inventing our way out of crisis
- A climate change myth
Can we rely on ‘new technology’ to solve the climate crisis?
The claim that human ingenuity will solve the climate crisis through ‘new technology’ – without our needing to change the current paradigm of consumption and emissions – is widespread, with proponents from Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison to Guildford’s own Angela Richardson MP (the latter while speaking at Guildford’s climate hustings). Supporters point to humanity’s avoidance of a Malthusian catastrophe (thus far) through advancements in agricultural technology and breeding as a key example, and of course, innovation and new technologies can and will play some role in tackling the climate crisis.
CAT has mapped out a route to Zero Carbon Britain using only technology available today
However, there is overwhelming evidence that this approach falls far short of tackling the sheer scale and impact of climate breakdown. It is clear that we have vanishingly little time left to make major systemic changes if we want to hold global warming below 1.5°C, if even possible at this point. The planet is currently over 1°C warmer than pre-Industrial averages, and depending on whether various climate feedback loops are triggered - growing evidence suggests this may have already happened - the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has calculated that we could see warming of up to a maximum of 10°C by 2100, with a 10% probability of a 6°C rise. This would have a devastating effect, rendering much of the planet uninhabitable and causing mass extinctions.
Studies from various research centres, including the Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity (CUSP) at the University of Surrey, have shown that the UK government’s target of carbon neutrality by 2050 is simply not enough, and that to have even a 66% chance of limiting warming to 1.5°C, we must reach net zero by 2030. Furthermore, CUSP estimates it would only be possible to address a maximum of 5% of emissions through negative emission technologies due to carbon’s lifespan in the atmosphere and the long timescale of implementing these technologies.
However, we are currently on course to miss even the 2050 target, with the government in fact moving backwards on everything from energy efficiency to fossil fuel investments. This includes an elevenfold increase in funding year-on-year for fossil fuel projects abroad totalling £2bn, most notably £1bn for fracking in Argentina taken from finance meant for green energy, while support for renewables fell to a laughable £700,000.
Just last week, (Jan 2019) environmental lawyers launched a lawsuit against the UK government for approving Europe’s largest gas plant, and the week before, the government struck energy deals at a UK-Africa summit worth £2bn, with over 90% going to fossil fuels despite the opportunity for these countries to leapfrog directly to renewable energy. These investments will release nearly 70m tonnes of CO2, almost a sixth of the total carbon emissions of the UK.
Through a haze of greenwashing, omission and blatant misinformation, the current government frequently trumpets its environmental credentials yet remains committed to ignoring climate science and the increasingly urgent changes required. So what are some of the ‘incredible technological advantages’ claimed by Boris Johnson and others as potential silver bullet solutions for the climate crisis? Some examples include;
Carbon Capture & Storage (CCS)
The most frequently referenced example, involving chemically ‘capturing’ carbon from the air or directly from sources of emissions such as power plants, and ‘storing’ it in a stable form, usually underground. There are currently 17 projects underway worldwide, but combined these only capture around 0.08% of global emissions – and while CCS is most efficient used in conjunction with power plants, capturing the carbon alone increases costs per kWh by anywhere from 20-90% even when purpose-built. Retrofitting existing plants would be significantly more expensive, and sequestration itself is also energy intensive, potentially consuming up to 40% of the electricity generated by a power plant. CCS directly from air is considerably less efficient again, and trials are in their infancy, while CCS trials at coal plants have been largely found economically unviable. It is also uncertain whether carbon can be stored long-term without significant risk of leakage.
Project Drawdown on the urgent need to tackle the climate crisis now
Next generation nuclear reactors
There are various types of next generation (or ‘fourth generation’) nuclear reactors currently in development, and nuclear is a low-carbon energy source, with associated mining accounting for a roughly similar level of carbon emissions as that for renewables. While prototypes are operational, commercial application is very unlikely in the near future – the nuclear industry claims that plants are around a decade away from beginning construction, but this has been the case for so long that the ‘decade away’ claim is somewhat of an industry joke, as evidenced by the lack of ‘third generation’ nuclear plants currently in operation. Ongoing problems have delayed many third generation plants under construction, such as Hinkley Point C, and similar designs in France have begun deteriorating dangerously before even being completed. This long construction period also inhibits nuclear’s potential as a solution to the climate crisis – we simply don’t have long enough to build sufficient nuclear plants.
Safety concerns (aside from meltdowns and radioactivity) have dogged nuclear power in recent years. Faulty French components and falsified safety certificates endangered half of France’s 58 nuclear reactors in 2016, causing mass shutdowns, and concerns over Chinese company Huawei more recently have led many to question the prudence of new French- and Chinese-built or -owned nuclear plants in the UK. Furthermore, plants are generally built on the coast for ready access to the large amounts of water required for operation, putting them at significant risk of sea level rise.
One of nuclear’s major advantages – the sheer amount of power that can be generated by a single plant – is also a significant disadvantage in environmental terms. Not only do nuclear plants stress the grid locally, preventing installation of other generation nearby such as decentralised renewables, but they also require spinning reserve to replace the generation lost in case of shutdown. This is typically provided by large numbers of rapid-fire gas plants, nullifying the low-carbon aspect of nuclear power.
Similar to reforestation, ocean fertilisation would draw carbon from the atmosphere by boosting biogrowth – in this case, dumping iron or other nutrients in the upper ocean to stimulate phytoplankton productivity. Small-scale trials have shown mixed success, but there are several key complications with ocean fertilisation not encountered by similar land-based proposals, leading most experts to be wary of the idea. Chief among these is the potential for unforeseen negative impacts such as toxic algal blooms (which create enormous marine ‘dead zones’), disruption to fisheries, destruction of ecosystems, and cloud formation. Depending on the type of plankton growth, ocean fertilisation could even conversely result in extra carbon in the atmosphere due to altering krill, and therefore whale, populations.
