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Experts: No quick technological fixes for climate change

Scientists agreed at Paris climate change talks that political and economic reforms will be more critical than technical innovations in reversing the effects of global climate change.

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    French President Francois Hollande delivers a speech during the World Summit Climate and Territories, an event part of the 2015 global climate agenda, in Lyon, France on July 1. Experts at the summit said combating climate change will be more involved than simply implementing technological innovations.
    Ian Langsdon/Reuters
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Climate-change experts warned that technical innovations alone will not reverse the damage that has been done to the planet; governments around the world will have to re-imagine political and economic models completely, Reuters reported.

While measures like planting drought-resilient crops and building higher sea walls are important to take, the climate change problem "is more than a technical challenge," University of Oslo sociologist Karen O’Brien said at Paris climate change talks Wednesday.

The political and economic aspects of oil drilling, for example, clash with environmental needs – Ms. O’Brien said drilling rights in the Arctic are so desirable that the global competition could start a new cold war. At the same time, further depleting the planet’s oil reserves could have climate effects leading to turmoil in the form of food insecurity.

O’Brien said it was up to people to put pressure on their governments to address these conflicts. "Small changes can make big differences, and individuals, especially when working together, can generate big social change," she said.

Still, reforming worldwide systems of politics and economics, however necessary, may sound vague and daunting. Shobhakar Dhakal of Thailand’s Asian Institute of Technology, offered an approach that still focuses on a global scale, but may be more attainable.

Mr. Dhakal put the onus of reversing the effects of climate change on large cities. By being conscious of city organization to make transportation more efficient, he told Reuters, cities can cut their carbon emissions significantly.

"Our ability to make deep cuts to global greenhouse gas emissions depends to a large extent on what kinds of cities and towns we build," Dhakal said.

The 2015 New Climate Economy report, released Wednesday, said cities are responsible for between 71 and 76 percent of the world’s carbon emissions. One of the main culprits are cars, and research suggests reducing automobile use in cities may be more effective than building “green” homes and offices.

A study from 2007 using information from the Department of Transportation and the Transportation Energy Data Book found that for the average building, the energy used to travel to the building exceeded the energy used in the building itself by 30 percent.

Roadways themselves can also be problematic, the study found. Since pavement is nonporous, water runoff from storms pollute nearby bodies of water. Pavement also absorbs heat, exacerbating already-rising temperatures.

Public transportation has always been hailed as a way to save energy, but Dhakal and others have said it should become a priority in city planning – building workplaces and services near public transit lines and within walking distances from homes could cut carbon emissions significantly.

An EPA-backed study in 2011 found households near public transit use less energy than energy-efficient suburban households.

“The most effective way to reduce energy consumption is to locate homes of all types in areas where households could replace some automobile use with transit use, leading to reductions of 39 to 50 percent in household energy use,” the report said.

However, the Paris conference emphasized that no single approach to combatting climate change will be enough on its own. Though modified urban planning is an important step, experts said, keeping the planet from warming a devastating 4 degrees Celsius by 2100, as is currently projected, will be more demanding.

Johan Rockstrom of the Stockholm Resilience Center said the world will have to rethink its high-emission way of conducting politics and economics.

"We need a new relationship between people and the planet," he said.

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