Saving the planet is like picking fruit

 By Nicholas Newman

Saving the planet is a bit like picking fruit off a tree: it gets harder the farther up you climb…

Across the developed world, measures to reduce the demand for energy are being pursued through saving and efficiency, carbon pricing and the phasing out of oil and coal power stations in favor of cleaner gas and renewable power. Cleaner fuel requirements for ocean-going shipping will soon become mandatory, and governments are subsidizing the sale of electric vehicles.
But the next steps are harder, since they require a change in behavior from consumers, investors and industrial leaders. Solutions may include the mandatory use of electric vehicles, abandonment of single-use plastics and eating less meat, while at the same time reducing the energy intensity of industry. And to mitigate emissions, the search for affordable carbon capture and storage continues.
But is this enough? Ultimately, technology will be needed to curtail emissions while allowing for continued economic growth or, as BP puts it, “more energy with less carbon”.

The low hanging fruit

Householders can cut their carbon emissions in a number of ways, including lowering their heat, replacing incandescent light bulbs with LED ones and switching off and unplugging electronic appliances when not in use. They can also commit to shop locally as well as walk, cycle, or use mass transportation to help reduce greenhouse gases instead of driving to work or using car-sharing services, which can contribute to traffic congestion and air pollution.
Corporations can also take advantage of some low-hanging fruit within easy reach—light switches. Office building lights can be turned off at night in an effort to save energy and counteract potential damage to the environment. Planting trees for shade and installing blinds, improving insulation and installing double- or even triple-glazed windows can also enhance the working environment and save on heating and cooling costs.

The more difficult fruit

In the home, replacing older appliances such as refrigerators, TVs, ovens, washing machines, dryers and boilers with modern energy-efficient models, though costlier investments, can provide lower electricity bills and emissions long-term. Other options could include the rationing of meat for consumption, restrictions on leisure air travel and the phasing out of costly fruit and vegetable imports when out of season.
Businesses intent on saving money and contributing to the climate imperative can opt for an audit of their energy consumption and then implement recommendations. Such enhancements that can benefit both the bottom line as well as the environment include the retrofitting of buildings for energy efficiency or the installation of a building management system that controls and monitors heating, ventilation and cooling.
One large retailer shaved more than 10% off its fuel bills after installing a building management system. Investing in on-site renewable power generation and energy storage has also proved financially beneficial for hospitals, car plants and large retailers.

Installation of a building management system

Progress is underway

The UK recently marked a dedicated week of coal-free electricity and plans to phase out coal-fired plants as early as 2025. In the US, coal is being overtaken by gas in power generation (gas now accounts for 35% against 27% for coal). In addition, America has reduced its carbon emissions by 16% since 2000 compared with a fall of only 10% in “green” Germany, where coal and lignite still provide 39% of the country’s electricity.
Renewable power is likely to meet around 20% of Europe’s power needs by 2020, rising to an estimated 27% by 2030. Eight EU countries have similarly agreed to cut Europe’s emissions to net zero by 2050.
On the other side of the world, heavy pollution in a rapidly growing China has nonetheless encouraged a 12% increase in installed renewable energy in the last year. The government there maintains a target 15% of non-fossil energy by 2020 with a 20% commitment by 2030.

The most difficult and expensive fruit to reach

With just 12 years leeway to implement measures to prevent global temperatures rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, governments will have to stop fossil fuel subsidies, which totaled $5.2 trillion in 2017. A level playing field for renewables would have cut global carbon emissions by a quarter in 2015 according to some calculations.
Recognition of climate and environmental risk and the impact on investment returns in supporting fossil fuel companies and businesses need to become mainstream in investment decisions. Some progress has been made. According to Morgan Stanley, fossil fuel divestments reached $3.4 trillion in 2016, and in 2019, Norway’s sovereign wealth fund announced plans to sell $7.5 billion worth of shares held in 134 oil and gas companies, but not BP, RDS and ExxonMobil.
The reality is that few investors are willing to forgo dividends, although this is beginning to change. A 2019 survey of 39 fund managers responsible for $10.2 trillion of assets found that oil companies will cease to be attractive to investors unless they support the Paris Agreement climate targets.

Large-scale intervention in the Earth’s climate system is not a “quick fix” for global warming (

For the sake of the planet, the world’s power generation; its land, sea and air transportation; and livestock farming, industry and waste management need to decarbonize. But, in reality, coal will remain a vital fuel powering the world’s fastest- growing low-cost manufacturing economies, such as India and China, and provide electricity for a population expected to reach almost 10 billion by 2050.
Carbon capture and storage is currently an unproven and expensive technology, so it will ultimately require large-scale intervention or geo-engineering to repair or reverse the effects of climate change using technology to cool the planet. Current proposals range from putting mirrors into space, seeding clouds and re-freezing the polar ice caps, all of which are scientifically uncertain and costly in research and implementation.

READ MORE: The path to deep decarbonization by RP Siegel

about the author
Nicholas Newman
Freelance energy journalist and copywriter who regularly writes for AFRELEC, Economist, Energy World, EER, Petroleum Review, PGJ, E&P, Oil Review Africa, Oil Review Middle East. Shale Gas Guide.