Thursday, June 07, 2007

Planetary taboos, part two

John Sterman of MIT (and author of many fascinating papers including All Models are Wrong: Reflections on Becoming a Systems Scientist) took a moment to send a strong rebuttal of my earlier post Thinkable: why geotherapy should not be taboo. With his kind permission I am publishing it here, together with a response:
Hi Caspar,

Interesting argument. The more people confront the necessity of large reductions in GHG emissions the more they grab at the straws of a technical deus ex machina to save the day without requiring any change in lifestyle or any wealth redistribution. Hence the attraction of nuclear power, geoengineering, Branson's prize, etc.

Crutzen's aerosol injection scheme is foolish. It won't stop the acidification of the ocean. It's much much cheaper, faster, doable, and safer for ecosystems to retrofit every building in the developed world to first-rate energy efficiency standards, using a WPA-style "army" of volunteers, or to do so through a national service program like the Peace Corp. Quite frankly I'm astounded that such otherwise sensible scientists would consider aerosol injection a serious proposal.

Most other geoengineering schemes are similar -- large, centralized, exotic, not yet available, and with unknown risks of harmful side effects [the argument #2 in your earlier post).

As to the moral hazard argument, you don't have to be a political conservative to recognize that the phenomenon is real. People move into flood plains when levees are raised; they move into fire hazard zones when the forest service builds firebreaks; they build luxury beachfront homes when there is federally subsidized flood insurance (note the feedback: once people live in such zones they form a powerful constituency to increase protections). And one doesn't have to be a liberal to see that corporations argue that regulations should be relaxed once they start to work: witness the pressure to remove creatures from the endangered species list once their numbers stop declining, to relax standards for lead, water pollution, and other toxics once the regulations start to work. Promise the world that geoengineering will sequester CO2 and there will be immediate calls from business and developing nations to let them keep emitting because the sequestration technology will have "solved" the problem.

I fear that the technological optimism of the would-be geoengineers is the way they resolve the cognitive dissonance caused by their profound pessimism about the possibility of collective action for the long-term benefit of all. We can cut emissions enough to bring CO2 concentrations down. It won't be through geoengineering, but through the application of technologies we mostly already have. It will be by putting carbon prices up high enough to create opportunities for firms to profit by helping retrofit and replace existing stocks of buildings, vehicles, and infrastructure, for millions of people to innovate and for our behavior to change. Sure, it's going to be hard work,but it's more likely to succeed than so-called "geotherapy." If we are in the emergency room, if it's a planetary crisis, if we are on the threshold of tipping irreversibly into "dangerous interference" then let's recognize it and make the short-run sacrifices needed to preserve the world. Our parents and grandparents did so in the second world war; if we are now too soft and comfortable to make similar economic sacrifices (unlike the war, no one needs to die for this cause) then we are truly lost.

No more delay. No more blame. If not us, who? If not now, when?
I replied:

Dear John,

You argue powerfully. I particularly like your vision of retrofitting every building in the developed world to first-rate energy efficiency standards, using a WPA-style "army" of volunteers or a national service program like the Peace Corp. And I would agree that massively increased efficiency in energy use, supported by regulations that provide incentives, should be a top priority. (Indeed, I put this kind of thing at the centre of a special supplement for New Statesman magazine that I edited last year, relying on the work of first-rate thinker-doers in the UK like Roger Levett).

A paper titled A cost curve for greenhouse gas reduction, published by McKinsey in January, reinforced what has become an increasingly mainstream message – that a lot of energy efficiency and carbon reduction can be achieved in the developed world for negative cost (i.e., profit). Campaigns like C40 Cities seem to have ‘got’ this (drawing in the likes of Rupert Murdoch and Michael Bloomberg thanks to that, er, old black magic called Bill Clinton, who seems to have learned something from his earlier attempts at climate politics), and are seeking to put it into practice.

But whatever happens with the C40 and programmes like it (and imagine the likes of Barack Obama pushing for vastly more ambitious versions thereof rather than, say, big subsidies for big coal!), will even the very best of such efforts get us close to stabilization at 450 parts per million carbon dioxide equivalent, let alone 400?

The McKinsey paper suggests not. (The paper can be wrong of course: maybe there are a lot of innovative and credible Amory Lovins-style soft energy policies they didn’t think to include, but I’ll use it as a yardstick here until I learn of better data and analysis). It includes a graph showing a various technologies and policies approaches all needed to get towards 450ppm, with estimated maringal abatement costs of about 40 Euros (€) per tonne of carbon dioxide equivalent to get you to 450, and about €50 to get you to 400ppm. [see also footnote 1]

Accepting – absolutely – that the solution is not all about technologies (and that there are big question marks over the practicability and social and environmental side-effects of some technologies such as CCS, many biofuels, etc), one still comes up against the question: how much will people be willing to pay?

Let us be highly optimistic be about the possibility of collective action for the long-term (and not so long-term) benefit of all, and say yes people will ‘get’ the scale of the crisis very soon and they will be willing to pay up to a marginal cost of €50 a tonne. Further, let’s assume that abatement down to 400ppm comes in cheaper than expected - maybe only €40. Hooray, we get €10 per tonne to not spend on not consuming!

But even then, with atmospheric concentrations at around 400ppm, we may *still* not be out of the woods because (if I understand correctly – and please someone correct me if this is wrong) atmospheric concentrations will stay close to that level for a while (several decades at least), with a lag until we see the effect of those concentrations on the global climate (albeit that effect may progressively diminish if the earlier forcing signal has not triggered siginificant positive feedbacks). The effect could be not good. There could, as discussed earlier, be a chance of up to about 1 in 4 of it being not good at all at all (and, again, any corrections or criticisms of this understanding are most welcome).

And it’s having got to this point, I think, that a discussion of geo-engineering may need to start.

You describe Paul Crutzen’s idea as foolish. He has certainly been pilloried for it, and the downsides have been extensively described. The point about ocean acidification is well made. (On a lighter note, Alan Robock at Rutgers University says that 100 Hiroshima sized bombs over major cities – roughly equivalent to an all out nuclear war between India and Pakistan – would lower global average temperatures by 1.4 C for a few years).

The reason I hesitate to join this chorus is that, whether this idea is a good one or not, Crutzen is no fool. (I read his original paper and he's aware of the downsides). He, and other distinguished scientists such James Hansen warn that we may have already in doodoo stepped in so far that, should we wade no more, returning may no longer be an option. That one in four chance of more than 2 C is something to do with it, and we may have to consider doing something pretty serious about it.

As David Wolman wrote in Wired,“Advocating the study of geoengineering does not mean campaigning for the deployment of every ludicrous notion that comes along”.

My favoured list of more or less ludicrous notions would probably be limited to approaches that accelerate the reduction of atmospheric concentrations back towards pre-industrial levels. (It sounds a bit mad, doesn't it?). Such approaches would also be low-tech and empower local communities (to be cuddly, call it geotherapy rather than geoengineering). It may just be that biochar and other techniques that draw down more carbon than they consume in operation could fit the bill (assuming they actually work!).


Footnote 1: A more recent study from McKinsey, Curbing Global Energy Demand (May 2007), says that 'by capturing the potential available from existing technologies with an internal rate of return of 10 percent or more, we could cut global energy demand growth by half or more over the next 15 years'.

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