Surviving Climate Change: What Would A Low Carbon Future Look Like?
Space-based solar, lab-grown meat, and self-driving electric cars: envisioning a low-carbon society of the future
In a previous post I argued that we need to change the way we talk about climate change in order to tackle it. Essentially, human beings are psychologically wired to respond to messages of positivity (gain) rather than negativity (loss), so instead of the doom and gloom narratives of climate disaster, we should be focusing on protecting our planet and spreading positive ideas of how we could turn the issue around.
So, to practice what I preach, I want to create a vision of what a low carbon future would look like, once we get our act together and cut our carbon emissions, reducing global warming to a safe and manageable level.
I’m not claiming to depict exactly how a low-carbon society would work, but I will explore four key areas: energy, transportation, food, and technologies.
As it stands a huge proportion of our energy comes from burning fossil fuels: coal, oil, and natural gas. In the UK, for instance, 80.1% of our energy came from fossil fuel sources in 2017. And as we’re all aware, burning fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide and other harmful greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming.
Therefore, in order to move towards a low-carbon society, energy would be one of the main areas we’d need to tackle. But it’s also an area where we have a clear solution: decarbonising the energy system by using renewable sources.
The use of renewable energy sources is already growing greatly, up 17% worldwide in 2018 according to PWC’s 2018 Low Carbon Economy report. They also noted that solar energy was growing most rapidly, up 35% worldwide in 2018 and a huge 76% in China — this is due to increased government investment. This growth and investment means that wind and solar power are now cheaper to produce than energy from fossil fuels, making it an economically attractive option as well.
One common hypothesis is that a low-carbon energy system would have solar and wind energy as the basis, with energy from hydropower and biogas stored in the grid for times of peak demand.
There’s also a possibility that we’ll be extracting solar power from the sun directly, from space, within the 21st century. This would mean huge satellites orbiting the earth, carrying solar panels. It may sound far-fetched, but the concept of space-based solar energy has actually been around since the 1960s, when scientist and aero engineer Peter Glaser popularised the idea. It would mean we could generate a huge amount of energy, without taking up lots of land space with solar farms, and not constrained by the cycle of day and night.
What can you do now?
In 2018, transport constituted 26% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions, with the majority of this coming from petrol and diesel cars. That makes it the worst sector in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, with energy a close second at 25% of emissions. This means that if we want to tackle climate change and move towards a low-carbon future, we’ll need to solve the transport problem.
As the world’s population blooms, more people need to travel. Add to this the fact that we now (in the privileged Western world, at least) expect international travel to be part of our lives, and it doesn’t seem like there’s an easy way out.
But we’re already seeing solutions. In terms of local travel and transportation around cities, we need better urban planning to create infrastructure designed for active travel, instead of for cars. As it stands our streets and roads are designed for cars, not for people. We prioritise building more lanes of traffic and parking spaces to line our residential roads, over creating spaces for people to enjoy walking and cycling through.
Yet when it comes to active travel, it’s definitely a case of ‘build it and they will come’ — if we create safe, simple cycle lanes for commuters, we will see more people opt to cycle instead of sit in their tin box car on a packed motorway. This has been seen on scale in the Netherlands, and we’re starting to see it happen in the UK too. One example is the 14 mile Leeds to Bradford cycle superhighway, paid for by the government’s Cycle City Ambition Fund. Before construction just 136 cycle trips were made from Leeds to Bradford. After one year that had increased by 26%, and by January 2019 there had been 870,764 trips on the highway, with 80% of users using it 3–5 days every week.
Of course, active travel doesn’t solve the whole problem: what about longer journeys? This is where electric cars come into play.
There’s a reason I didn’t give electric cars as the first solution, and that’s because although electric cars use around 53% less fuel than traditional gasoline cars (depending on the model), they do still use fuel and therefore generate emissions. However, they are considerably more efficient and it’s likely that they’ll become even more so — if we can crack the battery storage problem, that is. Furthermore, if our electric cars were autonomous, or self-driving, we would also be able to majorly reduce road accidents.
