Prevention beats cure in battle to save our planet
Renewable energy can never replace fossil fuels, so if we really want to tackle global warming we need to cut consumption and invest in climate-proof technology, says Robbie Burch.
Breaking news: following the climate change summit in Paris last week, 5,500 large wind turbines are on their way to Northern Ireland to solve the energy crisis, but there is an option to replace them with 275 million solar panels. Or we could be more pragmatic and follow Noah's example and build an ark? Time to make your voice heard.
Okay, relax. This is never going to happen. But it is an indication of the scale of the problem that we would face if we really did decide to get rid of all our fossil fuels and replace them with clean, green, renewable energy.
The recent Paris meeting will achieve next to nothing in terms of reducing carbon dioxide emissions to limit global warming.
Note that last year, for example, the total reduction in carbon dioxide emissions across Europe was exactly balanced by the increase in carbon dioxide emissions in China.
Furthermore, in India and China there are 1.3 billion people without electricity, and these countries have plans to construct 2,400 coal-fired power stations. That's going to produce a lot more carbon dioxide than the rest of the world would be able to save.
There is good evidence the world is warming up and that part of this is caused by carbon dioxide produced by the burning of fossil fuels.
We could argue until the cows come home about the actual rise in temperature so far, about the predicted rise in temperature over the next 50 years, about the melting or otherwise of the ice in the Antarctic region, or the cause of Storm Desmond.
But let us accept that fossil fuels make a significant contribution to carbon dioxide emissions, that this probably does contribute to global warming and that global warming is a bad thing. What can we do about it?
If we really want to reduce our emissions of carbon dioxide, the first thing we should do is cut down on our use of energy.
This would not be easy, because we adjust our lifestyles to our income and our needs, and many people like the flexibility of having a car, enjoy foreign holidays, have the central heating turned up high on cold days and use loads of electricity to run their TVs, laptops, washing machines and so on.
Would you be prepared to leave your car in the garage one day a week? Or turn the central heating down to 15C? You might as well ask people if they would be prepared to go on the 5:2 diet over the Christmas period.
If we will not volunteer to reduce our energy consumption, is the only alternative to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy?
In Northern Ireland, wind power, wave power, biomass, and solar energy could all contribute to a total package of renewable energy. The problem, leaving aside the technical and economic challenges, is the attitude of society - yes, Nimbyism.
If 5,500 wind turbines were placed along the Northern Ireland coast, there would be one every 50 yards, from Kilkeel to Magilligan. Or spread across the land, there would be a wind turbine on every square mile.
Obviously, this is not an option. I guess that most people would be happy with a few more wind turbines, but then the contribution to renewable energy would be insignificant.
Renewable electricity generation numbers from other countries can be misleading. Germany is the leader in Europe, with about 25% of its electricity from renewables. However, in this case, it was nuclear energy which was replaced by renewables, with almost no reduction in carbon dioxide emissions.
Also, because in Germany electricity is only one form of energy, renewables make up only about 3.5% of the total.
Nature's way to remove carbon dioxide is to grow things. So, could we reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by growing trees? Yes, of course. One young tree absorbs 10 kg of carbon dioxide per year.
Worldwide, we emit around 20 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year, so we could absorb 10% of this by planting 200 billion trees each year.
However, it is estimated that the total number of trees in the world is 3,000 billion, so can you imagine doubling the total number of trees in the whole world within 15 years? I don't think that growing trees is the answer.
So, if renewable energy or growing trees is not going to save us from global warming, what can we do about the possible consequences of a changing climate, such as more extreme storms and slowly rising sea levels?
Think The Netherlands. One-eighth of The Netherlands lies below sea level and half is less than one metre above sea level. The country is very susceptible to sea-level changes and to intense storms, so they have a campaign - Living with Water/We are here to Stay - which will cost 0.2% of their annual GDP to construct and maintain.
The Netherlands leads the world in developing weatherproof buildings, with designs for houses on stilts or houses that float. In some places, new houses are being built three feet above ground level.
We also should be planning to invest in climate-proof infrastructure, building houses and workplaces to resist flooding and designing roads and railways strong enough to withstand extreme weather. We should be building away from areas known to be susceptible to flooding.
After the floods of the past week, can you think of anything more stupid than building on the flood plain in the three rivers region in Strabane?
In conclusion, we should continue to try and reduce our energy consumption and we should continue to develop renewable energy as far as this is practical. But, overall, these are small contributions and will only delay the inevitable for a few years.
Whatever we do, we will still have to deal with more severe weather and higher sea levels. Our best option is to accept the inevitable and plan accordingly.
Invest in climate-proof building design and take a holistic approach to town and country planning, gradually moving our homes, offices and workplaces away from flood danger zones.
That is best our hope for the future. Anything else is wishful thinking.
- Professor Robbie Burch is Visiting Research Professor at the School of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, at Queen's University, Belfast