As a result of increasing greenhouse gas emissions, global temperatures have been rising continuously, giving rise to the phenomenon of global warming. Among the most visible and severe consequences reported by IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) are changes in sea level, which has risen by 20 cm since 2000, and ice thickness, due to progressive melting. (Maslin, M., 2007)
As Archer (2011) pointed out, CO2 emissions deriving from the combustion of fossil fuel is the main cause of global warming and, therefore, should be given absolute priority when evaluating possible solutions to the problem.
Although the world population could easily adapt to slightly higher temperatures, the consequences of global warming have been and could be way more devastating, leading to the extinction of numerous animal and plant species, storms, floods and other extreme events, reduced water supplies and so forth. (IPCC, n.d.; Parry et al., 2007) This essay will analyse three possible solutions to global warming, assessing both their feasibility and effectiveness on the basis of relevant theories and facts.
The concept of “stabilisation wedges” was theorised by Pacala and Socolow (2004) and has become one of the pivotal points of climate change mitigation, a popular approach to the resolution of global warming. According to Pacala and Socolow (2004), mankind has sufficient knowledge and tools to tackle global warming in just a few decades, provided that there is a wide range of technologies that could easily satisfy humanity's energy needs, if only they were used properly and adequately.
The two scientists (Pacala and Socolow, 2004) identified fifteen measures, or wedges, which need to be put in place in order to stabilise greenhouse gas emissions for the next 50 years.
These measures include using fuel-efficient vehicles, for both personal and public transportation, reducing the use of vehicles, reducing power plants' emissions, by using more efficient turbines and high-temperature fuel cells to convert fuel into electricity, replacing coal with natural gas for electricity production, as the former emits 1 GtC/y, whereas the latter emits 2 GtC/y.
Other feasible solutions would be capturing or sequestering CO2 before it is emitted into the atmosphere at the power plant, at hydrogen plants and/ or at coal-to-synthetic fuels plants, As far as alternative energy sources, Pacala and Socolow's (2004) wedges include replacing coal with nuclear power, wind power and photovoltaic power, using hybrid cars that run on hydrogen, instead of gasoline and replacing fossil fuel with biofuels. Other effective solutions considered by Pacala and Socolow (2004) are conservation tillage, which decreases soil erosion and, therefore, water pollution (Ramankutty and Foley, 1999), reducing deforestation and promoting reforestation, seeing as they absorb CO2 during the photosynthesis process and it was found that 20% of the greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere in 2007 derived from deforestation.
As Rusco (2011) observed, solar radiation management is commonly classified as a climate engineering solution, even though research has revealed that it is more practical than other geo-engineering options. In fact, while climate engineering aims at manipulating the global environment, combatting the effects of human activities on atmospheric chemistry, solar radiation management is a much more feasible and inexpensive solution to global warming. (The Royal Society, 2009) According to Wigley (2006), the main advantage of this system is that it would give humans a grace period, while more significant measures are put in place to actually reduce greenhouse gases emissions, seeing as solar radiation management simply manipulates the Earth's reflectivity to reduce the impact of climate change on the planet.
Considering that even if greenhouse gas emissions were reduced, their effects on the planet wouldn't disappear all of a sudden, adapting to those effects would help to make biological systems less vulnerable to the consequences of global warming. (United Nations, n.d.) According to Pelling (2010), although climate change represents a challenge for the entire world, it should be seen as an opportunity for renovation and reinvention, rather than a threat. Moreover, he observed that if humans manage to adapt to the changes brought about by global warming, they will be able to shape the future and change society as it is today. In other words, adaptation to the effects of global warming could even initiate a process of human evolution and development. (Pelling, 2010) However, the concept of adaptation implies both change and transformation, which can only be achieved if those who have the power to change things abandon the idea of the status quo and embrace transformation. (Pelling, 2010)
As effective as the measures identified by Pacala and Socolow (2004) can be, they do not keep into account a fundamental factor: cost. In fact, both Pacala and Socolow (2004) make it sound like the technologies necessary to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are ready to be used. However, as Samuelsohn (2007) pointed out, many of those technologies are not yet operational and introducing those measures would require significant amounts of resources. Moreover, some of the solutions suggested by Pacala and Socolow (2004) would probably be difficult to put into effect. For instance, in order for people not to use their own vehicles, there would need to be more public vehicles and, therefore, there wouldn't be a significant reduction in emissions. On the other hand, although nuclear power is considered to be a sustainable and powerful energy source, there are still many opponents, like scientist Brice Smith (2006), who believe that nuclear power plants pose a threat not only to the environment, but also to human beings.
