Image reproduced from NASA.
It is time to rethink how we live our lives. We can see all around the changes that are happening. The borders to our seas and oceans are changing. Floods, droughts, storms, fires, these impact every one of us to differing degrees, the worst events brought to us daily on our news screens. Scientists everywhere are united - it is our own actions and inactions that are causing so much damage to our climate and at this point there is no evidence of any improvement – quite the reverse in fact. So we must change the way we run our lives, nearly everything, to protect our world and our well-being for generations to come. As intelligent, inventive human beings we can be masters of our own destiny. But our destiny has been jeopardised by our actions over the last 150 years, without knowledge or understanding of the true impacts.
Over the next 10 years our key priorities must change. This change will upset the normal balance of our lives. People will say ‘why us, when other countries are not following suit’. But change must happen, so we must act – we cannot continue ignoring what is happening.
Our research and education establishments must prioritise climate change and the agricultural and industrial policies required to support our response to it. The causes and impacts of climate change must be accurately modelled. The measurement and survey of our existing environment, through better technology and innovation, must be vastly improved and expanded. Our Institutions are needed to plan and support delivery of the necessary changes to address the issues. Information must be introduced to the general public in clear language by our media. We all need to understand what it is we need to do, why, and how we can do it whilst protecting basic standards of living.
A true scientific understanding of the optimal use and management of the land surface is needed to bring about a decarbonised future. We then need to change how we use land through incentives and legislation, through better agricultural practice, increased forestation, maintenance of peatland, less animal farming and more use of land for biomass production.
To protect our agricultural population, employment will have to adjust, underpinned by health, welfare and educational support to enable such a change to happen.
100% of our energy needs must be delivered from renewable resources within 10 years. Electrified rail, light rail, metro and electric/hydrogen vehicle transportation infrastructure must be prioritised with all fossil fuel modes of transportation dis-incentivised through economic levers and eventually abolished. Legislation must readdress the state of existing housing environmental standards and new housing design.
Our basic measure of well-being, Gross Domestic Product, should be overhauled. Since market drivers alone will not deliver what we want, our economists should think about appropriate measures around a Quality of Life that reflects the necessary future state of our nation. Carbon accounting will be central to these measures. The changes described here will require primary legislation, it is not possible to leave changes to market forces alone.
We are inventive and invention may yet mitigate the worst impacts of climate change. Alongside the changes identified above, innovation in carbon capture will also be required. But not so as to manage the on-going proliferation of fossil fuel usage, rather to diminish the existing stock of atmospheric carbon.
There are parts of our environment that are permanently changing and sadly there is little we can do to stop these. We will inevitably see increasing temperatures and dangerous climatic events. More and more parts of the world will be uninhabitable and people migrations from low-lying and hot areas will become much more common. Our priority now is to stop any more damage, to manage as best we can the inevitable changes and to try, as humans, to bring about a long-term reversal of our situation.
Since the 1970s the Earth has warmed by 1degree Celsius. Recently, scientists measured a record high temperature of almost 21 degrees in the Antarctic, an increase of 3 degrees from pre-industrial times. This is one of the fastest increases in temperature on the entire planet.
Carbon Dioxide and other greenhouse gases trap sunlight in the earth’s atmosphere causing the planet to heat up. In the last 200 years we have increased carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to levels not seen in nearly a million years. Moderate changes at far lower concentrations have seen the ebb and flow of ice ages! At these levels we are risking irreversible changes – the loss of ice-caps, large increases in sea levels and massive loss of species diversity everywhere.
When the Industrial Revolution took off in the mid 19th Century, we started burning coal, gas and oil at an incredible rate. It was needed to support the development of new manufacturing processes that fed our rapidly expanding economies and populations.
These fossil fuels took millions of years to form, during which time much of the Earth’s carbon was captured and stored by them. This created the delicate natural balance that enabled life to flourish as we know it.
Since 1950, we have released more than 2 trillion tonnes (the weight of 9 million Empire State Buildings) of carbon into the atmosphere, in the form of carbon dioxide, the most dangerous and prevalent greenhouse gas.
So not only have we more than doubled the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, when compared to hundreds of thousands, even millions of years ago, we have done it at an incredibly fast rate.
Carbon dioxide released from fossil fuels and other greenhouse gases released from a variety of other sources, block the Sun’s rays from escaping the Earth’s atmosphere – creating a greenhouse effect that heats the planet.
