Making Electricity: Adapting to a Low-Carbon Future

Posted on June 11, 2011

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There are two reasons why we should take global climate change seriously.

The first is that our action or inaction now will have consequences in the future, a future which is only a single human lifetime away.  If we act to curb our global carbon footprint in our generation, then the world of our grandchildren will be less grim than otherwise.  That’s a powerful reason all by itself.

The second reason is that taking climate seriously means adapting to reality.  Regardless what we do to stave it off, some changes in the climate are now inevitable.  In fact such changes are already beginning, bringing rain and floods, droughts and fire, heat waves and crop failures, destabilizing water supplies, shortening winters, spreading pests, melting ice caps and raising sea levels.  And forces already in play, pushed along by carbon already in the air, will be echoing through the biosphere for millennia, bringing us still more changes.  People must either learn to adapt to a world of change, or we fail.

And, given the hugeness of climate change, such a failure might be catastrophic.

Really, adapting is the only choice.  And while politicians dither and climate change deniers play duck-the-noggin-in-the-sandbox, thankfully there are still wiser, saner minds searching for solutions.

See Energy summit aims to decarbonise the future – Cosmos

One of the problems in a global ecosystem drowning in atmospheric carbon is the way the world now generates electricity.

For instance, at present 45% of United States electricity is generated by coal.  Coal is carbon intensive and emissions of greenhouse gases from coal-fired plants represent 27% of total U.S. emissions.  Given present U.S. energy policy, that percentage is expected to grow in the future. China, with large coal reserves to draw on, is opening up new coal-fired plants regularly.  Obviously substituting something else for coal plants, and—where abolition of these plants is not presently a political option—lowering their carbon footprint drastically, would be an effective way of cutting back global emissions of greenhouse gases.

Scientists and policy experts are meeting in Waterloo, Ontario, to discuss issues like this, to address global electricity generation and to map out a transition to a low carbon, no carbon future.

The Equinox Summit: Energy 2030 conference is planned as a brainstorming session.

At the conference, happening now, ten scientists, specialists in electricity generation, will lay out the options, wind, solar, nuclear, and so on, addressing issues of distribution, storage and the unique problems each option faces.  After hearing the science, a forum of emerging leaders, together with an advisory group of policy experts, business persons and investors, will then make recommendations “anchored in reality and flexible” identifying credible scientific and policy pathways away from greenhouse-gas intensive technologies.

What is happening at the Equinox Summit is an act of faith, I suppose, since nobody stands ready at the end of it to examine the expert advice or make use of what is learned.  But every plan anticipates a future, so every plan is an act of faith.

When the politicians and the rest of us are ready to act—finally—when global realities make low-carbon technologies inevitable and necessary, there will be maps and strategies ready for us to follow or work from.

They’ll be needed.