandthecarbonneutralramificationsoffuelfromplantsaswellasthe

emissionsofelectricengines.Arecentstudyfoundthatthepresentamountof

electricitygenerationintheU.S.couldprovideenoughenergyforthecountry's

entirefleetofautomobilestoswitchtoplug­inhybrids,reducinggreenhouse

gasemissionsintheprocess.

Butplug­inhybridswouldstillrelyonelectricity,nowpredominantlygenerated

byburningdirtycoal.Massiveinvestmentinlow­emissionenergygeneration,

whethersolar­thermalpowerornuclearfission,wouldberequiredtoradically

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reducegreenhousegasemissions.Andevenmorespeculativeenergysources—

hyperefficientphotovoltaiccells,solarenergystationsinorbitorevenfusion—

mayultimatelyberequired.

Thesolutionsaboveoffertheoutlineofaplantopersonallyavoidcontributing

toglobalwarming.Butshouldsuchindividualandnationaleffortsfail,thereis

another,potentiallydesperatesolution:

ExperimentEarth—Climatechangerepresentshumanity'sfirstplanetwide

experiment.But,ifallelsefails,itmaynotbethelast.So­calledgeoengineering,

radicalinterventionstoeitherblocksunlightorreducegreenhousegases,isa

potentiallastresortforaddressingthechallengeofclimatechange.

Amongtheideas:releasingsulfateparticlesintheairtomimicthecooling

effectsofamassivevolcaniceruption;placingmillionsofsmallmirrorsor

lensesinspacetodeflectsunlight;coveringportionsoftheplanetwith

increasingcloudcoverorthereflectivityofcloudsthatalreadyform.

Allmayhaveunintendedconsequences,makingthesolutionworsethanthe

originalproblem.Butitisclearthatatleastsomeformofgeoengineeringwill

likelyberequired:capturingcarbondioxidebeforeitisreleasedandstoringit

insomefashion,eitherdeepbeneaththeearth,atthebottomoftheoceanorin

carbonateminerals.Suchcarboncaptureandstorageiscriticaltoanyserious

efforttocombatclimatechange.

AdditionalreportingbyLarryGreenemeierandNikhilSwaminathan.

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ABOUT THE A UTHOR(S)

ABOUT THE A UTHOR(S) David Biello Biello is the award­winning senior reporter

David Biello

Biello is the award­winning senior reporter for environment and energy at Scientific American. He has been reporting on the environment and energy since 1999­­long enough to be cynical but not long enough to be depressed. He is a contributor to the 60­Second Science podcasts and host of "Beyond the Light Switch" as well as the forthcoming "The Ethanol Effect" for PBS. He is the author of a children's book on bullet trains and has a new book for grown­ups­­"The Unnatural World"­­ coming out in November 2016.

Recent Articles by David Biello

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