Climate change is a crisis the world must solve. Former US Vice President and Climate Smart Engineering conference keynote speaker Al Gore, however, is optimistic about our chances.
“We’re in the early stages of a global sustainability revolution that has the magnitude of the industrial revolution coupled with the speed of the digital revolution.”
That’s how former US Vice President Al Gore described the extent of the shifts reshaping economies in response to climate change in a July Bloomberg TV interview. It is a common pattern with new technologies, he said.
Technological gains can be seen in the increasing affordability of renewable energy. Electricity produced by utility-scale solar panels, for instance, has dropped in price by 82 per cent over the past decade, while that produced from onshore wind turbines has fallen by 39 per cent.
This clean energy revolution did not happen overnight. Gore’s involvement in climate activism began as early as 1981, when, as a member of the US House of Representatives, he arranged one of the first Congressional hearings on global warming.
That was four decades ago. Today, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns that the scale of recent changes to the Earth’s climate systems are “unprecedented” on a scale of hundreds to thousands of years.
“It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land … Human-induced climate change is already affecting many weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe,” it says in its Sixth Assessment Report.
“Evidence of observed changes in extremes such as heatwaves, heavy precipitation, droughts, and tropical cyclones, and, in particular, their attribution to human influence, has strengthened.”
As greenhouse emissions continue unabated, the problem is becoming ever more critical. Nineteen of the 20 hottest years ever measured have occurred during the past 20 years.
“It’s getting worse faster than we are yet deploying solutions,” Gore told CNN in June.
It’s a grim outlook, but Gore’s keynote address at Engineers Australia’s upcoming inaugural Climate Smart Engineering (CSE) conference will strike a note that is fundamentally optimistic.
Gore believes climate change is a problem the world can — and must — solve.
These solutions will require engineers to be front and centre of the response — locally and globally.
Advancing technology to tackle climate change
CSE takes place next week, following the conclusion of the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), in Glasgow, United Kingdom.
This gathering of the 197 parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change will be among the most important climate summits since COP21 in 2015, where the Paris Climate Accords were agreed.
At the Glasgow summit, all parties were held to international account for how ambitious their current climate targets are relative to the goals of the Paris Agreement.
To meet these goals, technological solutions need to play a vital role, as they enable nations to pursue the necessity of more ambitious emissions reduction targets that can achieve global net zero emissions as rapidly as possible.
“For the last five years in the United States, the fastest growing job has been solar installer,” Gore told CNN.
“Currently, the fastest growing job is wind turbine technician. The Oxford Policy Review has found that dollar for dollar, investments in solar and wind and [electric vehicles] and batteries, and the green revolution, create three times as many jobs [than if we continued] with these dirty and dangerous, devastating fossil fuels.”
Cheaper batteries are making a difference too.
“There is now also a fantastic improvement in the technology of batteries that can store the electricity so that you can use solar energy at night and wind energy when the wind is not blowing,” he told Spanish publication Alejandra De Argos last year.
“The cost of these batteries has also been going down very rapidly.”
This will allow more renewables to enter centralised power grids to ensure electricity affordability, security and reliability.
And Gore expects such solutions to yield unexpectedly rapid results; once the world reaches net-zero emissions, he told CNN, it could be as little as three or four years before temperatures stop rising.
While renewable energy is a domain in which there are obvious gains to be made, Gore also sees potential in other industries.
Net-zero emissions need to be achieved in all sectors of the global economy, not just power, meaning many industries will need to rely on increased electrification.
Developments in the use of silicon carbide in semiconductors could also be potentially influential, he says, pointing to the increased range of Tesla’s electric vehicles.
Another example he cited, in GreenBiz last year, is innovation in the ways semiconductors are packaged: “That’s also been a prominent trend and essential in enabling the next generation of algorithms which power things like drug discovery, which has got our attention right now, and smart electricity grids, which are much more power efficient.”
That does not mean all technological solutions are equal. Gore believes utility-scale nuclear power is unlikely to play a large role given the lengthy timeframes and costs involved, although he does believe nuclear waste can be managed safely.
“Another problem is that the experience and knowledge necessary to manage nuclear plants has been hollowed out,” he added to Alejandra De Argos.
“The graduate schools that train nuclear engineers have not been training many nuclear engineers because after Chernobyl and Fukushima Daiichi the acceptability of nuclear energy was damaged in the minds of the public.”
