Two months ago, the words Sustainability and Climate Change cropped up in my conversations with various people, thrice in the space of five days. The first time was when a colleague informed me that he was giving up his current role to focus on sustainability initiatives in another organization. Two days later, a friend was recounting her experience of the Energy Summit in India that she had attended. She stated that the commitments and initiatives that Indian companies and the government were undertaking were very commendable. And then again, these terms cropped up in a discussion on Cloud Providers – how Google, Microsoft and Amazon are aiming to be carbon free in the next few decades.

In today’s advanced age, if a pandemic can strike unexpectedly, so could a climate disaster of unprecedented scale. So, I decided to delve further to understand carbon emissions and the impact on the planet Earth.

I started my reading journey on this topic with ‘How to Avoid a Climate Disaster’ By Bill Gates‘. The book is good place to start understanding the topic. It is simple and explains why it is important for humankind to be carbon free, how do we get there and what can we do as individuals to help this cause. Climate Change is very vast topic and I will need a series of blogs to cover a lot of important content. In this blog I will attempt to describe the situation on had with respect to carbon emissions.

The world typically adds 51 billion tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere every year. 90% of these gases are carbon dioxide and methane. Greenhouse gases when emitted in the atmosphere will stay there for a long time. 1/5th of the carbon dioxide emitted today will still be there in 10,000 years.

Unless we stop adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, the temperature will keep rising. In the Arctic, the rise in temperature results in the melting of glaciers and icebergs, there by leading to rising sea levels, which will in turn cause displacement of lives around the coast. A temperature rise on land will lead to expanding desert land and famines. Warmer temperatures mean more storms and extreme weather. The Swiss Alps has 1250 new lakes formed since the end of the Little Ice Age in 1850 and 1000 of them still exist. 150 of these lakes have been added in the last decade.

Climate changes threaten us with food scarcity, water scarcity, flooding, droughts, extreme heat, infectious diseases and displacement.

We are witnessing climate disasters already – floods, landslides, droughts, shrinking landmass and glaciers. In order to avoid the worst climate scenarios, at some point we will not only need to stop adding more gases but actually need to start removing some the gases we have added into the atmosphere. We need to get to ZERO and we need to do it as a part of our normal lives. We should not look at this problem in isolation – poverty, malnutrition, lack of electricity and infrastructure still exist across the world. According to the World Bank, 9.2% of the world, or 689 million people, live in extreme poverty on $1.90 or less a day. The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a 5% drop in emission i.e., 2-3 billion tons, but a million people died and tens of millions were put out of work

So, when we look to get to Zero, we need to take a holistic approach that helps the poorest of poor with access to food, electricity and livelihood.

Before we get to how to get to Zero, let’s figure out what add up to the 51 billion tons of greenhouses emissions every year. It is primarily 5 aspects – How we plug in, how we make things, how we grow things, how we get around, how we stay cool and warm. If we know the how, we can figure out the HOW NOT TO, albeit with some conscious changes and extensive research and new inventions.

How we plug in (27% of 51 billion tons)

Electricity is omnipresent. It rules every aspect of our life.  Electricity production amounts to 27% of 51 billion tons per year of carbon released in the air. Fossil fuels (coal, natural gas) amount for 2/3rd of all electricity generated worldwide, while hydropower amounts to 10% and production of energy from renewable sources is only 11%.

Electricity has been the catalyst for driving industrial and technology advances and is definitely needed for the further progress of mankind. Access to electricity has a direct impact on progress and the reduction of poverty. As on today, approximately 860 million in the world, a large majority of them in sub-Saharan Africa don’t have electricity.  So, we definitely cannot say no to electricity and go back to the dark ages but instead need look at ways to find alternate sources of clean energy.

Decarbonizing the electric grid will have a direct impact in all the other factors that contribute to the carbon footprint, as electricity is a key element in How we make things, How we grow food, How we move and How we keep ourselves warm and cool. More on this in my next blog on this topic.

How we make things (Contributes to 31% of the 51 billion tons)

Concrete, steel, plastics, glass are among the mostly commonly used materials for construction, making cars, trucks, ships, trains and goods. We use them extensively as they are cheap as well as durable.

To make steel, oxygen needs to separated from iron and a bit of carbon. Iron ore is melted at high temperatures in presence of oxygen and coke. Oxygen from the iron ore is released and a bit of carbon from coke bonds with iron to form steel, and the rest is released as carbon dioxide. Every ton of steel produced, produces 1.8 tons of carbon dioxide.

Cement is a key element of concrete and is made from limestone, where the calcium is used for cement production and carbon dioxide is released into the air. Make a ton of cement and you’ll get a ton of carbon dioxide. China and India make more cement than rest of the world combined, with China making 7 times more than India’s annual production. There is no reason to think we are going to stop making cement. The world will be building the equivalent of a New York City every month for the next 40 years.

Plastics are made by refining oil, coal or natural gas and then processing the refined products in various ways. A lot of the carbon is retained in the plastics, while some portion is released in the air. Since a lot of carbon is retained in the plastics, it will take 100s of years to degrade. That’s another problem we need to figure out how to handle.

Beyond finding ways to make materials with zero emissions we can simply use less stuff. More on this in my upcoming blogs on this topic.

How we grow things (19% of 51 billion)

Growing food to cater to the 7 billion population is a big contributor to greenhouse gases. This sector also involves a wide range of various greenhouse gases: carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide. Methane causes 28 times more warming per molecule than carbon dioxide over the course of a century, while nitrous oxide causes 265 times more warming. World over there are a billion cattle raised for beef and dairy and they account for 4 pc of global emissions, via the methane they let out of their body. In addition, deforestation adds to the carbon foot print while also destroying essential habitats. To feed a growing population, we have to find efficient ways to grow plants and raise animals while reducing and eventually eliminating greenhouse gases.

How we get around (16% of 51 billion)

Transportation is the 4th largest contributor to the carbon emissions world over. For the first 99.99 % of human kind’s existence, we managed to get around without relying on fossil fuels. 200 years since we first started using fossil fuels, we now use it so much that it is a large contributor to the global carbon footprint. In US transportation is the No: 1 contributor to carbon emissions. Rich nations emit more carbon via transportation than the developing/poor nations. 

Transportation is essential to transport goods and people from one place to other. Today it is possible to get anything anywhere in the world, provided you have the money for the same. As humans we love to socialize and travel. Travel and transporting goods will only keep increasing in future and we have to look at alternate fuels to use for transportation. Electric vehicles, biofuels are some avenues that are being explored. But these alternates are expensive and there still some ways to go to make these technologies efficient and mainstream.

How we stay cool and warm (7% of 51 billion)

The earth has varying temperatures all year round and many regions face extreme heat and cold conditions. Keeping ourselves warm in winter and cool in summer is essential for our pleasant existence and at times for our survival. The good news is that there are ways to reduce the carbon footprint by choosing energy efficient coolers/heaters and avoiding gasoline heaters. Long term measures to eliminate the carbon emissions would be to design energy efficient buildings relying on natural resources as well as decarbonizing the electricity grid.

How we plug in, How we make things, How we grow food, How we get around and How we stay cool and warm are the five major contributors to global carbon footprint. There are numerous government initiatives and regulations and collective consciousness that is driving extensive research and experimentation by individuals, businesses and institutions across the globe.  There is lot of interesting stuff out there and I will endeavor to blog on this topic frequently.

Our population is only going to grow, we are going be richer, our needs will not change, only increase. Speed in discovering new ways of living carbon free and adapting to the change are key to a SAFE and STRONG EARTH.