Thinking about climate change and the road to global net-zero emissions can bring on feelings of uneasiness, even hopelessness for some. When so much seems out of the control of individuals, optimism can feel like a luxury that cannot be afforded, given what is at stake. But hope is an essential part of the equation on the path to global net-zero emissions, argues Dr. Thomas Wagner.
Wagner is a leading planetary and climate scientist who has worked with NASA, the U.S. National Science Foundation and other organizations to design and run climate change and satellite programs.
According to Wagner, a whole host of new innovations, economic drivers and shifts in social attitudes are providing reasons for hope.
“I think when you really look at the data and you look beyond the headlines, there’s a very, very clear path to a secure future for us,” he said.
Scotiabank recently brought Wagner in to speak to its employees at a company-wide environmental education event to learn about climate science, discuss the road to global net-zero emissions and hear about the solutions that are within reach, with collective effort. The webcast coincided with April’s Earth Day, ahead of World Environment Day on June 5. Since banks have an important role to play in the transformation of financial systems and structures to address climate change, Scotiabank is providing financing and enabling research to help drive progress while providing employees with the latest net-zero learnings.
Photo: Dr. Thomas Wagner is a leading planetary and climate scientist who has worked with NASA, the U.S. National Science Foundation and other organizations
Renewable energy costs have fallen dramatically
On the innovation side, advancements in renewable energy technology from both the public and private sectors have been moving at light speed in recent years. In fact, there are credible options to halve emissions in every industry, as seen in recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) findings cited by Wagner.
While wind, sun and water are all renewable source of energy, if their power is not used immediately, it is usually lost. Traditionally, oil, gas and coal energy can be stored and converted to fuel or electricity as needed. The ability to store fuel allows us to generate electricity for the grid as required and is particularly important during times of peak energy demand.
Developing our future ability to store electricity generated by renewable power as potential energy to be used when electrical demand is high, will be critical to a net-zero future. The latest research and development in battery storage for renewable power is spurring the development of new technologies for safe and advanced battery storage.
If you couple these advancements with investments in the energy infrastructure to better deliver this energy to consumers in many countries, and the future of renewable energy starts to look very bright, Wagner said.
“We’re seeing factors of one or two orders of magnitude improvement in our ability to create energy, manage energy, and store energy,” he said.
As a result of these innovations, costs for renewable energy have fallen dramatically, creating an economic driver for even more change. This is important momentum that aligns with Scotiabank’s goal to reach 100% non-emitting energy in Canada by 2025, and across its global footprint by 2030.
Promising developments in sustainable technology
A report from the International Renewable Energy Association (IRENA) cited by Wagner showed that from 2010 to 2020, the cost to generate electricity from fossil fuels remained mostly unchanged. Meanwhile, many forms of renewable energy saw their costs to produce electricity fall substantially, with their average costs falling below that of fossil fuel in 2020, Wagner pointed out.
“All of these renewables are now so cheap that in the United States almost all of your coal-fired capacity could be replaced by these and save money,” Wagner said.
I think when you really look at the data and you look beyond the headlines, there’s a very, very clear path to a secure future for us.”
Wagner added that PEW Research findings indicate not only that young people today rank addressing climate change as a policy priority, but that older generations share this sentiment more than most people expect.
The growing consensus on the importance of addressing climate change is a good sign for the prospect of greatly reducing emissions by 2050, said Wagner. The scientific community generally cites net-zero emissions by 2050 as the minimum requirement to keep warming within acceptable limits.
Still, the promising developments in sustainable technology, economic drivers and social attitudes should not lessen the sense of urgency to address climate change.
More and more, governments, the scientific community and the private sector are working together and implementing new sustainable technologies and innovations, Wagner said.
“While in the news, you will hear a lot about the politics, what is actually happening at a regional level is that people are recognizing the potential for renewables,” he said.
Scotiabank is collaborating with a range of private sector, public sector and not-for-profit stakeholders to enable and support climate-related actions. This includes providing $25 million in community investment over 10 years to support non-profit and charitable partnerships that enable climate-related systems change and sector decarbonization. As well, $10 million of this is dedicated to the Scotiabank Net-Zero Research Fund that supports universities and not-for-profits in exploring innovative public policy, science and technology.
In addition to outlining its five central Climate Commitments, The Bank has also become a member of the Net-Zero Banking Alliance and has set a target to become net-zero in its financed and operational emissions by 2050. To this end, Scotiabank is establishing net-zero targets for high-emitting sectors and mobilized $96 billion in climate-related finance towards a $350 billion by 2030 target. This commitment includes sustainable lending, investing, financing and advisory to support the transition to a low-carbon economy as well as investments in the Bank’s direct operations and communities where it operates to reduce the impacts of climate change.
Global collaboration needed
While reducing emissions to limit temperature increase is the priority, some scientists are also looking at a number of methods to capture and store carbon from the atmosphere, Wagner said. If global temperatures still rise beyond acceptable limits, there are emergency options being developed to lower temperatures, such as Stratospheric Aerosol Injection, and eventually, mirrors or lenses in space to redirect some of the sun’s rays way from Earth, he added.
From his time at NASA and other organizations studying climate change, Wagner understands that planetary issues require collaboration at a massive scale. But achieving net-zero emissions will not be the first time that science, industry and government have come together to solve a serious environmental problem facing Earth, Wagner pointed out.
In the 1980s, scientists discovered ozone depleting substances (ODS) found in a wide variety of consumer products were creating a hole in the Earth’s ozone layer. This was allowing the Sun’s harmful ultraviolet radiation to reach the Earth at dangerous levels, so an international treaty known as the Montreal Protocol was universally ratified in 1987 to phase out the production and usage of ODS. Since then, the ozone layer has begun to repair itself.
Wagner capped off his talk on an optimistic note. “I want you to walk away not just hopeful, but also motivated that we can get the job done for the next generation,” he said.