Business and government
When asked in January 2020 what his priorities would be if he were in government at that time, Gore told Alejandra De Argos his first policy step would be to eliminate all subsidies for fossil fuels, then put a price on carbon, followed by an accelerated phase-out of cars and trucks that use internal combustion engines.
“Next, I would encourage regenerative agriculture to sequester more carbon in the topsoil and plant as many trees as possible,” he continued.
“Finally, I would launch a major program to make all buildings and factories much more efficient, with better insulation, windows, lighting and much higher levels of efficiency.”
As a policy platform, it’s ambitious yet achievable. And the results of a shift towards sustainability can be seen beyond the confines of technology.
The effects are emerging in the business world, where financial and economic considerations are pushing businesses to behave more responsibly.
Some of the world’s largest investment firms are now aligning their portfolios with net-zero emission goals, and the effects are extending economy-wide to even traditionally extractive companies.
“Exxon Mobil … just wrote down the value of its fossil fuel reserves by as much as $20 billion, adding to the unbelievable $170 billion in oil and gas assets written down by the industry in just the first half of this year,” Gore wrote in a New York Times article published at the end of 2020.
“[In 2019], a BP executive said that some of the company’s reserves ‘won’t see the light of day’, and [in the northern summer of 2020] it committed to a 10-fold increase in low-carbon investments this decade as part of its commitment to net-zero emissions.”
Also reflecting the shift in the business world’s thinking is the way environmental, social and governance (ESG) measures have become increasingly important to investors and how they are being publicly reported.
“There is now voluminous research showing that businesses that fully integrate ESG factors into their business plans are more profitable in almost every sector of the global economy,” Gore said in a 2020 interview with Wired.
“And the research also shows very clearly that investors that fully integrate ESG factors into their investment models perform better. So as this reality becomes more widely known and understood, asset managers who do not integrate ESG factors are definitely at high risk of violating their fiduciary responsibility to their clients.”
Engineers Australia CEO Dr Bronwyn Evans AM HonFIEAust CPEng points to the COVID-19 pandemic as having accelerated what had been a burgeoning interest in sustainable finance.
“The outbreak of the virus saw a really notable move to investments with strong ESG credentials,” she said.
“Sustainable investment was seen to offer greater resilience amid the impacts and uncertainties of the pandemic. We have also seen major investors ramp up commitments to align their portfolios with the objectives of the Paris Agreement. That’s exciting and has huge implications for sustainable engineering.”
Mandated climate-related financial disclosures of risks and opportunities have been a focus at COP26. This includes the United Kingdom announcing it will require most large firms and financial institutions to disclosure how they will be impacted by the risks and opportunities arising from climate change.
Another way businesses are keeping their eye on sustainability goals is the growing adoption of science-based targets. These are the result of an initiative involving more than 1000 businesses around the world that sets company-level emission-reduction targets, identifies corporate initiatives, and publicly tracks their progress against the goal of the Paris Agreement — to “limit global warming to well-below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit warming to 1.5°C”.
While businesses are acting, ultimately governments are responsible for meeting national emissions reductions commitments through policies, regulations and other levers.
“Denmark, the [European Union’s] largest producer of gas and oil, has announced a ban on further exploration for fossil fuels,” Gore wrote in The Times.
“Britain has pledged a 68 per cent reduction by 2030, along with a ban on sales of vehicles equipped with only gasoline-powered internal-combustion engines.”
Meanwhile India, while still heavily reliant on fossil fuel, continues to invest at scale in solar and wind farms, driving down electricity costs and cleaning up pollution.
For its part, Australia has no legislated net-zero emissions target date, though the Australian Government has committed to achieving the goal by 2050. Australia’s long-held pledge is to reduce its emissions to 26 to 28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030.
Most wealthy nations — including the United States — have committed to targets of 50 per cent or more, and a report by the Climate Targets Panel, an independent group of scientists and policymakers, found that Australia would need a 2030 target of 74 per cent below 2005 levels to keep warming to 1.5°C.
“Since Australia has the best solar resource of any nation in the world, you would only have to capture 0.1 per cent of the solar energy that God makes available to you in order to meet 100 per cent of your energy needs,” Gore told the Climate Reality Conference in Brisbane in 2019.
“If we can increase the fraction that we can profitably harness and use, then we can stop using the atmosphere as an open sewer.”
Evans believes climate change mitigation and adaptation cannot be successful without engineers.
