OPINION: Young Kiwis have come out in force to support a global youth movement on climate change that demands action, not just hope.
The scale required is formidable, and it leads some to “eco-anxiety”, fearing for their future. Such worry seems an unfair burden on those who will already inherit a damaged world.
Without questioning the urgency to act, I would like to offer them some hope.
As an atmospheric scientist for over 30 years, I have often been disheartened by our prospects. Interestingly, I first heard the concerns about rising carbon dioxide and global warming from a man who shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1995 for discovering the threat to the ozone layer. refrigerants and aerosol propellants.
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In a lecture at the University of Canterbury 40 years ago, even before the Antarctic ozone hole appeared, Professor Sherwood Rowland of the University of California at Irvine said he believed that the warming of the greenhouse effect would ultimately be the greatest threat. How right he was.
The problem of global ozone destruction by manufactured chemicals was resolved by the Montreal Protocol of 1987 and its subsequent amendments. We recently published an article showing that it has been very effective in preventing dangerous increases in UV radiation around the world.
Meanwhile, our burning of fossil fuels and other greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase. Why the difference?
It all comes down to the viability of the solutions. For most of those 40 years, there was no technology to replace fossil fuels. With the choice between destroying the planet and living like the poorest (and lowest emitters in the world), developed countries have chosen the former.
At the time I heard the speech, the world was also in the throes of an oil crisis, so scientists and engineers were looking for solutions to that. As a physicist, I thought nuclear fusion might be the answer, but even now it doesn’t seem any closer. “The power of fusion is 40 years away and always will be! Is the usual terse description.
Even without its dangers, the nuclear alternative, fission, is not a long-term solution; Global uranium would only last about 15 years if used to power everything.
Over the years, I have considered many alternatives to fossil fuels, but they have always been prohibitive.
Biofuels are attractive, but our biosphere has been oversubscribed since the 1970s. Even with the best biofuels, we would need two or three more Earths to cover all of our consumption.
Producing electricity on the scale required seemed impossible or unaffordable. On top of that, the electric motors were heavy and the batteries much heavier still.
Remarkably, several recent advances have turned all of this upside down. Very strong neodymium and samarium-cobalt magnets provide powerful and compact electric motors, and they made wind towers possible.
Photovoltaic solar has seen its price per watt drop by a factor of more than a hundred since the 1970s; they now pay off their production energy in a year, and they last at least 25 years.
Lithium-ion batteries have revolutionized electronic devices and now electric vehicles, and further improvement in capacity, lifespan and price seems likely.
As a result, it’s now cheaper to pay for a wind or solar farm in much of the world than to buy coal to power an existing power plant. Published studies show the world could phase out fossil fuels completely by 2050, while creating millions of new jobs, saving millions of lives by reducing air pollution and keeping production with full energy reduced because electricity is more efficient. It just needs the global will to make it happen, and the action to back it up.
In this regard, the young people of Aotearoa can feel particularly positive. We are the lucky country, with a per capita abundance of all renewable energies: hydro, wind, solar, geothermal, wave, tidal and the capacity of our biosphere.
To illustrate the scope, consider that New Zealand has around 9.5 gigawatts of grid-connected electricity generation, of which less than 0.3% is solar. Germany has over 40 GW of rooftop solar capacity, but nowhere in Germany is better for solar power than Invercargill.
My advice to young people today is not to be discouraged, but they should certainly be eager to act.
We have so far done far too little to tackle climate change, but we must continue with the confidence that a cleaner, healthier and more just world awaits us.
Ben Liley is an atmospheric scientist in Niwa.