Boosting Albedo Everywhere Is a Climate Solution

Washington (GGM) Analysis | September 4, 2021 by author and climate journalist Noreen Wise

After a summer of unprecedented weather events, with hundreds of deaths and many billions of dollars in damages, the IPCC Report released on August 8, 2021, fell on open ears. We all stopped to process the urgent warnings.

CODE RED for humanity. We must make immediate changes.  These bold and chilling declarations were blasted through the vast major media outlets worldwide, as well as thousands of podcasts, millions of private conversations, and billions of social media posts. Articles such as the one by US New and World Report in July 2021, informing us that climate change already results in an extra 5 million deaths per year, provided real time data of just how forcefully climate change is crashing down on us. 

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And then there were this week’s extreme weather events to drive home the point. This is how traumatic it is at only 1ºC+. But the world is currently on a trajectory of 3ºC. The IPCC recently advised that if we rush and do what’s necessary, we’ll be able to stay below 2ºC. But even 2ºC seems unendurable.

Heart of the matter. “Without the white icecaps less of the sun’s energy is reflected back out to space, and the speed of global warming increases.” —Sir David Attenborough, A Life On Our Planet

The speed of global warming increasing at an increasing rate due to the shrinking icecaps, is motivation to sprint so that we have the time to make the necessary systemic changes to our infrastructure, as well as transition individual daily household and personal behaviors to eco-friendly, sustainable and green behaviors in a circular economy.

At a symposium in London in the spring of 2009, Nobel laureate and President Obama’s Secretary of Energy at the time, Stephen Chu, boldly announced to the crowd that whitening all the roofs and pavements in the world would be the equivalent of removing all cars on the planet for 11 years.  He didn’t mean this literally of course, but rather as a powerful illustration that we’d all be able to identify with.

This cool phenomenon is known as the albedo effect. Albedo is the ability of surfaces to reflect the sun’s energy, just like the polar icecaps. Albedo is measured in increments from 0 to1, with 0 being the darkest colors that absorb the sun’s energy which become quite hot, and 1 being the the coolest colors that reflect the the sun’s energy the best and keep everything cool. 

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Albedo levels:

  • Black – albedo 0
  • Green grass – albedo .25
  • Desert sands – .40
  • Newly poured concrete – .55
  • White – .8
  • Metallic silver – .9
  • Perfect mirror – albedo 1

Stephen Chu emphasized the three main benefits of whitening roofs and pavements:

  • Immediately cools a building’s interior which drives down use of air conditioning.
  • Results in lower energy use, which cuts costs and lowers carbon emissions.
  • White and lighter colors reflect the sun’s energy (which will make up for lost icecaps).

Next Steps:

Stephen Chu’s urgent recommendations were made 12 years ago. Many large convention centers, sports arenas, coliseums followed through exactly as suggested and rebuilt their stadiums applying the ideal albedo colors. We have to do the same on an individual level.

  • Switch roof on our houses to white or a much lighter color, no black.
  • If your normal re-roofing is scheduled for 2 years from now, move it up and re-roof immediately.
  • Is your driveway black asphalt? Quickly transition to concrete or paint it non-reflective white.
  • From now on, go with light colored cars.
  • Form an albedo committee in your town and lobby local government to paint town parking lots white, school roofs, libraries, and all surfaces.

Good Luck! Staying below 2ºC is the most precious gift we can give our children. They’ll never forgive us if we don’t succeed at this.

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