The Paris cli­mate-change spec­tac­u­lar

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

The United Na­tions Cli­mate Change Con­fer­ence in Paris in De­cem­ber will fea­ture all the tightly chore­ographed pro­duc­tion val­ues of a Hol­ly­wood block­buster. The cast will be huge: pres­i­dents and prime min­is­ters at cen­ter stage, sup­ported by thou­sands of ex­tras, in­clud­ing protesters, riot po­lice, and bus­loads of media. The script may still be un­der wraps, but the plot has al­ready leaked: This time, in sharp con­trast to the failed ne­go­ti­a­tions in Copenhagen in 2009, the planet is go­ing to win.

It is a se­duc­tive plot, but one that does not quite hold to­gether. Good­will and hard bar­gain­ing, the world will be told, paid off. Gov­ern­ments have agreed to vol­un­tary re­duc­tions in green­house-gas emis­sions that will pre­vent the planet from heat­ing more than 2 de­grees Cel­sius. Then, in a stun­ning deus ex machina, it will be re­vealed that the world’s largest fos­sil-fuel com­pa­nies – the so-called su­per­ma­jors – have agreed to bring net emis­sions to zero by 2100, by cap­tur­ing car­bon at the source, suck­ing it out of the at­mos­phere, and stor­ing it un­der­ground. The planet will have been saved, and the econ­omy will be free to flour­ish. Cue the mu­sic and roll the cred­its.

The trou­ble is that the script is fic­tion, not doc­u­men­tary. The tech­nol­ogy re­quired has yet to be in­vented, and bring­ing net emis­sions to zero sim­ply is not pos­si­ble. And, like a Hol­ly­wood pro­duc­tion, the Paris con­fer­ence’s mes­sage will have been heav­ily in­flu­enced by those who have the most money.

The math is not dif­fi­cult to fol­low. The world’s energy in­fra­struc­ture – finely tooled for the use of fos­sil fu­els – is worth $55 trln. The pa­per value of the fos­sil-fuel re­serves – most of them owned by the su­per­ma­jors – is some $28 trln. The fos­sil-fuel in­dus­try’s in­flu­ence is ev­i­dent in the fact that gov­ern­ments world­wide are ex­pected to spend some $5.3 trln this year sub­si­dis­ing it, in­clud­ing the mas­sive out­lays nec­es­sary to coun­ter­act its ad­verse health and en­vi­ron­men­tal ef­fects. In other words, the gov­ern­ments meet­ing in Paris spend more sub­si­dis­ing the causes of cli­mate change than they do on global health care or, for that mat­ter, on cli­mate-change mit­i­ga­tion and adap­ta­tion.

But that will not be part of the story in Paris. There, the global public will be pre­sented with a nar­ra­tive premised on two un­proven forms of “geo­engi­neer­ing,” pro­po­nents of which seek to ma­nip­u­late the plan­e­tary sys­tem. The ef­fort that will re­ceive the great­est amount of at­ten­tion is bioen­ergy with car­bon cap­ture and stor­age (BECSS). In May, the United States Depart­ment of Energy con­vened a pri­vate meet­ing to dis­cuss this tech­nol­ogy, which will be the fig leaf used by the su­per­ma­jors to pro­tect their as­sets.

De­ploy­ing BECSS, how­ever, would re­quire the world to main­tain an area 1.5 times the size of In­dia, full of fields or forests ca­pa­ble of ab­sorb­ing vast amounts of car­bon diox­ide, while still pro­vid­ing enough food for a global pop­u­la­tion that is ex­pected to ex­ceed nine bil­lion by 2050. By then, the tech­nol­ogy’s ad­vo­cates prom­ise, bi­o­log­i­cal se­ques­tra­tion will be joined by pro­grammes that cap­ture emis­sions as they are re­leased or pull them out of the air to be pumped into deep subter­ranean shafts – out of sight and out of mind.

Fos­sil-fuel pro­duc­ers pro­mote car­bon cap­ture to al­low them to keep their mines open and pumps flow­ing. Un­for­tu­nately for the planet, many sci­en­tists con­sider it tech­ni­cally im­pos­si­ble and fi­nan­cially back­break­ing – es­pe­cially if such tech­nol­ogy is to be de­ployed in time to avert chaotic cli­mate change.

Pre­vent­ing tem­per­a­tures from ris­ing out of con­trol will re­quire a sec­ond geo­engi­neer­ing fix, known as so­lar ra­di­a­tion man­age­ment. The idea is to mimic the nat­u­ral cool­ing ac­tion of a vol­canic erup­tion, by us­ing tech­niques like the de­ploy­ment of hoses to pump sul­fates 30 kilo­me­tres into the strato­sphere to block sun­light.

The United King­dom’s Royal So­ci­ety be­lieves that the need for such tech­nol­ogy may be un­avoid­able, and it has been work­ing with coun­ter­parts in other coun­tries to ex­plore ways in which its use should be gov­erned. Ear­lier this year, the US Na­tional Academies of Science gave the tech­nique a tepid endorsement, and the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment an­nounced a ma­jor in­vest­ment in weather mod­i­fi­ca­tion, which could in­clude so­lar ra­di­a­tion man­age­ment. Rus­sia is al­ready at work de­vel­op­ing the tech­nol­ogy.

Un­like car­bon cap­ture, ob­struct­ing sun­light ac­tu­ally has the po­ten­tial to lower global tem­per­a­tures. In the­ory, the tech­nol­ogy is sim­ple, cheap, and ca­pa­ble of be­ing de­ployed by a sin­gle coun­try or a small group of col­lab­o­ra­tors; no UN con­sen­sus is re­quired.

But so­lar ra­di­a­tion man­age­ment does not re­move green­house gases from the at­mos­phere. It only masks their ef­fects. If the hoses shut down, the planet’s tem­per­a­ture will soar. The tech­nol­ogy could buy time, but it sur­ren­ders con­trol of the plan­e­tary ther­mo­stat to those who hold the hoses. Even the tech­nol­ogy’s ad­vo­cates con­cede that their com­puter mod­els pre­dict that it will have a strong neg­a­tive i mpact on trop­i­cal and sub­trop­i­cal re­gions. Cli­mate change is bad, but geo­engi­neer­ing has the po­ten­tial to make it worse.

The story that the Paris con­fer­ence’s pro­duc­ers will ask view­ers to be­lieve re­lies on tech­nolo­gies that are no more ef­fec­tive than smoke and mir­rors. It is im­por­tant that we learn to see past them. The cur­tain will rise on a set of false prom­ises, and it will close with poli­cies that can lead only to may­hem – un­less the au­di­ence gets into the act.

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