Science

We Already Have the Tools We Need to Beat Climate Change

The challenge is not identifying the solutions, but rolling them out with great speed.

Wind turbines can be seen across a green landscape lush with trees.
A windmill farm is seen in Saint-Pere-en-Retz, France, on Oct. 22. Jean-Francois Monier/AFP via Getty Images

The climate emergency is the biggest threat to civilization we have ever faced. But there is good news: We already have every tool we need to beat it. The challenge is not identifying the solutions, but rolling them out with great speed.

Some key sectors are already racing ahead, such as electric cars. They are already cheaper to own and run in many places—and when the purchase prices equal those of fossil-fueled vehicles in the next few years, a runaway tipping point will be reached.

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Electricity from renewables is now the cheapest form of power in most places, and it’s sometimes even cheaper to use renewables than to continue running existing coal plants. There’s a long way to go to meet the world’s huge energy demand, but the plummeting costs of batteries and other storage technologies bode well.

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And many big companies are realizing that a failure to invest will be expensive, as the impacts of global heating destroy economies. Even some of the biggest polluters, such as cement and steel, have seen the green writing on the wall.

Buildings are big emitters, but the solution—improved energy efficiency—is simple to achieve and saves the occupants money, particularly with the expected falling costs of technology such as heat pumps.

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Stopping the razing of forests requires no technology at all but does require government action. While progress is poor—and Bolsonaro’s Brazil is going backward—countries such as Indonesia have shown that regulatory action can be effective. Protecting and restoring forests, particularly by empowering Indigenous people, is a potent tool.

There is more recognition of the role food and farming play in driving global heating, and the solutions, from alternatives to meat to regenerative farming, are starting to grow. As with fossil fuels, ending vast and harmful subsidies is key, and there are glimmers of hope here, too.

In the climate crisis, every fraction of a degree matters, and so every action reduces people’s suffering. Every action makes the world a cleaner and better place to live—by, for example, cutting the air pollution that ends millions of lives a year.

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The real fuel for the green transition is a combination of those most valuable and intangible of commodities: political will and skill. The supply is being increased by demands for action from youth strikers to chief executives, and must be used to face down powerful vested interests, such as the fossil fuel, aviation, and cattle industries. The race for a sustainable, low-carbon future is on, and the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow, Scotland, will show how much faster we need to go.—Damian Carrington

Transport

Responsible for 14–28 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, transport has been slow to decarbonize and faces particular challenges in areas such as long-haul flight. But technical solutions are available, if the will, public policy, and spending are there too.

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Electric cars are the most obvious: Petrol and diesel vehicles will barely be produced in Europe within the decade. EV sales are accelerating everywhere, with the likes of Norway well past the tipping point, and cheaper electric vehicles coming from China have cut the fumes from buses. Meanwhile, combustion engines are evermore efficient and less polluting.

Bike and scooter schemes are growing rapidly as cities around the world embrace electric micromobility. Far cleaner ships for global freight are coming. The potential of hydrogen is growing, for cleaner trains where electrification is impractical and to be followed by ships and even, one day, planes. Manufacturers expect short-haul electric aircraft much sooner. Most of all, the pandemic has shown that a world without hypermobility is possible, and that many people will accept, or even embrace, a life where they commute and travel less.—Gwyn Topham

Deforestation

Deforestation and land use change are the second-largest source of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. The destruction of the world’s forests has continued at a relentless pace during the pandemic, with millions of hectares lost, driven by land-clearing in the Brazilian Amazon.

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But there are reasons for hope. The U.K. has put nature at the heart of its COP26 presidency, and behind the scenes, the government is pushing hard for finance and new commitments from forested nations to protect the world’s remaining carbon banks. Indonesia and Malaysia, once global hot spots of deforestation, have experienced significant falls in recent years, the result of increased restrictions on palm oil plantations. The 2000s soy moratorium in Brazil shows these deforestation trends are reversible. Finally, there is a growing recognition of the importance of Indigenous communities to protecting the world’s forests and biodiversity. In the face of racism and targeted violence, a growing number of studies and reports show they are the best guardians of the forests. Empowering those communities will be vital to ending deforestation.—Patrick Greenfield

Technology

Emissions from technology companies, including direct emissions, emissions from electricity use, and other operations such as manufacturing account for 0.3 percent of global carbon emissions, while emissions from cryptocurrencies is a huge emerging issue.

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Mining—the process in which a Bitcoin is awarded to a computer that solves a complex series of algorithms—is a deeply energy-intensive process, and it only gets more energy-intensive as the algorithms grow more complex. But new mining methods are lighter, environmentally. A system called “proof of stake” has a 99 percent lower carbon footprint.

