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Younos: The dilemma of decarbonization

Younos: The dilemma of decarbonization

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By Tamim Younos

Younos is founder and president of Green Water-Infrastructure Academy and former research professor of water resources at Virginia Tech. He lives in Blacksburg.

The drive to mitigate climate change has introduced the buzzword decarbonization. Basically, the aim of decarbonization is to reduce operational (direct) and embodied (hidden) global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to the atmosphere attributed to human activities. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is considered the major GHG contributing to global warming. About 65% of atmospheric CO2 increase is attributed to burning of fossil fuels (coal, natural gas, and gasoline/diesel). In addition, about 11% of the CO2 increase is attributed to changes in physical and biological characteristics of the land surface such as deforestation, intensive agriculture and urbanization. Other critical GHGs are methane (16%), nitrous oxide (6%) and F-gases — chlorofluorocarbons from refrigerants — (2%). The percentage of CO2 and methane contribution to atmosphere and their comparative global warming potentials is continuously changing as more scientific data becomes available.

In the US, GHG emissions (operational and embodied) from burning of fossil fuels are distributed across several economic sectors (EPA 2019): electricity generation (28%), agriculture (9%), industry (22%), transportation (29%), residential and commercial (12%). According to the Center for Energy and Climate Solutions, about 65% of electricity generation in the U.S. depends on fossil-fuels (35% natural gas, 30% coal). And according to U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) in first 8 months of 2019, renewable energy sources (not including hydro and nuclear power) accounted for 11.4% of U.S. electricity generation: wind (6.94%), solar (2.7%), biomass (1.4%) and geothermal (0.4%). While the gradual decarbonization of power generation plants, i.e., switching to renewable energy resources is an ideal approach, a sudden shift to renewables is not technologically feasible, is considered impractical and cost prohibitive with significant repercussion on other economic sectors because of their dependence on electricity. According to a recent Forbes report, renewable energy sources will require $14 trillion of investment, and could deliver around 80% of global power by 2050.

Effective decarbonization depends on evolving technologies and human behavior. Evolving technologies include but not limited to the design of energy efficient industries, utilities, vehicles, buildings and other infrastructure (embodied carbon footprint), heating/cooling system, and electric appliances and fixtures. During the past few decades, significant progress has been made in the arena of energy use efficiency and is steadily improving. For example, research shows that using wood instead of steel and concrete to construct high-rise buildings is technically possible and can reduce embodied carbon footprint of built environments. The second evolving technologies relate to design of cost-effective and efficient renewable energy technologies (solar, wind, hydro, tidal, wave, geothermal, biomass, and other). For example, evolving battery technologies for storage of intermittent renewable energy resources, such as solar and wind, are critical for making the shift toward using more renewables. The third component of evolving technologies is the design of smart and distributed (decentralized) energy/electricity grid that automatically integrates various locally available renewable energy resources and also limits the need for long-distance electricity transmission lines.

Human behavior can be characterized as institutional behavior and personal/individual behavior. Institutional behavior is complex. It’s influenced by the current state of knowledge, and regulations which are mostly based on the state of knowledge. Advances in technology influences adaptation of new regulation but the process is tedious. Even small scale changes in institutionalized environmental management, such as building codes and land development to implement energy use efficiency, require significant effort on the part of local and state governments. In our democratic society, policy making is a significant challenge since it’s strongly influenced by a market economy and advances in technology. In contrast, personal behavior is an individual responsibility which can significantly impact local and global environment. GHG emissions and climate change are significantly affected by our daily activities. Our existing institutionalized “culture of waste” is the result of collective human behavior which is the sum of individual behaviors. It’s said that “small drops make the river,” thus to achieve decarbonization goal, we should practice conservation in all aspects of our daily life — energy, water, food, and use of all manufactured products. This is an achievable goal possible with citizen education, and that we should pursue.

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