Top scientists push for more renewable energy

Power of the future: Wind turbines near Faringdon, Oxfordshire, in the UK © PA

The world must switch to green energy to avoid severe climate change, says a new report — it’s not too expensive, but we must do it now. But what if the battle has already been lost?

Below the soaring skyline of New York, the streets are a swamp of toxic floodwater. The year is 2100 and from London to Hong Kong, rising sea levels have devastated Earth’s cities. Europe is ravaged by malaria-carrying mosquitoes that emigrated north with rising temperatures. As there is no longer enough arable land to feed the world’s population, billions go hungry.

This disaster scenario is what might await humanity if it avoids taking serious action to address climate change, according to the IPCC. Its new report warns that we need ‘a massive shift’ towards renewable energy sources to stop temperatures rising by more than an acceptable 2°C by the end of this century.

But most importantly, the report dismisses arguments that say switching to renewables is unaffordable. Many argue that moving away from cheaper but dirty coal and oil means our living standards cannot be maintained. However the report argues that adopting renewables globally would only reduce annual economic growth by 0.06%. As the team’s leader notes, 'It doesn’t cost the world to save the planet.’

On the other hand, delay will only make it more expensive and difficult. Extreme measures might become necessary, such as sucking CO2 directly out of the atmosphere, though the practical technology has yet to be developed. The IPCC says it will be cheaper to abandon fossil fuels by 2030, in favour of water, wind and solar power, which are becoming increasingly efficient.

The UK and US governments say this report should be a wake-up call for the world, but the influential scientist James Lovelock says we are wrong to fight climate change, which may be a ‘constructive chaos’ that makes new ways of life possible. He argues that it would be better for mankind to move to new megacities with air conditioning and vast flood defences. In his view and in the minds of many, it is already too late to stop global warming.

Retreat to the city

International efforts to address climate issues have stalled in the past over arguments about the cost and who should pay it, but many say that the IPCC’s report shows governments that fixing it now is the cheapest option. Preserving our planet can only get more expensive, and rising temperatures will become irreversible, so we cannot afford to delay.

Yet others, like Lovelock, say that we should put our resources into adapting to climate change, not trying (maybe pointlessly) to prevent it. Half the world’s population already lives in cities, so we must think of ways to make them more resilient. And we do not yet know for sure that every aspect of climate change will be negative; we must be ready to embrace the possibilities of our changing world.

You Decide

  1. Should governments focus their efforts on slowing climate change or on building more resilient cities?
  2. As they produced most of the greenhouse gases, should developed countries do more to fight climate change than developing ones?

Activities

  1. Form groups and together draw up a plan for a climate change-resistant city for the future. What would it need to survive in a much warmer world? Compare your plan with the others.
  2. Using the Economist article in Become An Expert for ideas, write a diary entry for someone alive in 2100 whose life on the planet has been altered by climate change.

Some People Say...

“We should not think of climate change as destroying the world, only making it different.”

What do you think?

Q & A

How does the IPCC report affect me?
The report was produced by 1,250 experts and approved by 194 governments, so it carries a lot of weight. Many hope its argument that preventing climate change is affordable might spur governments to more action. We may see greener policies in the future and these may affect how much things cost and how you travel.
Are cities really safer from climate change?
Not necessarily. Many of the world’s major cities are on rivers and deltas that are at major risk of flooding in the coming century. And those on the coast are particularly susceptible to severe weather. However James Lovelock would like to see entirely new cities built which are designed to withstand the effects of our future climate.

Word Watch

IPCC
The International Panel on Climate Change is part of the UN and researches climate change and its effects. However, its 2007 report mistakenly stated that Himalayan glaciers could melt away by 2035, which damaged its credibility.
2°C
This is the internationally agreed upper limit on the acceptable temperature rise by 2100, though many groups like the Climate Emergency Institute think even this is too high. Currently the IPCC thinks temperatures will rise between 3.7°C to 4.8°C before 2100 if nothing is done.
0.06%
Global consumption growth is based on the amount of goods and energy being consumed and tells us about the strength of the world’s economy. The IPCC predicts global consumption will rise by 1.3-3% annually, so the yearly 0.06% cost of switching to renewables is very small.
Developed
Carbon capture and storage technologies trap CO2 released from burning fossil fuels and store it in deep geological formations. It is still being developed and its large-scale use may not be possible.
James Lovelock
One of the world’s leading scientists and environmentalists, he proposed the ‘Gaia hypothesis’, that living and non-living parts of the Earth form a complex interactive system that can be considered a single organism. Now 94, Lovelock often takes a radically different line to mainstream environmentalists.
Possible
Lovelock points out that the idea of living in giant cities for safety can be found in nature, in the form of termite mounds and ant nests.

Subjects

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