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Scrutiny of the whole sector is increasing, spearheaded by tech workers who walked out in the hundreds to join climate change marches in 2019. The companies have pledged to do better: Amazon aims to be net zero carbon by 2040 and powered with 100 percent renewable energy by 2025. Facebook has a target of net zero emissions for its entire supply chain by 2030, and Microsoft has pledged to become carbon-negative by 2030. Apple has committed to become carbon-neutral across its whole supply chain by 2030.

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They’re still falling short when it comes to delivering, but employee groups continue to push.—Kari Paul

Business

For decades, Exxon Mobil has arguably been corporate America’s biggest climate change denier. But this year, the activist investor Engine No 1 won three seats on the company’s board with an agenda to force the company to finally acknowledge and confront the climate crisis.

Across corporate America and all around the world, there are signs of change. The Federal Reserve, the world’s most powerful central bank, is beefing up its climate team. BlackRock, the world’s biggest investor, has made environmental sustainability a core goal for the company.

This isn’t about ideology: It’s about “common sense.” According to BlackRock, failure to tackle climate change is simply bad for business. The investor calculates that 58 percent of the U.S. will suffer economic decline by 2060–80 if nothing is done.

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Much more needs to be done, and some question whether corporate America can really solve this crisis without government action. But the days of denial are over. What matters now is action.—Dom Rushe

Electricity

The rocketing global market price for gas has ripped through world economies, forcing factories to close, triggering blackouts in China, and threatening to cool the global economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. But it has also spelled out a clear economic case for governments to redouble their efforts in developing homegrown, low-carbon electricity systems.

The good news is that renewable energy is ready to step up and play a greater role in electricity systems across the globe.

The precipitous fall in the price of wind and solar energy has helped to incentivize fresh investments in electricity vehicles and energy storage technologies, such as batteries, whose costs are plummeting as well. Soon, wind and solar power will help to produce green hydrogen, which can be stored over long periods of time to generate electricity during days that are a little less bright or breezy.

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All of these advances are made possible by cheap renewables and will help countries to use more renewable energy, too. There has never been a better time to step back from gas and go green.—Jillian Ambrose

Buildings

The built environment is one of our biggest polluters, responsible for about 40 percent of global carbon emissions.

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Over the past two decades, the carbon footprint of buildings “in use” has been greatly reduced by energy-saving technologies—better insulation, triple-glazing, and on-site renewables such as solar panels and ground-source heat pumps. On heat pumps, the U.K. lags far behind: Norway, through a mixture of grants and high electricity prices, has installed more than 600 heat pumps for every 1,000 households.

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As national energy grids are decarbonizing, the focus is shifting to reducing the “embodied energy” of materials—which can account for up to three-quarters of a building’s emissions over its life span—by, for example, reducing the amount of concrete and steel in favor of timber.

There is also a growing movement to prioritize refurbishment and reuse over demolition, driven by the realization that the most sustainable buildings are the ones that already exist.—Oliver Wainwright

Food and Farming

The hoofprint of the global livestock industry is a significant one, accounting for about 14 percent of total annual greenhouse gas emissions. But it is increasingly recognized and accepted by national governments.

New Zealand now has a legal commitment to reduce methane emissions from agriculture by 10 percent by 2030, while Denmark has passed a legally binding target to reduce climate emissions from the agricultural sector by 55 percent by 2030.

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While global meat production is increasing, there is a growing shift toward fish and poultry, which have a comparatively lower emissions footprint than red meats. The food industry is also developing a range of lower-carbon products, using plant-based proteins such as soy and pea, as well as insect and lab-grown meat alternatives.—Tom Levitt

Manufacturing

Decarbonizing the manufacturing of every product needed by a modern economy is a vast and varied task. Some sectors are well on their way. For instance, Apple, the world’s third-largest maker of mobile phones by volume, has pledged to produce net zero carbon throughout its supply chain by 2030.

For many others, advances in efficiency of factories and their products will be accelerated by machine learning and other artificial intelligence technologies that are still in their infancy. There are even hopeful signs in some of the hardest sectors to decarbonize, such as plans by Volvo to replace coal with hydrogen in the steel it uses in cars.

One of the greatest reasons for optimism is manufacturers’ increasing awareness of circular design principles. Making products easier to recycle from the start will help to cut emissions from fresh resource extraction, although a bigger question remains as to whether rich societies can reduce consumption, the most obvious way to cut emissions.—Jasper Jolly

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