Here
and
Now

opinions

Climate fixes need cautious consideration

7 Comments

Recent extreme heat waves reinforce concerns that the slow pace of action against climate change is inadequate, raising interest in new fixes called geoengineering, but this warrants caution.

Proposed geoengineering fixes fall broadly between reflecting sunlight and heat back into space, or sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

Perhaps the biggest concern among its detractors is the danger of distracting from the main task of cutting greenhouse gas emissions, given no geoengineering technique is guaranteed to work at scale and some can clearly make the problem worse.

The difficulty with that view is it presents the problem as a binary one, where humankind must choose between either entirely unassisted cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, or else rely on geoengineering.

In fact, techniques which remove carbon dioxide from the air can complement cuts in greenhouse gases and so buy time, although there are still huge uncertainties about whether they can be achieved safely and cheaply at scale.

And not all technologies are the same: climate fixes are a spectrum where some are clearly risky, such as spraying aerosols into space which at scale could cool the earth but also trigger unpredictable droughts.

More research clearly makes sense, with caution not to create a false illusion of climate action or embark on a slippery slope of deployment.

The notion of a slippery slope is related to that of "path dependence."

Stanford University economist Paul David gave that notion wide currency in his paper, "Clio and the Economics of QWERTY", published in the American Economic Review in 1985.

David explained the idea most simply as "one damn thing follows another", and used the example of how the sequence of letters on a keyboard, spelling "QWERTY" from the top left, has persisted since 1873.

Part of the origin of the keyboard's top row was simply a gimmick to help sales staff find all the letters of the name of the new contraption, "type writer", and type them quickly.

David found the top row of letters cemented itself, despite easier ("socially optimal") alternatives, after it became embedded in training manuals.

He pointed out that it was impossible to say with certainty in advance what technology or keyboard will eventually be dominant.

In the case of geoengineering, clearly a research programme would make a climate fix a contender, but not for supremacy against emissions cuts or the development of low-carbon renewable energy.

In January David co-authored a paper on "Designing an Optimal 'Tech Fix' Path to Global Climate Stability."

The authors analysed the best timing for shutting down conventional fossil fuel energy, taking into account a growing risk of climate crisis and the greater productivity of fossil fuels versus the higher cost of low-carbon energy.

He and his co-author only briefly mentioned geoengineering as a potentially useful, back-stop insurance in case it was needed, with no suggestion it might exclude the development of low-carbon technologies.

Proliferating geoengineering research has followed a review by Britain's science academy, the Royal Society in 2009, which called for a publicly-funded program.

A United Nations panel of scientists, the IPCC, will assess geoengineering for the first time this year in its latest climate update.

The Royal Society report studiously toed a middle line between recommending research including field experiments, while stressing the need to pursue more ambitious emissions cuts.

"There is no credible emissions scenario under which global mean temperature would peak and then start to decline by 2100," said its report, "Geoengineering the climate: science, governance and uncertainty."

"Unless future efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are much more successful than they have been so far, additional action may be required should it become necessary to cool the earth this century."

Broadly, it found techniques which reflected sunlight back into space were quick, impacting within a year or two, but risked creating new climate imbalances and did not address the root problem of rising atmospheric carbon.

Approaches which removed greenhouse gases from the atmosphere acted far slower, and so were no use as a plan "B" against unfolding catastrophe, but were also less risky.

Technical hitches centre on the difficulty of deployment at scale, given the volume of annual carbon dioxide emissions, where further research seems needed.

For example, one carbon removal approach is to expose natural or manufactured carbon absorbents to the atmosphere, called air capture.

The trouble with natural absorbents is the amount of quarried rock required to impact annual global emissions of more than 34 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, equivalent perhaps to a mountain or two, while an industrial approach depends on an energy-intensive process to reclaim the CO2 from the absorbent.

The most discussed approach to reflecting sunlight is to inject sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere, creating reflective aerosols which mimic big volcanic eruptions known to have cooled the earth in the past, but which may also trigger droughts.

The Met Office Hadley Centre in the UK showed a link between more atmospheric aerosols, a cooler Atlantic Ocean and less rainfall over parts of Africa, in their paper "Aerosols implicated as a prime driver of 20th century North Atlantic climate variability" published in the journal Nature last April.

The paper illustrates how public support for geoengineering research must be extremely wary of engineers itching to try out a new toy.

© (c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2013.

©2020 GPlusMedia Inc.

