The climate challenge will be one of the defining issues of this century. In one way or another, everyone on the planet will be touched by the transition to clean energy. Already, many citizens, cities, and nations have begun making progress on this exciting journey.
Electric utilities and multinational oil companies produce most energy, but it is individuals who consume it in their homes, offices, and cars. In the U.S., where per capita emissions are nearly twice the European level, a typical household produces about 20 metric tons of CO2 each year, enough to fill four hot air balloons. But technology and lifestyle choices can yield surprisingly large reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.
In 1997, after calculating his family’s carbon emissions, energy expert Randy Udall vowed to reduce them by at least 50 percent. His primary motivation was an ethical one, recognizing that their pollution was their responsibility. They also hoped to save money.
Udall’s family of five retrofitted their home in Colorado, upgrading to more efficient lights and appliances. He and his daughters installed a solar hot water system on their roof and a solar electric system in their yard. The family also purchased a more efficient car. Altogether, they invested $32,000, and now save about $1,900 and 9 tons of carbon dioxide each year.
Early action by families, cities, and corporations is meaningful, but it must be paired with strong national and international policies to make a real difference. Politicians have to take a stand, and do what’s right for the planet. For example, Udall’s brother Mark serves in the United States Senate, where he is pushing climate legislation. “My brother understands the urgency,” says Randy Udall. “He knows we’ve delayed far too long already.”
The effort needed to solve the climate challenge is sobering. By 2050 the world will require more carbon-free energy than it now gets from oil, coal, and natural gas combined.
Global wind power would need to grow tenfold. The contribution from solar would need to increase 100-fold, biomass would have to triple, and 1,000 large low-carbon power plants, utilizing either nuclear energy or carbon- capture, are needed. This is not impossible – after all, the Chinese built 100 coal-fired power plants in 2006 alone – but it will require strong policies to redirect some of the $22 trillion now currently slated to be spent on energy infrastructure in the next two decades.