Climate Mitigation in three simple steps

By: Godo Stoyke (c) 2021

Scientists have told us the “WHY” – and Governments have finally agreed action is needed. So, really helpfully, energy efficiency expert Godo Stoyke shares the HOW

It has been a little over three decades since leading climate researcher James Hansen brought the issue of global warming to the attention of the general public through his address to the US Congress in 1988. 

Since that time, global response has been to increase greenhouse gas emissions from 22 Gigatonnes (GT) of carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e) in 1990 to 34 GT in 2020, an increase of over 50%

That is the bad news. The good news is that humanity has all the tools at hand today to drastically lower CO2 emissions to a level that will give us a chance to limit rapid anthropogenic climate change close to +1.5°C. 

We can achieve this by following a simple three-step program: efficiency, electrification, and renewables. Let’s look at these in a bit more detail. ` 

1. Efficiency 

The average Canadian wants hot showers, cold beer, and hot coffee (not necessarily in that order). We don’t insist on using 30,000 kWh for heating per household, or using 7,200 kWh of electricity, we just want those services. How can we achieve that using less energy and fewer resources? The potential is vast. 

I’ll give just one example of radical resource efficiency: Shell’s Eco-Marathon. In this annual competition, college students are asked to design a vehicle that achieves maximum mileage with a minimum amount of energy. These are basically tricycles with a motor and a rigid faring. The team from the Université Laval in Quebec achieved an astonishing 2,564 miles per gallon (0.09 L/100 km). This is the equivalent of driving from Toronto to Edmonton on $4.36 of gasoline. $50.36 would take you once around the earth (If you could drive on the equator). Shockingly, that feat was 10 years ago! 

File:Prototype TIM UPS INSA Shell Eco Marathon 2018.jpg
“In Shell’s Eco-Marathon, students from technical colleges and universities are challenged to create some of the most efficient vehicles on the planet.”
Credit: LucaZ21, Creative commons license: 

I am not suggesting that these vehicles will replace SUVs by tomorrow. However, I can well imagine half of our vehicle commutes being achieved by devices like this, upgraded for safety and convenience, updated with an electric motor, driving two or three abreast on special lanes, abating air pollution and congestion at the same time. And this is in addition to reduced driving from better urban planning, public transit, and bicycles. 

Energy step codes for homes, PACE-funded retrofits, industrial variable speed drives and pumps, and variable refrigerant volume (VRV) heat pumps are more examples of technology and solutions ready to be implemented. 

2. Electrification 

Electrification is what energy and resource efficiency guru Amory Lovins calls “Reinventing Fire.” By moving virtually our entire energy system from fossil fuel combustion to electricity, we can save 58% of Canada’s primary energy consumption right off the bat, by not wasting most of the input energy as heat. Two obvious examples are heat pumps for heating and cooling homes, and the electrification of transportation.  

Electric cars are nearly five times as efficient as those powered by internal combustion engines (ICE). Rapid increases in power density and decreases in cost are already enabling electrified transport choices to flourish. Especially younger generations are embracing electric scooters, skateboards and unicycles, and both younger and older generations have found a new love of the bicycle through electrification. 

In the case of space heating, some of the best gas-powered furnaces are 95% efficient. Electric heating is nearly 100% efficient, but when combined with a heat pump, for each kiloWatt-hour (kWh) of energy put in, the output is two to nine kWh of heating or cooling, by “stealing” energy from the air, ground, or water equivalent to an “efficiency” of 200% to 900%. 

3. Renewables 

Combining just energy efficiency with electrification alone will vastly reduce the net amount of energy required to provide the services that we love and treasure. To approach zero carbon emissions, we also need to decarbonize our energy systems.

Net carbon emissions from wind and solar range from 20 to 60 grams CO2e per kWh, while those from fossil fuel sources range from about 200 to 1000 grams. And once the supply chain is decarbonized, there is potential for the net emissions from wind and solar, i.e. manufacturing, to approach zero as well. Right now wind and solar are the leading new sources of electricity on the planet. In 2020, we added 60 gigawatts (GW) of fossil fuel electrical generating capacity, but 260 GW of renewable electrical capacity (81%). Nuclear capacity dropped by 2 GW. Solar and wind are now the cheapest sources of new electrical generating capacity in most countries of the world, including Canada and the US.  

But what about storage? Grid storage is required, but a lot less than many think. In fact, Stanford engineer Mark Jacobson and his collaborators have modelled how to achieve a 100% renewable energy system for 143 countries in the world, using just renewable sources like wind, water and sun, and not requiring any biofuel or nuclear capacity (report summary here).  

The results? Private energy costs fall by 61%, and social costs (health and climate change) are reduced by 91% while adding 29 million net jobs. 

That’s great, but how much land will we need? For solar, we’d need 0.17% of the earth’s land surface, and even less for wind (0.46% if you include wind farm spacing; but most of that land would still be available for other uses, e.g. agriculture). 

We need to figure out how to decrease the environmental impacts of mining, create a circular economy without waste, eliminate single-use plastics, create regenerative agriculture that does not destroy insect populations, protect wildlife habitats, create a just economy, and much more. However, implementing efficiency, electrification, and a renewable energy transition just may buy humanity enough time to figure out how to do it. 

The time for vacillation has passed. The time for action is now.