Good news on climate change sprouts from grassroots while leaders dither
COP26 may not mean much, but local groups find innovative ways to battle a warming planet. Innumerable projects are promising – and needed
On the global level, the battle against climate change might look bleak as leaders dither at the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow.
But if one takes a closer look at some of the many innovations being introduced at the local level around the globe, things seem a lot brighter.
Most are small scale, but if their total effects are tallied, they could make a significant difference in reducing emissions of greenhouse gasses and mitigating the impacts of global warming.
Public opinion is solidly behind climate action now, and the cost of renewable energy is plummeting.
There truly is some good news. It’s not that hard to find.
Among the most notable recent developments was a Sept. 14 public opinion survey from the Pew Research Center, which found In Response to Climate Change, Citizens in Advanced Economies Are Willing To Alter How They Live and Work.
Many doubt the success of international efforts to reduce global warming, the report said, but public opinion is definitely leading the leaders!
“A new Pew Research Center survey in 17 advanced economies spanning North America, Europe and the Asia-Pacific region finds widespread concern about the personal impact of global climate change,” the poll found.
Most of the more than 18,000 people included in the survey are willing to change their lives at least a little to combat the effects of global warming.
“[A] large majority – across the world – are willing to change how they live and work to reduce effects of climate change,” the survey found.
“A median of 80% across 17 publics say they would make at least some changes to their lives to reduce the effects of climate change, compared with a median of 19% who say they would make a few changes or no changes at all. The share willing to make a lot of changes ranges from 8% in Japan to 62% in Greece.
In the United States, nearly 60 percent of people say climate change is a major threat, up 19 percentage points since 2013.
This is indeed reason for optimism. Support for climate action is growing.
More reason for optimism can be found in this report from the 166-member International Renewable Energy Agency which provides support to countries in their transition to a sustainable energy future.
Its data paints an optimistic picture about recent growth in renewable energy generation and the resulting boom in employment it is creating around the world.
“In 2020, renewable generating capacity expanded by far more than in recent years, well above the long term trend.
“Most of the expansion occurred in China and, to a lesser extent, the United States. Most other countries continued to increase renewable capacity at a similar rate to previous years.”
It’s surprising to see the world’s two worst emitters of greenhouse gases – the US and China – on this list. It’s almost counter-intuitive.
“At the end of 2020, global renewable generation capacity amounted to 2.799 GW. Renewable generation capacity increased by 10.3% in 2020. Solar energy continued to lead capacity expansion, with an increase of 22%, followed closely by wind energy with 18%.
“Solar and wind energy continued to dominate renewable capacity expansion, jointly accounting for 91% of all net renewable additions in 2020.”
In another study, IRENA found that Renewables power 12 million jobs globally
According to this report almost 4 million people have jobs in solar energy generation, followed by about 3.5 million in bioenergy and over 2 million in hydropower.
One of the reasons for the boom in renewable energy generation around the world is the steep decline in the cost of producing it.
In a report released in February by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) Documenting a Decade of Cost Declines for PV (solar) Systems it noted: “The last decade has shown a sharp, though now steadying, decline in costs, driven largely by photovoltaic (PV) module efficiencies (now 19.5%, up from 19.2% in 2019) and hardware and inverter costs.
“Since 2010, there has been a 64%, 69%, and 82% reduction in the cost of residential, commercial-rooftop, and utility-scale PV systems, respectively.”
Indeed, the average cost of installing a solar energy module on your home has dropped by two-thirds since 2010. For utilities, the decrease is even higher – more than 80 percent.
The report added that “soft costs (labor) remain a large and persistent portion of installation costs, for both solar and storage systems, and especially for commercial and residential systems.
“A significant portion of the cost declines over the past decade can be attributed to an 85% cost decline in module price (the hardware).”
But even as the costs of renewables plummet, if smart decisions are made on the local level we may still require less energy to heat and cool our homes and our cities.
New solutions to cool the environment
On the other side of the Pacific, in Sydney, Australia researchers on Oct. 21 published a study showing how innovation can reduce the need for energy in homes, offices and businesses.
According to the University of New South Wales, Super cool building materials prove powerful arsenal against climate change
“New building materials that reflect rather than absorb solar energy can reduce peak temperatures in our cities by up to four degrees,” the report said.
The so-called “super cool” roofs, pavements and coatings for buildings reflect rather than absorb solar energy. They can reduce peak temperatures in cities by up to four degrees, enough to save lives, says Professor Mattheos (Mat) Santamouris, one of the researchers.
