Three Types of Global Warming Solutions and Their Economic Benefits
9 Global Warming Solutions You Can Do Today
But these solutions don't address the root cause of global warming. Research shows that if greenhouse gases aren't reduced, climate change will create a permanent "hothouse Earth" in 20 years or less.
The third solution is also critical, but less widely discussed. It removes existing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. According to NASA, the carbon dioxide level is above 400 parts per million. That’s enough to raise the earth’s temperature by 4 degrees Celsius even if we stop all future emissions. The sea level would be 66 feet higher because all the Arctic ice would have melted.
You may be among the 71% of Americans who believe global warming is real. But perhaps you feel hopeless because some governments are unwilling to do anything. Fortunately, the most powerful solutions are also ones you can start today.
Coping strategies combat the effects of global warming. These include natural disasters, such as hurricanes, tornados, and wildfires. Governments are addressing the effects of extreme weather such as droughts, floods, heat waves, and the rising sea level.
To combat heat waves, the city of Los Angeles is painting its streets with a light gray CoolSeal paint. It will reduce LA's temperature by 3 degrees by 2038. The City of New York has painted more than 6.7 million roofs with a white reflective coating. Researchers say white roofs reduce temperatures by 2.6 degrees Fahrenheit. But they also reduce rainfall or lower temperatures, requiring more heating in the winter.
China will combat flooding with 30 new "sponge cities." In 2015, it launched the Sponge City Initiative. The government has funded $12 billion to create water reuse projects. By 2020, it wants to have 80% of China's cities reusing almost three-quarters of their rainwater. The project will mitigate both flood damage and drought at the same time.
The City of Miami Beach, Florida launched a five-year, $500 million public works program to combat the rising sea level. It will raise roads, install pumps, and redo sewer connections to defend against flooding during high tides.
Colombia is developing coffee plants resistant to fungus and pests. Global warming is disrupting the growing cycle, weakening the plants, and leaving them more open to pests.
Stop Emitting Greenhouse Gases
The biggest plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is the Paris Climate Agreement. On December 18, 2015, 196 countries promised to limit global warming to 2 C above the 1880 level. Many experts consider that the tipping point. Beyond that, and the consequences of climate change become unstoppable. To achieve that goal, global emissions must fall to zero by 2050.
Members would prefer to limit warming to 1.5 C. The Climate Clock shows that, at current rates, we will reach that level in 15 years. If this goal is reached, the world will save $30 trillion. That figure represents lost productivity, rising health care costs, and lower agricultural output.
A 2018 MIT study found that China could save $339 billion by implementing its Paris Agreement pledge. The savings result from fewer deaths from air pollution. The health and productivity savings would be four times greater than China's costs of meeting those goals.
What Must Be Done. In November 2018, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said the 1.5 C goal was achievable only if the world stopped emitting carbon by 2030. It emitted 40 billion tons in 2018. It must stop burning coal by 2050. Solar and wind must provide 60% of the world’s electricity instead of the 25% it provides now. Transportation must switch to 100% electric, up from 4% now.
Trees to absorb CO2 should replace croplands. The IPCC recommended BioEnergy Carbon Capture and Storage. That's where trees could also be harvested to provide energy but the CO2 would be captured and stored underground. But opponents say the process may add to greenhouse gas emissions instead.
Obstacles. Countries argue over who should make the biggest cuts. Developing nations say that the United States should cut the most since it has already emitted the most. The U.S. argument is that China should cut since it currently emits the most per year. All countries are concerned that their quality of life would suffer by reducing carbon emissions.
Recent Developments. In April 2019, eight European countries pledged to reduce carbon emissions to zero by 2050. It said the European Union should spend 25% of its budget on global warming solutions.
Countries have signed 1,500 climate policies. Nations representing 56% of global emissions have agreed to carbon taxes. These Pigouvian taxes should be high enough to charge emitters the true cost of petroleum products. There are 180 countries with renewable energy targets. Almost 80% of new cars are subject to vehicle emissions standards. But, so far, it’s not enough to hit the goal.
In October 2016, more than 170 countries agreed to the Kigali accord. They agreed to phase out hydrofluorocarbons in high-income countries in 2019 and all others in 2028. Propane and ammonium are available substitutes. It will lower temperatures by 1 F but will cost $903 billion by 2050. According to The Drawdown Project, HFCs have 1,000 to 9,000 times greater capacity to warm the atmosphere than CO2.
