These days, it seems not a week goes by without at least one public warning that human-induced climate change, if allowed to continue unabated, will result in environmental catastrophe.
That’s not to second-guess such warnings, which usually emanate from respectable sources. This includes the United Nations, whose Environment Programme recently released a report on harmful gas emissions stating that if the world's governments wish to avert disaster on Earth, they must halt or at least slow climate change. And for that to happen, immediate and drastic action is required. As Gunnar Luderer, one of the authors of the report, told the Guardian, “Only a rapid turnaround here can help. Emissions must be reduced by a quarter by 2030.”
Yet tackling climate change is so daunting that many of us are tempted to simply curl up in despair and resign ourselves to inevitable ecological collapse. That’s a bad idea! A better approach is to heed the UN’s specific suggestions for ameliorating the situation, which include enacting stronger government policies to curb emissions, increasing taxes on fossil fuels, and investing much more in clean technology.
That last recommendation provides the perfect segue to the subject of this article: green technology, or “the use of technology that makes products and processes more environmentally friendly.”
Color my technology green
If green technology is to meet the needs of society without further damaging or depleting the planet’s resources, this entails reducing the waste and pollution involved in both production and consumption. A related aspect of green technology is ensuring that products have a "cradle to cradle" design, whereby they are reused after they have served their purpose, or that they are biodegradable. This contrasts with the "cradle to grave" design, which necessitates the discarding of a (non-biodegradable) product once used.
Arguably the most important application of green technology lies in the realm of sustainable energy, defined by the Renewable Energy & Energy Efficiency Partnership as “the provision of energy such that it meets the needs of the future without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
With the green variant of sustainable energy, we’re also talking about energy consumed at insignificant rates when compared to supply, with few if any deleterious effects on the environment. The contrast with sources of energy currently in wide use is noticeable; gasoline, coal, and gas are not only consumed in massive amounts (and before that, extracted at great cost), but they produce any number of polluting effects. These range from the overall increase of CO2 in the atmosphere (which in turn brings about global warming) to the spread of disease-causing particulates in the air.
So, what qualifies as green energy production? Hydroelectric dams and geothermal power plants certainly fit the bill. And, as you might expect, any form of generating solar and wind power also makes the cut. Wind power, incidentally, has relatively low production costs and a high level of success, accounting for 20 percent of electricity use in Denmark, nine percent in Spain, and seven percent in Germany.
But it’s important that we not neglect to mention lesser-known options, particularly of the biofuel variety. Consider biomass briquettes, for instance. Made out of compressed plant matter, biomass briquettes serve as a biofuel alternative to coal and charcoal. Also falling into this category is ethanol fuel, created from sugar cane. Ethanol fuel is very popular in Brazil, where it is seen as key to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent by 2030.
There are also cutting-edge and still largely experimental ventures out there: advanced biomass gasification, various biorefinery technologies, solar thermal power stations, hot dry rock geothermal energy production, and ocean wave farms.
Green buildings, electric cars, and you and me
What about you and me, though; what can we do for the environment? Well, one way we can take matters in our own hands is by having our homes generate energy from renewable sources. This is already the case with many households in Malta, thanks to the installation of solar panels for the warming of water. Elsewhere in the world, people are becoming more ambitious, what with the use of small domestic wind turbines, and, in the case of countries sitting on volcanoes (Iceland, for example), houses taking advantage of geothermal energy.
In fact, an abode in its entirety can go green. That is the very point of something called a green building, which makes efficient use of renewable energy while allowing for the reuse and recycling of waste. The World Green Building Council lists a number of features needed for a building to go green, including: the integration of renewable and low-carbon technologies; the means to improve drinking and waste water efficiency and management; the use of fewer and more durable materials; the incorporation of natural light; and the creation of the right indoor temperature through passive design. Ultimately, a green building, "in its design, construction or operation, reduces or eliminates negative impacts, and can create positive impacts, on our climate and natural environment."
Another of green technology's targets is vehicles. After all, the fossil fuel-burning motor vehicles of today are a major contributor to environmental degradation. Enter the electric car.
Interestingly, the electric car is not a particularly new idea. Some of the earliest cars in the world were electric! In 1902, the Studebaker Automobile Company became the first of its kind to offer a mass-produced electric car, although the vehicle’s performance was hampered by the limitations of storage batteries. The battery issue continues to dog electric vehicles even today, although huge strides have been made in the field. Advances in lithium-ion batteries have led to higher energy density, a longer lifespan, and higher power density, enabling them to power the famous sports cars produced by Elon Musk's Tesla.
Where does all this leave us?
Adopting green technology – on a global scale, no less – is imperative if we are to check the planet’s terrifying drift into uninhabitability. The task is not easy. After all, it demands consistent adherence, on the part of governments as well as individuals, to a set of fairly stringent standards.
Nevertheless, it is possible. Just as information technology brought about radical change in the course of a couple of decades, green technology can do the same – if we tap into it. If we don’t, we’ll find ourselves in a world of trouble.