There is no path to protecting the climate without dramatically changing how we produce and use electricity. Climate change is something the world has been going through constantly in its 4,5 billion year existence. Scientists proclaim that the earth has gone through no less than 5 distinct ice ages in this time and that we are officially in one now that started 2,6 million years ago. But in the past 250 years, there have been increasing changes in our climate due in part to global greenhouse gas emissions, specifically, CO2 and methane that traps the sun’s heat in our atmosphere like the glass in a greenhouse does. This time the actions of the human race have accelerated this process in such a significant way that action needs to be taken to avoid dire consequences.

This is one of the most challenging problems human beings have had to face. Hundreds of millions of lives, innumerable species and ecosystems, and the future habitability of our planet are at stake. But we have the technology and the means to change this, to bring about a solution. Renewable energy is one of the most effective tools we have in the fight against climate change, and there is every reason to believe it will succeed. A vast majority of carbon emissions are produced by the combustion of fossil fuels to produce electricity. In fact, 87% of all human-produced carbon dioxide emissions come from the burning of fossil fuels like coal, natural gas, and oil.

Here are some facts available on the United Nations website:

  1. The earth is now 1.2°C warmer than it was in the late 1800s. We are not on track to meet agreed targets to keep the global temperature from exceeding 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.
  2. 2015-2019 were the five warmest years on record while 2010-2019 was the warmest decade on record.
  3. On the current path of carbon dioxide emissions, the temperature is expected to increase by 3-5°C by the end of this century.
  4. In 2019, greenhouse gas concentrations reached new highs. Carbon dioxide levels are 148 percent of preindustrial levels.
  5. Greenhouse gas concentrations, already at their highest levels in 3 million years, have continued to rise.
  6. Since the mid-1980s, Arctic surface air temperatures have warmed at least twice as fast as the global average, while sea ice, the Greenland ice sheet, and glaciers have declined over the same period and permafrost temperatures have increased.
  7. To limit climate change to 2°C, emissions must drop 7.6% per year from 2020 to 2030 for the 1.5°C goal and 2.7% per year for the 2°C goal.
  8. The emissions gap in 2030, or the difference between necessary carbon dioxide reduction and current trends, is estimated at 12-15 gigatons carbon dioxide equivalent (Gt CO2) to limit global warming to below 2°C. For the 1.5°C goal, the gap is estimated at 29-32 Gt CO2, roughly equivalent to the combined emissions of the six largest emitters.
  9. To follow a 1.5°C-consistent pathway, the world will need to decrease fossil fuel production by roughly 6% per year between 2020 and 2030. Countries are instead planning and projecting an average annual increase of 2%, which by 2030 would result in more than double the production consistent with the 1.5°C limit.

What changed?

The industrial revolution, the invention of the automobile, widespread agriculture, turning kerosene into jet fuel, and developing methods to generate electricity from fossil fuels have had a huge impact on our environment and the world we live in. Global warming is a direct result of human actions in the production of CO2 and other harmful gasses that resulted in a temperature rise of 1°C in the last 100 years. The rate of that change has been doubling over the last 50 years.

The warming of our planet might not sound like such a major issue, but the reality is that if it happens too fast, we create a dangerous situation. While we are making great strides in becoming more efficient in finding ways in everything we need to with fewer emissions, the challenge is that the world’s demand for everything that requires energy is growing at a pace that is currently faster than our ability to produce energy with sources that have lower or no greenhouse gas emissions. For the time being, we still have to use all forms of energy to meet the world’s demands while also making the changes necessary to get our emissions under control.

There are many contributors to the dawning epidemic of climate change. But studies show that our use of non-renewable energy sources – coal, natural gas, petroleum, bitumen, and shale oil among others – is the major culprit. So how does renewable energy reduce climate change? Most renewable energy sources produce little to no global warming emissions. Even when including “life cycle” emissions of clean energy (ie, the emissions from each stage of a technology’s life – manufacturing, installation, operation, decommissioning), the global warming emissions associated with renewable energy are minimal.

According to an article written by The Union of Concerned Scientists, the comparison becomes clear when you look at the numbers. Burning natural gas for electricity releases between 0.6 and 2 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent per kilowatt-hour (CO2/kWh); coal emits between 1.4 and 3.6 pounds of CO2/kWh. Wind, on the other hand, is responsible for only 0.02 to 0.04 pounds of CO2/kWh on a life-cycle basis; solar 0.07 to 0.2; geothermal 0.1 to 0.2; and hydroelectric between 0.1 and 0.5.


