The Commonwealth Secretary General’s clarion call “to challenge climate doubters before it is too late” was very timely and noteworthy.
Our mind goes back to September 2013 when Fortune magazine of 2 September 2013 carried 18 photographs of water related disasters across the world. Some were of flooded drawing rooms and one was from England. Commonwealth countries UK, India, Pakistan and Nigeria were all there.
Then we wrote to Daily FT of 30 October 2013 on how solar panels above the highway could be the surest way to prevent flooding in your drawing room (http://www.ft.lk/columns/solar-panels-above-the-highway-are-surest-way-to-prevent-flooding-in-your-drawing-room/4-207148).
By the first half of 2010 we were convinced what humanity would face as a result of unchecked climate change and had already worked out our ground-breaking and patented solution for the problem – highway solarisation.
After the Deepwater Horizon disaster in April 2010, we wrote to Dr. Steven Chu, Secretary of Energy of USA, suggesting they implement this in USA with $ 20 billion received from British Petroleum. No other US President got such an excellent opportunity to lay the foundation for mankind to move away from fossil fuels.
They had a reason to do so, a solution even to experiment with – highway solarisation – and the funds. What I suggested was for them to get BP itself to implement it and then BP would have started standing for ‘Beyond Petroleum’ from that day. There is no point in blaming President Donald Trump today.
On 30 September 2013 we sent our President a letter suggesting we offer highway solarisation as our everlasting gift to CHOGM participants – we hosted CHOGM in October 2013 – and in our letter we also mentioned it could lead to economic and environmental emancipation of the Commonwealth Countries just as much as Colombo Plan of an earlier era led to the economic emancipation of the Commonwealth membership of that era; Commonwealth Secretary General could get this solution vetted by her specialists and see what it could do to humanity.
Understanding climate change
You cannot challenge doubters without first understanding climate change yourself. If there is anything else which could work, it would only be the femininity of the caller – be it Patricia Scotland, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Greta Thunberg, etc.
There is something missing even here. SG talks about 286 Gt of ice melting, glacial retreat, decreased snow cover, seven-inch rise in sea level, 1.620F rise in temperature, etc.; but how does all this explain water inside the house. This is what needs to be understood, explained and made use of in identifying solutions. What took all this water up and brought down all those hurricanes – like Ophelia – higher temperature increases up to like 45.90C and finally water into your drawing room.
Climate scientists would say that when fossil fuel combustion takes place, CO2 concentration in atmosphere goes up and there will be a corresponding increase in temperature. When this temperature increases, atmosphere needs more water vapour to maintain constant relative humidity, 7% per every 10C rise in temperature. So, for the 1.620F or 0.90C temperature increase SG talks about, another 945Gt of water vapour is needed in atmosphere.
The above mentioned temperature increase is actually due to three sources of greenhouse gases in atmosphere. These three are (i) CO2 from combustion of fossil fuels (most spoken about), (ii) Newly Formed Water (NFW) vapour from combustion of hydrogen containing fossil fuels like gasoline, diesel or natural gas and (iii) water vapour evaporated from earth’s surface to maintain constant relative humidity at higher temperature due to (i) and (ii) above. So, one could see that whenever atmospheric temperature increases due to combustion of fuels like coal, gasoline or natural gas, there would always be additional water vapour in atmosphere.
These new gases get distributed in global atmosphere due to large-scale air circulations. When earth does its annual circle around the Sun, these concentrations of CO2 and water vapour would go through their maxima and minima at different points in time dependent on the location. It is clearly shown in literature that temperature, CO2 content and water vapour in the atmosphere have their maxima and minima at same points of time in any given year.
One litre of gasoline burnt in a vehicle generates one litre of newly formed water. This will not precipitate then and there. If it does there would be a water line on the road behind vehicle. It accumulates over time and space, comes down at a particular point of time and location, and it would definitely be more than what it would have been earlier. So, burning gasoline enhances water in atmosphere and those disasters arising from water cycle. Of course, I was happy to note that the last throne speech in UK mentioned that they are going to install battery charging facilities at petrol stations and there is the new initiative to fix a battery charging plug in every household in UK.
So, what we see to-day in all those parameters pointed out by SG are consequences of not implementing Highway Solarisation. We should not waste any more time jeopardising lives of millions of people across the globe especially in Commonwealth Countries between the two tropics, and implement Highway Solarisation wherever in the Commonwealth we can do so.
What SG really wants
SG wants us to (a) join their efforts to combat climate change, (b) support them accessing finance for climate change related projects, (c) promote innovative development solutions, (d) demand related legislation and (e) launch robust public education program which (i) demystifies climate change and (ii) places passion for climate action in hearts of everybody.
We believe we have been carrying out these activities without any patronage. In our opinion most appropriate starting point is demystification of climate change and we have spent about 10 years doing that. Amount of mysticism attached to climate change is enormous and it is this mysticism which makes us incapable of solving climate change.
This mysticism stems from distances – both in terms of time and on earth’s surface – between root cause behind climate change and actual impact felt by the citizenry.
