Nine Commandments To Save Humanity (From Climate Change)

Jan 18, 2021 | Environment, Health, Politics/Policy

Now that we are close to putting two terrible viruses that have been attacking mankind behind us (Donald Trump and COVID-19), we can get back to the business of correcting the most serious existential threat that humans have ever faced: climate change. Synthetic Biology — as discussed in my recent book Saved by Science: The Hope and Promise of Synthetic Biology — can play an important role in saving humanity from some of the catastrophic events associated with climate change. Here is, at the minimum, nine things we must do:

  • Re-establish the commitment to the Paris Accord. It is not so much that the Accord offers all of the solutions but rather it accepts the fact that climate change knows no national barriers and the solutions must be global. But remember that the limits discussed at the accord were just a start. We have a long way to go.
  • Commit to putting a stop to our dependence on fossil fuels. It must be much more significant than a 50% reduction by the year 2050. There’s a lot of evidence pointing to the fact that a much more drastic action is essential. This might look like a 90% reduction by 2030. Indeed, it will require tremendous leadership and political will to achieve this.
  • Invest massively in implementation of solar energy, nuclear energy and other proven renewable energy sources. Develop and support new battery technologies to store this energy. We can no longer afford to use the seemingly unlimited energy stores offered by fossils fuels deposited over the past billion plus years. The transition of all industries (i.e. transport, manufacturing, agriculture, etc.) away from fossil fuels must be supported with major financial incentives including tax credits. 
  • Put an immediate stop to deforestation and implement the Trillion-Tree Reforestation Program. I understand that this will require a major re-think in how we use land and the future of the lumber industry. This cannot be viewed as a short or even medium-term solution because of the time that the trees will take to mature and fulfill their role in removing C02 from the atmosphere through photosynthesis. Rather this can be an important component of limiting and even reversing climate change in the long term.
  • Currently, agriculture and agricultural land use constitutes more than 30% of the energy consumed worldwide, the vast majority of which comes from fossil fuels. Agriculture must become more effective and more efficient, especially as the world’s population continues to grow. Synthetic Biology has enormous potential here. Some examples include: using genetic modification — yes, GMOs — to increase yields and decrease use of pesticides and fertilizers; enlisting microbes to deliver nitrogen directly to plants thus bypassing the use of expensive and polluting fertilizers; and shifting to cellular agriculture whereby all manners of food can be grown in large vats within controlled environments. When used in tandem, these technologies will result in a 98% decrease in the amount of land used, a 95% decrease in the amount of water required and lastly, a decrease of at least 90% in the energy required to grow the food. This may be achieved without diminishing either the quality or the healthy nature of the food. It would be all real, no fake food.
  • “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.” This must be the global mantra of all individuals, organizations and countries to decrease the impact of climate change. It refers to all of the excesses that we currently engage in our everyday lives. Think not only of global warming and the increased incidence of extreme weather but also the manner in which we foul our lakes, rivers and oceans, or use non-degradable plastics indiscriminately. Think of the massive landfills of garbage seen, really, everywhere. They must disappear.
  • It is not sufficient to merely reduce the emission of greenhouse gases (C02 being the biggest culprit) from the atmosphere. Global warming has already become an existential threat. If nothing else consider the wildfires in California, Oregon and Australia and the incidence of extreme weather worldwide. We have to lower atmospheric C02 from its current level approaching 420ppm (parts per million) to below 400 if not ideally closer to 350ppm. Remember that if we do nothing, atmospheric C02 and greenhouse gases will just continue to increase and as the temperatures rise. It will not be long before human life becomes unsustainable.
  • There are techniques available to remove C02 from the atmosphere. Attempts underway to store the carbon in massive underground caverns are surely just a temporary band-aid approach. There are chemical and biological (i.e. Synthetic Biology) technologies that look very promising which are able to sequester/capture atmospheric and use it in a variety of manufacturing processes including materials such as cement, plastics and even fuels.
  • The fossil fuel economy has to be broken. We must put an end to our continued addiction to fossil fuels. In a somewhat bizarre sense, this fossil fuel economy currently fuels or feeds on itself. Starting with the coal, oil and gas companies, through to the transportation and agriculture industries, through to the financial institutions (with vested interests and investments in the industry), through to politicians many or even most of whom are in support of and supported by the “pipeline.” This simply has to stop. To change this will require leadership from the public, enlightened corporate and financial leadership and our politicians to be concerned about the environment.

The question of how “much it costs” and “can we afford” it always becomes front and centre of any green initiative. The cost to enact all of the changes listed above ranges from $20 Trillion to a maximum of $50 Trillion over 10 years. Certainly, that’s a lot of money but how do you measure the value of 10s of millions of lives? The cost of the current COVID-19 pandemic is $20 Trillion and still counting in North America alone. So, when the need is there, the money can be found. As serious as the current COVID-19 pandemic has been in terms of suffering and in lives lost, the climate change crisis is a much greater existential threat to us all.


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Image courtesy of Tarun Rana (via Unsplash)