I wrote this column in Iceland, where I recently traveled on a working vacation. While in Iceland I met with an innovative energy producer whose technology could help mitigate carbon dioxide emissions.
Iceland is unique among countries in that it obtains nearly all its electricity from renewable energy. Iceland’s glacial rivers contribute about 70% of its electricity via hydropower, and the country’s ~200 volcanoes enable geothermal to make up most of the rest.
The Tragedy of the Commons
But, as I learned on my visit, Iceland wasn’t always a model of sustainability. When the first settlers arrived, they promptly began to deforest the country. They hunted the great auk to extinction. So now Iceland has virtually no trees, and of course no more great auks.
Of course, this situation is all-too-common. Throughout history, individuals acting in their own self-interest have collectively depleted resources and spoiled environments. This concept is known as the tragedy of the commons, and it plays out repeatedly.
Today, humans are depleting fossil fuel resources, and in turn pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Each of us only contributes a little, but together we are contributing a lot.
That was very much on my mind in Iceland, because while I was there the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report was released. It’s a sober assessment of where things are headed.
In a nutshell, the report says that “Limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.” The probability of that happening — again, because of the tragedy of the commons — is close to zero.
One thing that would help is if we had more technologies that can actually either stop carbon dioxide from being emitted into the atmosphere, or technologies that can remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.