The Climate + Health Challenge: “We Have the Solutions” (Part 1)

Wind and solar installation / Stanford University News
Wind and solar installation / Stanford University News

If we don’t reduce the billions of tons of carbon dioxide pouring into the atmosphere each year, there will be significant health impacts, argued former Vice President Al Gore and some of the world’s leading scientists, at a summit organized at the Carter Center in Atlanta. The first half of the conference explained the challenges facing the world if we surpass an increase of 2 degree Celsius (3.6 degree Fahrenheit), which is seen as a key thresh hold: the accelerated spread of infectious diseases, less nutritious food, more challenging mental health problems, and more dangerous air pollution. In the second half of the day, Gore and others offered some solutions — to mitigate climate change, and thereby reduce expected health impacts, and better anticipate and manage the coming public health challenges.

After hearing so much doom and gloom, Gore said “we have the solutions at hand. Hope is justified.” Just a few decades ago, environmentalists hoped we would achieve 30 gigawatts of wind power by 2010. In 2017, we have achieved 17 times that amount. The estimates were for 18 gigawatts of solar power by 2010. In 2017, we achieved 77 times that number.

Gore explained that three-fourths of new energy plants being created around the world are either wind or solar. And coal has fallen out of favor in many countries. India has issued a new policy that will stop all coal plants moving forward. China is retiring old coal plants and put a moratorium on new ones.

In addition to the climate benefits, there are real health benefits to shutting down coal plants. As has been described, coal energy generates more air pollution than other sources of energy, shortening lives. In his talk, Sir Dr. Andy Haines, London school of hygiene and tropical medicine, explained how a “7 percent increase in clean energy investments can save 3 million lives by 2040.” He said President Obama’s clean energy plan would avoid 175,000 deaths, while the tougher vehicle emissions standards finalized in the final days of the Obama administration would save another 125,000 lives. “The health benefits of this offset 25-1050 percent of the costs,” depending on how you calculate them.

Haines called for fixing CO2 prices worldwide, around $20-100 per ton, in order to create a consistent and transparent tax on pollution. “A tax wouldn’t have to be an overall increase. It could be non-regressive.” In Sweden, a ton of carbon now costs $160, but the country has still seen growth and is now shifting to a low-carbon economy. Unfortunately, only 12 percent of the world’s emissions are now covered by a pricing scheme. Furthermore, most of the world currently rewards fossil fuel production, as governments give oil, coal, and gas companies some $5 trillion in subsidies per year.

The world’s cities account for 85 percent of the world’s economy, and some 71-16 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions. If cities can reduce their emissions, as many are working on doing so, we can make a great deal of progress, regardless of the politics of any country. Comparing Atlanta and Barcelona, which each have about 2.5 million people, Haines demonstrated the potential emission reductions that could happen with better urban planning and design. In Atlanta, which is some 7,000 square miles, each car-owning resident spews out 7 tons of carbon each year. In comparison, Barcelona, which is just 648 square miles, each person release less than 1 ton of emissions a year. Barcelona is far more walkable and bikeable with more public transit, and cities like Atlanta need to become like Barcelona much faster. Not only is walking and biking better for the environment, but there are also major health benefits. And for those who don’t have the strength to bike, Haines made the case for e-bikes. (In another talk, Laura Turner Sydell, board member of the Turner Foundation, said “Atlanta has come light years in the past 20 years,” but still has much further to go).

Trends of urbanization in Atlanta and Barcelona / Morphocode
Trends of urbanization in Atlanta and Barcelona / Morphocode

Carbon dioxide stays up in the atmosphere for 1,000 years. But we can target short-lived pollutants now to reduce some of the worst climate and health impacts. Haines called for targeting black carbon, methane, tropospheric ozone, and HFCs. “Regulating these gases can keep us well below a 2 degree Celsius increase.” Black carbon can be reduced with the distribution of clean cook stoves, which also cut back dangerous indoor air pollution. Cows are a major source of methane. In 1961, there were 2.4 billion of these ruminants; today, there are more than 3.8 billion of them. Encouraging a more vegetarian or vegan diet can reduce methane emissions without changing overall dietary profiles much. And methane from natural gas production and landfills can be easily captured and reused as fuel.

Forests are another important part of the solution. “Forests reduces air pollution, clean water, decrease malaria transmission and other disease risks,” while serving as important carbon sinks and sources of biodiversity. “We need to have stable forests to stay below a 2 degree increase.”

For the first time, carbon dioxide emissions have been flat the past two years, despite the fact that world economy grew, Gore said. “Carbon dioxide emissions are going to start to go down. But we aren’t solving the crisis fast enough.”

For that to happen, Gore is pushing for more solar and wind capacity. He thinks renewable energy sources are good for the U.S. economy. “Solar jobs have grown 12 times, more than any other energy sector.” He also called for retrofitting buildings to make them more energy efficient. “Those jobs can’t be outsourced.” And as Haines explained, “cutting building-related CO2 emissions could prevent some 5,000 deaths” by reducing air pollution.

The UN Paris agreement to limit carbon emissions requires states to provide an update on their progress every five years. The idea is to use these five-year marks to ratchet up expectations and actions. Countries are already preparing for the first five-year mark in 2021, Gore said. Unfortunately, it’s unclear whether the Trump administration will continue to meet the obligations of the agreement.

Read part 2.

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