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Sustainable energy technologies are a start, but not enough

The video below is a preview of a new series, Breakthrough: Energy on the Edge, it premieres Sunday, December 6, at 9 pm. on National Geographic Channel

Could new sustainable energy production methods help the world avert a global-warming disaster? Some experts believe so, but clean energy production on its own may not be enough.

The Earth is warming. While some politicians and a few hold-out scientists still doubt this phenomena, an overwhelming amount of research has suggested that our planet is slowly growing warmer. Given how fragile the world’s ecosystems are, even slight changes in the Earth’s average temperature could wreak havoc. As the human population continues to grow and expand, however, greenhouse gas emissions will almost certainly continue to increase.

When it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, energy production is one of the biggest culprits. In the United States, approximately 31 percent of emissions in 2013 was attributed to electricity production while 27 percent was attributed to transportation. The burning of fossil fuels in homes, industrial applications, and other processes also contributes to greenhouse gas emissions.

Yet a range of sustainable energy sources now promise to provide humanity with sustainable and renewable sources of energy production that won’t produce high levels of greenhouse gases. Solar and wind are perhaps the most well-known examples of these technologies. Such low carbon solutions could certainly provide relief and if widely adopted, could reduce carbon emissions.

As leaders gather in France to discuss ways to cap emissions and encourage the adoption of more sustainable technologies, it’s fair to wonder if too much damage has already been done. Carbon dioxide levels have already passed critical thresholds. Global averages of CO2 have now passed 400 parts per million (PPM), a 120 part rise since pre-industrial times.

Research suggests that present CO2 levels in the atmosphere could continue to warm the Earth’s atmosphere for centuries to come even if all emissions are cut. In fact, to keep global warming under the targeted 2 degrees celsius threshold, many models have now concluded that CO2 will need to be actively pulled from the atmosphere.

Further, while renewable energy sources would reduce carbon emissions, energy production itself is far from the only source of greenhouse gas emissions. The use of fertilizers in agriculture, forest fires -many of them man made-, decomposing landfills, and various other human activities also producing greenhouse gases.

While increasing the adoption of renewable energy sources would help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and would likely slow the warming of the Earth’s atmosphere, it may too late to avoid the detrimental impacts of global warming. World leaders are now hoping to limit global warming to a “mere” 2 degrees Celsius in warming when compared to pre-industrial times.

This number isn’t being pulled out of a hat, experts are hopeful that if global warming can be kept below this threshold, the most dire consequences of global warming, such as rising sea levels, could be avoided. Researchers, however, are already warning that it may be too late to meet this 2 degree goal.

Either way, failing to act sooner rather than later, will simply push the costs and effects of global warming onto future generations. Ironically, while many governments and political parties have grown weary of public debt and wealth redistribution, often citing future generations, the costs of global warming often go unmentioned in political debate.

Switching to alternative energies will not stop, let alone reverse, global warming. Producing energy sustainably would be an important first step but by itself will not be enough. While doing so would curb emissions, CO2 would continue to rise due to CO2 generated by other activities.

Beyond energy production, humanity must learn to live sustainably and in harmony with the planet. Land development, waste generation and recycling, water use, and various other areas of human activity that can impact the Earth, must all be brought into harmony with the planet’s fragile ecosystems. If not, the actions and activities carried out today will almost certainly become a burden for future generations.

If you are interested in learning more about this topic we recommend that you check out a new series from National Geographic Channel, Breakthrough:  Energy on the Edge, it premieres Sunday, December 6, at 9 pm.