People are recognizing the need to change their habit of unsustainable consumption of energy and natural resources because it has contributed to rapid climate change that is endangering the environment and, ultimately, human existence in this planet. With this recognition comes action, and they are starting to employ green technology to reverse the effects of climate change.
The main cause of the warming of the climate, also known as global climate change, is the release of greenhouse gases (GHGs) into the atmosphere brought about by human activity during the past 100 years (Shariff, 2009). The effect of too many GHGs in the atmosphere is similar to what transpires in a greenhouse. The sun’s heat is trapped by GHGs which act as a blanket. As a result, the earths’ average temperature rises, which in turn results to increased incidence of extreme weather events.
The effects of global climate change can be brutal, ranging from the shrinking of the Arctic and Antarctic sea ice to more frequent heat waves, intense tropical typhoons and hurricanes, drought, plant and animal extinction, and increased flooding due to rising sea levels (Shariff, 2009).
Global and individual response to global warming
In response to the threat of climate change, several international agreements were established. The most famous of these was the Kyoto Protocol which signified the commitment of industrialized countries to reduce their GHG emissions below 1990 levels from 2008 to 2012. Individuals also have also been responsible for emitting tons of GHGs to the atmosphere by consuming energy through transportation, space heating and cooling, cooking, water heating, and using electric lights and appliances (Shariff, 2009).
Thus, individuals have to contribute to efforts in mitigating global climate change. Technology is frequently seen as the easiest way to make changes in the amount of GHGs being released through human activity (Shariff, 2009). In a study, Morelli (1999b) showed that if consumers were to use the most efficient household appliances, there would be a reduction of energy and water consumption and associated greenhouse emissions of 50 to 70 percent (as cited in Lewis & Gertsakis, 2001). This is where green technology enters the picture.
Green technology refers to the development and application of products, equipment, and systems that conserve the environment and reduce the impact of human activities (Green Purchasing Network Malaysia [GPNM], 2010).
To be considered green, a product, equipment or system should meet the following criteria: 1) it reduces the damage to the environment; 2) it has zero or minimal greenhouse gas emission; 3) it is safe to use and encourages health and a better environment for all forms of life; 4) it conserves energy and natural resources; and 5) it advances the use of renewable resources.
Goals of green technology
Green technology has various goals (Green Technology, 2010). One of these is to achieve sustainability which means meeting the present needs of society without impairing the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Green technology also aspires to institutionalize “cradle to cradle” design of manufactured products to ensure that products can be fully recycled or reused.
Further, green technology promotes source reduction, which means decreasing waste and pollution by altering modes of production and consumption. It also encourages innovation or developing alternatives to current technologies and products that harm people’s health and the environment. Likewise, green technology supports viability or rallying economic activity around technologies and products that protect the environment, and facilitating the adoption of these technologies and products into mainstream use.
There are five examples of green technology subject areas (Green Technology, 2010). The first is energy, currently considered as the most urgent green technology issue. The application of green technology to energy includes developing alternative fuels, finding new methods of generating energy, and enabling energy efficiency.
For example, Lewis and Gertsakis (2001) argued that electric energy is a viable replacement for oil in the automobile industry, and can significantly lower air pollution. Further, utilizing super-light polymeric materials would increase the efficiency of electric or hybrid engines and electronic controls and would lessen the dispersion of energy in the transmission parts.
New methods of generating energy make use of renewable energy sources, which are sources of energy that is not carbon-based and does not diminish (Clark, 2010). These include wind generation, solar generation systems, biomass, geothermal energy, ocean and tidal waves, and bacterial or microbial fuel cell energy generation.
Renewable energy sources
According to Clark (2010), wind generation involves placing a large propeller in the path of the wind which turns it. The propeller is coupled with a gear that interacts with a turbine that generates electricity.
Solar generation systems capture sunlight through silicon solar cells; the process of passing sunlight through silicon creates a chemical reaction that generates electricity.
Biomass is a chemical process that converts plant sugars (e.g. from corn) into gases (i.e. ethanol or methane) which are then burned to generate electricity.
Geothermal energy is power taken out from heat stored in the earth, which comes from the formation of the planet, radioactive decay of minerals, and solar energy absorbed at the surface.
Generating energy from ocean and tidal waves entails the use of wave power conversion devices which bob up and down with ocean swells, tidal power devices which use tidal variations to produce power, ocean current devices such as turbines placed below the water surface, and ocean thermal energy conversion devices.