“Our work spans all industries — from energy, to manufacturing, to transport,” she told create. “Engineers will play a vital role, not only in developing resilience in facing a new climate but in cutting emissions to reduce the extent of change — and that’s what gives me hope.”
Staying accountable to climate targets
To ensure sustainability goals are met, the public must hold companies genuinely accountable. As transparency and sustainability become increasingly essential to a responsible corporate image, the pressure on businesses to embellish and “greenwash” their credentials grows.
Gore believes that there should be more emphasis on the “net” part of net-zero emissions so that companies can’t excessively rely on offsets. This is mainly because, once achieved, global net-zero emissions need to be maintained indefinitely and an over-reliance on an increasingly limited supply of offsets can’t guarantee this.
“There’s growing awareness that the focus really has to be on a 50 per cent reduction by 2030 if we’re going to have any chance to reach net zero by 2050,” he said in an interview with Fast Company in July.
That means actually reducing emissions.
According to Generation Investment Management, the sustainability-oriented financial services firm where Gore is a founding partner and chairman, data by national consumer protection bodies show that 42 per cent of environmental claims have been “exaggerated, false or deceptive”.
“The time for celebrating vague, distant goals on net zero has long passed,” he told Bloomberg in July.
“Large emitters must increase their climate ambitions with renewed credibility and urgency. Likewise, developing countries urgently need substantial support on vaccine access, climate finance and debt relief.”
Largest sources of emissions
It’s no mistake that Gore includes vaccine access in that list. He believes that the crises of climate, inequality and COVID-19 are intertwined.
“The consequences of ignoring scientific advice from epidemiologists and virologists has been brought home to us,” he told Wired last year.
“And it is not much of a leap to realise that the dire advice from a climate scientist must be taken into account as well.”
Another commonality that the pandemic and climate change share is that their greatest impact is on the poor, vulnerable and marginalised — and these links manifest directly.
“We now know that the burning of fossil fuels is a precondition for higher mortality rates under COVID-19,” said Gore in GreenBiz.
“There was a study of 324 cities in China showing a linear correlation between the infection rate and the death rate from COVID-19 compared to the amount of fossil fuels burned in those locations.”
But Gore points out that the response to the COVID-19 pandemic also offers hope, whether in the form of green jobs as a way of stimulating economic recovery, or as an example of humanity’s ability to rapidly respond to extraordinary global problems.
“Scientists have harnessed incredible breakthroughs in biotechnology to produce several vaccines in record time,” he wrote in the Times article.
“Similarly, even as the climate crisis rapidly worsens, scientists, engineers and business leaders are making use of stunning advances in technology to end the world’s dependence on fossil fuels far sooner than was hoped possible.”
Tracing the future
Among the initiatives Gore is helping to lead is a project called Climate TRACE (Tracking Real-time Atmospheric Carbon Emissions), which uses machine learning, satellite imaging and computer modelling to track emissions in real time. Time magazine called it one of the best inventions of 2020.
“There are 100 countries that don’t have any inventory fresher than five years ago … We have the difficulties of trying to manage numbers that are five years old,” Gore told Fast Company in September. “You wouldn’t do it in business, you wouldn’t do it in your household budget. And in the most important task the world is facing, we have been relying out of necessity on numbers that are not fit for purpose.”
This transparency provided by Climate TRACE will allow companies, investors and consumers to make more responsible choices about their spending and investment.
Another tool Gore is spearheading is the Climate Reality Project. Founded in 2006 in the wake of the success of his film An Inconvenient Truth, the organisation aims to “turn awareness into action across the Earth”.
The Climate Reality Leadership Corps has more than 37,000 people around the world who have been trained on effective climate advocacy over the past 15 years, with branch offices in 10 countries, including Australia. The goal is to “recruit, train, and mobilise people to become powerful activists, providing the skills, campaigns, and resources to push for aggressive climate action and high-level policies that accelerate a just transition to clean energy”.
The importance of these efforts was recently brought into sharp focus when the IPCC published Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis. The report warned massive and immediate cuts in greenhouse gas emissions would be required to keep warming well below 2°C and not exceed the 1.5°C safe limit.
“One of the most important lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic is that when scientists are warning about a looming threat, we all ought to listen,” Gore said in a statement published on his website in August.
“We have the solutions we need to rapidly transition to a net-zero economy, and I am optimistic that we will meet this moment. But we cannot rely on vague pledges with distant deadlines. We need concrete plans to phase out fossil fuels in the near term.
“The science is clear: there is no time left to waste.”