“One of the major problems in the built environment is urban overheating, or regional climatic change,” said the professor of High-Performance Architecture. “As our cities heat up, heat-related morbidity and mortality rise.”
A new-generation of materials was tested as part of a study to reduce temperatures in Australian cities.
The study found that introducing super cool materials with other heat-mitigating strategies, such as increased greenery and shade, could save around 10 lives per year per 100,000 residents.
Back in California, local governments around the state are not waiting for academic evidence before taking action. The concept of “cool roofs” has taken root and taken off!
According to ‘Cool California’ from the California Air Resources Board, dozens of local governments have already implemented initiatives to cool down the built environment.
They are detailed in the ARB report Local Roof Initiatives.
“Many communities and local governments have taken steps to develop cool roof programs by launching demonstration projects, installing cool roofs on public buildings and including cool roofs in local building requirements and/or policies,” the report says.
There are so many voluntary programs and local initiatives that actively promote cool roofs in California they are too numerous to list here. But here’s a sample:
In the state’s largest city, Los Angeles, a Cool Roof Ordinance passed in December 2013. It requires all new residences or existing residences undergoing roof renovations to install cool roof products.
This includes single-family and multi-family buildings. To aid this transition, the LA Department of Water and Power is offering “cool roof” rebates.
In the city of Berkeley’s Climate Action Plan it is pursuing a requirement to install cool roofs on commercial buildings for new construction or re-roofing projects as part of the city’s promotion of energy efficiency.
In the southern-most city in the state, Chula Vista performed a cost-benefit analysis of cool roof options. The results of this analysis were used to inform a 2012 revision to the city building code that increased the minimum cool roof requirements.
There are many more listed on the ‘Cool California’ web site.
Actually, the concept of “cool roofs” is not that new. The first known large demonstration project was completed in India in 2017 and expanded in April 2019, as reported by the Natural Resources Defense Council in New Cool Roof Programs in India – Ahmedabad.
“This month (April 2019), city leaders and civil society partners will convene local groups to discuss the draft program as part of its Annual Heat Action Plan Update workshop for city officials, organized by Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC).
“The city-wide program advances the initiative unveiled in 2017, when the AMC introduced a pilot “cool roofs” program for over 3,000 low income homes as part of the city’s Heat Action Plan,” the NRDC reported.
The city of Ahmedabad is home to 7.2 million people. After a devastating heat wave hit the city in 2010, experts estimated that heat contributed to more than 1,000 deaths. Now, city leadership in Ahmedabad is working to protect local communities from rising temperatures and the deadly threat of extreme heat.
To tackle these challenges, the city is developing and looking to implement a city-wide cool roof program, aiming to make Ahmedabad a “Cool City.”
As if they had been following all these developments with an eye to improving them, researchers at Purdue University just unveiled a brand new tool all these localities might be interested in as they try to mitigate the effects of climate change.
In an effort to curb global warming, Purdue University engineers in West Lafayette, Ind., have created the whitest paint yet. Coating buildings with this paint may one day cool them off enough to reduce the need for air conditioning, the researchers say.
In October, the team announced it had created an ultra-white paint that pushed limits on how white paint can be. The newer paint not only is whiter but also can keep surfaces cooler than the formulation that the researchers had previously demonstrated.
“If you were to use this paint to cover a roof area of about 1,000 square feet, we estimate that you could get a cooling power of 10 kilowatts. That’s more powerful than the central air conditioners used by most houses,” said Xiulin Ruan, a Purdue professor of mechanical engineering.
The paint’s whiteness also means that the paint is the coolest on record. Using high-accuracy temperature reading equipment called thermocouples, the researchers demonstrated outdoors that the paint can keep surfaces 19 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than their ambient surroundings at night. It can also cool surfaces 8 degrees Fahrenheit below their surroundings under strong sunlight during noon hours.
The researchers say their paint reflects about 98% of solar energy, whereas regular commercial white paint reflects just over 80%. This makes a huge difference in its cooling power.
While many of these projects affect only local areas, their cumulative total is likely to be impressive, although virtually impossible to measure.
This is not by any means an exhaustive list of local and sub-national climate change action underway on the planet. It is just a representative sample of what is already happening all over the globe.
That does not mean governments can sit back and wait for individuals to stop global warming. The role of government is essential – only national entities have the scale and enforcement power to make a truly global difference.
It seems increasingly unlikely the UN conference in Glasgow is going to result in any significant new commitments from national leaders present (and, more importantly, those not present, like China and Russia).
But climate action now seems to be a case where the grassroots is way out in front of the leaders, and that is cause for optimism. We need a dose of optimism, as the outcome in Glasgow does not lend itself to much.