Seven steps we should take now to address climate change

SVALBARD, Norway — Before sailing to the far north, my impression of the Arctic was snarled in visions of powdery snow drifts, with white-coated arctic foxes and polar bears just nearly visible as they trek the silent landscape. From our ship, we did see foxes and bears –– whales, seals and walruses, too. But the archipelago is closer to a freezing desert than it is a winter wonderland.

A map of Svalbard, Norway. (Photo by David Hone)

I travelled to this cluster of isolated Norwegian islands, host to the northernmost settlement in the world, as part of a team from the University of Texas at Austin. We had the incredible opportunity to join 87 people from 24 countries aboard the National Geographic Explorer, a ship which sailed us around Svalbard’s coasts.

During the trip, participants were divided into groups and tasked with rewriting different countries’ national climate plans, made as part of the 2015 Paris agreement, which the U.S. recently pulled out of. An eye-opening task for sure, given that the majority of those on the ship were not scientists.

Most of the other participants were in finance, education, non-governmental, or other environmental organizations from across the globe. A few others were students. Emily Beagle and I, both researchers at UT Austin, were among the few engineers aboard the Explorer – meaning that on a ship with limited internet access, we became the de facto Wikipedia for the various groups when they had any energy-related questions.

While many participants were well-versed in environmental sustainability and knew the general arc of where we needed to get to in terms of reducing carbon emissions, they were often perplexed about the concrete steps required to get there.

Now back in Texas, and based on my experience as an engineer whose career focus is energy, I compiled seven steps that we can take to decarbonize our energy system – and our lives.

  1. Move to low carbon-emitting energy: Massive inroads, such as the retirement of coal plants and the deployment of renewables, have been made in cleaning up the electricity sector, but we must go further. The scientific literature indicates that we can incorporate much higher amounts of renewable energy into the electric grid then we have today. However, we also need to develop low-carbon sources of power that we can turn on and off at will, technologies such as fossil fuels with carbon capture, nuclear, advanced geothermal, and sustainable biomass. Energy storage will help, but we likely need these other technologies to balance the grid as well.
  2. Electrify transportation systems: Public transit, delivery truck fleets, railways and the cars we drive every day need to be electrified. Governments at all levels should be building the electric vehicle charging stations that would make this transition more possible. We will need charging infrastructure for those who don’t own garages, or are otherwise unable to plug their cars in at home.
  3. Make buildings more efficient: Permanent progressive building codes that automatically increase required efficiency levels every few years should be enacted into law. These codes would give the building industry certainty and enough time to prepare and alter their methods. It would also provide a buffer against potentially changing political climates. Energy audits should be required for every older building that is sold, and the audits should include suggested energy efficiency upgrades.
  4. Plan cities in a carbon-conscious way: How cities allocate where infrastructure gets built matters. More development boards should allow for higher-density residential development close to public transit to minimize both the commuting distances and, by extension, the carbon dioxide emitted en route.
  5. Change our diet: We should move towards getting more of our protein from plant-based sources and consuming less meat, which is hard to swallow for a born-and-raised Texan like myself. Meat-heavy diets are more carbon intensive than those that put more of an emphasis on plants. Food waste of all types is also a problem. The energy that goes into growing, shipping and cooking food that is then wasted represents approximately 2 percent of annual energy consumption in the U.S. This wasted energy means more unnecessary emissions.
  6. Free energy data: Energy data should be open source. Many countries do not provide timely information about flows and prices of energy, which makes it much harder to gain a full understanding of the local energy system. And in the end, you can’t change what you can’t measure.
  7. Implement a carbon tax: One of the simplest and most efficient ways to accomplish much of the above would be through implementing a carbon tax that is high enough to make the market move in the necessary direction. Another solution is a carbon cap and trade program — a system where a set number of carbon emission allowances are given to polluters and they can choose to use the allowance or reduce their emissions and trade (or sell) it to another firm that wants to emit more than they have allowances for. This type of system could have a similar effect to a carbon tax if the number of tradable carbon credits was set appropriately low.

These seven steps are steeped in science, backed by evidence and data. But, at best, we live in a world where such measures to address climate change are politically challenged. Our problem is not a technical one; we have the technology. This is a knowledge problem and also one of political interests.

These days it is understandable to feel hopeless about any issue, like climate change, that has become politicized. But the good news is that not all of the above steps require action from Washington. In fact, many are on the individual or local government level and are much more accessible to you and me.

This is the third in a series of posts from scientists, experts and artists detailing the impressions and insights they gathered on their trip to the Arctic, as part of ClimateForce 2019.

(Photo by David Hone)