Car­bon neu­tral­ity is within our reach

An ac­cel­er­ated evo­lu­tion of clean en­ergy

The McGill Daily - - Contents - Cé­dric Parages is a U3 in Wildlife Bi­ol­ogy stu­dent. To con­tact the au­thor, please email cedric­par­ages@gmail.com

Fol­low­ing the agree­ments and goals set out by the Paris Cli­mate Change Ac­cord signed into ac­tion in Novem­ber by China, the United States, the Euro­pean Union, among oth­ers, the race to tran­si­tion en­ergy pro­duc­tion and con­sump­tion from un­clean en­ergy, like coal and pe­tro­leum, to clean sources, such as wind and so­lar, has be­gun. What started as a race to lower green­house gas emis­sions and re­duce the ac­cel­er­at­ing rate of hu­man-caused cli­mate change, is now be­com­ing a race for dom­i­nat­ing the fastest grow­ing en­ergy mar­ket in the world.

In­vestors are strength­en­ing clean en­ergy by in­vest­ing cap­i­tal worth over one bil­lion dol­lars in a global in­no­va­tion fund, with th­ese in­vestors to­tal cu­mu­la­tive net worth cur­rently at 170 bil­lion dol­lars. Ma­jor coun­tries, such as China, are de­vot­ing much more pub­lic fund­ing re­new­able en­ergy, with 350 bil­lion dol­lars to be in­vested by 2020. The ques­tion is no longer whether or not clean en­ergy is a wor­thy in­vest­ment, as big oil and coal in­dus­try lob­by­ists have been at­tempt­ing to ar­gue against for years, but how fast all of th­ese ac­cel­er­at­ing in­vest­ments can be put to the best pos­si­ble use. Many coun­tries like Costa Rica, the Nether­lands and the United States are in­no­vat­ing and ex­per­i­ment­ing with new clean en­ergy tech­nolo­gies, such as elec­tric pow­ered trans­porta­tion, hy­dro­elec­tric­ity and up­grad­ing their power grids. By do­ing so, they are in­spir­ing newly found op­ti­mism for cli­mate change re­searchers and in­no­vat­ing start-up com­pa­nies around the world.

A newly pub­lished study from the En­vi­ron­men­tal De­fense Fund’s Cli­mate Corps pro­gram in the U.S. has found that re­new­able en­ergy is cre­at­ing new jobs twelve times faster than the rest of the U.S. econ­omy. So­lar and wind jobs are grow­ing by 20 per cent an­nu­ally, and sus­tain­able en­ergy re­lated jobs have grown from 3.4 mil­lion in 2011 to 4.5 mil­lion jobs to­day. Th­ese jobs do not only orig­i­nate from clean en­ergy pro­duc­tion but also con­sump­tion, such as mak­ing home and in­dus­trial ap­pli­ances en­ergy ef­fi­cient and tran­si­tion­ing trans­porta­tion sys­tems from us­ing fos­sil fuel to elec­tric.

While cars like Tesla are at the fore­front of the elec­tric trans­porta­tion mar­ket, other com­pa­nies are also de­sign­ing and build­ing elec­tric buses and trains around the world. In the U.S., some New York and Chicago dis­tricts have al­ready started to im­ple­ment elec­tric school buses. Not only are th­ese school buses tremen­dous for cut­ting down on car­bon emis­sions, they are also safer for not car­ry­ing a gi­ant tank of com­bustible gaso­line. Ac­cord­ing to the U.S. Na­tional Fire Pro­tec­tion Agency, an av­er­age of six buses, which in­cludes school buses, caught fire ev­ery day from 1999 to 2003.

Elec­tric pow­ered trains are al­ready be­ing used in coun­tries such as in the Nether­lands. The Dutch gov­ern­ment an­nounced in 2015 that all of its elec­tric trains would run com­pletely on wind power alone by 2018. The pro­gram was so suc­cess­ful that it was com­pleted much ahead of sched­ule, and on Jan­uary 1 of this year, the Dutch gov­ern­ment an­nounced they have now one hun­dred per cent ef­fi­ciency from wind power for th­ese trains. Not all of this wind en­ergy comes from the Nether­lands alone how­ever, with wind farms in Bel­gium and Fin­land also con­tribut­ing, demon­strat­ing that the Euro­pean power grid is adapt­ing to trans­port­ing and con­serv­ing clean en­ergy.

