Climate futures: The public debates

Article by Staff Writer

HERIOT-WATT UNIVERSITY has hosted a public debate on the short- and long-term effects of climate change.

The well-attended event, held as part of the Edinburgh International Science Festival on 31 March, was chaired by Dorrik Stow, director of the Institute of Petroleum Engineering at Heriot-Watt, and featured a panel of experts. Stow posed questions submitted by the audience to the panel, and took further views from the audience on a range of climate change issues including rising sea levels, renewable energies, and ocean acidification.

The first audience question queried the immediate effects of climate change. Robert Gatliff, head of division at the British Geological Survey, responded that the most immediate effect would be sea levels rising. Many cities are built at sea level, and he said defences and engineering solutions can protect major cities against a rise of up to 1.5 m in sea levels. However, he added that should recent estimates of a possible 2 m rise in the longer term materialise, new engineering innovations would be required to cope with the problem.

The conversation moved onto which renewable energy sources would be likely to replace fossil fuels. David Jenkins, assistant professor in sustainable building design at Heriot-Watt said there is not a direct replacement for fossil fuels, as renewable sources cannot currently provide a base load for spiking usage at peak times. He said storage solutions and smart meters, where devices would track the remaining energy available for a building and would turn off or adjust heating and lighting appliances accordingly, would be required to help individuals change their energy usage habits.

The ability to store renewable energy was expanded upon by Hamish Mair, director of climate change at Heriot-Watt. He said innovations in storage cells are occurring in small-scale across Scotland, and alluded to larger-scale projects being developed – such as the 1 MWh lithium battery Hywind project, currently being developed by Statoil to store wind energy off the coast of Peterhead.

Erkal Ersoy, assistant professor in energy economics at Heriot-Watt, explained that between 10–15% of the UK’s primary energy is currently generated by renewables with approximately 9%/y growth.

“This would mean quadrupling renewable energy growth over the next five years to even meet the 2020 target. This target at the moment seems unachievable,” added Ersoy.

Ersoy said that sustaining current growth levels will be a challenge because of the low price of oil and gas. He said research moves faster while their prices are low, but when they are high more projects are implemented, as the market will deem implementing renewable projects as a cheaper alternative to a sustained high price of fossil fuels.

Renewable energies must remain high in public opinion and political agendas in order to retain current levels of government subsidy, Ersoy continued. He said carbon pricing may naturally shift the market in favour of renewable energies because if carbon-intensive industries become too expensive, alternative sources will attract more investment.

Ersoy also discussed fairness in a future energy economy. He said western countries have been using fossil fuels to grow their economies for decades. He asked should developing countries not also be entitled to similar emissions as they enter growth phases, and is it fair for developed countries to hold everyone else to the same standard of emission levels?

Fiona Murray, a research fellow at Heriot-Watt, countered Ersoy’s point with the ability for developing countries to skip technological steps to achieve their goals. She said renewable technologies can be sold on to developing countries as easily as when developing countries skipped straight to Wi-Fi internet and smartphones.

She said, “There is no need for others to undergo the long history of innovation as we did.”

Murray went on to discuss the effects of climate change due to ocean acidification. She said the oceans absorb CO2 that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere. The build-up of CO2 in the ocean is creating vast quantities of carbonic acid, which dissolves the ocean’s salt and kills sea creatures that use the salt to form calcium carbonate shells.

Also addressing climate engineering, Murray spoke about US researchers that proposed pumping dust into the high atmosphere to block a portion of the sun’s energy, thereby reducing global temperatures. She said this idea will not solve CO2 build-up, and will only increase the greenhouse effect of the energy that remains.

When asked about the effects of deforestation to create crops for biofuels, Mair took a strong stance against the concept. He believes clearing land for biomass plantations are causing greater greenhouse gas emissions than keeping the forests in place that will absorb a portion of the CO2 caused by vehicles and industry running on crude oil.

“Crops are part of the solution, but also part of the problem. Natural forests are being destroyed to make way for huge plantations of palm oil, which are not really suitable for biodiversity. They sequester some CO2 as they grow, but they cause other emission problems as well,” said Mair.

Mair said encouraging reforestation, and managing biofuel crops properly would be a more amicable solution to the emissions problem.

Jenkins agreed that biomass plants are unsustainable in reducing global emissions. He said importing the palm oil from Malaysia helps to reduce UK and EU emissions. Ersoy interjected that importing these goods can create “pollution havens” in countries that produce the crops, while the UK emissions remain lower. He said it is a loophole in the climate policies that can make certain countries look good without solving the wider problem of climate change.

The discussion concluded with the suggestions on how the public can combat climate change. Ersoy said 2.5-3% of global emissions are caused by shipping. He said a conscious effort to source local foods and products would reduce the high carbon cost of shipping.

Murray and Mair agreed that the public should look to recycle as much waste as possible to cut down on emissions caused by producing new products.

Jenkins said academics can play a bigger part in communicating possible solutions to the public instead of producing lengthy reports for governments. He said public recognition will do more to sway political views than any spreadsheet data could.

Article by Staff Writer

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