Looking to the near future — 2019 — there are four topics, four ideas I wish to highlight that could revolutionise not only how we tackle climate change, but many other global challenges the world is facing for sustainable development.
- Revolutionise the energy system
- Make circular economy a reality
- Clean water and sanitation infrastructure for all
- Spread electric vehicles
It’s a simple yet powerful (no pun intended) scientific fact that energy underlies everything. If we didn’t have it we wouldn’t exist and without the concept our lives would be radically different from what they are today. But let’s keep it to things like electricity and heat for the moment.
We need to generate more of them and use what we have more wisely, but the energy dense yet carbon heavy materials we’ve relied on since prior to the industrial revolution are a no go for the future. Embarrassingly, they’re on the rise despite progress made in renewables and decarbonisation.
Beyond emissions there were already in place good reasons NOT to burn fossil fuels. Remember acid rain? How about air pollution? Which cities finally seem to be paying attention to again because people are dropping like flies because of air contamination. Did you know that communities downwind of coal fired power stations are more likely to have children with birth defects? How about the impacts coal has on landscapes, water and air, all resources we cannot live without?
Burning fossil fuels is the culprit behind all environmental problems the planet is experiencing today. Now climate change is at the political forefront, but getting people to listen is comparable to moving boulders with your bare hands — they won’t budge no matter how hard you push.
But here’s a tip: if you use too much force it likely won’t work.
The fuel tax riots in France reveal that we need citizen participation to adopt a sustainable energy system, not simply force from the top-down. Politicians need to listen up because if you muck up this delicate relationship it opens the door to various forms of extremism.
You can forget about making a difference for climate change if people can’t survive in the short-term, which is why goal 1 of the UN SDGs No Poverty is interconnected with goal 13 Climate Action (they all are, more about SDG interactions here). These are not dissimilar in scope no matter how much political antagonists attempt to make them appear to be.
So how do you do it? You provide alternatives. While the world’s energy system is clearly still dependent on fossil fuels, especially coal for power generation, renewables are cheaper than they’ve ever been. In fact parts of the world, including the US, are subsidising coal to make it competitive with renewables.
What?! The first renewable energy pioneers would be shocked and appalled, and you should be too. After all you’re paying for it.
The energy system requires a complete overhaul, including its cartelisation. Until energy supply is not controlled by a handful of cartels progress towards cutting emissions and making a clean energy transition will move at a snail’s pace, unless they cooperate.
For starters, an energy network that is actually based upon actual customer demand is a good place to start. There has been much work done on this already in the UK and research is taking place now by the National Centre for Energy Systems Integration, to create an energy system that is low-carbon, secure and affordable for all.
To bring online more low-carbon sources an intelligent energy network (smart grid) is necessary for making best use of existing assets. There is little need to build infrastructure if responsiveness and dynamism is built into the grid in the first place. Also, building a ‘digital twin’ of the UK’s energy network is a step in the right direction, making possible numerous opportunities for ways in which we generate, store and distribute energy.
Clean water and sanitation infrastructure for all
Generating and distributing energy is one thing but without clean water and sanitation it means little. Populations can’t survive without it. 28% of the people on this planet are still without access to clean water, and for this percentage to go down substantially there is much work to be done. 80% of wastewater is released to the environment without adequate treatment.
More dialogue between countries along with interdisciplinary expertise is needed to create water infrastructure that delivers people’s needs and underpins sustainable development – these are not mutually exclusive. This is key to developing appropriate technologies for treating wastewater that meets the needs of communities and other stakeholders.
Right now the world is confronted with the massive challenge of antimicrobial resistance that requires more than simply developing new drugs, it really requires the opposite – prescribing less drugs instead of more. It also requires clean water, sanitation and waste solutions.
Stopping open defecation could reduce exposure to resistant bacteria at a local scale by nearly 10,000 times.
A holistic approach that gets at the root of the problem by addressing environment, waste water treatment and health could keep AMR in check and make Goal 6: Clean Water and Sanitation a reality. To accomplish this requires the expertise of multiple experts in medical science and water engineering.
Implementing basic sanitation, such as providing people with toilets, has a massive impact on people’s quality of life and is an essential measure for eradicating AMR.
There is nearly ten times as much (chemical) energy in wastewater than the energy we currently use to treat it.
Wastewater treatment is also vital to the circular economy creating new opportunities for science, technology and enterprise. A large amount of energy is used to treat wastewater – in the UK treatment accounts for 1.5% of total UK electricity.
Instead of a load on the energy network wastewater could be a generator, for producing hydrogen for example, a potentially massive boon for the industry. At the moment only sludge or water treatment residuals are used to generate energy using anaerobic digestion.
Make circular economy a reality
Food waste is perhaps one of the greatest sources of energy and resource loss that humans commit on a regular basis. One third of production for humans (1.3 billion tonnes) is lost or wasted. People are starving in one part of the world while fat westerners are filling up their bins with perfectly edible food. Obviously this is a travesty and an injustice.
So what’s the alternative? There will always be some level of food waste, but like everything else we waste it should be viewed as a resource, not a waste. What’s left can be used to generate energy, especially for cities. At the moment the majority of municipal solid waste goes to landfill, yep that’s right – sad news.
84% of municipal solid waste is collected globally and only 15% is recycled. The majority is disposed of by landfilling regardless of country income.
What could it be used for instead? To generate biogas!
Flatulence aside we need more biogas to inject into the energy system to decarbonise. This is happening, although rather quietly. In some countries biogas makes up a substantial proportion of the gas network. The UK is one of the largest generators of biogas in the EU (more about using municipal solid waste for biogas here).
Everyone can contribute to biogas generation from citizens to utilities and distributors. So while you should have shared the rest of that shepard’s pie before it went to the bacteria, now it can live again as a feedstock for the world’s low-carbon energy generation.
Plastics is the next focus. We use too much of it and don’t recycle as much as we would like and it ends up in places it shouldn’t be like in the deep sea. Instead it could be valorised properly and used as chemical resource for industry, not to mention a clean burning fuel by converting it to hydrogen or methane.
What we waste has immense implications for future economies. Challenging what and how human societies currently waste is a game changer for sustainable development.
Spread electric vehicles
Companies like Tesla and Nissan are doing the brave thing by charging forward with affordable electric cars and infrastructure, but mass adoption barely registers on the charts. Car usage is going up, but EVs and other low emission vehicles make up a minor proportion.
Let’s be clear: from early on consumers really didn’t have a choice whether their vehicle was powered by fossil fuels or not – it was simply a given that they would be. They have depended on them for many years since.
The enormity of the automotive industry is mainly thanks to oil. Now people have an alternative, although it is barely visible. Electric drives make all of the parts and gadgets associated with internal combustion engines obsolete, so they are without a doubt a disruptive technology. There is a vast opportunity for them to lower carbon emissions and improve air quality, especially in cities, along with other clean transport options.
If EVs are integrated within the energy system there are new advantages on the horizon. An EV becomes a virtual power plant when it’s connected to the grid. String enough of them together and you could do amazing things, not only wiping out costs for petrol and presumably any taxes attached to it, but selling use of your car as an asset for the grid.
So every time your vehicle is connected to the grid you potentially could turn over a profit in your back account for just having it sit there and do nothing.
Put it together
Regardless of whether we see ‘the forest for the trees’ or not the planet’s resources are more integrated than we tend to think. How we manage one resource will inevitably affect the other. Hopefully these examples provide you, dear reader, with some insights into why this is the case and what can be done about it.
So this holiday season take the time to reflect on how we could be doing things differently for sustainable development, and what it would take to make it happen. See you next year.