With more and more extreme weather events and the recent climate change conferences, the public is galvanized by the need to address climate change. Not too long ago, the Pope proclaimed that the world needs to reduce its dependency on fossil fuels because of the dire consequences of climate change. Though it is still a controversial topic for some, it is hard to argue with the evidence that the extreme weather that comes with climate change seriously impacts the world’s poorest. Fortunately, it seems that the effort to curb greenhouse gases is finally gaining some traction.
The latest series of reports published by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) caused a stir. According to the “Fifth Assessment Report”, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have now reached an unprecedented level. The IPCC concluded that GHG emissions grew faster between 2000 and 2010 than in each of the three previous decades measurements were taken.
The team of scientists that worked on this report included more than 800 experts from 85 countries around the world. As such, it is the closest thing we have to the “wisdom of crowds” when it comes to climate change. The fact that GHG emissions keep rising at a record pace despite an increasing number of government policies was a blow, but the one-two punch came from the forecast that the impact of climate change will be more pronounced in the coming decades. By 2100, average temperatures around the world are expected to increase by about 5 degrees Celsius if no action is taken. Such an increase may not sound like much, but many scientists believe that this level of increase in average temperatures may bring many unpleasant consequences, such as more powerful hurricanes, flooding and droughts.
The 2-degree Celsius limit
The two main driving forces behind increasing greenhouse gas emissions (and consequently, increasing temperatures) are increasing global population and economic growth. Thus, even if the population growth came to a standstill tomorrow, GHG emissions would continue to increase as emerging economies continue their growth. The IPCC experts have identified a 2 degrees Celsius increase as the maximum acceptable level that would allow an orderly transition to a changing climate. In order to achieve this target, drastic increases in energy efficiency are needed along with a near quadrupling of clean energy supplies.
Adaptation and mitigation
There are two main mechanisms at our disposal to manage such an orderly transition: adaptation and mitigation. The former involves changing our existing habits in order to minimize the impact of new climate conditions on our daily lives. The latter, mitigation, involves developing new technologies and capabilities to actively decrease the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Experts believe that solar energy has a role to play, especially in mitigation.
The role for solar energy in mitigating climate change
So what can solar energy bring to the table to combat climate change? Although there are many different sources of greenhouse gases, the IPPC report singles out electricity generation as the main culprit of excessive GHG emissions. Fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas constitute the backbone of electricity grids in many countries around the world and they are among the most “dirty” forms of electricity generation. Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is a promising avenue of R&D that may reduce the carbon footprint of fossil fuels one day, however, we are quite far away from commercially viable applications. That leaves a few viable options that can be implemented immediately: reducing our use of energy (through increased energy efficiency) and cleaning up the supply of electricity by using more renewable energy.
Renewable energy sources such as wind, hydro and solar are in a league of their own when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions. These technologies produce almost no GHGs when they are running (although we should still account for the GHGs emitted during the manufacturing stage of solar panels and wind turbines). Simply put, increasing the share of solar, wind and hydro in our electrical grids is one of the most effective ways to decrease GHG emissions around the world. Moreover, thanks to waves of massive investments in R&D and manufacturing processes in the last few decades, the cost of installing wind and solar energy systems has decreased dramatically. Solar panels and wind turbines are widely available, relatively fast to install and almost all countries in the world have access to favorable wind speeds, high insolation levels, or both.
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Image credits: IPCC (report cover); David Baird