Monday, June 04, 2007

Thinkable: why geotherapy should not be taboo

When European Union governments agreed in 1996 that avoiding 'dangerous climate change' meant keeping global average temperature rise during the 21st century to less than 2°Celsius, it was widely said that this could be achieved by allowing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases to rise to about twice the pre-industrial level -- that is, about 550ppm CO2(e). (At present Angela Merkel and other European politicians remain adamant about the 2°C target, and it looks as if the European position will be buoyed by the Brazilian government, among others.)

But at least since a conference organised by the UK government in February 2005 (and Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change, an edited version of the conference papers published as a book early in 2006), it has been increasingly held as credible that stabilisation at 450ppm or less will be necessary to have a fair chance of avoiding a rise of more than 2°C.

Accepting this position for the sake of argument [as does a background paper I wrote earlier this year for a UN report that appears later this year], I'd like to highlight what I think could be a matter that is not as well or widely discussed as it should be: some forms of geo-engineering or geotherapy should not be dismissed at the start of serious discussion about how to manage climate change.

Consider a point made by Paul Baer and Michael Mastandrea in High Stakes (IPPR November 2006), and restated in Two Degrees, One Chance, a paper from 4 UK development NGOs published for this week's G8 conference. They note that the most stringent pathway for GHG reductions still carries a 9 - 26% [i.e., up to about 1 in 4] risk of exceeding 2°C. "This pathway requires emissions globally to peak in 2010 and then contract by 5% each year thereafter, reducing concentrations to below 400ppm by the end of the century" (page 7 of the latter document).

I have never met someone I would consider sane who believes that global emissions can be made to peak in 2010. So if Baer and Mastandrea's reasoning and the modelling on which it is based are correct, then (I think) this follows: to be reasonably confident of a greater than 3 in 4 chance of avoiding 'dangerous climate change' we need to find out what possibilites, if any, there may be to actively reduce GHG atmospheric *concentrations* (and not just emissions) within the next few (say, one to five) decades. Hence the likes of Richard Branson's CO2 prize.

Amongst the arguments against this case are:

1) it can *never* work;

2) the cure may be worse than the disease; and

3) it will encourage people to think they can continue to pollute now because someone else will bail them out later -- a version of 'moral hazard'.

I have not seen a convincing rationale for 1), but would be glad to read or hear one.

As for 2), well yes there will always be some truly terrible ideas out there; but it is not clear that one that has had some air play -- Paul Crutzen's thought experiment on injection of aerosols into the stratosphere -- will necessarily be worse than the full range of effects of 'dangerous climate change'. And put that to one side, there *may* be (I am not saying *are*) other ideas which could deliver actual benefits such as large scale but community-based and controlled creation of biochar (Johannes Lehmann of Cornell University says biochar in combination with biofuels could store up to 9.5 billion tonnes of carbon a year. He may or may not be right, and he is one of the first to call for more R&D. See: Which biofuels? 2)

And regarding 3), of course there are plenty of people looking for excuses to keep polluting and who may latch on to geo-engineering but I think this misses an important point about where we actually are. 'Moral hazard' is most often used in argument by people on the right of politics -- to argue, for example, that healthcare should not be free because this only leads to abuse of the system. That risk exists of course, but the reality can be rather different, as Malcolm Gladwell has shown. With regard to climate change we are already in the emergency room. The science seems to be making it pretty clear that we need to take all possible measures to reduce emissions, but even if we do there may still a high level of risk (i.e. up to 1 in 4) of dangerous climate change. It may therefore be prudent to look at the possibilities, if there are any, for accelerated reduction in atmospheric concentrations back down below 400 and even to pre-industrial levels within a few decades (something alluded to by Tom Goreau at least 15 years ago).

Whatever the truths of these matters, future argument will benefit from more thought and less emotion, moralising and opprobrium. On this point, though on little else, I partly agree with Josie Appleton who criticised Six Degrees for not talking 'the language of environmental management'. As I wrote in my own review Six Caveats about Six Degrees, '...The fifth caveat is that Six Degrees makes only a brief contribution on perhaps the biggest of all questions: what humanity needs to *do* to get its act together...'

Having got so many people excited about climate change maybe we need to work hard on making this issue a little more boring. But even agendas as ambitious as that outlined in Heat may be inadequate to the challenge.

(see also A 21st century greenhouse gas budget?)


Jim Thomas said...

Hi Caspar,

At the ETC Group we've started doing a bunch of work monotoring geo engineering schemes - check out this overview and this particularly bad scheme to mess with the oceans around Galapagos later this month.

Apart from the problem of causing a whole lot of further screw-ups, the very notion that there just might be a geo-engineering solution serves as a fantastic distraction from real action and heavy lifting needed to take apart the carbon economy. hence why Branson would rather dangle a 25 million dollar carrot than do the painful work of winding up his airline. Just as the old 'climate sceptic' strategy worked by sowing a seed of doubt to defuse will to action so the new 'technofix strategy' works by sowing a seed of hope that there is a silver bullet somewhere.. and we should all just keep hunting for it.

More importantly it builds the sense that climate change is just an isolated technical problem that can be solved in isolation by technical means -that can be bought from the same people who messed up in the first place. It worries me that as climate activists start to single mindedly focus on the mathematics of carbon all other common sense of justice and multiplicity of progressive politics disappears out the window... particularly any understandiong about how elites use technologies and the promise of technologies to perpetuate inequalities and injustice. Climate change IS a serious threat but it shouldn't render us blind and short sighted.

Caspar Henderson said...

Thanks, Jim, for this. The Galapagos project does indeed look less than great. Thin soup and a thin story, a post on back in May, helps give a pretty good idea as to why.

Your view that technofixes can never be more than a diversionary tactic is not shared by James Lovelock or James Hansen, two of the scientists overseeing Branson's prize. Hansen's position, if I understand it correctly, is something like: "yes we need to make very radical and deep emission cuts, but supposing we do that and it's still not enough to prevent dangerous climate change then we may have no option but to consider geo-engineering".

Suppose that all central goverments, big corporations and fossil fuel consumption are abolished and devolved zero-carbon self-sufficient communities take over the world by 2015 (a slim chance of this happening in my view, but not perhaps in yours!), but that the science indicates that we have still crossed the threshold for putting 2 C into the system (and there may be a 1 in 4 chance of this happening) . In such circumstances, people might want to consider rapid drawdown of carbondioxide from the atmosphere, especially if it were the case that there were means available that increased productivity of agricultural land and the power of local communities - the whole biochar schtick.