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This One Thing Can Save the Planet
We can avoid climate armageddon by changing just one thing.
It’s 2016, and Corona is still just a weird type of beer, you can’t go anywhere without hearing Justin Bieber’s “Love Yourself”, and in a quiet office in New York, the Paris Agreement has just been signed. This milestone piece of international policy promises to beckon a new era of global cooperation to fight climate change. The aim was simple, limit climate change to 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2 degrees Celsius at most, by getting humanity to net-zero by 2050. There is an air of optimism that we can genuinely hit these targets. Seven years later, and that optimism has been crushed. Studies show we are on course for a massive 3 degrees Celsius of climate change, which would incur biblically disastrous extreme weather on the entire planet. However, this same research also showed how we can get back on track, but we have only one chance to do so.
One of these studies came from researchers at the Chalmers University of Technology and Lund University, Sweden. They considered current global carbon emissions and countries’ plans and projects to reduce these emissions over the next few decades to try and calculate what level of global warming we are likely to see. As expected, they found that we are far from doing enough to meet our climate targets, and instead are on course to fly right past them to 3 degrees Celsius of warming.
Now, 3 degrees of climate change might not sound like an awful lot, but it is enough to render this Earth into a hellhole. Extreme weather, like heatwaves, droughts, floods, snowstorms and hurricanes, will become far more potent, longer lasting, and more frequent. Vast swathes of polar ice will be lost, driving up sea levels by around 7 m. All in all, hundreds of millions of people will be displaced from their homes due to rising sea levels and their local climate becoming uninhabitable. Marine heatwaves will happen 30 times more often than they do today, decimating the global ocean ecosystem. It will be no better on land, with failing rains, widespread wildfires, droughts that last an entire season and flash floods rendering once verdant terrestrial ecosystems barren.
In short, 3 degrees of climate change is enough to topple governments, kill millions, and make the Earth far less habitable than it is today.
But, this research also had a somewhat surprising and hope-inspiring find. We can avoid this apocalyptic future by doing just one thing, phasing out coal power.
Out of all the fossil fuels, coal is the most egregious. It has by far the largest carbon footprint per kWh of energy, at an eye-watering 950g! For some comparison, solar and wind hover around 5g — 10g per kWh, and natural gas sits at about 350g per kWh. Due to the heavy metal and radioactive impurities inherent in coal, they actually emit ten times more radiation into the environment per kWh than a nuclear power plant and can poison the soils around them for centuries to come. To make matters even worse, they pump the air full of particulates, which cause respiratory problems and even cancers in humans.
All in all, this makes coal the deadliest form of energy we have, with a death rate of 100,000 per thousand TWh. For some context here, nuclear power has a death rate of only 90 per 1,000 TWh, and that figure takes into account the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters.
Despite this, we still use a vast amount of coal power. Coal accounts for 19.5% of the US’s energy mix, 15.8% of the EU’s, 55% of India’s and 55% of China’s! This means that while the energy industry accounts for 42.5% of humanity’s total carbon emissions, 73% of the energy industry’s emissions come from coal!
This is why the study found that phasing out coal is necessary to keep global warming below 2 degrees. However, for this to happen, China and India (which use the most coal power worldwide) need to begin their coal phase-out in the next five years and completely remove it in just a decade. That might sound impossible, but the UK was able to take its coal levels from 40% of its energy mix in 2012 down to just 2% in 2021, with coal being fully phased out by 2024.
The UK’s transition makes sense, as the price of renewables has dropped off a cliff over the past few years. In fact, in 2019, 70% of US coal plants were more expensive to operate than it is to build brand-spanking new renewables. That figure has now grown to 99%, with only one coal plant being cheaper to keep open than to replace it with wind or solar. So, switching from coal to renewables is safer, far less polluting and cheaper!
So, you’d think this would mean that China and India would find this rapid phase-out of coal power and replace it with renewables easily. But there are other factors at play here.
While wind and solar are cheaper than coal, they are also less profitable. This isn’t a problem for countries like the USA and UK, which can offer subsidies to entice investors or raise governmental finance to build these farms. But, for less wealthy countries like India, they need private and institutional investors to pay for their energy infrastructure, so it has been a struggle to get them to pay for new renewables, opting for the more profitable fossil fuels.
The other major reason these countries will struggle to phase out coal is their increasing energy demands and the time it takes to build renewables. In 2010, China produced 29,000 TWh worth of energy, but in 2021 it produced 43,000 TWh! That is a 4.4% growth in energy demand year-on-year, and demand is set to only grow from here.
Now, there is a bottleneck in how fast renewables can be built. There are only so many factories, and they can only produce so many units in a year, which limits how fast renewables can be rolled out.
This means that even though China is building renewable infrastructure faster than anyone else in the world (they are set to double their renewable capacity by 2025), they won’t be able to shut down their coal power plants. Demand is simply growing faster than they can build renewables, meaning they have to keep their coal plants open and even expand them to ensure they can meet energy demand and keep their economy afloat.
So, is there a way for us to help the entire world completely phase out coal power over the next 15 years? Yes! We need to invest in building more solar panel and wind turbine factories. As it stands, most of them are built in China, with almost no domestic production in any other developed country. Instead, by getting the entire world building and installing renewable infrastructure, we can significantly open up this bottleneck, enabling us to completely replace coal power whilst also meeting the rising global demand for energy. What’s more, if we can offer lines of finance for renewable energy infrastructure that is open to the international community, we can ensure every country, no matter their financial standing, can adopt them as fast as possible.
We really are at the last chance saloon. The next decade will determine if we are going to save the planet or let our self-made doomsday happen. We know what we have to do to avoid this catastrophe, and all the technology we need to do it already exists. We just have to do it.
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Sources: IOP Science, SciTech Daily, Global Citizen, Planete Energies, Inside Climate News, AP News, Visual Capitalist, EIA, EC, Ministry of Coal, EIA, Ember Climate, Our World In Data, Planet Earth & Beyond