30 Nov 2015   |   News

How to solve the climate puzzle

Experts at Science|Business roundtable say innovations in technology, business, social models and policy are needed for real climate action

We’re finally ready to act. That’s the message a lot of people will want to hear during this week of diplomatic wrangling in Paris, at the Global Climate Conference. In the past years the science of global warming has got more certain, and the climate change warnings more worrying.

But what, specifically, needs to be done? At a gathering of experts in Barcelona Nov. 19, organised by Science|Business, a list of measures emerged that, if taken together, could make a big difference. Here is a summary.

  • Phase out fossil fuel subsidies in rich countries. According to the Paris-based International Energy Agency, governments are splurging hundreds of billion annually in subsidies to fossil fuels, more than four times those given for renewable energy. But environmentalists argue that supporting fossil fuels stifles the development of clean energy. The US and China have agreed to prioritise the setting of a deadline for the phase-out of fossil fuel subsidies during China’s G20 presidency in 2016 – more advanced economies could support this.
  • Put an expiry date on coal. Earlier this month the UK became the first big economy to announce a retirement year for coal-powered plants (2025). As well as making a big statement, the government also threw down a clever challenge: any coal producers that are able to install carbon capture and storage, or CCS, before 2025 would get a reprieve. So far the technology has failed to win investment, but measures like in the UK might give companies an extra prod to innovate in that direction.  
  • A corporate carbon tax. Industry wastes countless megawatts through old equipment and inefficient processes. What if all companies above a certain size were directly taxed on their carbon generation? This could provide the needed incentive to force company managers to pay attention.
  • Learning on the job. Employers have a powerful effect on staff behaviour. For instance, one problem in the take-up of electric cars is simple: Few people have ever driven one, so they wouldn’t think of spending their own money on one. But what if companies had an incentive to stock their fleets with electric cars? Employees would drive them, get used to them – and likely buy one, themselves, when the time comes.
  • Empowering cities. With urban populations swelling, city administration is going to be the crucible of any progress in climate control. National governments need to give metropolitan authorities more autonomy to experiment locally, and compete against one another for Greenville branding. A good example is the Green Deal programme in the Netherlands, in which the central government helps communities and groups get locally-conceived projects to save energy off the ground.
  • Climate teaching. Education changes behaviour. Our educational system needs to introduce more courses and modules on climate change – from elementary schools to lifelong learning programmes. More universities should have masters and doctoral programmes related to climate.
  • Develop energy-efficient computing.  Big data analysis has become the staple of the internet age. But few people realise that manipulating massive amounts of data is not energy-efficient. As information and communication technologies are now embedded in all industries, data centres consume more and more electricity. Unfortunately, not enough research is done in this field to find solutions for energy-efficient computing.
  • Reforming the public sector.  Bureaucracies are often inefficient, hierarchical, slow to change. Governments should review their own organigrams and working practices, looking for efficiencies.
  • Invest more in research and innovation. New ideas need money to grow; and public support for renewable energy, energy efficiency, new business or social models is pitifully small. A joint statement Nov. 30 by 20 developed countries to step up R&D spending is a good start, but more is needed. The Science|Business gathering concluded with a call for more investment in research and innovation.

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