In 2018, the shipping industry agreed to lower its emissions. By 2050, emissions will be 50% of the 2008 level. The industry emits 800 million tons of CO2 annually or 2.3% of the world's total. To reach its goal, the industry must replace oil with biofuels or hydrogen. It will need more energy-efficient designs.
China, Egypt, Mexico, and India are planning to build supersized solar farms. The world’s largest solar farm will be completed in 2019. Egypt is spending $4 billion to build a farm with 5 million photovoltaic panels. The farm will be 10 times bigger than New York’s Central Park and generate1.8 gigawatts of electricity. It's three times bigger than the largest U.S. farm in California. Mexico is building what will be the largest solar farm in the Americas. China is planning a 2-gigawatt farm, and India has just approved a 5-gigawatt farm.
Japan’s government wants manufacturers to stop building conventional cars by 2050. China, the world’s biggest car market, already has a goal of one in five vehicles running on batteries by 2025. The U.S. government is not requiring its automakers to go electric, hurting American competitiveness.
Improved battery technology could eliminate gas-hungry combustion engines. In 2018, Sila Nanotechnologies created a silicon-based lithium battery. It holds 15% more energy than the best battery out there. BMW will use the battery in its electric vehicles by 2023. Sila is working on a battery that achieves a 40% improvement.
The United States could do much more to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In 2016, natural gas generated 34% of the 4.079 trillion kWh of total U.S. electricity production. Coal-fired plants came next, generating 30%. U.S. nuclear plants generated 19.7% while preventing 573 million tons of CO2 emissions. Hydroelectricity contributed only 6.5%. Other alternative sources including wind power only added 8.4%. A 1% increase in global wind power could reduce 84.6 gigatons of CO2. A 2018 survey found that 70% of Americans want utilities to move to 100% clean energy.
At least half would be willing to pay 30% more to get it. More than 80 U.S. cities, five counties, and two states have committed to 100% renewables. Six cities have already hit the target. There are 144 companies across the globe that have committed to 100% renewables. They include Google, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, Coca-Cola, Nike, and GM.
A new report in Energy and Environmental Science shows how the United States could convert to an 80% solar and wind-based energy system. It would require a significant advancement in energy storage technologies or hundreds of billions of dollars invested in renewable energy infrastructure. The researchers looked at 36 years’ worth of hourly sun and wind data in the continental United States. It gave them a better understanding of the geophysical barriers faced by renewable systems in the country.
The biggest challenge is storing enough energy to supply power when the wind and the sun aren't available. The United States has a power demand of 450 gigawatts. It needs a network of energy storage facilities able to bank 12 hours of solar energy at a time. It would need to have a storage capacity of approximately 5.4 terawatt-hours. It’s the same size as the Tesla Gigafactory, Elon Musk’s giant battery production facility in Nevada. It would cost over $1 trillion.
California mandated that all electricity be generated by carbon-free sources by 2045. It required all new homes to have solar power by 2020. That adds $8,000 to $12,000 to each home's cost or $40 a month in mortgage payments. It's offset by the $80 monthly savings in electric bills due to California's rate structure that favors renewable sources. New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Washington, D.C., are considering similar legislation. California is already the leader in installed solar capacity. It provides 15% of the state's electricity and employs 86,000 workers.
Many cities are encouraging builders to add cool or green roofs to their structures. Cool roofs are painted white to reflect sunlight. Green roofs are covered in plants. They use less energy than standard buildings and absorb greenhouse gases.
Orlando, Florida has set a goal of generating all of its energy from carbon-free sources by 2050. It is shifting from coal to solar and wind. It's testing algae pools to absorb both rainwater and carbon.
A long-range solution to lower greenhouse gas emissions is by reducing birth rates. The best way to do this is to educate girls through high school. Girls who drop out of school in fifth grade to marry have five or more children. Girls who complete high school have two children on average. The U.S. birthrate is declining because many women are worried about climate change.
Reduce CO2 Already in the Atmosphere
Lowering future emissions isn’t enough to stop global warming. The CO2 level has risen so fast that the temperature hasn't caught up. To prevent further warming, the existing CO2 level must be lowered from the current level of 400 parts per million to the preindustrial maximum of 300 parts per million. To do this, we must remove and store 30 years’ worth of CO2 from the atmosphere in the next three decades.
Carbon sequestration captures and stores CO2 underground. To meet the Paris Agreement goal, 10 billion tons a year must be removed by 2050 and 100 billion tons by 2100. In 2018, only 60 million tons of carbon was sequestered according to Princeton University's Professor Steven Pacala.
