The climate challenge

If we let the planet warm, civilisation will no longer remain as we know it today

Published - June 21, 2020 12:32 am IST

Climate change is an immediate and present danger that threatens the very existence of our civilisation. Violent hurricanes, frequent floods and prolonged droughts as well as increasingly threatening wildfires have put the world population at a grave risk. Fossil fuels accounts for two-thirds of global carbon emissions that have resulted in a dramatic rise in the concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that is much more than nature can absorb. Carbon dioxide traps heat to raise temperature of air and water. Sea levels rise as water expands, heat melts the Arctic ice more than the rate at which the ice accumulates, releasing germs that were previously extinct. We are facing the most profound and dangerous physical changes in human history that threatens to upend life as we know it. The environment is a concern for everyone in society.

I had the privilege of working as a power engineer in different power plants all over the world, scaling up to 600 MW units, until my retirement. I completed the last 13 years of my professional career working for the World Bank where I was involved in the financing, implementation and supervision of various power projects in India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, the Philippines, China and Mongolia.

The dynamics of power generation technology has undergone a sea change over the years. Alternative, viable technologies are being applied to move away from the unmitigated emission of toxic fumes and particulates by coal-fired power plants that has resulted in wild swings in the climate all the over world besides causing numerous health problems. A fundamental shift in the livelihood of people including demographic reorientation precipitated by climate change is an unmitigated threat that can no longer be ignored. Climate change has thus become a grave issue today, specifically in the field of power generation.

Plainly speaking, the absolute present requirement is that the carbon footprint of industries must be reduced drastically to achieve a carbon-neutral environment so that the world climate influencing human existence as well as plant and wildlife, has a chance to recover. To that end, fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas need to be phased out.

That power plants using fossil fuel are a major source of climate change was given a blind eye in earlier years because to maintain the momentum of economic growth, industrialised nations kept on building more and more power sources using fossil fuel, while developing countries had the urgent need to build the necessary infrastructure to accelerate fast industrialisation to grow their economy. Easy financing was available from lending institutions such as the World Bank and other financial institutions so that developing countries could increase power generation to support their industries. All that early euphoria has now been replaced by the stark realisation that something must be done pretty fast to save the world from utter destruction. Sea levels are rising fast at an alarming rate. One study reveals that humanity is now spewing more than 110 million tonnes of pollution into the atmosphere every day as if it were an open sewer. Power generation technology has thus assumed a major role to play in the effort to reverse that trend. This is the time for innovation. Alternative, viable technologies must be developed to replace fossil fuel. Preferred technologies today are renewable energy that include solar, wind power, hydro power, nuclear and geothermal.

Health issues associated with fossil fuel plants are a matter of grave concern. Continuous emission from these power plants include carbon dioxide, particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, sulphur oxides, carbon monoxide, methane, mercury, volatile organic compounds and heavy metals. These have a wide range of health effects on human as well as plant and wildlife. The current pandemic has proven beyond doubt that as fewer cars are driven, the air becomes cleaner from the elimination of toxic fumes by transports. Beautiful cities that were once just a hazy outline in an envelope of smog, became visible once again in their pristine glory to feast the eyes in their absolute grandeur. This also indicates the dirty air we have been forced to breath over the years. Heart and lung diseases as well as cancer abound. Natural gas-fired power plants also emit nitrogen oxides, carbon dioxide and methane, but in lower quantities. Nuclear power and renewable energy plants have zero emission; however, handling of nuclear waste is difficult and hazardous.

Despite the catastrophic disasters in Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, nuclear power generation has come a long way to becoming stable and reliable with adequate safeguards to ensure safe shutdowns for protection. Several redundancies in the management and control system have been incorporated in their design to prevent accidents. For instance, 75% of power generation in France today is from nuclear power. The country have a commendable safety record to show and encourage promotion of nuclear power. Continuing research on other viable means of power production, such as fusion power, thorium reactors and other advanced design technologies, including biomass, must also be continued in the quest for clean energy. Simultaneously, there should be a moratorium on building new coal-fired power plants. Existing power plants more than 15 years old should be retired. Bold and ambitious ideas are required to confront the climate challenge.

Coal-fired power generation technology wields powerful protection because of the political power it commands to protect the coal mining industry and the innumerable miners that work for them. There is, therefore, a parallel need for finding alternative, gainful employment for those to be displaced by the loss of their traditional livelihood. They need training in alternative technologies. Research must also be accelerated to find environmentally acceptable utilisation of the coal seams, oil and natural gas that lie below the ground. Young scientists and engineers of today are encouraged to pursue this effort.

The urgent need to address climate change can hardly be overemphasized. One UN study indicates that though we switch power generation to new technologies today, the world temperature would still rise by more than 3 degrees Celsius . If we let the planet warm by that much, civilisation will no longer remain as we know it today and we would have to pay a heavy price for survival. Melting permafrost of the north is releasing germs that were once extinct. Ongoing drought and desertification is forcing huge numbers of Africans, Asians and Central Americans to move as heat waves become unbearable. More than 90% of the extra heat is going into the oceans and fuelling supercharged hurricanes. Wildfires are worsening around the world. Sea levels are rising due to melting of the ice masses in Greenland and Antarctica. All continents of the world are affected in various, alarming ways. A complete geographical reorientation will take place as low-lying land mass and many islands go under water. Given that the U.S., China and India are the major polluters of the atmosphere from the use of fossil fuel, these countries have an added responsibility to pioneer the changes required to avert disaster. We must address the urgent need to save the most precious resources of the world: the air we breath, the water we drink and the land we share. I remain optimistic that the most catastrophic consequences of climate change can still be averted with concerted efforts by all nations.

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