7 Comments
Login to comment

Really? Last year Dr Phil Jones of the IPCC admitted to the BBC that there had not been any global warming in 15 years, now 16 years, despite ever-increasing amounts of co2 in the atmosphere. Cold weather records were broken in many parts of Japan this winter, as well as elsewhere, yet little is mentioned about these incidents. The IPCC still prefers to cherry- pick data from ground-based stations thermometere rather than the GISS satellite system which has been monitoring upper-atmospheric temperatures (which should be most influenced by co2-induced global warming) since the 1970's.

Climate-change is a multi-billion dollar industry in itself, with many scientists and institutions being dependent on grants from government agencies, whom are funded by taxpayers likeyou and I. No computer-generated climate prediction model -not a single one- created by IPCC scientists has proven accurate. There has been no measurable global warming in nearly two decades, yet articles like the above continue to try to instill fear in us.

The peer-review process used in the IPCC reports is an utter joke. The "peer-reviewed" report is sent to policy makers, who then have a free hand to edit the report in any way they like. Any finding which doea not agres to the policy maker's predetermined result is either edited or deleted. The reports become more dire with each new release, even as actual warming slows, and stops.

People like Al Gore, who is a part owner of Generation Investment Management (a carbon-trading company), and IPCC head Dr Pachuri (who is an alternative enerrgy company owner/investor) profit directly grom climate change, yet no one ever comments on these obvious conflicts of interest.

I live a very green lifestyle myself, because I think it is the right thing to do. I don't beleice that taxpayer-funded organizations, and their well-paid "scientists" should be deceiving us, or personally profting from such deceit.

-3 ( +1 / -4 )

sadly, nothing is gonna happen until the top 1% is affected....

3 ( +3 / -0 )

I know it's not the point, but ask any Londoner, we'd love more heatwaves. The temperature only occasionally made it over 20C last summer and the rest of the time it was either completely overcast or pouring with rain. It has been like this for the last 3 years.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

sangetsu03Mar. 15, 2013 - 08:31AM JST

Cold weather records were broken in many parts of Japan this winter, as well as elsewhere, yet little is mentioned about these incidents.

Really? Any references to these broken records?

0 ( +0 / -0 )

GaijinVaderMar. 15, 2013 - 09:36PM JST

I know it's not the point, but ask any Londoner, we'd love more heatwaves. The temperature only occasionally made it over 20C last summer and the rest of the time it was either completely overcast or pouring with rain. It has been like this for the last 3 years.

However, Wiki gives London as reaching 30 degrees C on the 1st of October 2011, and 28 degrees C that April. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/London

We also had heatwaves in the UK in August 2012 http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2012/08/19/uk-weather-heat-wave-continue_n_1805150.html ...and May http://www.telegraph.co.uk/topics/weather/9285122/Britain-to-nudge-30C-as-heatwave-sparks-rush-to-the-beach.html and September http://www.telegraph.co.uk/topics/weather/9527368/Scorching-September-temperatures-bring-mini-heatwave.html

0 ( +0 / -0 )

@Sangetsu03

Last year Dr Phil Jones of the IPCC admitted to the BBC that there had not been any global warming in 15 years, now 16 years, despite ever-increasing amounts of co2 in the atmosphere.

He didn't say such a thing. Would you actually read your sources before posting them? The rest of you post isn't much better, I agree that there is good reason to debate about global warming, but busybodies like you make all sceptics look morons.

At first you do the cherry picking and accuse IPCC the same. Then you would prefer satellite measurements, but since you don't trust climate models, those measurements would be meaningless.

By the way even sceptics admit that there is global warming. The debade is about how much people affect to it.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

There is nothing to say to idiots that don't believe in science. But as a general principle even if you don't believe, you take the proper insurance in case you are wrong? Personally, I don't think you can do anything about global warming. It already too late. The earth is a buffered systems and when you reach the right point, temperatures will sky rocket. The catalyst for something like that will most like be the melting of methane. The same methane that Japan is trying to use. There are tons of the stuff in the permafrost and in shallower ocean. There have been more and out break of methane releases and it is 10x more powerful than CO2. But the time people agree it is a problem, Tokyo will be in the 50s and the water will at the second floor.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

Login to leave a comment

Facebook users

Use your Facebook account to login or register with JapanToday. By doing so, you will also receive an email inviting you to receive our news alerts.

Facebook Connect

Login with your JapanToday account

User registration

Articles, Offers & Useful Resources

A mix of what's trending on our other sites