The change in greenhouse gas concentrations, is having a significant impact now on our weather. Not only the rising average temperatures known as global warming, but also extreme weather events like floods and droughts, shifting wildlife populations and habitats, rising seas and many other critical impacts to our natural environment.
Carbon and heat has also been captured in the oceans, warming them and making them more acidic. Some sea animals, such as shellfish and corals cannot survive in more acidic waters.
In fact, many species are dying out altogether as a result of climate change. The rich diversity of life on the planet is getting smaller by the day.
Our climate is very sensitive and is not used to such sudden changes. Even now, that 1 degree temperature rise is having an effect.
Scientists have said that a 2 degree temperature rise will have even more serious consequences:
The ice stored in the earth’s poles will melt over time, which will raise sea levels by many metres, drowning low-lying areas. Many cities could disappear altogether and a large part of the world will become completely uninhabitable.
In the permanently frozen land areas that cover almost a quarter of the Northern Hemisphere, the permafrost will melt, releasing large amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas that is 84 times more harmful to the planet than carbon dioxide.
Sadly, we cannot now stop some of the planetary changes from happening. But if nothing is done, the Earth will suffer far worse and more dramatic changes before the end of this century, with devastating impacts for us and for future generations.
We have been slow to react but all is not lost.
Scientists say we must keep the temperature rise below 2 degrees by the end of this century. Let’s look at the things that really need to happen over the next 10 years.
Our lifestyles must change rapidly to reduce our carbon footprint: less air travel, less meat consumed, less wasteful consumption of products. Recycling should become a way of life.
We also need to understand that most of our imported goods are highly carbon-intensive, things like clothes, foods, bulk building materials, car components etc. These imports are generating carbon emissions in other parts of the world, hence we are the direct cause of emissions elsewhere. These imported emissions are as much as 60% of our own total domestic emissions (according to the Committee on Climate Change, which is the body that advises the Government). These imports are not even taken into account when we talk about the UK being ‘Net Zero’.
So we must include imports into the carbon calculations. And we must get used to consuming less of everything, and paying more through carbon taxation for carbon-intensive goods, both imported and produced at home.
Much of the building stock in the UK is heated by fossil fuel gas. Through subsidies and regulation, our homes and buildings must transition to being heated with electric heat pumps since electricity can be generated from renewable sources. We also need to improve building insulation, use high-efficiency appliances and ‘smart’ technology to optimise energy consumption.
New regulatory energy standards are essential for all new building stock as well. We mustn’t repeat the mistakes of the past.
All industry, commerce and business should embark on an aggressive decarbonisation strategy, backed by incentives and supported by the advances in low-carbon technology in key industrial processes. This includes supply chain, procurement, investment, operational and disposal phases. Examples of changes are the use of renewable electrical power and heating, use of clean hydrogen and the capture and permanent storage of carbon dioxide emitted from industry (a key process known as Carbon Capture and Storage).
All power must be derived from renewable sources such as wind, wave, solar, hydro-electric, nuclear and biomass. As an example, growing plants produces biomass, that can generate electricity when combusted. It can also be used to produce synthetic fuels and hydrogen to provide a continuous energy supply for our homes and businesses and to support industry, heavy transportation and aviation. When biomass for energy is first grown, it captures carbon from the atmosphere. It is then harvested every three years and combusted in biomass power stations to produce electricity and (often) heat. The carbon dioxide gas produced during combustion can also be ‘captured’ back underground through Carbon Capture and Storage. The net effect is we generate electricity to power society and actually reduce atmospheric carbon in the process. A real winner.
We must understand through science what is the optimal use and management of our land surface. Land use should then adapt over time through incentives, legislation and through better agricultural practice. We need to increase levels of forestation, carefully preserve and enhance our natural peatlands, revert to less animal farming and significantly increase the land available for growing biomass for energy production. All of these solutions will help to reverse land use from being a net emitter of carbon to one that permanently removes carbon and other greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere.
Transportation must be completely de-carbonised. Electric cars are increasing but we still need a country-wide charging infrastructure in place. Specialist synthetic fuels are needed for aviation, created using renewable energy. Other heavy transportation can be powered by hydrogen, again created using renewable energy sources. These solutions, whilst generally understood in theory, are still in their infancy, and need to progress rapidly to help ensure a decarbonised future.