According to a majority of climate scientists, greenhouse gas emissions from human sources are directly responsible for a forthcoming climate crisis, in which global temperatures rise, ice caps melt, and environments all over the world begin to suffer.
It’s too late to immediately revert these effects, and there are many sub-problems to solve to avert this crisis, but one of the most important steps to take now is reducing global carbon emissions. With fewer greenhouse gases contributing to the crisis, the effects will emerge more slowly, giving us more time to solve the other problems.
So what is it going to take to reduce global carbon emissions?
The Problems With Carbon Emissions
Environmentalists often rally around simple causes that residential consumers can easily get behind. For example, they promote the idea of riding a bike instead of driving a car, shopping locally, or using a reusable tote bag instead of getting disposable plastic bags from the store.
While these efforts can make a difference to the environment, and they certainly don’t hurt, they aren’t going to help reduce the scale of the climate change crisis.
For starters, carbon emissions are a global problem. Historically, the United States is the biggest contributor to climate change, releasing more than 509 Gt of CO2 since 1850. But even the U.S. only represents an estimated 20 percent of all historical carbon emissions. Today, it represents an even smaller fraction of current greenhouse gas emissions. If the United States were to undergo a complete transformation, reducing its emissions to zero or near zero, 80+ percent of greenhouse gas emissions would still remain.
Many countries refuse to take measures to reduce their carbon emissions altogether, and it’s hard to blame them for doing so. Carbon emissions are a typical byproduct of industrialization; cutting carbon emissions would require these countries to sacrifice their entire economic development, potentially forcing their people to suffer and their country to remain relatively weak on the global scale.
The problem is complicated by the fact that greenhouse gas emissions come from a wide variety of sources, many of which are hard to avoid. For example, you might upgrade your gas-burning vehicle to an electric vehicle, but that electricity might still be produced using coal-burning electricity generation. And you can eliminate your gas-powered transportation altogether, but you’ll still have to eat – and agriculture remains a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, especially emissions related to raising livestock.
Our Major Goals
So what should our major goals be?
For starters, anything you do on an individual level could be impactful. You’re not going to solve the crisis alone, but simple decisions like being a conscientious consumer and reducing your travel can be positive changes.
On a more global scale, these are some of the best bets we have:
- Rethink daily life in developed countries. Countries like the United States are in a prime position to rethink lifestyles and the flow of daily life. For example, many jobs in the United States can be done remotely – thereby considerably reducing the role of heavy traffic in accelerating climate change. Once everyone has a home office outfitted with great home office furniture, carbon emissions will significantly shrink. Additionally, if more people adopt a vegetarian or flexitarian diet, minimize their overall consumption of goods, and pledge to shop locally when possible, it could make a massive impact.
- Transform energy production when possible. We also need to transform how we produce energy. Coal, oil, and other fossil fuels are notorious for releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere – and they’re no longer as cost-effective as they used to be. New, clean sources of energy, like wind, solar, and nuclear power, need to be our primary resources. These upgrades can require a massive initial investment, but they end up paying for themselves in the long run.
- Make infrastructure improvements attractive to all countries. If we’re going to slow the acceleration of climate change, we need developing countries to change their infrastructure and reduce carbon emissions – not just developed countries. Unfortunately, doing so is costly and inefficient. If we’re going to inspire change, we need to make these upgrades attractive to all participating countries. That could mean offering financial incentives for hitting certain milestones, or providing more general support to countries compliant with new mandates.
It’s hard to say how the climate crisis will develop from here, or what the best approach for reducing greenhouse gas emissions truly is. But there are some things we know for sure. We know that reducing carbon emissions is a good first step and that solving this problem is going to require global cooperation. In the meantime, we may have to take baby steps to get there.