Reducing and then eliminating global CO2 emissions present the most important and most difficult challenges of our age–the indisputable age of Climate Change.
The world’s nations now pour more than 40 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, along with fractional amounts of other gases. The science behind the United Nations Paris Agreement emissions-reduction initiative says we can sustain this pace for only a few more years before we’ll no longer have the ability to undo the damage done.
The existential question right now is whether we’ve already reached that tipping point, crossed the Rubicon. But the fact is that it’s too late to sit around pondering whether it’s too late. As Nobel-laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz said earlier this year, we need to think of the climate-change challenge in terms of being our — this era’s — World War III, except that, as Pogo famously said, “we have met the enemy, and he is us.”
Stiglitz believes that the enormity and velocity of Climate Change will require the kind of massive hard investment and mobilization that would be at the scale scale of war.
Big Countries, Big Emissions
The US is the world’s second-largest producer of CO2 and other toxic emissions. The current administration infamously removed the US from the Paris Agreement, but a coterie of advocacy organizations, businesses and industries, and millions of individuals nevertheless are working to reduce the country’s carbon footprint in an attempt to arrest anthropogenic climate change.
The US may thus continue to be, as it should be, a global leader in reducing emissions. Myriad Smart City initiatives are able to be deployed on their own in the highly federated US, and are already doing so, and the industries involved with Digital Infrastructure can also lead, in the US and around the world. This, by the way, is the promising world that a new foundation that we’re a formative part of, the Smart Nations Foundation, intends to address.
China surpassed the US some time ago on its massive economic development journey. A visitor to any city in China can look at the sky and immediately see the effects of its carbon-based electricity generation, manufacturing, and the world’s largest automobile market. India’s own continuously aggressive economic development puts this nation in third place as far as global emissions, with similar unpleasant results. But at least China’s government recognizes the threat, and can attack CO2 with the same brutish efficiency it has taken on its industrial growth and technological prowess.
India and China together account for 36% of the world’s population and 36% of its emissions. The US is down to 4% of the world’s population yet produces 16% of its emissions. EU states have almost 7% of the world’s population and produce 11% of its emissions.
Progress Through Reduction
But let’s not get distracted by numbers and the finger-pointing they can induce. The big challenge facing homo sapiens is how to avoid cooking and drowning ourselves without also killing the opportunity for economic development worldwide.
For example, projections we’ve made at the Tau Institute show that the world’s electricity needs will more than double within 30 years (by the year 2050). This projection assumes the developed world reduces its consumption at a steady rate of 1% per year and the developing world increases its consumption to a level sufficient to create reasonable livability for all its people.
The world’s electrical power generation and natural-gas heating demands already contribute 48% of all CO2 emissions, so this is clearly an area that needs a strong, sustainable effort to change. This likely takes the societal and governmental courage to levy steep carbon taxes, enforceable cap-and-trade, and mandatory optimization (wringing waste out of systems).
It also demands investment in renewable energy resources on the grid, and true energy trading markets and Virtual Power Plants.
CO2 is not the only pernicious gas being released in large amounts into the atmosphere. About 19% of deleterious emissions come from the infamous cow farts delivering much of methane’s 10% share; a 6% dollop of nitrous oxide that’s no laughing matter; and an unhelpful 3% of fluorinated gases thrown in for fun.
These emissions are interrelated and, to some degree, interdependent, as are the industries from whence they come. If we’re able to achieve a mass migration to EVs from gasoline and diesel, this will make the electricity sector stick out even more as a bad actor, for example. But, in truth, the onus on the entire economy to address renewables at the fastest pace possible.
This challenge coincidentally allows us to look at the modernization of the power utility grid in other ways, too. Decentralization, localized micro-generation, and a host of other opportunities.
Progress in one area stimulates advancement in another. The creation of a more robust data center presence — much of it with it’s own clean(er) power generation capacity “built in” — throughout the developing world, for example, will create jobs directly and provide the digital infrastructure to develop economies overall.
Even as it helps to improve economies, the data center industry will receive ever more scrutiny about its energy use. The projection cited above for the year 2050 shows data centers demanding as much as 28% of the world’s electric grid, driven by 25% annual data growth and a 100X increase in the number of servers deployed in the world.
Taking Action Now
There’s no time to sit around and centrally plan a commitment on the scale Joseph Stiglitz has said is required. Many actions by players large and small are what’s needed. So it was encouraging this past week to see a couple of big-player announcements.
One was the pending merger of Digital Realty and Interxion, two sustainability leaders that manage well over a gigawatt of data center oomph throughout the world. Digital Realty itself has solar-power contracts totaling 338 megaWatts in the US alone.
The second announcement came from Vapor IO and described new “kinetic edge exchange” (or KEX) deployments with Digital Realty. KEX is a software-defined platform for interconnections in edge locations, allowing exchange members to connect to one another in a virtual fashion to adapt to changing demands.
Leadership like this must be ubiquitous and sustained throughout all components of the Digital Infrastructure industry. The construction and architecture of all Digital Infrastructure from today forward will not only determine the industry’s contribution to addressing climate change but can set a good example for all of the world economy’s interrelated pieces.