Bacterial fuel cell energy generation makes use of nonhazardous bacteria to generate electricity.
The second subject area of green technology is green building, which comprises all aspects of building construction from the choice of building materials to the building location (Green Technology, 2010). According to the US Environmental Protection Agency or EPA (2010), the components of a green building are: energy efficiency and renewable energy which promotes the use of renewable energy sources, energy- efficient appliances, and building component; water efficiency, which supports the use of water-efficient products and services; environmentally preferable building materials and specifications, which make use of recycled industrial materials, such as coal combustion products, foundry sand, and construction and demolition debris, for building construction.
Other components of a green building are waste reduction, which aims to reduce, reuse, and recycle waste from building construction, renovation and demolition, as well as minimize energy consumption and associated GHG emissions; toxics reduction, which involves the use of safer chemicals and safer chemical processes to minimize health and environmental risks; indoor air quality, which strives to maintain good indoor air quality to protect the health of residents, support comfort and productivity, and improve the durability of structures; and smart growth and sustainable development, which enables individuals, communities and institutions to develop and implement sustainable practices.
Environmentally preferable purchasing
The third subject area of green technology is environmentally preferable purchasing, which is the purchase or procurement by government of products which contents and methods of production have the least impact on the environment (Green Technology, 2010). EPA (2010) lists five guiding principles for applying environmentally preferred purchasing.
The first guiding principle is Environment + Price + Performance = Environmentally Preferable Purchasing. EPA states that “environmental considerations should become part of normal purchasing practice, consistent with such traditional factors as product safety, price, performance, and availability” (Guiding Principles section, para. 3).
The second guiding principle is Pollution Prevention which strives to minimize, from the start of the acquisition process, potential risks to human health and the environment.
The third guiding principle is Life Cycle Perspective/Multiple Attributes which instructs federal agencies to gauge the environmental preferability of a product or service by comparing the magnitude of environmental damage it may cause throughout its life cycle with that of competing products.
The fourth guiding principle is Comparison of Environmental Impacts that advises the purchase of products that optimize energy efficiency and minimize water pollution.
The fifth guiding principle is Environment Performance Information which emphasizes the necessity of comprehensive, accurate, and meaningful information about the environmental performance of products or services to determine environmental preferability.
Green technology’s fourth subject area is green chemistry which is the invention, design and application of chemical products and processes that minimize or eradicate the use and production of hazardous substances (Green Technology, 2010; University of Oregon, 2010).
According to Anastas and Warner (as cited in University of Oregon, 2010), green chemistry operates on the basis of ten principles, namely: preventing waste by redesigning chemical transformations to reduce the production of hazardous waste; maximizing atom economy by choosing transformations that incorporate most of the starting materials; designing less hazardous chemical synthesis by selecting reagents that pose the most minimal risk and produce only benign by-products; designing safer chemicals and products by minimizing their toxicity; using safer solvents/reaction conditions by substituting less hazardous replacements; increasing energy efficiency by designing synthetic and purification methods for ambient temperature and pressure to minimize energy costs associated with extremes in temperature and pressure; using renewable feedstocks such as agricultural products or the wastes of other processes; avoiding chemical derivatives that require additional reagents which can generate waste; using catalysts which enhance the selectivity of a reaction; designing chemical products for degradation so that they do not persist when released into the environment; analyzing in real-time to prevent pollution; and minimizing the potential for accidents by using reagent and solvents that presents the most minimal risk for explosions, fires, and accidental release.
The fifth subject area of green technology is green nanotechnology. The field of nanotechnology is concerned with the manipulation of materials at the scale of the nanometer, or one billionth of a meter. Green nanotechnology is the application of green chemistry and green engineering principles to this field (Green Technology, 2010).
According to EPA (2010), the laws of quantum mechanics frequently cause remarkable changes in the mechanical, optical, chemical, and electronic properties of materials on the nanoscale. These properties lead to practical and improved applications of nanotechnology in environmental protection such as sensors for better monitoring and detection capabilities, treatment and remediation techniques for cost- effective and specific site cleanup, green manufacturing to eradicate the production of waste products, and green energy technology for the invention of commercially-viable clean energy sources.
Now is the time to be green
The goals of green technology can be reached through the utilization of renewable energy sources, construction of green buildings, the practice of environmentally preferred purchasing, and application of green chemistry and green nanotechnology. Indeed, the threat of global climate change can be eliminated if people and governments adopt green technology to conserve energy and protect the environment. Though it might not be easy, now is the time to be green.