In the past few months, we have been treated to the dire and angry imprecations and accusations of the new climate absolutists, who demand total obeisance to their escalating demands and putative authority. Any critics or doubters of catastrophic anthropogenic global warming are denounced as deniers (equivalent to Holocaust deniers) or Heretics (not slavish Total Believers in the Greenhouse Apocalypse scenario).
A new religious-political-social movement has sprung out of this trend: Extinction Rebellion, with the role of secular saint or demi-goddess Jeanne d’Arc played by the Swedish adolescent Greta Thunberg. They have disrupted government, public spaces, and transportation in many places around the world and are uncompromising in their demands to bring a swift end to the use of fossil fuels.
This movement has found sympathizers among the usual suspects: critics and opponents of free markets, capitalism, individual freedom, and just about anything that is not already under the control of those who believe and trust in central planning and government edict to bring about a new Utopia, and presumably, snow in April in the New Jerusalem. Yet, other than taxing and banning things, there are no coherent and practicable programs being proposed that could bring about a lower-greenhouse gas (GHG) emission economy, in either developed nations or in faster-growing, CO2-belching ones.
If indeed, one accepts the not-unanimously-accepted notion that GHGs are a problem, there needs to be practical, economic and socially and politically palatable means to curtail or reduce them. Fortunately, there are several ways to do so that are within grasp. The first has to do with a new source of energy that can quickly supplant coal-fired electric power generation. This is already happening.
That new source of energy is shale gas, which the climate crusaders also wish to put an end to. Power generated by natural gas emits half as much CO2 as coal-fired power, as methane (CH4), its main constituent, has hydrogen as a major component. Natural gas is becoming superabundant to the point where it sometimes has a negative price in parts of North America. There is a fast-growing international, transoceanic trade in natural gas.
Since the nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (mainly richer, industrialized ones) are forecasted by Climatescope, a Bloomberg company, to have much lower GHG emissions in coming years, from greater use of natural gas and renewable energy, and rising electrification of transportation, the big increase in coal use is entirely in the developing world; 80% in China and India.
If there were attractive financing and other programs from major oil firms and liquefied natural gas (LNG) shippers and power engineering and construction firms, natural gas could be the preferred vehicle for future power supply worldwide. Shale gas is already being developed in Argentina, China, and around the world. More pipelines, such as the one from Russia to China, and others in North America and around the Mediterranean Sea, are bringing gas to more and newer customers, competing with coal, which also has many unhealthy pollution attributes – gas does not.
Another avenue of fostering lower GHG power is better use of energy storage for ‘peak [demand] shaving’, off-grid, ‘load-levelling’, and similar flexibility-enhancement of mains and merchant power generation. There are hydrogen and methane fuel cells, lithium, vanadium redox, and other ‘flow’ batteries, hydraulic storage, compressed air and many other viable ways to make current and future electric utilities more efficient and encourage more wind, solar, tidal, and other unconventional renewable sources to enter the mix.
Buildings are known to consume about forty percent of all energy in their heating, air conditioning and ventilation systems. Gradual introduction of higher building standards in new construction, with respect to insulation and windows, can make them more efficient. Mini-grids and consumer-producer facilities are an option for larger buildings and complexes that would more closely match supply and demand.
Better flow of traffic in big cities and commuters who use the roads would go a long way to reduce transportation fuel use. More intelligent road grid management systems and use of congestion charges in some areas could reduce emissions from inefficient vehicle flow.
There is a large amount of agricultural, food processing, food service, and forestry products waste that ends up rotting, emitting much GHG, including highly potent methane. Similarly, landfills and sewage treatment plants are letting methane escape in large quantities. A few cities are capturing it; more can be done in Canada, other Western nations, and in developing nations.
Commercial, government, and other bus and truck fleets can be converted to compressed natural gas (CNG) or LNG, along with railways. There would be a significant reduction in CO2 emissions and cleaner emissions in general.
Finally, the oft-overlooked proposal to plant one trillion trees over the next few decades is worth supporting. Depending on the species of trees and the latitudes they are planted in, this program could take trillions of tons of CO2 out of the atmosphere. Along with that, trade and investment sanctions could be enacted against nations which do little to stop deforestation, or even promote it, with their policies and laws.
Politics is sometimes defined as the ‘art of the possible’. The suggestions above do have more than a nominal cost, but they are all feasible and would not only have a lot more support than the more drastic demands of young climate warriors, and would definitely be more practicable to start soon, and thus start making a positive impact.
Ian Madsen is a senior policy analyst with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.