Hopes are high that the 21st United Nations climate summit in Paris this December will finally achieve international agreement on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But it’s coming rather late in the day. It’s time now to face up to the fact that we now live on a warming planet with extreme and unreliable climate, and figure out ways of ensuring humanity’s continued survival.
This means urgently focusing global action towards ambitious adaptation strategies for our protection in a warmer world, and investigating geoengineering options to mitigate the situation.
Instead, the world’s politicians and scientists are colluding in the worst kind of charade to spare us from the unpalatable truth: it’s now too late to avoid dangerous global warming.
In preparation for the Paris talks – and in a bid to avoid the disastrous outcome that occurred at Copenhagen – all nations were required to submit pledges for cutting their carbon emissions by reducing fossil fuel use. By the 1 October deadline, 149 of them – responsible for some 90% of global carbon emissions – had submitted their national targets, including China, the US and India. That’s an impressive commitment – by comparison, the initial 1997 Kyoto Protocol only included 35 countries, covering 14% of emissions. An international deal in Paris looks more likely than ever, analysts agree.
And yet, as we approach this latest summit, within grasping range of agreement that has eluded us for decades, we are avoiding the very real problem of what we are going to do about climate change.
Because, if you think that reaching a global agreement on emissions reductions somehow solves global warming and makes the problem go away, you have been gravely misled.
The idea behind curbing humanity’s carbon emissions through an international treaty is to limit global warming to 2C degrees above pre-industrial levels – warming above this constitutes “dangerous warming”, climate scientists have agreed. The current pledges would limit warming to just under 3 degrees – an improvement on the previous ones but still dangerously high.
Even if we stopped emitting carbon dioxide tomorrow, we are still committed to a global temperature rise of more than half a degree C because there is a time lag between the accumulated carbon dioxide and its effect on climate, because it takes several decades to heat up the world’s oceans. During this time, glaciers will also continue melting, contributing to the warming effect.
We are not going to stop burning fossil fuels tomorrow, of course. The transition to low-carbon – let alone zero-carbon – economies will take time, even with willing governments focused on targets. Despite the enthusiasm and optimism of many in the climate community, it is neither easy, economic or likely that we will limit warming to below the 2-degree threshold. It is unclear whether or how we will meet the newly proposed targets, considering population expansion, developing economies that require greater per-capita energy supply, and the cost and scale of decarbonising in a short time-frame.
At the rate we are currently adding solar panels, for example, it would take 150 years to replace just the world’s coal plants. The infrastructure challenge is phenomenal and the social challenge just as great. The massive energy changes taken by Britain, when it shifted electricity production from coal to gas in the 1980s, and France, when it moved from coal to nuclear, resulted in emissions reductions of just 1%. Since the industrial revolution, we have released half a trillion tonnes of carbon dioxide, pushing atmospheric concentrations of the greenhouse gas from 280 to 400 parts per million It’s hard to believe we will not exceed 500ppm by the end of the century. Meanwhile, the carbon dioxide we have already put into the atmosphere will remain there for thousands of years.
It’s high time we stopped hiding behind emissions-reducing mitigation arguments and the need for global agreement on targets, and faced up to the urgency of a planetary crisis facing humanity on an unprecedented scale. Yes, we need to tackle emissions, and enact ways that stop us from adding to the warming problem by creating a low carbon society. But it is unrealistic to expect we can avoid 2 degrees of temperature rise in time through emissions cuts alone – meanwhile, millions of people are already being impacted by climate change.
It’s time to plan water-storage and agricultural transformations, build infrastructure, consider large-scale migration and resource-sharing for a 10-billion population in a warmer world. It’s time to think seriously about how we are all going to fund this adaptation in the poor world where it is most needed. And it’s time to look at geoengineering.
There exists a fear that we shouldn’t consider geoengineering options because otherwise people won’t put in the proper mitigation (and adaptation) efforts. And scientists working in the field are very keen to remind us that geoengineering options come with social, ethical, and economic problems. Yes, but so does climate change, and it is causing impacts in all these spheres right now.
It’s time to concentrate on large-scale trials of apparatus and biological agents to suck carbon dioxide out of the air where it can be safely stored. These include cultivating algae, seaweed and tree plantations that take up the gas for photosynthesis, painting buildings with olivine that reacts with the gas, burying biochar and developing artificial leaves.
We need to look at cooling technologies that reflect the sun’s heat back into space, including painting roofs, roads – even mountains – white, planting lighter-coloured crops, using aerosols to seed clouds or the upper atmosphere with reflective particles such as sulphates, and even constructing and deploying orbiting space mirrors. (For a detailed and thoughtful look at geoengineering options in the context of our climate crisis, I heartily recommend The Planet Remade by my excellent colleague and friend, Oliver Morton.)
It is time to have international and inclusive discussions about whether how and when such technologies might be deployed. We should not be waiting for some sort of emergency (such as the melting of Greenland’s glaciers), we need to start experimenting now with relatively cheap, low-risk options, such as painting roofs white, and working on the efficiency and scaling up of CO2 capture and storage, while actively considering the more ambitious and risky techniques, such as spraying aerosols high into the atmosphere.
For too long geoengineering has been allowed to remain the preserve of the odd, the agenda-driven, fringe scientists (with notable exceptions). There is no time for this indulgence. Of course we need to reduce emissions, help the poor to adapt and help fund their clean development, but while our species is crippled by its inability or unwillingness to live sustainably, it has evolved a prowess in problem solving, in designing the cleverest solutions to far more complicated problems.
It would be wonderful if such methods proved unnecessary and were never deployed, but by blinding ourselves to the reality of our warming world and the very real possibility we may need to geoengineer a habitable environment, we are imposing limits on our future options. At the very least, in properly considering these options, we might return to the problem of emissions reduction with more effective determination.