One of the easiest solutions is to plant trees and other vegetation to halt deforestation. The world's 3 trillion trees store 400 gigatons of carbon. There is room to plant another 1.2 trillion trees in vacant land across the earth. That would absorb an additional 1.6 gigatons of carbon. The Nature Conservancy estimated that this would only cost $10 per ton of CO2 absorbed.
Trees also provide shade, cool the surrounding area, and absorb pollution. California is planting trees to prevent flooding. Seattle encourages developers to add rooftop gardens or walls covered by vegetation to new building projects.
Trees can also be used to provide carbon credits. In Idaho, 600 trees will be planted in city parks. They create 1,300 carbon credits worth $50,000. Anyone can purchase these credits to offset greenhouse gas emissions.
The Nature Conservancy suggested that restoring peatland and wetland areas as another low-cost carbon sequestration solution. Peatlands are the compressed remains of plants in waterlogged areas. They contain 550 gigatons of carbon. Governments must develop plans to identify, conserve, and restore the world's peatlands.
The government should immediately fund incentives for farmers to manage their soil better. For example, they could reduce plowing which releases carbon into the atmosphere. Instead, they could plant carbon-absorbing plants such as daikon. The roots break up the earth and become fertilizer when they die.
Using compost as fertilizer also returns carbon into the ground while improving the soil. Whendee Silver is an ecologist at the University of California, Berkeley. She found that the best approach was to use manure as compost on the fields. It kept it from emitting carbon gases while it festered in lagoons. It also nourished grasses that absorbed more carbon. If only 41% of the rangeland were treated, it would offset 80% of California's agricultural emissions.
In 2017, McCarty Farms planted cover crops on 12,300 that once sat empty. They absorbed 6,922 tons of CO2 and stored it in the soil. That's equivalent to 7,300 acres of forest. More important, it sucked up the emissions of more than 1,300 cars.
Power plants can efficiently use carbon capture and storage because CO2 makes up 5% to 10% of their emissions. The Petra Nova station in Texas will capture 90% of its CO2 and pump it into depleted oil wells. Ironically, retired oil fields have the best conditions to store carbon. The Oil and Gas Climate Initiative has identified potential underground storage areas. Between 70% and 90% of this is within oil and gas fields.
The 100 new carbon sequestration plants must be built per year by 2040. These plants filter the carbon out of the air using chemicals that bind with it. The process requires machines that move enormous amounts of air since carbon makes up only 0.04% of the atmosphere. According to Professor Pacala, in 10 years that could be possible for only $100 a ton of captured CO2. That's less than the cost of climate change. The Nature Conservancy estimates this at $100 per ton of excess CO2 in the atmosphere.
The government should subsidize the research as it did with solar and wind energy. It would only cost $900 million, far less than the $15 billion Congress spent on Hurricane Harvey disaster relief.
President Donald Trump's fiscal year 2019 budget gives companies a $50 tax credit for every metric ton of carbon they capture and bury underground. But it's less than the cost of power plant carbon capture which is $60 to $70 a metric ton. But the tax credit could spur research into emerging these negative emission technologies.
According to M.I.T. researcher Howard Herzog, the government must impose carbon taxes to make carbon sequestration more financially feasible. Without those taxes, fossil fuels are too cheap for other forms to compete.
Some researchers suggest we dump safe nutrients into the ocean to grow more phytoplankton. These tiny plants capture carbon. But it is also pollution and could create more dead zones.
A less well-researched solution is to crush carbon-absorbing rock, such as olivine or volcanic basalt. Professor Pacala estimates there is 1,000 times the amount of rock needed to do the job. But it could be very expensive to crush enough rock to make a difference.
A dangerous proposed solution is geoengineering. One proposal is to use particulates to cool the Earth by blocking sunlight. An example is volcanic eruptions. When Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines erupted in 1991, the Earth's temperature dropped by 0.4 C to 0.6 C. But the particulates destroy ozone which protects the earth from cancer-producing radiation. They also block solar energy needed to make solar cell technology work. Pollution also cools the Earth by reflecting the sun's heat. But it would also block sunlight.
Here Are Nine Things You Can Do Today
Waiting for the world's governments to do something is frustrating. If you want to support efforts to reduce global warming, there are nine simple but effective steps you can take today.
First, plant trees and other vegetation to halt deforestation. You can also donate to charities that plant trees. For example, Eden Reforestation hires local residents to plant trees in Madagascar and Africa for $0.10 a tree. It also gives the very poor people an income, rehabilitates their habitat, and saves species from mass extinction.
