November 23, 2021
November 23, 2021 terrasmart

By Terrasmart Leadership Team –

We’re solar professionals, not climate change experts. Like many, we’re concerned — if not at times shocked — about what is happening to our planet. We know we need to assess the evidence and form a clear position about what needs to change, and fast. What was discovered as we all dug a bit deeper is truly alarming. Unless polluting nations change their climate targets drastically, Mother Nature will continue to inflict increasingly dire consequences in the form of hurricanes, floods, droughts, and wildfires.

Nonetheless, we’ll remain hopeful that world leaders will exercise the skills, political capital, and point us toward climate recovery. We’re all keeping a close eye on developments at the United Nations Conference of the Parties summit about climate change in Glasgow through Nov. 12. The 26th COP summit — hosted by the UK in partnership with Italy — is a year overdue because of COVID pandemic delays.

Carbon dioxide chokes the planet

Some 1,500 years before the birth of Christ, when Egyption civilization was at its peak, the level of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere was about 277 parts per million (ppm). Over centuries, empires rose and fell but CO2 levels hardly changed at all.

But in the middle of the 19th century, that changed.

Almost instantaneously by geological standards, the CO2 level began to rise from the steady 275 ppm to 285 ppm it maintained for millenia. By the second decade of the 20th century, it stood at 300 ppm. In 2020, it was 412 ppm. In a century, Earth’s delicate balance underwent a nearly 50 percent increase in carbon dioxide levels.

When we burn fossil fuels to run our cars, light our homes, or make Tupperware, we release CO2 into the atmosphere. Because plants and oceans can’t absorb all of this carbon dioxide, it accumulates in the atmosphere and traps heat like a blanket covering the Earth, causing the planet to warm.

Getting to COP26

Six years ago in Paris during COP21, 196 nations committed to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius, with an aspiration to stay below 1.5 degrees. Under the resulting Paris Agreement, they made voluntary, nonbinding action pledges in the form of “nationally determined contributions.” The overall goal: To achieve a climate-neutral world by mid-century.

Unfortunately, only a handful of countries have made their net-zero pledges legally binding. While many national pledges remain non-binding targets, there is hope that accelerating momentum toward net-zero could provide an incentive for others to follow.

Greenhouse gas emissions from burning coal are the single biggest contributor to climate change; weaning the world off coal is considered vital to achieving global climate targets. But the world’s biggest coal users operating roughly half of the planet’s coal-fired plants — China, Australia, India, and the United States — have been loath to give up this dirtiest of fuels.

During COP26, however, more than 40 countries pledged to phase out coal, including Canada, Poland, South Korea, Ukraine, Indonesia, and Vietnam. Bigger economies will eliminate coal by the 2030s, while smaller economies will have until the 2040s to do so. Sadly, even this likely is too little and much too late. And it’s a loaded, complex process to unpack the dynamics between these wealthy emission-producing countries and the poorer nations that undeniably will suffer the worst devastations of climate change in the coming decades.

Only bolder climate policies can keep us safe

Data from Carbon Action Tracker shows that if countries continue with their current policies, global average temperature will increase 3 degrees Celsius by the end of the century (red area of the chart below).

Even if countries can meet their current climate action pledges, we will still be in for more than 2 degrees of global warming (yellow area). To keep below 1.5 degrees, nations would need to make much faster and steeper reductions in their greenhouse gas emissions (chart area in green).

Constructive solutions to monitor progress

Al Gore, one of the world’s first politicians to confront the threat of a warming world, presented a way for nations, investors, and industries to keep their commitments. He proposed a global monitoring system to keep everyone informed about the planet’s progress toward workable solutions. “Not to be the climate cop,” Gore said, “but to be the neighborhood watch. Except the neighborhood is the globe, and we are all in this together.”

He warned that the world will take note of countries that fail to live up to their climate pledges. “We are entering an era of radical transparency,” Gore said, highlighting the ability of artificial intelligence to analyze data from satellites, crowdsourced information, and a wealth of ground, sea, and air-based sensors.

A consortium he helped create — Climate TRACE, short for Tracking Real-time Atmospheric Carbon Emissions — soon will be able to generate a detailed view of the Earth’s surface down to a single square centimeter every six hours. Stealth greenhouse gas emissions will lose their cloak of secrecy, setting the stage for clear accountability.

Can renewable energy get us to a net-zero carbon future?

Sand artwork highlights climate change ahead of COP26 / GETTY IMAGES

While policymakers are under pressure to put forward massive, rapid decarbonization plans, research shows that current commitments are still nowhere near closing the gap on climate change. And the world’s top energy experts do not agree on the best way to get to a zero-carbon future.

On the positive side, there is consensus about how to decarbonize up to 90 percent of electricity generation. Nonetheless, debate continues to rage about how to deal with that last 10 percent. And no one has a clear picture on what needs to happen to decarbonize sectors outside electrical generation.

According to reporting by Canary Media, experts have conflicting views on the ability of renewables to solve all of our climate issues. Some researchers are optimistic. Stanford professor Mark Jacobson, for example, has created models showing pathways by which solar, wind, and other renewable energy technologies could get us very close to net-zero electrical generation by 2030; the models would require cooperation from the 143 countries responsible for 99.7 percent of the world’s emissions.

But researchers like Zeke Hausfather, director of climate and energy at The Breakthrough Institute, are skeptical. “In order to get to 100 percent you need to very significantly overbuild your system,” he said. “You need roughly twice as much wind and solar for 100 percent renewables as you would for 80 percent renewables,” which would significantly increase land use. Other skeptics worry about public resistance, among other issues, hampering such build-out.

Industry leadership to drive climate-positive solutions

At Terrasmart, we believe that the solar industry, combined with technologies like storage and other applications, will continue to move us toward our net-zero goals. We are convinced we will continue to see higher PV conversion efficiencies, smarter installation methods, better-adapted mounting systems, new solar applications, and more system hybrids involving other renewable sources.

The cost of modules has fallen 99 percent over the last four decades. Since 2010 alone, system costs for U.S. solar residential, commercial rooftop, and utility-scale PV decreased 64 percent, 69 percent, and 82 percent respectively.
Why wouldn’t the industry continue to innovate, optimize, and find solutions to further decarbonization?

We can — and we will.

From the outset, policy drove solar cost reductions and adoption in the U.S. and around the world. While economics now drives much of the current solar build-out both domestically and internationally, there is still a role for government support, especially when it comes to novel technologies. In March, the Department of Energy announced a new target to cut the cost of solar energy by 60 percent within a decade. It has allocated $128 million to lower costs, improve performance, and speed the deployment of solar energy technologies. We are hopeful that the Biden-Harris Administration’s climate goals, backed by these investments, will help pave the way toward net-zero and create new clean energy jobs.

On a personal note

Will it be enough? Is each of us, as an individual, ready to make sacrifices, too? For instance, eating one or two hamburgers per week for a year creates the same amount of greenhouse gases as heating a home for 95 days. The UK Climate Change Committee has recommended that people should consume 20 percent less meat and dairy by 2030. If we expect our global leaders to make bold, unpopular, or difficult concessions to reverse global warming, shouldn’t each of us be ready to do the same in our personal lives, too?

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