Nine Conditions for Solving Environmental Problems
by Daniel Tamberg
My hypothesis: Any proposed solution for climate change or environmental problems must meet at least nine conditions. As soon as only one condition is not met, the proposal is at best a distraction and at worst counterproductive.
SCIARA addresses the often overlooked, but essential condition 9 in particular – the social viability – and condition 5-8 depending on the scenario.
1. Recognises the Real Problem
This point seems obvious. Unfortunately, the reality is often different. When people perceive a problem as overwhelming, they often first try to solve another problem that seems smaller or easier. In doing so, they hope to convince themselves that they are already tackling the real problem.
A complex problem like climate change cannot be tackled with a single solution idea. Here it is sufficient to look at the most serious causes of climate change:
- The burning of fossil fuels for heat, mobility and power generation,
- the change in land use (e.g. from forest to arable land or settlement areas),
- agriculture, especially mass animal farming with its enormous methane emissions.
Therefore, it is imperative that many different approaches work together.
2. Accepts the Laws of Nature
Natural laws cannot be changed – not even by extremely intensive research. Laws of nature form absolute limits that every solution approach must take into account.
Numerous proposed solutions violate, for example, the physical laws of thermodynamics or – where they concern biological-ecological relationships – Liebig’s Law of the Minimum and are thus fundamentally unsuitable.
3. Assesses Technical Implementation Realistically
In reality, technical solutions usually reach at most 50% of their theoretical maximum. Near this value, there is also the effect of diminishing marginal utility: for the next 1% improvement, more effort has to be expended than for the previous 1% improvement.
4. Stays Within Natural Resources
Resources are raw materials, solar radiation, the earth’s surface and the atmosphere with all their properties such as surface area, volume, absorption and regeneration capacity. In addition, there are the available human labour, knowledge and skills.
A proposed solution that requires more resources than there are, or requires them faster than they can be provided, or whose waste materials overtax the absorption capacity of the atmosphere, water bodies or soil, must fail.
5. Considers System Boundaries Sufficiently Broadly
A proposed technological solution that presupposes infrastructures that do not exist must fail or will at least be slowed down until the appropriate conditions are created – maybe causing the solution to miss point 6 below.
An example: the conversion of the fuel system to electricity or hydrogen. Both need a distribution and charging/refueling infrastructure. These infrastructures can be created technically with corresponding investments (see point 7). However, they must be included in the proposed solution “electric or hydrogen mobility” – as well as the infrastructure for generating electricity and hydrogen and the question of their resource limits (see point 4).
6. Is Implementable in Time
If a proposed solution cannot be implemented before the catastrophic consequences of a problem occur, it is not worth much. In the context of climate change, crossing so-called tipping points is critical. They can trigger self-reinforcing warming and lead to the cascading triggering of further tipping points.
Example: The polar ice caps melt and therefore reflect less sunlight back into space. The open, dark water absorbs more heat and melts the ice even faster – a vicious circle.
If even one of the at least seven known tipping points is triggered, global warming can only be slowed down, but probably no longer be stopped.
7. Is Financially Viable
Many climate protection measures cost money. For example, the restructuring of our energy system requires huge sums of capital. In the medium term, this will more than pay off. After all, the expected damage from unchecked climate change is projected to be many times higher. Nevertheless, someone has to be found who is willing to fund this. And that is despite the fact that these are long-term, complex and difficult projects.
Economically, of course, it makes sense to tackle those solutions first that achieve the most impact for the money invested.
8 Avoids Rebound Effects
Many supposedly obvious climate mitigation measures show unexpected effects. These range from a smaller effect than expected to the exact opposite of the intended effect.
Example efficiency: Increasing efficiency has historically often led to an increase in total resource consumption, although resource consumption per product or service has decreased. How can this be?
Take the example of cruise ships. These have come under fire for their huge consumption of heavy fuel oil and associated emissions. Some shipping companies have now had ships built that are powered by natural gas turbines, which produces less dirt.
Now people might (and probably will) think, “Now that cruises are environmentally friendly, I might as well take one.” If enough people argue this way, we will end up with more cruises with more passengers, which will produce fewer emissions per person, but more in total.
If more efficiency in resource use leads to increased total consumption, this is an example of the so-called rebound effect, also called Jevons Paradox.
9. Is Socially Viable
The most ingenious idea is no good if it fulfils conditions 1 to 8, but is not socially feasible. If a government introduces laws and regulations that are not accepted by the population (or a larger part of it), it must fear that they will provoke resistance. This can range from electoral defeats to riots to outright revolutions. French President Emmanuel Macron had precisely this experience in 2018: after the increase in petrol prices, justified by climate protection, there were months of protests, some of them violent, by the so-called Yellow Vests. Macron had to withdraw the measure.
There is a lot of social resistance to environmental protection measures:
- 30 km/h? “It’s too slow in cities.”
- Wind turbines? “Yes, but not near my own house.”
- Overland high-voltage power lines? “Not in my backyard!”
- Economical car? “No, I feel safer in a SUV.”
- CO2 price? “Then electricity will be more expensive, won’t it?”
- Public transport? “Much too inconvenient.”
- Eat less meat? “That’s anti-pleasure!”
These individual resistances are not set in stone. They can be reduced or overcome through targeted outreach and education, economic incentives or compensation, changes in social norms or appropriate communication. And sometimes the wiser must prevail.
SCIARA wants to find out which measures with which implementation strategy are likely to “work” socially as climate change progresses, and which are not, with participatory socio-ecological experiments.