The Next Existential Crisis for Humanity

For a few fleeting weeks in March last year, the polluted skies over major metropolitan areas in Asia cleared due to lockdowns, factory closures, and decreased road traffic as governments battled to control the spread of COVID-19.

In China, air pollution levels dropped by roughly a quarter and levels of nitrogen dioxide were down by 30%, according to NASA. Similar reductions were reported in Delhi, home to 20 million Indians, where air pollution levels had reached more than 20 times the World Health Organization’s safe limit just a few months earlier. Further north in India, city dwellers were able to see the Himalayan peaks for the first time in decades.

But it didn’t last. As pandemic-imposed restrictions eased, much of the air pollution and other precursors of environmental damage and climate change have returned – or never actually went away.

False dawn

Overall, carbon dioxide emissions dropped by about 7% last year compared to 2019, according to the 2020 Global Carbon Budget. Summarizing the report’s major findings, Ben Poulter from NASA Goddard noted that while the economic effects of COVID-19 caused fossil fuel emissions to decrease, atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations continued to increase.

“This means that the remaining carbon budget to avoid 1.5 or 2 degrees Centigrade warming [considered by scientists to be the point of no return before irreversible global warming takes place] continues to shrink,” said Poulter. In fact, despite the dip in carbon dioxide emissions last year, atmospheric levels of the heat-trapping gas are now higher than at any point in the past 800,000 years.

It will be some time before the full impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the global environment is fully understood, but many experts believe that, overall, it will have proven negative and may have moved the world closer to that point of no return for all of us, including business leaders.

As McKinsey said in a report published a full 18 months ago, “Business leaders can no longer ignore the physical effects of climate change, at least not without peril. Global infrastructure, supply chains, food systems, asset prices, land and labor productivity, and economic growth itself are increasingly at risk of deterioration due to a rapidly changing climate. And a more connected global economy means that risk in one part of the world will often extend well beyond the place of immediate impact.”

High stakes (and misdemeanors)

The stakes are indeed enormous – and time is running out. Most climate scientists believe the next 10 years will be crucial. If global temperatures rise by 4°C per capita, GDP would decline by an estimated 30%. Conversely, achieving a 2°C emissions target will require a global investment of US$75 trillion through 2050, according to the Boston Consulting Group.

It’s time for a reality check: the pandemic did not stop climate change

These concerns have been exacerbated by the fact that over the past 12 months, most global leaders and the public shifted their focus from climate change to the immediate need to address the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, with glimpses of hope starting to emerge in the fight against COVID-19, government leaders, scientists, and climate activists are urging the public to refocus on battling a bigger issue and put climate change front and center once again.

They argue that the pandemic didn’t stop climate change and that the window to contain its most alarming effects – as witnessed by the latest round of extreme weather events – is narrowing. Among those sounding the alarm are the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, which pointed out in a new report that global warming poses a bigger danger than the novel coronavirus, and newly-minted U.S. President Joe Biden, who has called climate change “the number one issue facing humanity” and “the existential threat of our time.”

Shifting views

Global pandemics and global warming do, however, share some common traits. Both are systemic shocks, said Celine Herweijer, partner, PwC UK global climate change leader, during a recent panel discussion on sustainability hosted by SAP.

In a panel hosted by SAP, sustainability experts discuss the issues of climate change and global warming.

“We knew a pandemic would be coming at some point. We absolutely know climate change is around the corner. … What we have to do to solve for climate change, unfortunately, is much more complex and just as urgent. We have to half global emissions in the next 10 years, which means radically transforming every sector of our global economy. … It’s very complex and very urgent.”

Richard Munang from the United Nations Environment Program made much the same point during the panel discussion, arguing that the changing climate is no longer an abstract issue.

Faced with this unsettling outlook, why isn’t there more concern about the issue globally? Panelist Mike Barry, strategic adviser and director at Mikebarryeco, argued that it’s because climate change has always been about something that’s going to happen in the future, five, ten, fifteen years from now. In other words, it’s somebody else’s problem.

Getting real

Barry, like other climate experts, suggests that the devastating impact of wild weather events around the world in the past 12 months and other clearly visible signs, like rising sea levels, have suddenly made the problem “real to people.”

This renewed public awareness, coupled with other changes including initiatives from the new U.S. administration in Washington, D.C., have brought climate change back to the forefront of the political agenda. Among a slew of executive orders during his first week in office, President Biden committed the U.S. to rejoin the Paris Agreement and appointed former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to be his special envoy on climate.

Together with Gina McCarthy, the White House national climate adviser, President Biden is expected to unveil a new U.S. target to reduce emissions by 2030 – targets that are likely to be welcomed by most outside the traditional energy sector – during a global climate change summit next month

Uncomfortable realities

In the meantime, the renewed focus on climate change has laid bare some uncomfortable realities:

  1. The debate between climate change activists and climate change deniers is now irrelevant. The world’s climate is undeniably warming – whether this is driven by human activity or some other force.
  2. It is clear that adherence to the Paris Agreement will not halt climate change on its own; more action is required.
  3. Aside from the political and social will to tackle climate change, technology must play a role if we are to limit or reverse global warming.
Factory producing harmful smoke contributing to climate change and global warming

Fortunately, we’re currently in the middle of the fastest period of innovation ever, with technology impacting virtually every private and public sector organization. Advances in artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, Big Data, and quantum computing could all help humankind address climate change.

But we also need to seriously consider some of the wildest and more exotic ideas for slowing, and even reversing, global warming. These generally fall into one of three baskets – carbon capture, reducing emissions, or reducing the amount of solar energy absorbed by the Earth.