As far as hydrogen production is concerned, hydrogen would need to be produced at large scale in order to serve individuals, but an infrastructure that converts hydrogen into fuel and then distributes it to dispersed users would compete with smaller hydrogen infrastructures, as explained in a report published by the National Research Council (2004). With regards to solar radiation management, this can not be considered as a long-term solution, as it would simply mask the effects of climate change, without actually reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, Ross and Matthews (2009) observed that if solar radiation management was to be stopped abruptly, global temperatures would rise in a short period of time.
In light of the aforementioned considerations, adaptation is probably the most feasible solution to global warming, although it has been estimated that adapting the planet to climate change might cost up to $171 billion every year until 2030. (UNFCCC, n.d.) Moreover, the difficulty of this option lies in its variability, seeing as the impact of climate varies by region and, therefore, vulnerable areas would have to spend more to adapt to global warming. (Scheraga and Grambsch, 1998)
Although all of the aforementioned solutions present various limitations and potential difficulties, research has confirmed both their effectiveness and feasibility. In fact, even though some of the technologies mentioned by Pacala and Socolow (2004) are costly and/or not operational, most of them are available and the solutions they suggested are practical, feasible and, most importantly, effective. (Andrews & Jelley, 2007)
With regards to solar radiation management, a study conducted by The Institute of Physics (2009) revealed that unlike other geo-engineering methods, this solution is feasible, inexpensive and can actually reduce the impact of climate change. In fact, its effectiveness was confirmed when Mount Pinatubo, Philippines, erupted emitting particles into the atmosphere which decreased global temperatures. (The Institute of Physics, 2009)
A report published by UNFCCC (n.d.), then, explained that even if greenhouse gas emissions were reduced, their effects on the planet wouldn't disappear all of a sudden. This means that adapting to those effects would help to make biological systems less vulnerable to the consequences of global warming.
The theories and data illustrated revealed that global warming can be tackled in more than one way. From the analysis conducted, it emerged that Pacala and Socolow's (2004) wedges, solar radiation management and adaptation are among the most effective and feasible solutions to climate change, as they all involve existing technologies and scientific knowledge. These three solutions can actually help humanity minimise the effects of global warming as they have been specifically developed to tackle the problem of climate change on all fronts.
In fact, while Pacala and Socolow's (2004) stabilisation wedges can stabilise greenhouse gas emissions for the next 50 years, solar radiation management would manipulate the planet's reflectivity in such a way to reduce to impact of climate change, thus giving humanity more time to develop new long-term solutions. Last but not least, adaptation is not only a solution but also a need, as global warming has already brought about numerous changes that can no longer be undone.
Although all the aforementioned options present several limitations, these can be overcome by simply making the most of the existing technologies, investing in research and, most importantly, viewing the current situation as an opportunity for change and transformation. (Pelling, 2010)
In conclusion, considering that cost is among the main obstacles to the application of the aforementioned solutions, governments and international organisations (like the United Nations and the WTO) should devise a plan that allows them to accumulate resources that will then be utilised to put effective solutions to global warming into effect and invest in research, seeing as some of the stabilisation wedges identified by Pacala and Socolow (2004), as effective as they may be, can not be put into force, for they would require certain technologies that are not yet operational.