Second, become carbon neutral. The average American emits 16 tons of CO2 a year. Carbonfootprint.com provides a free carbon calculator to estimate your personal carbon emissions. It also provides green projects to offset your emissions.
According to Arbor Environmental Alliance, 100 mangrove trees can absorb 2.18 metric tons of CO2 annually. The average American would need to plant 734 mangrove trees to offset one year’s worth of CO2. At $0.10 a tree, that would cost $73.
The United Nations program Climate Neutral Now also allows you to offset your emissions by purchasing credits. These credits fund green initiatives, such as wind or solar power plants in developing countries. You can select the specific project that interests you. The U.N. site also helps you calculate your specific carbon emission or you can use an average. For example, donations to Eden Reforestation plants trees in Madagascar. That gives the people income, rehabilitates their habitat, and saves species from mass extinction.
Third, vote for candidates who promise a solution to global warming. The Sunrise Movement is pressuring Democrats to adopt a Green New Deal. It outlines steps that will reduce U.S annual greenhouse emissions from 2016 by 16%. That's what's needed to achieve the Paris Agreement's 2025 reduction target. Emissions must fall 77% to reach the 2050 target. There are 500 candidates who have vowed not to accept campaign contributions from the oil industry. Republican leaders are just beginning to create solutions.
Sadly, President Trump's economic plan is removing many of protections put in previously. As a result, U.S. CO2 emissions increased by 2.5% in 2018.
Fourth, pressure corporations to disclose and act on their climate-related risks. For example, shareholders convinced Royal Dutch Shell to establish and publish emissions targets. Sell your stock holdings in fossil-fuel companies. The City of New York pension fund has already done so. Since 1988, 100 companies are responsible for more than 70% of greenhouse gas emissions. The worst are ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, and Chevron. These four companies contribute 6.49% alone.
Fifth, reduce food waste. The Drawdown Coalition estimated that 26.2 gigatons of CO2 emissions would be avoided if food waste was reduced by 50%. Unused food creates methane as it decomposes in landfills. Forests would not have to be cut down for farmland, preventing 44.4 gigatons of additional emissions.
Sixth, cut fossil-fuel use. Use more mass transit, biking, and electric vehicles. Or keep your car but maintain it. Keep the tires inflated, change the air filter, and drive under 60 miles per hour. Prime members can sign up for "Amazon Day" to have all their packages delivered on the same day for each week. Take advantage of your utility's energy efficiency program. In 2017, these programs avoided the generation of 147 million metric tons of CO2 emissions
Seventh, enjoy a plant-based diet with less meat. Cows create methane, a greenhouse gas. Monoculture crops to feed the cows destroy forests. The Drawdown Coalition estimated those forests would have absorbed 39.3 gigatons of carbon dioxide. As a result, the beef-based Western diet contributes one-fifth of global emissions. If cattle were their own nation, they would be the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases.
According to a 2016 study, emissions could be reduced by 70% with a vegan diet and 63% for a vegetarian diet that includes cheese, milk, and eggs. It would also reduce rising health care costs by $1 trillion. Similarly, organic food uses less fossil-fuel-based pesticides.
Avoid products using palm oil. Most of its production comes from Malaysia and Indonesia. Tropical forests and carbon-rich swamps are cleared for its plantations. Avoid products with generic vegetable oil as an ingredient.
Eighth, hold the government accountable. Each year, $2 trillion is invested in building new energy infrastructure. The International Energy Administration said that governments control 70% of that.
In 2015, a group of Oregon teenagers sued the federal government for worsening global warming. They said the government's actions violated their rights and those of future generations under the U.S. Constitution. They point out that the government has known for over 50 years that fossil fuels cause climate change. Despite this knowledge, government regulations supported the spread of 25% of the world's carbon emissions. It asks the court to force the government to create a plan to change course.
The government would have to stop subsidizing fossil fuels and start curtailing greenhouse gases.
Similarly, the State of New York has sued ExxonMobil for financial fraud. It claims the oil company misled investors about the external costs associated with carbon. Ask your city if it has applied for funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies to further its commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement.
Ninth, continue to become more informed. Here are some good sources of news and solutions:
- Climate Central
- InsideClimate News
- Extreme Weather & Our Changing Climate
- The Weather of the Future: Heat Waves, Extreme Storms, and Other Scenes from a Climate-Changed Planet
- The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World
- New York Times answers to frequently asked questions about climate change
- New York Times Climate Change newsletter