Thu, Dec 27, 2018 - Page 9 News List

For climate safety,
call in the engineers

Despite diplomats’ successes at the UN Climate Change Conference in Poland, plans are still lacking to move the world’s energy system to renewable energy before the middle of the century

By Jeffrey D. Sachs

Illustration: Mountain People

This month’s UN Climate Change Conference (COP24) in Katowice, Poland, succeeded in producing a rulebook to implement the 2015 Paris climate agreement. Every UN member state signed on, but that is unlikely to be enough to head off a climate catastrophe. It is time to call in the engineers.

The diplomatic success at COP24 was remarkable, given relentless lobbying and foot-dragging by the fossil-fuel industry. Diplomats have read the science and know the truth: Without a rapid move to a zero-carbon global energy system by mid-century, humanity will be in grave peril.

In the past few years, millions of people have suffered the hardships of extreme heat waves, droughts, flood surges, powerful hurricanes and devastating forest fires, because the Earth’s temperature is already 1.1° C above the pre-industrial average.

If warming exceeds 1.5°C or 2°C later this century — temperatures never experienced in the entire 10,000-year history of human civilization — the world would become vastly more dangerous.

The Paris accord commits national governments to keep temperatures “well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and [to pursue] efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.”

Humanity now has a rulebook for measuring greenhouse gas emissions, sharing know-how and measuring financial transfers from rich to poor countries. Yet it still lacks the plans for shifting the world’s energy system to renewable energy by the middle of the century.

Diplomats, of course, are not technical experts. The next stage needs the world’s engineering experts on power generation and transmission, electric vehicles, hydrogen fuel cells, artificial intelligence for energy systems management, urban design for energy efficiency and public transport, and related specialists.

Diplomats, rather than engineers, have been at the forefront at UN climate summits for the past 24 years. The time for engineers to take center stage has arrived.

The Paris accord assumes that each government consults with its own country’s engineers to devise a national energy strategy, with each of the 193 UN member states essentially producing a separate plan. That approach reflects a deep misunderstanding of how the global energy transition must work. Solutions need to be agreed and coordinated at an international scale, not country by country.

Global engineering systems require global coordination. Consider civil aviation, a triumph of globally coordinated engineering. Last year, there were 41.8 million flights without a single fatal passenger jet accident.

The civil aviation system works so well because all countries use aircraft manufactured by a few global companies and share standard operating procedures for navigation, air traffic control, airport and airplane security, maintenance and other operations.

Other global systems are similarly coordinated. Transfers of US dollar bank balances average a staggering US$2.7 trillion per day, yet are routinely settled through the use of standardized banking and communications protocols, while billions of daily Internet activities and mobile phone calls are possible because of shared protocols.

The scale and reliability of these globally connected high-tech systems are astounding and depend on solutions implemented internationally, not country by country.

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