Why I’ve written this post
Overwhelm and eco-anxiety
Do you feel like it’s been nothing but a succession of bad news recently? From the seemingly insurmountable environmental challenges to the Coronavirus outbreak and the potential for a significant fall in the economy. That’s why I wanted to try and break through some of that negativity by showing that there is a case for being cautiously optimistic about climate change.
I’m hoping that this blog post will help if you’ve ever suffered from eco-anxiety or overwhelm about the scale of the challenge. I know I’ve sometimes felt overwhelmed. At times I’ve thought ‘what’s even the point’ of making these small changes to my life when they make so little difference on a global scale.
Reason to hope
BUT there definitely are reasons to be cautiously optimistic when it comes to climate change. And there is still time. In fact, the inspiration for this post came from none other than the co-author of the IPCC report on limiting the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees, Professor Myles Allen. It was this quote from a BBC Radio 4 interview that really stuck with me: “the first thing everybody needs to appreciate is that this is a deeply solvable problem”. So, if one of THE authorities is cautiously optimistic on climate change, then who’s to say we shouldn’t be too?
Before I crack on, I also want to credit Assaad Razzouk, the creator of the Angry Clean Energy Guy podcast. His episode on climate optimism provided a lot of the structure and data for this post.
5 reasons to be cautiously optimistic about tackling climate change
1) The increase in pressure on the ‘powers that be’ to act on climate change
Over the past few years there has been a noticeable in increase in activism on climate change on a global scale. Movements like the school protests headed by Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion have resulted in a marked increase in awareness. And the more people they have on their side, the more political and economic power the movement gets.
We are really starting to see the impact of this. In the UK, the Government recently enshrined its commitment to net zero emissions by 2050 into law. More recently we saw this have the first major impact with the 3rd runway at Heathrow halted because it didn’t take account of the Government’s climate change commitments.
In the US, attempts by the Federal Government to erode climate commitments have been thwarted by the states and the judiciary. And even China has signalled that it will try do more, promising to show “the highest possible ambition” when reviewing its climate commitments this year.
In the corporate world things are changing at a faster pace. By 2021 its estimated that 25% of all sales in the US will be of sustainable products. In fact, sustainable goods are proving to be more profitable than their traditional counterparts. The RE100, a group of 200 hugely influential corporates including Apple and Google, have also committed to sourcing 100% renewable electricity globally in the shortest possible timeline. Together they are the equivalent of the 21st largest country in terms of electricity consumption.
2) The economics make sense
It’s clear that environmentally friendly commerce is becoming big business as companies respond to customer demands to tackle climate change. They are also realising that there is a lot of money to be made by being more green. My own business is an example of the huge number of small businesses popping up to address specific environmental issues and challenging traditional suppliers to make changes.
Importantly, it is also becoming increasingly expensive and more difficult for oil companies to raise money for new projects. This is at a time when renewable energy costs are plummeting, particularly for solar and offshore wind. In the UK, the cost of offshore wind (the cleanest and cheapest way to produce power) fell by 31% in just 2 years. In fact, 2019 was the first time that more electricity was generated from zero-carbon sources than fossil fuels in the UK.
As the green alternatives become cheaper than fossil fuels it just makes sense to make the switch. And developing economies have the opportunity to design more of their infrastructure around these new alternatives.
3) We are innovators
Adoption of new technology
One of the issues with some of the more negative views on our ability to tackle climate change is that they don’t take account of the pace of innovation and the adoption of new technologies. If you look at the adoption of new technology, like the smartphone for example, the pace of change is slow at first until production increases and the price falls. Once this happens, take-up rockets and the older technology finds itself quickly replaced. There is no reason why this couldn’t happen with fossil fuels and renewables, albeit that it takes longer to build a wind farm than a mobile phone!
The other key innovation that is taking place to address climate change is that the world is in the process of being electrified. The electric vehicle market is growing quickly with 84 models due to arrive within 2 years. Some of the biggest manufacturers like Volkswagen have pledged to go fully electric. All this is prompting a race for electrification in the industry. This is in part due to a reduction in the cost of lithium-ion batteries which are 87% cheaper than a decade ago.
The environmental benefits of going electric are still tied to the amount of the power used that is generated by fossil fuels but as this decreases over time, the benefit of electric will increase. Larger batteries will also have an impact (as the cost declines), and the batteries and cars made in factories powered by renewables, like Audi’s E-tron, will have significantly lower carbon footprints than other electric vehicles.
Heavy vehicles are also being electrified with Tesla introducing a truck with a 1 million mile battery (which could last for two hundred years). There are also more than 100 electric aircraft models in development with the first all-electric passenger plane (for 9 passengers!) expected to take flight in 2022.
And that’s all before we even get to hydrogen. This week the EU will announce plans to create a clean hydrogen alliance to help develop the technology. This could be particularly important in decarbonising heavy industry. Innovation is being fuelled by competition between nations with Japan and its car industry betting big on hydrogen being the clean fuel of the future where the only emissions are water.
Now we know that there are significant issues with deforestation in the Amazon and in parts of Asia where rainforest is being cleared for palm oil production. These issues do need to be addressed. In my view what we need to do is create an economic incentive for these developing nations to protect their forests, rather than threatening them with sanctions. What would be even better is if the initiative it was funded by a global tax on fossil fuels. But I’m not holding my breath!
What you don’t always hear about is the significant reforestation that is taking place in other parts of the globe. And some of the leaders in reforestation are in developing countries. Ethiopia, for example, is planning to plant 4 billion trees and is reported to have planted 350 million in one day. China, India and Pakistan also have huge tree planting schemes getting underway. And forests in Western Europe have grown over the last decade with new forest now covering a bigger area than Switzerland.
5) The fight against single use plastic
You might think of this as a separate issue to climate change, however, plastic is made from oil. Therefore, the more we cut down on the stuff, the lower the demand for oil.
The moment when I really felt overwhelmed by this task was when I walked into my local supermarket and it hit me just how much single use plastic there was in there. But again, things are starting to change. Importantly, all the major supermarkets have set themselves pretty tough targets when it comes to reducing plastic. Waitrose, for example, aims to end the use of single use plastic entirely. Unilever, for example, now uses 50% post-consumer recycled plastic in its packaging. And The Tights Club is contributing in its own way by using recycled nylon (which is made from oil). This is fabric which would otherwise have gone straight to landfill (and resulting in 80% lower emissions).
There are still many chemicals that are derived from oil for which there aren’t any workable alternatives. But what is encouraging is that we know that carbon capture from this industry is possible. What we now need is for these industries to be required to deal with the CO2 waste they produce. We do it for the nuclear industry so why not fossil fuels and petrochemicals?
That’s a wrap
So, there you have it, 5 reasons to be cautiously optimistic about tacking climate change. And it’s not just me saying it, leading expert Professor Myles Allen is “absolutely confident it can be done”. Sure, there is a lot that needs to happen. And we need to keep up the ‘bad news’ and political pressure to get there. But the purpose of this post is to bring a little bit of hope and reassure you that those small changes and actions you take really can add up to a big difference.
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