Rad­i­cal re­al­ism about cli­mate change

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

Main­stream pol­i­tics, by def­i­ni­tion, is ill equipped to imag­ine fun­da­men­tal change. But last De­cem­ber in Paris, 196 gov­ern­ments agreed on the need to limit global warm­ing to 1.5C above pre-in­dus­trial lev­els – an ob­jec­tive that holds the prom­ise of de­liv­er­ing pre­cisely such a trans­for­ma­tion. Achiev­ing it will re­quire over­com­ing se­ri­ous po­lit­i­cal chal­lenges, re­flected in the fact that some are ad­vo­cat­ing so­lu­tions that will end up do­ing more harm than good.

One strat­egy that has gained a lot of mo­men­tum fo­cuses on the need to de­velop large-scale tech­no­log­i­cal in­ter­ven­tions to con­trol the global ther­mo­stat. Pro­po­nents of geo-en­gi­neer­ing tech­nolo­gies ar­gue that con­ven­tional adap­ta­tion and mit­i­ga­tion mea­sures are sim­ply not re­duc­ing emis­sions fast enough to pre­vent dan­ger­ous warm­ing. Tech­nolo­gies such as “car­bon cap­ture and stor­age” (CCS), they ar­gue, are nec­es­sary to limit dam­age and hu­man suf­fer­ing.

The In­ter­gov­ern­men­tal Panel on Cli­mate Change seems to agree. In its fifth as­sess­ment re­port, it builds its sce­nar­ios for meet­ing the Paris cli­mate goals around the con­cept of “neg­a­tive emis­sions” – that is, the abil­ity to suck ex­cess car­bon diox­ide out of the at­mos­phere.

But this ap­proach ig­nores se­ri­ous prob­lems with the devel­op­ment and de­ploy­ment of geo-en­gi­neer­ing tech­nolo­gies. Con­sider CCS, which is the process of cap­tur­ing waste CO2 from large sources like fos­sil-fuel power plants and de­posit­ing it in, say, an un­der­ground ge­o­log­i­cal for­ma­tion, thereby pre­vent­ing it from en­ter­ing the at­mos­phere.

It sounds good. But what makes it eco­nom­i­cal is that it en­ables en­hanced oil re­cov­ery. In other words, the only way to make CCS cost-ef­fec­tive is to use it to ex­ac­er­bate the prob­lem it is sup­posed to ad­dress.

The sup­posed saviour tech­nol­ogy – bioen­ergy with car­bon cap­ture and stor­age (BECCS) – is not much bet­ter. BECCS be­gins by pro­duc­ing large amounts of biomass from, say, fast-grow­ing trees which nat­u­rally cap­ture CO2; those plants are then con­verted into fuel via burn­ing or re­fin­ing, with the re­sult­ing car­bon emis­sions be­ing cap­tured and se­questered.

But bioen­ergy is not car­bon neu­tral, and the surge in Euro­pean de­mand for biomass has led to ris­ing food com­mod­ity prices and land grabs in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries. These re­al­i­ties helped per­suade the sci­en­tists Kevin An­der­son and Glen Peters re­cently to call car­bon re­moval an “un­just and high-stakes gam­ble.”

What about other geo-en­gi­neer­ing pro­pos­als? So­lar Ra­di­a­tion Man­age­ment (SRM) aims to con­trol the amount of sun­light that reaches the Earth, es­sen­tially mim­ick­ing the ef­fect of a vol­cano erup­tion. This may be achieved by pump­ing sul­phates into the strato­sphere or through “ma­rine cloud bright­en­ing,” which would cause clouds to re­flect more sun­light back into space.

