Working on Climate

The Climate KIC Summit took place in Frankfurt on November 8th, 2016

Yesterday I attended the Climate KIC Summit 2016. In Frankfurt it was cold, sleet, not a good background in terms of climate, at least for an Italian guy. The cold weather was not also conducive to the main theme of the Summit, the global warming of the Planet, mostly due, in terms of our human contribution to it, to the carbon dioxide (see the clip showing the cumulative emission of CO2 as consequence of the Industrial Revolution).

Yet, all measurements are pointing to a global warming and the recent agreement to contain the warming within 1.5 degrees (C) is really too close to the 1.6 tipping point at which the whole Greenland ice sheet will thaw.

We have a 50% probability of staying within the 1.5C increase if we are not adding a further 400Gt of CO2 in the atmosphere. Currently we are emitting, worldwide, 40Gt of CO2 per year, hence if we were to continue at the current rate by 2025 we will have 50% of probability of exceeding the 1.5C temperature increase (assuming at that point we stop all CO2 emission which is clearly unrealistic). 

Even by decreasing the emissions in the coming years, in 20 years may be - rather than 10, we will reach the 400Gt and tip the climate for the worse. Hence, decreasing emissions is not sufficient, we need to work to absorb CO2 from the atmosphere. Interestingly, the most effective "technology" we have today to absorb CO2 from the atmosphere is ... planting a tree!  Also interesting is the fact that the construction of cities is releasing CO2 in the atmosphere through the  manufacturing of concrete. By using wood in building we would save on emission and to use wood we need to plant more trees, hence we will increase absorption.

The political pronouncement, reaffirmed in Paris at the end of 2015, is important but translating those political decisions into actions requires a commitment from the business world, around the world.

Economic prosperity and environmental sustainability can go hand in hand but it is challenging to make this happen in a world whose population is expected to grow to 9 billions by 2050. Besides, the short horizon of business (the quarter) is not compatible with a longer term view where compatibility between biz and sustainability can be achieved.

Another challenge is the system complexity and the variety of players involved, each one with its own agenda. Take the wind power generation through wind turbines operating in the see, offshore. The deployment and operation of these systems is affected by the cost of the wind turbines (in minimal part) by the cost of civil engineering to build the towers in the sea for the turbines, by the cost of the electrical transport infrastructure. Only by having the different players working together one can significantly decrease the overall cost. Unfortunately the minimum cost for one player does not necessarily translated in the minimum cost for the overall system, hence the difficulty in getting them all to sit together and agree on a common strategy.

Electrical vehicles are not emitting any CO2 directly, however, indirectly, they might be responsible for even more emission of CO2 if the electricity they use is produced through fossil fuels... Hence, the push towards electrical vehicle makes sense only if we are pushing at the same time the use of non fossil electricity production.  This is another example where only a systemic approach can result in real environmental benefits.

Notice that a "systemic" approach goes beyond technology and economics to include social aspects. It was mentioned that the tuition fees students pay at several universities to follow courses on environmental policies end up as investment in oil and other fossil fuel portfolio, by universities administrators. This is clearly a paradox: teaching NOT to use fossil fuels and invest the university funds in fossil fuel biz (because they generate most ROI...). We need a coherent behaviour at a cultural level as well!

Among the various topics addressed there was the one of proper management of electrical and electronics waste, the topic being considered jointly by EIT Climate, Digital and Raw Material. 

Author - Roberto Saracco

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