What can we do about climate change?

Back to ‘EcoLogic – Climate Change’

In this section:

How does the climate change naturally?
What’s carbon got to do with climate?
How do scientists measure climate change?
What can we do about climate change?

There are a number of possible responses to climate change.

You can:

Choose to believe climate scientists care wrong and do nothing.
Choose to believe climate scientists are right and prepare to adapt to changing climatic conditions.
Choose to take action to help reduce the magnitude of climate change.

It’s a matter of risk management. We have to consider… What’s the worst that could happen?

A simple decision matrix can help you decide whether humans should take action to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide that we pump into the atmosphere. It works whether or not you believe in human-induced climate change. This matrix was first published by Greg Craven in The most terrifying video you’ll ever see. It’s a simplified representation but our future will fall roughly into one of the four boxes with the faces in them below.

The columns represent whether or not we should take action to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide we send into the atmosphere. We can control which column we’ll end up in. The rows represent what’s actually going to happen in the physical world. They depend on the laws of physics and chemistry, that we can research but can’t control. So we can’t know for certain which row we’re going to end up in.

Which of the boxes do you want to Humanity to end up in?

A matrix clarifies the consequences of our choices.
Matrix design: Greg Craven

Adapting to changing conditions

The fossil record shows that species that can adapt to changing conditions are the ones which survive climate change.

Humans can both adapt to new conditions and prevent the extremes of global warming. In many cases this will mean being open to completely new ways of solving problems, but enormous opportunities are available to those who can rise to the challenge. Creativity, innovation, awareness of systems and personal behaviour change will all be essential. Social and economic systems that make our communities more resilient will help us all to deal with change. Below are examples of some ways people are already responding:

Redesigning the economy

Economists have created ways to put a price on greenhouse gas emissions. A carbon tax applies a fixed cost to each tonne of greenhouse gas emitted. A cap and trade carbon emissions scheme sets a limit on the total number of tonnes that can be emitted and lets manufacturers trade between each other below that cap. This video from the Norwegian Ministry of Environment explains how an emissions trading scheme works.

Compare the carbon emissions of various activities, including eating meat, flying to London, sending emails and watching TV.
The figures for these emissions come from “How Bad are Bananas” by M Berners-Lee.

Creating new Networks

Food Connect allows city residents to support conservation farmers up to 250 km away. The farms use ‘organic’ and chemical-free systems that are less intensive than conventional farming. Growers receive 40c in every dollar of food sold, which is more than they get from selling to major retailers. The network provides fresh, affordable and locally grown food. Transport and fuel consumption is minimised so everybody wins.

Two farmers stand together, holding a baby and hands full of vegetables.
Food Connect provides conservation farmers with an assured market for their produce. Photo: Food Connect

Fruit and vegetables are purchased from farmers and delivered to ‘city-cousins’ who then act as distribution points within the community. Subscribers collect their weekly box of produce from a city cousin at a home, school or other local centre. Food Connect is changing the way food is grown and distributed in Australia.

Five women stand holding boxes of fresh vegetables at the University of NSW.
Ecologic Food at Uni of NSW : Nicole Cooney, Bronwyn Riy, Katherine Kai, Sophie zdenowski, Chea Orchard

Saying NO to waste

In 2009 the people of Bundanoon in NSW voted to stop selling water in single-use plastic bottles. They were concerned that bottling water gives off 1000 times more greenhouse gases than pumping water to your tap. Shops in Bundanoon now sell reusable water bottles that they fill, for free, with filtered cold water. Filtered water is also available from three water stations in the main street and in the primary school. School children were given bottles to use. Read about it here.

A woman drinks from a bubbler as a little girl in a pink dress looks on.
The people of Bundanoon, NSW, chose to provide alternatives to bottled water in their town. Photo: Rural Press

Bundanoon became an international role model for grass roots action. The townspeople proved that you can have fresh water, save money and the environment too! They were helped by friends to reach their goal: An advocacy group called ‘Do Something’ helped the town gather support. Street Furniture Australia donated bubblers and water stations. Culligan Water donated filters and CamelBak donated 2000 reusable bottles. The NSW Government’s Community Economic Development Program provided funding.

Switching to clean energy

Researchers are developing more efficient and affordable systems to capture and store clean energy and make it available as needed. The Australian Government wants 20% of our electricity to come from renewable sources by 2020. These sources include the sun, wind, waves, falling water, combustible wastes and underground masses of hot rock. Electricity from these sources can be fed into the grid or stored in batteries; in future it could be used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, which could be recombined in a fuel cell to produce clean electricity when it is needed.

