Some call climate fluctuations “global weirding” rather than global warming because of mild winters and sudden summer hails. Call it what you want – scientists now concur that we are headed towards a gradual temperature increase of 3oC or more by the end of the 21st century.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has repeatedly warned of melting glaciers, rising sea levels, floods for some regions, droughts and heat waves for others, which could be mitigated if carbon emissions peaked by 2015, but predictions do not bode well.
The World Bank announced that efforts to counter climate change are more about adaptation now than mitigation, and the IPCC special report from March 2012 seeks to address the question of “Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation”, suggesting that the worst is still to come.
In 2011, the United Nations announced that the world had passed the milestone of 7 billion inhabitants while the “bottom billion” still live in poverty. With birth rates booming and adding 75 million to the global population each year, projections show that we will reach 8 billion by 2025.
For the first time in history, more people live in cities than in rural areas, and many more are moving to urban centers to find what they hope will be a better, richer life. Horizontal slums and vertical skyscrapers are growing apace; global demand for energy is rising exponentially.
As an international communications exercise, the United Nations made 2012 the year of “sustainable energy for all”. This translates into raising awareness about the need to increase access to electricity mainly in developing countries in Africa and Asia.
The energy challenge is colossal for these continents where – like industrialized countries – the price to pay for the transition to renewables is still too expensive. For both, potential returns are too far off, which means most countries and companies are not investing enough.
The human quest for survival is damaging the Earth, ultimately spelling our own demise. With the end of easy oil in sight now, Alberta, Canada, is literally scraping away swathes of earth to process tar sands into refined oil. The process is devastating for locals and for the boreal forests.
Equally expensive is the ‘cracking’ or ‘fracking’ process of injecting huge quantities of water into the Earth to extract shale gas. The United States is already hooked, and Europe is following quickly. The impact on nature is still unknown, but just because you cannot see gas does not make it clean.
Nuclear power is an even more controversial source of energy even though it emits zero carbon dioxide. Despite nuclear fallout risks, China, India, and Turkey are building power plants. Critics and proponents realize that in the near future nuclear will fill the gap in the slow transition to renewables.
Europe is a world leader in the development of renewables with an offshore wind potential on the North Sea that surpasses its current dependence on Arabian oil. As ever, the challenge for Europe is how to coordinate and harness this wind potential a lot faster and for a lot more people.
On the global renewable energy market, China leads the solar panel industry, and has the biggest wind farms as well as the largest hydropower dam. China sees that there is money in this burgeoning sector and with its massive population it has no choice but to move rapidly towards greater sustainability.
China is actually doing more than the United States to combat climate change. Meanwhile, in the Arab world trash is piling up along railways and streets. In industrialized countries, what trash we can expunge to space now orbits the Earth, making us look increasingly like a gray planet.
The more these issues are recognized, the better informed we will be to live more sustainable lives. For this to happen, governments need to give their citizens more economic incentives to use energy more efficiently, while also opening opportunities for the private sector to invest more readily.