At first, global temperature increases had to be limited to 1.5 degrees. Then it was 2 degrees. Now we are on track for 2.4 degrees. But what if we can’t limit rises in global temperatures? What if it creeps out to 3 or 4 or 5 degrees? I am usually a “glass half full” person, but the evidence is there to say the world may be incapable of stopping global warming.
Let’s go back a few decades. Back to when we identified the problem and first talked about action. Like any massive and complex problem that needs to be solved, we went after the low-hanging fruit first. Coal and oil. But we mostly went after the low-hanging fruit in first-world countries. There is an argument to say these were the big emitters. They were polluters but largely in terms of coal-fired power stations and gas-guzzling cars.
Through a series of international agreements, we put restrictions on emissions which flattened out the curve a little. Technology through wind and solar generation helped. It took a few decades for solar to become economically viable. The early cost problem with solar was that if you put a twenty thousand dollar solar array on your roof today, it would only cost ten thousand in two years. The incentive to spend ten thousand dollars to get it two years earlier was just not there. Governments had to fund generous buy-back schemes and subsidise installations.
Batteries are the same today. For the amount of money you would spend on a battery today, you will probably get double the capacity for half the price in a few years’ time.
Democracy limits how far government thinking can get ahead of public support. If a government were to propose something too radical in terms of mass public perceptions, they will quickly find themself in opposition. If a government in the 90s proposed the environmental actions taking place today, it would have been met with a vote for the other party. In essence, democracy limits the pace with which we can address change of any sort including climate change. Look at how much of a struggle it has been to get to where we are today, yet it is still not enough.
As I mentioned, we are only attacking the low-hanging fruit. Here are a couple of harder goals. Providing reliable renewable power supply to third-world nations; replacing gas and wood as the primary cooking and heating fuel for much of the world; stopping the destruction of rainforests by people trying to find enough money to feed their family; producing enough food to feed a growing world population without expanding the land used and destroying natural vegetation; finding replacements for the energy required to produce cement, aluminium and plastics; finding replacements for cement, aluminium and plastics; replacing fossil fuels or ships and aircraft; replacing all the polluting bikes and cars in third-world countries.
I could go on, but you can see these are much tougher goals than replacing coal-fired power stations with renewable energy. Much more complex than swapping a petrol-engined car for an electric model.
Here is one example from today. Sri Lanka is currently on the verge of bankruptcy. Their economy is in chaos and on the brink of collapse. Today the Prime Minister said that no country will provide fuel, oil or gas.
What does that mean for the environment? An optimist might say it will reduce pollution. The cost, of course, is that people will die because there is no power and no transport. Are we, as a wealthy first-world nation, happy to see that happen to reduce global gas emissions? I hope not but that is the sort of situation we will be faced with when we get past energy production and cars in the developed world. Could we criticise Sri Lankans for cutting down trees to cook their food or boil their water?
I was listening to a podcast on Hati recently. The reporter spoke to a doctor in a remote hospital who said a woman in the ward was going to die. She was in labour and needed a caesarian but there was no power and no drugs. The doctor had recently passed out in the operating theatre during an operation because there was no air conditioning. This is what it will look like if we remove cheap power sources from the developing world.
Hopefully, I have explained why I think there is a good chance we will not do enough to limit global warming. Constrained by democracy, we have moved ever so slowly to address climate change – and that has been the easy part. I doubt anyone has a humanitarian solution to the rest of the problem. If the western world (plus China and a few other autocracies) got down to zero, what would we do about the rest of the world? Where would we be on global warming? Which side of five degrees would we be on?
Now the good news. Perhaps not so much good, as less gloomy. We have to have a ‘Plan B”, and it is being discussed but not given the attention we should perhaps give it. The option is to remove CO2 from the air. There are two methods. The first is to use natural storage systems which means planting trees. This does happen but not nearly enough to address the problem.
The second method is Direct Air Capture (DAC) technology. DAC directly removes CO2 from the air and stores it or converts it into other products. DAC technology does exist but is in a very embryonic stage. It can be done, but it is years away from being commercially viable. There are various “CO2 Scrubbers” in development, but to make a meaningful impact will take levels of spending that will make Covid look like petty cash.
A Swiss company has deployed 15 DAC units across Europe to extract the gas. They use either geothermal or energy produced by burning waste. Once captured, the CO2 is held in a container and stored underground. The concept is proven. It just needs to be made commercially viable and funded. How you scale up to make a meaningful impact on levels is yet to be addressed. It is still a concept in search of reality.
Given the speed with which the population moves their opinions and support for addressing problems, I expect it will be a few decades before there is enough support for DAC as a technology. It may be the only way to ensure we continue to exist as a species. Right now, however, we can face up to the fact that the path we are on to address climate change will probably not work on its own. We need that “Plan B”. There is no point in waiting until 2040 to start doing something about it. We need to be talking to people about DAC and pushing governments to fund research.
Solar took about 30 or 40 years to get from the laboratory to the rooftop. Batteries for most homes are still probably a decade away. Even if we stop selling petrol and diesel cars by 2030, on current replacement cycles, it will be 2050 before they all but disappear. If DAC is to be in use by the middle of the century, we need to be throwing buckets of money at the developers today.
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