This technique involves reflecting sunlight back into space by dispersing substances into the atmosphere that either encourage cloud formation, or directly reflect sunlight themselves. Whether cloud-seeding can be effective is still a matter of academic debate, with contrasting results depending on the study in question. However, the ethics of this ‘geoengineering’ approach are questionable, and there is evidence to suggest that the practice would have the potential for adverse effects such as generating the wrong type of cloud, accidentally trapping more heat. There are also various ethical and health issues around the proposal which would see widespread opposition to any large-scale application.
Similarly to cloud-seeding, this involves reflecting sunlight back into space, thus cooling the planet – more audaciously, space mirrors would do so in a self-explanatory fashion, with an array of mirrors placed in Earth’s orbit. Naturally, this would be an unprecedented expense requiring intensive international cooperation, and would likely have adverse effects such as uneven cooling and increased risk of drought. It also wouldn’t address any of the underlying problems or additional environmental issues such as ocean acidification or air pollution. That it is even under consideration as a genuine option to tackle the climate crisis is testament to the urgent need for global action.
Of the various new technologies suggested, none are capable of delivering the scale of negative emissions required, let alone at prices considered ‘feasible’. Numerous studies by the European Academies’ Science Advisory Council, ING Economic and Financial Analysis Division and others have determined that even if fully funded and implemented immediately, technological fixes such as the above could only lower emissions by less than two-thirds at best by 2050 – a date by which we need to be at net zero emissions levels and almost certainly lower (negative emissions levels). They also reiterate the dangers of large-scale geoengineering, much of which cannot be adequately tested and would also face various ethical hurdles.
Furthermore, many would take so long to implement that we would already have locked in dangerous levels of warming before they began to show results. And perhaps most importantly, all are prohibitively expensive. Even third generation nuclear – existing technology – is vastly more expensive than renewables, with the government having guaranteed £92.50/MWh to EDF Energy for electricity at Hinkley, a move analysts described as ‘economically insane’. The cost to consumers has risen eightfold to over £50 billion, while renewables have continued their price dive – for the same investment, we could provide six times as much electricity with wind power.
In fact, onshore wind has been the cheapest form of power generation in the UK since at least 2015, and solar has been a close second since at least 2018 here and globally. Both are projected to continue to fall in price substantially, while the ‘baseload’ issue much touted by opponents has not only been solved long ago in theory and in practice with effective grid management, the decentralised nature of renewables, increased grid connectivity and storage, but in fact has essentially been a myth all along.
Even 10+ years ago, research showed that the UK could comfortably provide 100% of its energy needs through renewables using (then) current technology. The body of evidence has since expanded, and it is now clear that we could achieve full carbon neutrality in all areas using only proven technology. Moreover, this would not only have significant benefits for UK citizens in terms of health, jobs and lower bills, but would be many times cheaper in financial terms than not acting or acting too late on the climate crisis – while obviously being immeasurably better in societal and moral terms.
Relying on ‘silver bullet’ new technologies would also be a huge gamble even if they were potentially feasible solutions to the climate crisis. This is especially true of risky and untestable geoengineering projects for obvious reasons, but additionally in that a technological cure-all encourages business as usual with regards to emissions. Not only does this merely displace the issue of climate change into the future, even if successful, but many heavy emitters such as the fossil fuel industry and agriculture also have other hugely negative impacts on the planet, biodiversity and health, such as water or air pollution.
Meanwhile, we have an ‘old technology’ capable of delivering enormous amounts of carbon capture – rewilding (particularly with a focus on soil health) and reforestation. A recent paper estimated that planting 1 trillion hectares of trees could reduce atmospheric CO2 levels by around 100ppm, far more than the roughly 60ppm drop currently required. This has been somewhat disputed, but the conservative IPCC has found that reforestation could remove at least a third of emissions per year.
Reforestation and rewilding of course have significant other benefits, including increasing biodiversity, providing green spaces, improving air quality, helping secure other ‘natural services’ such as preventing flooding and filtering out water pollution - not too mention re-engaging us with nature and the ecosystems that support us, our disconnect from which is a major factor in driving planetary destruction. It is important to note that reforestation should rely on expert and local knowledge to maximise biodiversity and avoid ‘green deserts’ (for example, monocultures of row-planted trees with little to no habitat creation, which are also far less efficient at capturing CO2).
New technologies will not and cannot solve the climate crisis. Worse, to entertain the idea of a ‘silver bullet’ is a dangerous gamble promoting climate complacency, potentially destroying our chances of sub-2°C warming permanently. However, the ‘old technologies’ of energy efficiency, renewables, rewilding and behavioural change (for example moving away from flying and towards public transport, away from consumerism and towards reuse and recycling) can provide the necessary reductions in emissions in the timescale required to avert climate breakdown, while meeting the technical, economic and social practicalities of the modern world. What is clear is that we cannot rely on markets alone to solve a problem they have largely created.
What we can do, is follow the pathways laid out in the excellent work being done by the Centre For Alternative Technology, Project Drawdown, the Friends of the Earth council climate blueprints, and just this week the universities collaboration, UK Fires. All of these projects draw the same conclusion - that to tackle the climate emergency we must make immediate carbon reductions through transport, planning, travel, and food, whilst redesigning land use to utilise the most proven carbon capture technique we have - trees & nature.
As writes Bill McKibben, veteran climate campaigner, ‘in the race against physics, winning slowly is still losing’.