You might be worried about the future of our planet. It may seem like there is no good news about climate change and that nothing is being done to stop it. Of course, you can contribute as an individual to lowering your carbon emissions; this can include all of the things we keep hearing about – recycle more, stop using plastic, eat less meat, drive less – but even if we all change the way we live to lower our individual carbon emissions, the dent we make in the world’s overall emissions will unfortunately be minuscule compared to reduction we need to make a true difference. So, what can we do beyond this? And how are other people dealing with this?
A good start is to be aware of environmental advocacy groups and what they are fighting for. Their primary goal is to promote policies that will keep the global temperatures from rising above 1.5 °C (the limit set by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), which would reduce the negative impact of further global warming on the environment and human health. Donating your time and/or money to these groups is an excellent way to contribute to the change we need to see. If you’re looking for an organization close to home, the US Climate Action Network brings together climate activist groups from around the country, so it’s a good place to find a group near you to get involved with.
One particular current focus of climate change awareness groups is stopping the construction of natural gas pipelines throughout the country. You’ve likely heard of the Keystone XL project, Dakota Access pipeline and, most recently, the Jordan Cove project in Oregon, the last of which is now seeking federal approval after massive resistance from groups in the state such as Rogue Climate. But why are these pipelines such a huge problem for the environment?
Supporters for these projects claim that natural gas is a more environmentally friendly fossil fuel since it releases less carbon dioxide into the environment than other fossil fuels, but environmentalists argue that a better option is to move away from fossil fuels altogether and focus on renewables. They argue that this will not only benefit the environment, but also create jobs. In addition, while supporters of these pipeline projects say that oil would be extracted whether the pipelines are built or not, opponents to the project worry that as the pipes would transport gas at a much faster rate than current transportation; this could lead to extracting gas at a higher rate. Beyond this, these pipelines also threaten wildlife and water systems: Constructing these pipelines could lead to habitat destruction. And once they are in use, an oil spill could lead to poisoned water sources. A report from 2017 found that since 2010, there has been an oil spill on average once a week in the US alone. And cleaning up spills of crude oil and petroleum products is not simple: Absorbing oil requires chemicals that, themselves, can be harmful to the environment. Therefore, the best solution might be avoiding these altogether by moving away from fossil fuels.
As someone who wants to stop climate change, you may also be wondering what else is going on to limit the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. One major focus of researchers is the study of carbon capture technologies. Basically, these technologies capture carbon-containing compounds such as carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and either reuse it as is or convert it into compounds that can be used for other means. In one example, a recent study showed it’s possible to successfully capture carbon dioxide in large quantities and convert it to more useful materials that can be used in the development of pharmaceuticals and fuels. Another recent study demonstrated a process through which carbon dioxide could be converted into solid carbon, which can be used elsewhere or stored underground. Researchers have also been able to convert carbon dioxide into chemicals that can be used in fuel cells. Of course, this is nowhere near the true extent of research going into these technologies, and while they are absolutely worth exploring, studies undertaken by both environmental and energy scientists warn that these technologies will not be efficient enough to remove as much carbon from the atmosphere as we need to stop the catastrophic effects of climate change. In addition, developing and deploying these technologies is costly compared to the cost of lowering emissions in the first place.
What about other ways of reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere? Although the main focus of global warming needs to be the reduction of carbon emissions on a global scale, we can also look to other methods to lower the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. A really simple, old school, traditional way is by planting trees.
A study published in Science in July 2019 found that if we were to increase the amount of forested land on the planet by more than 25%, this could lead to the capture of 25% of the current amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. So, get planting! If you’ve got the space, do it! If you don’t have the land to do this, there are plenty of organizations you can support who help people find land or plant trees themselves all over the world – The Canopy Project, One Tree Planted and The Nature Conservancy just to name a few.
I hope I’ve convinced you that there is still time to fight for a better outcome to climate change and that you’re not alone in wanting to make change. For example, Project Drawdown is researching ways to decrease the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Airlines and car manufacturers are transitioning to more fuel-efficient practices. Manufacturers and retailers are sourcing recyclable materials: Large corporations such as Amazon and Apple have switched to renewable energy sources by generating energy from both solar and wind farms. Plenty of people and companies are making the change to better support our environment, and you can too.
Alyssa is in her final year of a PhD in chemistry at the University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia. She is passionate about science communication and has a background in creative writing. In her spare time she likes relaxing with a good book or a true crime podcast.