We are at the beginning of an era of radical planetary change, and we cannot know how it will play out. But what we do know is that the planet is warming, and the warming is caused by our unprecedented dumping every year of millions of tons of greenhouse gasses into the paper-thin layer of atmosphere that sustains our lives.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Beijing lately. This photograph was taken recently at the Forbidden City, which is literally invisible because of the smog. But smog is particulate matter, not even our major pollutant.
The changes we must make to bring this under control are well beyond what any politician is suggesting. We are compelled to change virtually everything about the way we live and do things, from the ground up, because to gain control, we must decrease worldwide pollution by some 80%.
Our biggest pollutant is carbon dioxide, which is generated by burning the fossil fuels, oil and coal. For cars, this means eliminating four out of five cars, or improving their efficiency to something like 150 mpg.
Electricity generation is the biggest polluter from coal, and the same constraints apply there. Either eliminate four out of five coal-fired generators, or find ways to cut their carbon dioxide emissions by 80%.
There are five other common pollutants, but CO2 gives us quite enough to worry about for right now.
But, you say, we’ve been at this for decades. Have we made no progress? Yes, we have. Here is a graph from the EPA showing what we have accomplished in the US.
The bottom line shows that aggregate emissions have been reduced by 59% since 1990, in spite of growth in the other five areas. Carbon dioxide, the second from bottom, grew by 8% since 1990, and the trend is down. That’s good news. But atmospheric CO2 continues to accumulate, and the effect of what’s already there will not dissipate for many decades.
For at least a century, the US was the world’s worst polluter. That dubious honor has probably now been seized by China, which is adding 13-million new cars to the road every year, as well as one large coal-fired generating plant per week. India is also worsening, as are many other countries on all continents.
Obviously, the US cannot solve the problem alone. We can only solve our part of it, but the changes required, as I said, are much greater and more basic than most people realize.
Naturally, the problem cannot be solved by concentrating on one thing, say, cars. We must deal with all of it, from all angles, and radically.
For example, it’s mandatory that we make mass transit so attractive and efficient that it becomes the transportation of choice in cities, since it’s considerably cleaner. So we need attractive and comfortable vehicles that arrive frequently and take us where we want to go. That’s difficult in many US cities. Main routes are usually covered, although not frequently enough, but secondary routes are often inadequate, and we are often compelled to drive cars.
Here are two possibilities for mass transit: (1) Small, driverless shuttles similar to those at many airports for lesser routes, possibly traveling without rails. (2) A taxing system that makes all public transit free, which is seen in a number of European cities. San Francisco is about 75% subsidized.
Flying is one of the least efficient ways to travel, and the generation of greenhouse gasses from airplanes must be sharply reduced. Government should re-assume regulation of airlines, airplane manufacturers should continue improving efficiency, new types of air travel must be developed, and an extensive system of high-speed rail must be built. But the essential thing is that we must eliminate unnecessary vehicular travel.
“Clean coal” is so far a fiction, but some methods for cutting CO2 emissions have been achieved. The answer is to rapidly eliminate all older plants and convert the rest to systems of gas recovery. Natural gas generates fewer emissions, but has its own problems, particularly when achieved by “fracking”. Nuclear power suffers from an uncorrectable fault: there is no way to dispose of radioactive waste, and every ounce we ever generated is still in temporary storage, and dangerous until the year 300,000 CE. All the newer generation methods must be maximized: windmills, wave and tidal generators, geothermal, photovoltaic, sunlight concentration, etc. Their aggregate use could form a large part of our power generation.
We can minimize the emissions from power generation by making everything that uses energy maximally efficient. We’re not close to that. Every building we have must be modernized within an inch of its life. There’s nothing exotic about this. It means major insulation for heat and cold, multiple-pane windows, efficient appliances, improved environmental siting, better design, and more, and their equivalents in commercial buildings.
But all this doesn’t begin to describe what we will have to do. We will have to rebuild everything, not just update the new. Environmental destruction is far more serious than we have imagined. Only a worldwide complete rethinking about everything we do will even come close to fixing it.