But blast­ing sul­phates into the strato­sphere does not re­duce CO2 con­cen­tra­tions; it merely de­lays the im­pact for as long as the spray­ing con­tin­ues. More­over, sul­phate in­jec­tions in the north­ern hemi­sphere could cause se­ri­ous drought in the Africa’s Sa­hel re­gion, owing to dra­matic re­duc­tions in pre­cip­i­ta­tion, while some African coun­tries would ex­pe­ri­ence more pre­cip­i­ta­tion. The ef­fect on the Asian mon­soon sys­tem could be even more pro­nounced. In short, SRM could se­verely dam­age the liveli­hoods of mil­lions of peo­ple.

If geo-en­gi­neer­ing can’t save us, what can? In fact, there are a num­ber of steps that can be taken right now. They would be messier and more po­lit­i­cally chal­leng­ing than geo­engi­neer­ing. But they would work.

The first step would be a mora­to­rium on new coal mines. If all cur­rently planned coal-fired power plants are built and op­er­ated over their nor­mal ser­vice life of 40 years, they alone would emit 240 bil­lion tons of CO2 – more than the re­main­ing car­bon bud­get. If that in­vest­ment were re­al­lo­cated to de­cen­tralised re­new­able-en­ergy pro­duc­tion, the ben­e­fits would be enor­mous.

More­over, with only 10% of the global pop­u­la­tion re­spon­si­ble for al­most 50% of global CO2 emis­sions, there is a strong case to be made for im­ple­ment­ing strate­gies that tar­get the big­gest emit­ters. For ex­am­ple, it makes lit­tle sense that air­lines – which ac­tu­ally serve just 7% of the global pop­u­la­tion – are ex­empt from pay­ing fuel taxes, es­pe­cially at a time when ticket prices are at an his­toric low.

Changes to land use are also needed. The 2009 In­ter­na­tional As­sess­ment of Agri­cul­tural Knowl­edge, Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy for Devel­op­ment charts the way to a trans­formed agri­cul­tural sys­tem – with ben­e­fits that ex­tend far be­yond cli­mate pol­icy. We must ap­ply this knowl­edge around the world.

In Europe, the waste sec­tor could make a sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tion to a low-car­bon econ­omy. Re­cent re­search, com­mis­sioned by Zero Waste Europe, found that op­ti­mal im­ple­men­ta­tion of the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion’s “cir­cu­lar econ­omy pack­age” waste tar­gets could save the Euro­pean Union 190 mil­lion tons of CO2 per year. That is the equiv­a­lent of the an­nual emis­sions of the Nether­lands!

Avail­able mea­sures in the trans­port sec­tor in­clude strength­en­ing pub­lic trans­porta­tion, en­cour­ag­ing the use of rail­ways for freight traf­fic, build­ing bike paths, and sub­si­diz­ing de­liv­ery bi­cy­cles. In Ger­many, in­tel­li­gent ac­tion on trans­port could re­duce the sec­tor’s emis­sions by up to 95% by 2050.

An­other pow­er­ful mea­sure would be to pro­tect and re­store nat­u­ral ecosys­tems, which could re­sult in the stor­age of 220330 gi­ga­tons of CO2 world­wide.

None of these so­lu­tions is a sil­ver bul­let; but, to­gether, they could change the world for the bet­ter. Geo-en­gi­neer­ing so­lu­tions are not the only al­ter­na­tives. They are a re­sponse to the in­abil­ity of main­stream eco­nom­ics and pol­i­tics to ad­dress the cli­mate chal­lenge. In­stead of try­ing to de­vise ways to main­tain busi­ness as usual – an im­pos­si­ble and de­struc­tive goal – we must prove our abil­ity to imag­ine and achieve rad­i­cal change.

If we fail, we should not be sur­prised if, just a few years from now, the plan­e­tary ther­mo­stat is un­der the con­trol of a hand­ful of states or mil­i­tary and sci­en­tific in­ter­ests. As world lead­ers con­vene for the 22nd United Na­tions Frame­work Con­ven­tion on Cli­mate Change to bring the Paris agree­ment into force, they should re­pu­di­ate geo-en­gi­neer­ing quick fixes – and demon­strate a com­mit­ment to real so­lu­tions.

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