There are many in denial of a changing global climate. But just ask a polar bear! A prominent indicator of global climate change is the polar bear. In its second warning this month, the U.S. federal government reported that climate change is destroying Arctic sea ice at a rapid rate and threatening polar bears with extinction unless greenhouse gases are dramatically reduced. Around 900 bears were believed to be living in the southern Beaufort Sea in 2010, the most recent estimate available, down from 1,526 in 2006 and 1,800 in 1986. Recent projections put a “relatively high probability (50%) of greatly reduced populations by as soon as 2025, with increasing probabilities of greatly reduced populations through the end of the century.
And what will save polar bears? Addressing sea ice loss will require global policy solutions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and likely be years in the making. Because carbon emissions accumulate over time, there will be a lag, likely on the order of several decades, between mitigation of emissions and meaningful stabilization of sea ice loss.
How much energy does it take to fill a glass with drinking water? If you take into account the energy to transport the water from its source through the treatment and distribution process and into your faucet, there’s a lot of embedded energy that goes into that glass of water. And that’s not even getting into any energy used in the wastewater treatment process.
It’s a simple question, but a challenging one to answer. It’s valuable, though, for water utilities to better understand the embedded energy in their systems so they can reduce costs, improve energy efficiency, and quantify the energy and pollution savings that accrue from water efficiency programs. But just as important for such a widely demanded resource, the energy savings in water conservation can contribute immensely to slowing our impending global climate change.
Just as challenging is when leaders of the Group of Seven wealthy countries (G-7) pledge to “decarbonize” the global economy, they’re talking about a shift so dramatic that one analyst described it as a new Apollo mission. Like putting a man on the moon, it would require overcoming major hurdles related to technology, money and the political will – so far in short supply – to make it happen.
Despite gains by renewable energy sources in recent years, the world is still hooked on fossil fuels that are powering our homes and businesses and fueling our cars, trucks, airplanes and ships. The resulting release of heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere keeps rising, primarily because of fast growth in China, India and other emerging economies. CO2 emissions from fossil fuels now exceed 30 billion tons a year, according to the International Energy Agency.
What President Barack Obama and other G-7 leaders envisioned in Germany lately is a world where those emissions would be phased out by the end of the century. Above all, that would entail a major shift in how the world produces electricity, about two-thirds of which comes from the burning of fossil fuels, mainly coal and gas. Scaling up solar, wind, geothermal, nuclear, hydro-power and perhaps other renewable sources still to be developed is possible, but that requires policies, such as carbon taxes, that make them more competitive compared to coal or natural gas.
“We have to be honest: coal is a very, very cheap energy carrier. Therefore we need a carbon price,” said Ottmar Edenhofer, a prominent member of the U.N.’s expert panel on climate science. Putting a price on carbon is highly contentious politically in many countries. The U.S. Senate turned down such a proposal in 2010. Australia’s current government repealed a carbon tax introduced by the previous government.
Making renewables that depend on the weather such as wind and solar power more competitive would also require technological advances, primarily how to store energy more efficiently. Decarbonizing the transportation sector is even more complicated. There are of course already vehicles running on electricity or biofuels. But fuels made from oil still dominate and it will probably be a long time before they can be substituted at a large scale in aviation and shipping, though experiments with biofuels and even solar power are underway.
Also, replacing fossil fuels to generate the intense heat required for some industrial processes like steel production isn’t likely to happen anytime soon. That’s why many scientists and economists say demands by some environmental activists for a complete phase-out of fossil fuels are unrealistic. Instead, they say the fight against climate change will have to include efforts to capture CO2 emissions from fossil fuels and bury them deep underground where they don’t affect the climate.
The U.N. climate science panel projected last year that such technologies, which already exist at a small scale, may have to be applied to achieve negative emissions in the future, because the world isn’t expected to bring down its emissions fast enough in the near term. That could entail, for example, using biofuels for power generation and then capturing their emissions. But even that is not without problems: large-scale biofuel crops could end up replacing food crops or threatening biodiversity.
The G-7 leaders didn’t address in detail how to resolve all these issues. In U.N. climate talks on an envisioned pact in Paris later this year, countries will have a hard time agreeing on much smaller things, like whether to renew their individual climate targets every five or 10 years. Still, the message from the leaders of the world’s most powerful developed countries is important because it’s the first time they acknowledge what needs to happen to keep global temperatures from reaching dangerous levels. It does mean in practice an enormous shift from a fossil fuel-based energy system to near-zero carbon energy sources. It’s a big deal, not unlike the Apollo mission.
But with a strong political will and constituency backing these seemingly impossible obstacles regarding lessening greenhouse gases and thus reversing climate change are not out of reach. For example, from 1980 to 2014, US energy use increased by 26%; however, over this same period, gross domestic product (GDP) increased 149%. “Energy intensity,” defined as energy use per real dollar of GDP, is a common approach for combining these two variables. US energy intensity has declined from 12.1 thousand Btu per dollar in 1980, to 6.1 in 2014, a 50% improvement. While part of that improvement can be attributed to structural changes in the economy, it is conservatively estimated that about 60% of the improvement in energy intensity is due to efficiency improvements, saving consumers and businesses about $800 billion in 2014. Dividing by the US population, energy efficiency saved about $2500 per capita in 2014. These efficiency investments and savings also generated jobs and drove modest growth in the overall size of the economy.
Fuel economy improvements and standards have driven down oil use in the transportation sector. Looking specifically at petroleum, imports were 33% of US crude oil use in 1983 (the recent low point), increasing to 67% in 2006 before declining to 44% in 2014. Reductions in oil, natural gas, and electricity consumption also mean reduced emissions from the combustion of fuels, including reduced emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides (contributors to acid rain and smog), mercury and other toxic metals (contributors to health problems), and carbon dioxide (the largest contributor to greenhouse gas). In 2014, US carbon dioxide emissions totaled 5,404 million metric tons (MMT), 10% below 2005 levels.
Many factors have driven these efficiency improvements, including market forces, policy impacts, and the interplay between the two. To take one example, appliances have improved dramatically due to the combined impacts of federal and state appliance efficiency standards, the voluntary ENERGY STAR® labeling program that recognizes products of above-average efficiency, utility energy efficiency programs, and tax incentives that have encouraged manufacturers to develop more efficient products. On the other hand, energy prices have not been a major driver, since energy prices today are either similar to, or less than, 1980 prices, after the effect of inflation is removed.
Are these efforts enough to slow down the production of greenhouse gases and reverse the effects of climate change even though the lag for change may be significant, or the possibility exists we are beyond some major tipping point?
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