What is the solution?


Even though the predictions show that our CO2 emissions will still increase for the foreseeable future, we have to keep on trying to adopt renewable energy sources as much as is possible.

There are tremendous advancements in renewable energy technology, but many people consider renewable energy as an optional “alternative” energy source. To combat the effects of climate change, this mindset needs to change. The goal is to shift completely to clean energy sources. And the sooner this is done, the better. At some point, there will be no choice but to move to renewable energy as a power source because non-renewable energy sources won’t last forever, they will run out and the world will have to adapt. So the goal is inevitable, and we have made remarkable strides towards living in a world free of dangerous emissions, but it is not happening fast enough.

To avoid the worst consequences of climate change, we’ll need to reach “net-zero” carbon emissions by 2050 or sooner. Net-zero means that, on balance, no more carbon is dumped into the atmosphere than is taken out. To achieve net-zero emissions, we need a massive transformation in how we produce and consume electricity.

It’s not too late to stop climate change, but climate scientists have predicted that avoiding disaster in terms of climate change will require a massive reduction in carbon emissions by the year 2030.

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Switching away from fossil fuels

Here are some of the renewable sources available and their potential impact on the climate.
  • Solar energy is derived from the sun. It entails using energy from the sun’s light radiation and converting it into electrical energy through the use of PV panels. Solar energy is produced using processes that require no gas emissions. As long as the sun is burning, we can never use up its resources.
  • Wind power is driven by the temperature of the earth’s surface. It’s a process where wind turbines convert the kinetic energy in the wind into mechanical power and subsequently into electricity. Although land space is required, there is less disruption to natural habitats from wind turbines than from fossil fuel plants.
  • Hydropower relies on the water cycle and the force of flowing water for energy conversion. There are almost no emissions or toxic by-products from this process, but it disturbs the water flow of the river/dam involved.
  • Biomass and bio-energy are plant or animal material used as fuel to produce electricity or heat. A carbon-neutral source of energy and reduces waste materials.
These sources don’t have the impact that non-renewable sources have on the environment. Gas emissions (such as CO2 and methane) are low, or non-existent in some cases. The structure of the earth does not have to be compromised through drilling or blasting. Generating energy from these renewable energy sources doesn’t require a process that will cause climate change. Switching to these renewable energy sources not only reduces carbon emissions but also results in better air quality, improved public health and the protection of natural habitats.

Incentives and challenges to change

South Africa has an environmental levy for carbon production called a carbon tax. A rate at the cost of R120 per ton of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions is payable to SARS. This rate will increase annually by inflation plus 2% until 2022, and annually by inflation thereafter. This is a disincentive to dissuade those generating energy from non-renewable sources. Other than this, the government has a variety of tax incentives to make the change to renewable energy just that more enticing. Some serious obstacles prevent us from achieving a future powered by renewable energy. For example, ideal sources of wind or flowing water may be on lands that are in use for other purposes. The infrastructure to transmit energy from renewable sources still requires high short-term costs and is not yet running at full capacity. What’s more, public support is lacking in many cases. More challenges include technical issues that could hamper the transmission of electricity. The grid was designed for coal-fired, one-way flow of electricity from a centralised point. Much is said about the need to adapt the electric grid to the variability associated with integrating renewable energy into our electricity mix. But it is achievable. The biggest concern is the cost of such an operation. In South Africa, our current energy model is also unable to meet our development challenges, reduce our emissions nor provide the electricity we can all afford. Yet we have solar potential on par with some of the best solar areas globally. We need to use it. If we keep using fossil fuels like there is no tomorrow, there might be no tomorrow. The switch to renewable energy is just one contributing element towards a solution for climate change. But it’s a big one. We won’t be able to stop global warming overnight, but it’s in our power to slow it down by limiting actions that produce CO2. To make a change, we can start by redirecting our energy needs to more sustainable sources. Thank you for reading this article. If you feel we have left out any important information or would like to contribute to this site and content, please get in touch with us by leaving a comment or emailing us. SOURCES trvst Union of Concerned Scientists NRDC Union of Concerned Scientists Climate Action

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