What else can be done?
Tackling climate change requires politics and technology as well as individual action. Alternatives to fossil fuels, burying carbon emissions deep in the sea and carbon trading schemes are among the options. Some are more popular than others and each has its supporters and critics.
Hybrid cars are powered by a combination of energy sources. Petrol and electric is the most popular hybrid type. The idea is to cut down the amount of fossil fuels burnt in the car to reduce exhaust emissions.
Cars can also be powered by hydrogen fuel cell technology. A hydrogen fuel cell emits no carbon dioxide. Heat and water are the only by-products. But electricity is required when extracting the hydrogen from the water. This electricity has to come from somewhere to begin with, and that could be a greenhouse gas emitting, coal burning power station.
Alternatives to fossil fuels
Renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, hydroelectric, tidal and wave power offer an alternative to burning fossil fuels. Wind turbines currently produce less than 1% of the world’s electricity supply, but it’s the fastest growing of the renewable energy sources.
Another alternative to fossil fuel is nuclear power. Almost 80% of France’s electricity comes from nuclear plants. Some see nuclear as solving future power needs because of the huge quantities of energy produced, but disasters such as the 1986 Chernobyl accident have tainted the public’s opinion of nuclear power. There’s also the problem of how to deal with the radioactive waste produced.
Bio-fuel is a relatively new, and hotly debated, energy source made from plants. The crops soak up carbon dioxide as they grow, therefore cancelling out their emissions when burnt as fuel.
The debate concerns the efficiency of bio-fuel and its energy intensive production methods. Some scientists argue that the net effect is a contribution to global warming. There are also complaints that rainforests have been cleared and precious water supplies drained to make way for bio-fuel crops.
The industry is still young. If the technology can be streamlined and the other issues resolved then the viability of bio-fuels could increase.
Carbon capture and storage
A novel idea for solving the carbon problem is to bury it. ‘Carbon sequestration’ involves capturing carbon dioxide and then storing it away for millions of years. The technology for capture, for example from large sources of carbon dioxide such as power stations, is fairly advanced. Locking it away, by pumping it into disused coal mines or natural formations, or to the bottom of the ocean, has proved more of a technical challenge.
There are also worries that carbon sequestration may set a time-bomb ticking for future generations. The vast majority of carbon dioxide is supposed to stay locked up for millions of years, but what if large quantities of carbon suddenly leaked into the atmosphere?
Carbon trading is a scheme in which polluting businesses can buy and sell permits to emit carbon dioxide. Companies are allocated a limit to the amount they can emit. If they want to emit more, they have to buy unused permits off companies that have cut emissions below their own allowance. Companies that go over their limit without buying extra permits are fined. The overall level of allowed emissions is reduced over time.
The Emissions Trading Scheme which is currently operating in Europe has faced criticism after businesses were allocated too many permits in the first phase of the project.
Some critics go further and argue that the scheme just hands out licenses for companies to continue to pollute, and that it doesn’t tackle the emissions problem head-on.
Carbon offsetting has recently taken-off as a way for individuals and businesses to become 'carbon neutral’. Imagine you make a return trip to Australia by plane. You can pay to offset your proportion of the carbon emitted on that journey and the money will go towards a carbon reduction scheme. This could be anything from tree plantings in India to installing energy efficient light-bulbs in Jamaica.
There is a lot of debate surrounding carbon offsetting. Would these projects be happening anyway and how worthwhile are they? Some carbon offset companies are moving away from tree planting projects, acknowledging that they are not a long-term solution to climate change. Trees only lock up carbon dioxide over their lifetimes. It is released again when they die and rot away.
Carbon offsetting is often seen as an alternative if there’s no other way to cut the original emissions. Even then, some critics argue that it allows individuals or businesses to buy a clear conscience when it isn’t deserved.