Among the measures suggested for accelerating carbon capture are re-forestation, which coincidentally might also reduce the potential for future pandemics caused by diseases jumping from displaced animals to humans, and kelp farming.

Underwater forests

The world’s oceans – and particularly the underwater “forests” of kelp – could provide one of the most promising tools for combatting climate change. Researchers around the world, from Tasmania to California, are looking to kelp – a form of giant algae – to help store carbon dioxide and achieve a carbon neutral world.

Globally, kelp grows in underwater forests along the coastlines of every continent except Antarctica; most of these coasts are threatened by climate change. These kelp forests, which can reach heights of 130 feet and grow up to two feet per day, cushion coastlines against the effect of storm surges and sea level rise. They cleanse water by absorbing excess nutrients and they also absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide.

There’s a lot scientists still don’t understand about how kelp stores CO2 and where all that carbon ends up. A 2016 study estimated that about 11% of global macroalgae is permanently sequestered in the ocean. The bulk of that, about 90%, is deposited in the deep sea, while the rest sinks into coastal marine sediments. Researchers are starting to build a better picture of this giant seaweed and how we might improve its capacity to help tackle, or at least ameliorate, climate change.

While forests – in and out of the water – can remove some carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, most climate change experts agree we can’t plant enough, fast enough, to do the job alone. Other forms of carbon capture technology have been around for years and are used to strip carbon out of factory emissions and remove carbon that’s already in the air. But most are expensive, and until the penalties for releasing carbon into the air outweigh the cost there’s little economic incentive to use them.

Coastline

A nuclear renaissance?

Since burning fossil fuels accounts for about 75% of greenhouse gas emissions, it may make more sense to take another look at alternative renewable methods of generating energy, including wind, solar, geothermal, hydro, and wave energy. These ‘green’ energy sources are a crucial pillar of any plan to decarbonize the world’s energy generation industries and eliminate fossil fuel use. But for many reasons, including intermittency, location dependency, land requirements, and others, they alone may not be enough.

This has led some environmentalists and others to reconsider the once unthinkable option of nuclear power. Despite disasters like Chernobyl and Fukushima, nuclear remains one of the safest forms of energy generation and proponents argue that significant advances in design, modeling, and materials have made so-called fourth generation nuclear even safer.

It remains to be seen whether these improvements are sufficient to assuage the widespread public concerns in Europe, Japan, and the U.S. over nuclear power, but some scientists and investors, including Bill Gates, are betting they are.

Recently the U.S. Department of Energy backed one of these next-generation nuclear reactor initiatives – a collaboration between Bill Gates’ Terrapower and GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy. Using the “Natrium” technology (Latin for sodium), the group plans to build a demonstration plant for its sodium fast reactor later this decade, together with a molten salt energy storage system.

The Natrium fast-neutron reactor will use liquid sodium as its reactor coolant instead of water. One of sodium’s key advantages is that it can transfer huge amounts of heat away from the reactor core at normal atmospheric pressures, with the added bonus that it doesn’t produce hydrogen and oxygen, eliminating the risk of Fukushima-style hydrogen explosions.

In addition, it uses High-Assay, Low Enriched Uranium (HALEU) as its nuclear fuel, which can be produced by reprocessing the spent fuel from traditional nuclear power plants. Interestingly, the Natrium design also uses far less nuclear-grade concrete than traditional designs – a big factor in keeping the cost down and reducing the “green premium” on emissions-free energy.

Engineer using laptop for maintenance equipment in power plant factory

Solar geoengineering

The use of nuclear power to combat climate change isn’t the only controversial proposal that we may now need to consider. Among the suggestions that fall into the category of reducing solar heat absorption are several that even their proponents have doubts about.

These proposals include using solar blankets or reflective beads to cover the polar ice caps, placing giant reflective mirrors on satellites, and, perhaps most controversially, releasing particles into the upper atmosphere to reflect solar energy back into space – effectively dimming the sun.

Solar geoengineering involves releasing sunlight-reflecting particles into the stratosphere and is designed to mimic the global cooling effects of some of the largest volcanic eruptions on earth, such as the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines that lowered global average temperatures by 0.5°C.

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The Stratospheric Controlled Perturbation Experiment (SCoPEx), launched by Harvard University researchers and backed financially by Bill Gates, aims to test solar geoengineering by spraying non-toxic calcium carbonate (CaCO3) dust into the atmosphere. The Swedish Space Corporation has agreed to help SCoPEx launch a balloon carrying scientific equipment 12 miles into the stratosphere later this year in an effort to test the balloon’s communications and operational systems. If successful, this could be followed by a second experimental stage that would release a small amount of CaCO3 dust into the atmosphere.

While scientists at Harvard acknowledge the concerns of those who argue that the results of solar geoengineering schemes are unpredictable, they believe further research could reduce these risks and result in a practical way to replenish the ozone layer and safely counter decades of greenhouse gas emissions.

Next steps

Many of these steps aimed at addressing the climate crisis depend on scientific research and government policy changes. But we also need to consider the part business enterprises and others can play in addressing climate change now that it is moving back to the top of the policy agenda.

Increasingly, companies are committing to reach net zero emissions and providing greater transparency into their energy usage and emissions, and investors are looking to decarbonize their portfolios. Private citizens and consumers can also have real impact by favoring brands that align themselves with sustainability targets and green initiatives.

As the terrible threat of COVID-19 begins to recede, we all have a role to play in confronting the next existential crisis facing humankind – global warming and climate change.