Historically, climate education has often been sidelined, treated as a specialist subject, or relegated to extracurricular activities. However, COP28 underscored a vital aspect of our fight against climate change: integrating climate education into every facet of our learning systems, both formal and informal.
President Dr Arif Alvi echoed the same sentiments while speaking at a two-day Climate Change Conference in Karachi. Addressing the growing impacts of climate change, the president emphasised the critical need for a shift in attitudes and proactive engagement from all quarters, especially in education and environmental awareness.
Underscoring the inseparable link between human activity and global warming, he stressed the need for a fundamental attitude shift.
However, the call to fundamentally alter someone’s attitude is only possible when we know a change is required. This insight aligns with Donald Rumsfeld’s observation: “There are known knowns, things we know that we know; and there are known unknowns, things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns, things we do not know we don’t know.”
Therefore, to effectively shift our attitudes towards sustainability, we must broaden our scope of ‘knowing.’ This means embracing and understanding what we already know and actively seeking to uncover and address the ‘unknown unknowns,’ those critical areas we haven’t yet acknowledged or understood.
Historically, in global discourse, it is these ‘unknown unknowns’ that have led us to the brink of a 3.3-degree temperature rise.
Too often, our approach to climate solutions has been superficial, focusing on buzzwords without a proper understanding of the issues and an appreciation for the interconnected science and the various proposed solutions and their repercussions. Expanding our knowledge base to include these overlooked aspects is crucial for fostering a genuine and effective change in how we interact with and impact our environment.
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Consider the case of reforestation and afforestation, often lauded as successful mitigation strategies for addressing the climate crisis and reviving biodiversity. However, research from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI) reveals that these efforts can backfire if poorly executed.
Planting trees in ecosystems like grasslands, which are natural carbon sinks, can inadvertently release stored carbon into the atmosphere. Additionally, the choice of trees is critical; opting for fast-growing, non-native species can lead to monocultures – biologically sterile environments unable to support diverse life.
This highlights the need for comprehensive understanding and knowledge of environmental strategies, demonstrating that half-knowledge not only fails to address the problem but can also exacerbate existing ecological issues.
Similarly, the COP28 goal of tripling global renewable energy capacity by 2030, aiming to reach 11TW of installed capacity, underscores the pressing need for a comprehensive understanding of underlying issues and climate education.
This ambitious target, necessitating a compound annual growth rate of 14.9% from the end of 2022 to 2030, faces significant challenges. These include access barriers such as complex licensing and land ownership issues, the prevalence of fossil fuel subsidies, especially for impoverished communities, and the need for improved auctions and offtake agreements for clean power. The lag in grid infrastructure development, the prolonged permitting process and the critical design of power markets, further complicates the efficient integration of renewables and trade-offs if not produced and managed sustainably throughout its supply chain and lifecycle.
Despite these challenges, as of October 2023, Bloomberg NEF forecasts a more modest increase in renewable capacity, predicting only 5.8TW of solar and 1.9TW of wind power by 2030.
This, combined with other clean technologies like hydro and biomass, points to an estimated 9TW by 2030 – a significant growth from 2022, yet falling short of the desired impact in terms of generation and decarbonisation.
The joint contribution of solar energy and afforestation to climate change mitigation adds another level of complexity to this conversation, which is frequently disregarded when these strategies are considered independently.
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Researchers from Norway and Austria have found that both strategies share a common drawback of increasing the global heat load due to their land surfaces absorbing more heat. This shared challenge highlights the importance of an inclusive approach where comprehensive solutions are developed for more sustainable solutions.
The necessity for climate education becomes even more evident considering the broader context highlighted during COP28, particularly the call for “phase-down of unabated coal power” and “phasing out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies.”
Many advocates for this transition overlook the intricate balance between environmental sustainability and the economic and social realities, especially in the Global South. An overly aggressive shift away from fossil fuels, especially indigenous reserves, without considering local factors, risks being not only impractical but also potentially harmful to the socioeconomic stability of these nations.
To speak of a transition away from fossil fuels with deep, rapid, and sustained reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions without equally substantial, rapid, and sustained finance and technology to do so is profoundly unjust and self-defeating. Thus, there is a dire need for climate education to raise awareness and enable better advocacy.
This education should empower individuals and policymakers to understand the complexities of energy transitions, advocate effectively for realistic and sustainable solutions, and ultimately contribute to achieving global targets like those set at COP28.
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Similarly, the role of carbon capture technology in climate strategies underscores the need for nuanced understanding and education. There are 42 operational commercial Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) and Carbon Capture, Utilization, and Storage (CCUS) projects worldwide, as reported by the Global CCS Institute.
These projects can store approximately 0.13% of the world’s estimated 37 billion tonnes of annual energy and industry-related CO2 emissions.
A significant portion of these projects, particularly 30 of them accounting for 78% of all captured carbon, utilise the carbon for Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR). This process, where carbon is injected into oil wells to extract more oil, is considered by some to make petroleum extraction more climate-friendly.
However, environmentalists often argue that this practice is counterproductive, as it may extend the life of fossil fuel infrastructure.
This complexity is mirrored in other ‘silver bullet’ solutions like green hydrogen, electric vehicles (EVs), and Nature-based Solutions (NBS). Each of these approaches brings its own set of advantages and challenges. Therefore, a deep understanding of these diverse climate solutions is essential.
Educating people about the various facets of each strategy, including their environmental impacts, economic aspects, and social implications, is crucial. This education enables informed decision-making and advocacy, ensuring that climate strategies are both effective and sustainable.
With 2024 being touted as the year of climate education and capacity-building, now is a good time to consider the role of climate education in empowering the next generation to confront the challenges ahead and develop an understanding of what is doable and what isn’t. As we stand in the aftermath of COP28, confronting the intricate challenges of climate change, it becomes evident that our journey is laden with ‘unknown unknowns.’ Education is our most powerful tool in this fight.
THE WRITER IS A SUSTAINABILITY AND CLIMATE RISK (SCR) PROFESSIONAL, PASSIONATE ABOUT SUSTAINABLE ENERGY CONSUMPTION AND CLIMATE CHANGE
Published in The Express Tribune, January 8th, 2024.
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