Self-driving cars also bring the potential to change the way that we use cars. Instead of each household owning one or two cars, and using them as a personal vehicle, we could swap to a model where we do not own cars. Instead, when we need to make a journey we could summon a self-driving car (think Uber-style) which would take us to our destination, whilst also transporting other passengers needing to take the same route. Sharing cars would reduce the amount of cars needed overall. PWC undertook an analysis on Autonomous-Electric Vehicles, which found that if we shifted the way that we own vehicles to a model of ‘transportation-as-service’, this swap alone could reduce our oil dependency by 40 million barrels of oil per day.
What can you do now?
Opt for walking or cycling for short, local journeys; reduce the amount of air travel you do; consider switching to an electric vehicle for longer journeys.
Animal agriculture is responsible for 18% of our worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. So, in order to transition to a low-carbon society, we would need to move away from our reliance on factory-farmed meat for sustenance.
As the world’s population continues to grow, we need to ensure that our food systems are sustainable, and that we can produce enough food to feed the whole population. Eating meat as our primary form of protein is actually an incredibly inefficient way to do this. It takes 2-5 acres of land and 1,250,000 gallons of water (based on 1lb of beef = 2500 gallons of water) to produce one cow. That’s land and water that we could be using to feed the world’s poorest and hungriest people.
Ramez Naam, author of The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet, argues that we would need to increase the amount of food that we can produce on the same amount of land:
“The only way to move forward is through the intensification of agriculture. This means more food on the same or smaller amount of land.”
For Naam, the way to do this is through improving the genetic modification of crops to mean that we rely less on pesticides, and that crops can produce food more efficiently, needing less water.
If we combine this with reducing the amount of land that we use for raising livestock, we could be on to a winner. The simple solution to this is that the entire population of the world goes vegan. And trust me, I’m all for that. But, I can see that it probably isn’t realistic, much as I’d like it to be. One viable solution is lab-grown meat. This is where meat is literally ‘grown’ in the laboratory, cultured from animal cells. Initially, this was incredibly expensive, but the costs are coming down quickly, and surveys suggest that meat-eaters would swap to lab-grown rather than actual meat if the costs were similar. So, the low-carbon future could see us munching on steaks made from the meat of a cow which never existed.
What can you do now?
Reducing the amount of meat and dairy you consume can have a massive impact on your personal carbon emissions. A 2018 Oxford University study also found that the producer you buy from makes a difference.
Technological advancement has huge potential to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and help us transition to a low-carbon society. I’ve mentioned a few technological solutions to our rising carbon emissions already: lab-grown meat, space-based solar, self-driving cars. But there could be others…
One area of potential is the blockchain, which could completely transform the way that we make transactions. Blockchain is a decentralised electronic ledger system which creates a cryptographically secure and immutable record of any transaction of value, whether it be money, goods, property, work or votes. It has the potential to create a new economic system of peer-to-peer trading of resources, as well as reducing our dependency on financial value.
Carbon capture and storage is another potential technological solution to climate change. This would mean capturing the carbon dioxide emissions at the source of the emission (i.e. the power plant), transporting it to a storage location deep undergound, and isolating it to ensure it can't escape. It’s a technology that’s already in use in some areas, but a low-carbon future could see carbon capture scaled up, with infrastructure on every new power plant.
A third theory is of deflecting heat away from the earth’s atmosphere with huge solar shields or satellites with movable reflectors.
Much of this technology seems unimaginable, and there’s little doubt that the best way to reduce global warming is to cut our greenhouse gas emissions down to zero by reducing harmful human activity. However, if it becomes possible then it could also be the most effective solution, drastically cutting our emissions in a very short space of time, without relying on individuals to change their way of living. So, it’s entirely conceivable that in a low-carbon future we see the introduction of new technologies.
What can you do now?
Not a lot! If you’re interested in technological and geo-engineering solutions to climate change, then keep an eye on publications like Scientific American to see the latest developments.
I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments: when you consider a low-carbon future, what comes to mind?