What SG owes to the Commonwealth community
Both relevance of climate change to Commonwealth countries as well as what Commonwealth countries could contribute to climate change resolution are significant. This relationship stems from their population numbers, enormous resources possessed as well as their locations.
After United Nations, it is Commonwealth which brings in highest number of countries under one banner and it may also be highest number of global citizens. Commonwealth has about 53 member countries while OECD has only 36 countries and ASEAN, etc. has much smaller numbers. It also has a very diverse set of countries, some with huge populations, some very economically advanced like Canada, Australia while there are others at other extreme.
But from a climate change point of view, most significant attribute of Commonwealth countries and people living in those countries is the fact that bulk of people living in Commonwealth live within the tropics – thus receiving far more solar radiation than received by inhabitants in other countries of the world. Eight of 20 most vulnerable countries selected by Munich Re in 2016 and 2018 have been Commonwealth countries.
So, having become SG of Commonwealth during this tumultuous period, Patricia Scotland should steer inhabitants of Commonwealth Countries ahead without falling prey to travails of climate change. She is fortunate in that there are countries like UK, Canada, Australia, etc. in this mix who could be generous enough to provide finances when she is short in that for implementing suitable programs.
What we could contribute
We, in Sri Lanka can make significant contributions in three areas which she is so concerned of and I am sure that other Commonwealth countries could contribute well in other areas. And this is the strength of the Commonwealth – some of us may not be individually that strong, but collectively we are and can be very strong. If I were to specifically mention areas out of the five she has identified, we may not be able to assist her to access finance for related projects and demand related legislature; but we could assist in other three areas.
First let us join in their efforts in combatting climate change. We desperately need to do this as we are the worst affected Commonwealth country both from the point of view of Munich Re and World Bank. And from eyes of Munich Re our situation is only deteriorating. So we need to support Commonwealth’s efforts as well as they need to support us on our efforts
When SG talks about public education programs to demystify climate change, what comes to our mind is the dozens of articles we have written to local papers – mostly Daily FT – to explain climate change, presentations we have made on climate change which are available on YouTube and television interviews.
We always start from fundamentals based on aspects which could be understood even by London GCE Advanced Level Science students. We can even put all these into a couple of publications which could be made available in climate change affected countries. We could even present them as question and answer programs.
Promoting development of innovative solutions
The moment we identified the three major root causes of climate change, next step was identification of suitable solutions. Solutions, of course, need to address the root causes.
Three root causes we have identified are (i) reducing amount of solar radiation reflected or converted to chemical energy, (ii) changing energy forms from one to another while generating waste energy and (iii) not allowing this waste energy and solar radiation neither reflected nor converted to chemical energy to escape from our system by increasing amounts of greenhouse gases in atmosphere. We have done these by bringing about changes in either the surface of earth or atmosphere.
We notice that highway construction after deforestation and fossil fuel driven vehicles running on these highways contribute to all three of these in an unimaginable fashion and hence their contribution to global warming. Water vapour generated by fossil fuel (gasoline and diesel) will be more than a litre of water per litre of oil burnt and this complicates the plain simple global warming due to CO2 by bringing in precipitation associated with flooding (into the drawing rooms included) landslides, etc. as well as windy changes like cyclones, hurricanes, etc.
We believe this would be a decent explanation of climate change.
Our solution amounts to replacing fossil fuel driven transportation by vehicle electrification – nothing new and known technology. Now we have reduced greenhouse gases in atmosphere which reflect those energy streams from earth’s surface.Our next part – rather ground-breaking and innovative part of solution – aims at reducing solar radiation falling on black road surfaces and can there be a better option to achieve this than by installing photovoltaic solar panels above and along many highways in Commonwealth countries. Commonwealth has at least 25 countries between two tropics and hence receiving higher levels of solar radiation. (See figure 1)
These countries do have more than two billion people living there. This has two significant impacts on what we are discussing; namely impact of climate change on this two billion strong population in Commonwealth countries and significant benefits this highway solarisation could bring to these two billion inhabitants. What such a large initiative in highway solarisation in 25 countries between two tropics could do will be an example to many others in region as well.
Once we agree on benefits such a program would have on humanity and specifically on citizens of Commonwealth, we might have to look at implementation and specifically costs involved.
A rough, conservative estimate is that in Commonwealth countries lying between tropics we should be able to install about 500GW of Highway Solarisation. This would incur a cost of about $750 billion and anybody who would invest could have a decent set of returns.
As we had hinted earlier UK, Australia and Canada could come in as pioneering investors. It was in international news media that British Petroleum has just sold all its petroleum related investments in Alaska for $ 5 billion. So could there be a better startup investor for this extensive Highway Solarisation program in about 23 countries in the Commonwealth between the topics than BP with this idle cash. And they could retain their motto of “powering global mobility” intact. If this energy is totally used for battery electric vehicles, that would imply elimination of 1Giga ton of CO2 per annum.
If vehicle electrification also catches up in tandem, revenue will be much better as electrical energy from highway solarisation could be sold at much higher prices to motorists than to power purchasers. Ceylon Electricity Board may be willing to pay about Rs. 22 per kWhr of electricity and petrol driven vehicle owners are paying about Rs. 95/kWhr of energy actually used in their vehicles and a BEV owner may be paying anything from Rs. 40 to Rs. 75 per kWhr.