The in­no­va­tion needed to even­tu­ally make com­mer­cial air­crafts run en­tirely on elec­tric­ity is also much closer than we think. The So­lar Im­pulse is a one seater air­plane de­signed by Swiss en­gi­neers and en­trepreneurs An­dre Borschberg and Ber­trand Pic­card that has been pro­to­typed and de­vel­oped since 2009. This air­craft not only runs on elec­tric en­ergy, but is also com­pletely self-sus­tain­able thanks to the so­lar power cells com­pletely cov­er­ing its outer sphere.

In Au­gust of 2016, the So­lar Im­pulse II fin­ished the first ever flight around the en­tire globe with­out us­ing any fuel, tak­ing a year to do so and touch­ing ground in 16 dif­fer­ent coun­tries. The flight over the Pa­cific took five days and shat­tered the world record of the long­est air flight du­ra­tion by one pi­lot. De­spite its great achieve­ments and prom­ises, there is still a long way to go for sim­i­lar planes to be de­vel­oped com­mer­cially as the flight speed is slow. Yet, it def­i­nitely demon­strates that such pos­si­bil­i­ties are within our very near fu­ture.

Many Euro­pean coun­tries are in the process of com­pletely phas­ing out coal from their en­ergy con­sump­tion. The first coun­try in Europe es­ti­mated com­pletely phase out from coal is Fin­land, which in 2015 only had eight per cent of its to­tal en­ergy pow­ered from it. Not only will they be the quick­est to phase out coal, but they are also pass­ing leg­is­la­tion to com­pletely ban the burn­ing of coal in the en­tire coun­try by 2030. Sim­i­larly, French pres­i­dent Fran­cois Hol­lande an­nounced in Novem­ber of 2016 that France will also com­pletely phase out coal from their en­ergy use by 2023, France is one of the big­gest man­u­fac­tur­ers of nu­clear power in the world, even sell­ing it to neigh­bour­ing coun­tries.

How­ever, France is also cur­rently un­der­go­ing a mi­nor cri­sis due to its nu­clear power, as many of the plants are out­dated with old steel, have parts prone to frac­ture, and con­cerns of forged and fal­si­fied past qual­ity re­ports about crit­i­cal com­po­nents. Ad­dress­ing th­ese con­cerns, Hol­lande has claimed that the time win­dow of six years will en­able France to fully ad­dress th­ese is­sues and meet their goal of phas­ing out coal.

Sim­i­larly, the U.K. plans to phase out their coal con­sump­tion by 2025, with fifty per cent of elec­tric con­sump­tion be­ing pow­ered by clean en­ergy, rep­re­sent­ing an in­crease from twenty per cent in 2010. Be­yond elec­tric­ity con­sump­tion, Ger­many is ded­i­cated to phas­ing out 95 per cent of un­clean en­ergy from the coun­try by 2050 to shortly af­ter be­come com­pletely car­bon neu­tral. It seems the most im­por­tant first steps for ac­com­plish­ing car­bon neu­tral­ity are phas­ing out coal from elec­tric­ity con­sump­tion, tran­si­tion­ing modes of trans­porta­tion to elec­tric power, mass man­u­fac­tur­ing clean sources of en­ergy, and up­grad­ing power grids to trans­port and store this en­ergy.

The most am­bi­tious coun­try in the world to achieve car­bon neu­tral­ity is Costa Rica, which fa­mously achieved 75 days in a row in 2015 pow­er­ing their elec­tric­ity en­tirely from clean sources. Af­ter this achieve­ment how­ever, many an­a­lysts doubted their abil­ity to con­tinue this per­for­mance in the longterm as the main elec­tric pro­duc­tion source of Costa Rica is hy­dro­elec­tric and de­pen­dence on rain­fall. In 2014, Costa Rica en­dured a ma­jor drought which was the worst in fifty years, and re­searchers are con­cerned that cli­mate change will make th­ese droughts more fre­quent in the fu­ture.