Solar cells on a red roof are in the foreground. The Sydney skyline is in the background.
Solar cells capture the sun’s energy as it falls on the roof of the Powerhouse Museum

Wind power

Wind is one of the most cost effective sources of power. It is making a substantial and growing contribution to electricity generation in many countries. Australia has excellent wind resources but our reliance on fossil fuels is still high. Vertical wind turbines work well in cities where wind direction can be highly changeable. They’re much quieter than the larger horizontal axis, propeller-type turbines.

The Capital Wind Farm, Bungendore, NSW. Photo: Infigen Energy

Capturing the Sun’s energy

Polymer solar cells now being developed could revolutionise energy production in Australia. They are less efficient than silicon cells but are very cheap to make. These small cells and module were made by CSIRO using novel light-collecting and semi-conducting polymers. The cells on glass squares are separate experiments aimed at improving efficiency. The module resulted from a different experiment to improve the printing of polymers in large uniform layers. As solar cells become less expensive they are likely to be used by increasing numbers of households.

Dark stripes appear on a light pink background in this printed solar cell.
Experimental solar cells made of polymers, aluminium and polypropylene by CSIRO Materials Science and Engineering.
Printed solar cells appear as dark stripes on a white background.
An experimental solar module printed on polymer by CSIRO scientists.

Building new cities

Imagination and bold ideas are creating inspiring spaces that are great for people and the environment. Cities of the future will probably look very different than they do today. Buildings account for almost half of all fossil fuels used around the world. First we build them, then we heat, cool and light them Making concrete alone produces 5% of the world’s greenhouse gases. Good design can minimise the materials and energy needed over the life of a building.

Michael Mobbs stands on the footpath outside his house. A vine climbs a pole next to him.
Michael Mobbs, a pioneer of sustainable inner-city living, is leading a push to convert nature strips to community food gardens

Melbourne’s Pixel building

In 2010 Pixel became Australia’s first carbon neutral commercial office building. That means it offsets more carbon than it releases. Wind turbines and solar voltaic cells on the roof generate electricity. Rain is captured, used and recycled. Sun shades allow maximum daylight with minimum glare and, at night, windows open automatically to cool the offices. Walls are made of a concrete that uses reclaimed and recycled aggregate which halves the embodied carbon of the mix.

Colourful shades are fixed at varying angles all over two sides of the Pixel building.
The Pixel building’s sunshades are extremely decorative but also functional. Photo: studio 505

Sydney’s Workplace6 building

Workplace6 was designed to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 70% and water consumption by 90%. An open central atrium delivers light to each floor. Roof-mounted solar panels heat water and a gas fired generator provides electricity. The leftover heat from the generator then runs an absorption chiller which cools water for air conditioning. Recovered waste water is recycled for toilet flushing and irrigation of the adjacent park.

Clouds are reflected in the windows of the rectangular-shaped Workplace6 building.
Workplace6 looks like a normal office block from the outside but it has 5 star energy and water ratings.

A blue sky can be seen through the roof of the Workplace6 building. Offices are built around the edges of the building so that sunlight can stream down through the light well in the middle of the building.
The lightwell in the centre of Workplace6 reduces the need for internal lighting.

Beijing’s Water Cube

The walls and roof of Beijing’s National Aquatic Centre are made of two layers of air bubbles. The air space between the layers is completely sealed, so it provides good insulation. The plastic membrane around the bubbles allows more heat and light into the building than glass cladding and reduces energy costs by 30%. Its low weight minimises the steel needed to hold it up. This imaginative design was perfect for an Olympic swimming centre.

A cutaway section of a model of the Water Cube shows the wall and roof made of bubbles. Model gift of Arup, 2010 2010/35/1
A grey, blue and white model shows the bubbles in the roof and walls of the Beijing National Aquatics Centre.

Designed for extreme winds

With extremes of weather predicted in the future we might need more durable housing. The shape of this curved dome makes it strong enough to withstand category 5 cyclones. Domed shelters have been build from ice or mud-brick for thousands of years but this Australian version, called a DomeShell, is made from thin layers of glass-reinforced concrete around a polyurethane core. The insulating core makes it lighter and much more energy efficient than standard concrete.

A model shows two light-coloured domes that are linked together to create a house.
DomeShell dwellings are designed to withstand bushfires and extreme winds.
A layer of yellow polyurethane is sandwiched between two much thinner layers of concrete in the DomeShell wall.
DomeShell wall ‘sandwich’ makes it extremely light and strong. Gift of DomeShell 2011.

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