One could see how profitable highway solarisation could be not only as a source of renewable energy for electricity, but far more profitable to an energy marketeer to automobile industry. Thus energy marketeers for automobile industry – say Sri Lanka Petroleum Corporation or BP or even LIOC could indulge in highway solarisation and sell electricity say at Rs. 30 per kWhr to CEB and buy it at another location for their BEV charging station at Rs. 40 per kWhr and BEV charging station can charge Rs. 50 per kWhr from motorist.
In Sri Lanka this will make both CEB and CPC profitable at the same time and any investor planning to put up an oil refinery could invest that money in highway solarisation and obtain much better returns, a lot earlier without contributing to climate change.
If BP gets involved in this, they could become the key energy provider in most of the Commonwealth and they could be proud of their ‘Beyond Petroleum’ thought processes they were proud of sometime back.
Saving the Commonwealth from Climate Change Resolution
There is a far more dangerous aspect that SG should be concerned about, especially for sake of inhabitants of those Commonwealth countries between tropics. Sometimes the struggle she will have to lodge to save Commonwealth citizenry – especially those living between the tropics – from Climate Change Resolution, may be more challenging than that of saving them from climate change itself.
Currently many agencies involved in climate change resolution are promoting concept of Solar Radiation Management (SRM). What that implies is that they want to reduce solar radiation falling on Planet Earth in order to compensate for any temperature increase from unabated emission of greenhouse gases due to combustion of fossil fuels has been done to-day and projected to match any necessary increases in the future as well.
They are talking about reducing solar energy reaching earth’s surface by about 1% or increasing solar radiation been reflected by whatever in atmosphere by 1%. Of course, if they are looking at an average of 1% over the entirety of the earth’s atmosphere, it would be a tough task and they are looking at a few strategies as follows:
a. Install solar radiation reflectors in stratosphere to achieve this
b. Spray sulphur dust into atmosphere and create artificial volcanoes to replicate Pinatubo Volcano.
c. Spraying saltwater from ships to clouds above the sea which would make clouds brighter and water droplets larger reflecting more solar energy.
d. Churning up bubbles on ocean surface thus enhancing reflectivity of the surface.
Any one of these strategies would disturb solar radiation falling on Planet Earth. In order to achieve implementation efficiencies and thereby reduce overall cost, planners may decide to implement these in an area of planet Earth which receives the highest amounts of solar energy and that is the area closest to equator. This solar radiation received in this region does initiate oceanic flow towards the poles and help maintaining thermal balance and any disturbance to this may result in unforeseen calamities.
And such an impact would be mostly felt by countries in the region including 23 Commonwealth countries and two billion occupants therein.
A few years back IPCC has reportedly planned to spend one to 10 billion dollars on related experimentation and there had been a report against this as well. We are not the only people who discourage this; but even Prof. Myles Allen of Oxford speaks discouragingly about this.
Commonwealth solution vs. IPCC solution
We could compare this highway solarisation, a solution coming from a Commonwealth country with SRM, an IPCC solution.
SRM is a solution to be implemented while allowing CO2 emissions to go on unabated and its proponents forget the fact that bulk of climate change disasters are precipitation and cyclone related than temperature related. The damage brought about by Dorian from Bahamas up to Atlantic Canada is only one recent reminder of how a water and wind related disaster batter countries for their uncontrolled use of fossil fuels. So it implies that even with successful SRM initiatives there is no guarantee that water related disasters related to fossil fuel usage and leading to climate change would be eliminated.
Sometime back the Royal Society of UK published their evaluation of currently proposed Geo-engineering solutions for climate change which covered both removal of CO2 from the atmosphere – as well as SRM techniques using four characteristics (i) Effectiveness, (ii) Timeliness, (iii) Safety and (v) Cost and we evaluated highway solarisation using these four criteria and found it to be far superior to all the suggested geo-engineering solutions and this analysis was published in Daily FT (www.ft.lk/columns/Implementing-climate-change-mitigation-from-next-year/4-668221).
When you consider the fact that this could be implemented very fast, SG does not need to worry anything about solving climate change. You just implement highway solarisation and get two billion plus Commonwealth citizens away from the battering they would get from climate change related disasters.
It will be a crime not to implement this solution when it could be shown to be lower cost, more efficient, faster, and less harmful than any SRM solution for climate change.
As such we believe that SG, while encouraging people to indulge in worldly measures to arrest climate change thereby saving more than two billion people living in Commonwealth countries within the tropics, will also take action to discourage affluent countries and their inhabitants to experiment in a manner which will jeopardise not only the livelihoods of this two billion people but also the thermal balance between the tropics and the polar regions.
In this context she – Patricia Scotland – is far more powerful and could be far more effective than Ms. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez or Greta Thunberg. If and when she delivers on these expectations of the citizens of the Commonwealth, she could become a role model even for the Secretary General of the United Nations.
We wish her all good luck in her endeavours to fight climate change.
(The writer is Managing Director of Somaratna Consultants Ltd.)