Nev­er­the­less, Costa Rica dis­proved th­ese con­cerns in 2016 by hav­ing 250 full days of the year run­ning en­tirely on its clean en­ergy, with 98 per cent of the whole year’s en­ergy be­ing from clean en­ergy. Costa Rica is plan­ning to achieve to­tal car­bon neu­tral­ity by 2021 and may even achieve that ahead of sched­ule. This prece­dence of this coun­try achiev­ing a world­wide goal is a tremen­dous achieve­ment and demon­strates to other coun­tries around the world that they can ded­i­cate them­selves to clean en­ergy, and profit from the cur­rent spike in in­ter­na­tional in­vest­ment and in­no­va­tion. Plan­ning to do just that, forty seven na­tions have signed agree­ments into the Paris Cli­mate Ac­cord at the Novem­ber Cli­mate Vul­ner­a­ble Fo­rum to cut out all their un­clean en­ergy sources be­tween 2030 to 2050. Many of th­ese coun­tries have pledged to up­date their do­mes­tic en­ergy poli­cies by 2020, a great achieve­ment for the world­wide bat­tle against car­bon emis­sions.

Many of th­ese achieve­ments at the end of last year have been grossly over­shad­owed by the elec­tion of Don­ald Trump to the U.S. pres­i­dency, who fa­mously claimed cli­mate change is not caused by hu­mans, but is in­stead “a Chi­nese hoax.” His ve­he­ment dis­re­gard for the clean en­ergy in­dus­try and re­search from fed­eral sci­en­tists and agen­cies like NASA has put the coun­try into a strange iden­tity cri­sis, as states like Cal­i­for­nia are in­no­vat­ing and tran­si­tion­ing quickly to­ward cleawn en­ergy, and state de­part­ments have tweeted out facts about cli­mate change in de­fi­ance to the pres­i­dent. While Trump can try to shut down their twit­ter ac­counts and their voices, there is ac­tu­ally lit­tle he can do to stop states from con­tin­u­ing on as they were be­fore. He will at­tempt to crip­ple the En­vi­ron­ment Pro­tec­tion Agency’s Clean Power Plan in­tro­duced by Obama in ac­cor­dance with the Paris Cli­mate Ac­cord, and re­move U.S. fund­ing from the Ac­cord al­to­gether, but all this will do is scare away for­eign in­vest­ment into great new Amer­i­can tech­nolo­gies such as Tesla, and slow down the cre­ation of jobs into one of the fastest grow­ing in­dus­tries in the coun­try.

While Trump may want to help the 200,000 or so coal work­ers in the coun­try by sub­si­diz­ing coal more than ever be­fore to keep it prof­itable, re­search into coal ef­fi­ciency and cost of pro­duc­tion demon­strates that coal will sim­ply not keep up with nat­u­ral gas and clean en­ergy at all. In con­trast, there were 770,000 clean en­ergy pro­duc­tion jobs in the United States in 2015, ac­cord­ing to a re­port by the In­ter­na­tional Re­new­able En­ergy Agency. Some states, such as Mas­sachusetts, are al­ready in­tro­duc­ing leg­is­la­tion to phase out all non re­new­ables by 2035 and all fos­sil fu­els by 2050.

Mean­while, China is build­ing three football fields of so­lar pan­els per hour with gov­ern­ment money, and they have pro­posed a 50 tril­lion­dol­lar plan for a global power grid for clean en­ergy by 2050. While it is im­pos­si­ble to know ex­actly how much of the world’s car­bon gas emis­sions we will be able to slow down by th­ese time­lines, the amount of in­no­va­tion, ded­i­ca­tion and pro­duc­tion for clean en­ergy sources right now are sim­ply as­tound­ing. The Paris Cli­mate Ac­cord and coun­tries like Costa Rica are show­ing the world that it is pos­si­ble for a glob­al­ized world to func­tion­ally work to­gether to achieve con­crete goals and change do­mes­tic eco­nomic poli­cies suc­cess­fully.

Hay­ley Mortin | The Mcgill Daily

Cé­dric Parages Sci+tech Colum­nist

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