Citizen Action Monitor

Policymakers won’t support rapid, deep CO2 cuts, but they will bet on risky geoengineering proposals

Why? Because slowing economic growth to cut emissions risks re-election — “Economics trumps physics.”

No 1961 Posted by fw, May 20, 2017

Kevin Anderson

“The first IPCC report came out in 1990 and the emissions this year [2015] will be 60 percent higher than they were in 1990. We’ve pretended to hear about climate change for a quarter of a century. In this millennium, emissions have been about almost two, two and a half percent higher growth than they were during the 1990s…. That [geoengineering] is already embedded in all of the scenarios that governments are using to think about what they need to do. It’s in there and it’s hidden. We look at the IPCC scenarios, virtually all of the IPCC scenarios for 2°C assume you can have negative emission technologies suck the CO2 out of the air. And the reason they need to be there is because without those, the rates of reductions beg fundamental questions about our political and economic framing.”Kevin Anderson

Dr. Hugh Hunt

“I think that this thing [geoengineering], in my view, says that whatever we are proposing to do really is unlikely to work. I suspect it’s unlikely to work because the decision-makers are being hoodwinked into thinking that there is a pathway forward that will work. I can’t see it working…. It is interesting that the research that I’ve been involved with in geoengineering with the SPICE program — which stands for Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering – a small test that we wanted to do, which didn’t involve pumping anything into the stratosphere, we had to postpone that, we had to stop doing that because of concerns about the perception of what we were doing. For me it’s a bit worrying that the perception of what we were doing in terms of pumping 35 billion tons of CO2 in the atmosphere seems not to be of any great concern.”Hugh Hunt

The two passages above are excerpted from a spontaneous conversation between two of Britain’s most vocal scientists on climate change and engineering: Kevin Anderson, the Deputy Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, who holds a joint chair in Energy and Climate Change at the School of Mechanical, Aerospace and Civil Engineering at the University of Manchester; and Dr. Hugh Hunt, a professor in Engineering Dynamics & Vibration at Cambridge University.

The 32:40-minute video-recorded conversation between Anderson and Hunt took place in December 2015, at COP  21 in Paris, and was likely moderated by journalist and filmmaker, Nick Breeze.

In Part 1 of this series, Hunt and Anderson emphasized the significance of the recent introduction of carbon budgets, as a measure of emission reduction progress, into the climate change debate: carbon budgets have been a big game-changer in terms of “really big policy implications.”

In Part 2, Hunt, while agreeing that time is the problem, attempts to inject a note of optimism into the conversation by suggesting there may be ways to “buy time”, enough time to put in place “low carbon energy supply” changes. Anderson quickly counters, calling for “realistic, not optimistic” ideas. Hunt and Anderson sarcastically dismiss technological quick fixes like Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) and Biomass Energy Carbon Capture Storage (BECCS), ending on a negative note of agreement: this technology is not up and running and working, and it’s very speculative.

In Part 3, Anderson and Hunt highlight four major climate-related problems humanity now faces: getting CO2 out of the atmosphere; ocean acidification; the enormous social challenge; and the risk of policymakers betting on some “Doctor Strangelove” quick fix. The problem with carbon-based energy, warns Anderson, is that it’s pervasive, “in every single facet of our daily lives” – there is no quick fix. If we manage to “muddle through” it will be because we’re rich enough to survive, while the poor die. We’re failing, says Anderson, because of our “lack of humanity.”

In this, Part 4, and final part, the moderator invites Anderson and Hunt to discuss the feasibility of geoengineering technologies to address the climate crisis. Bottom line, they agree geoengineering techniques are currently risky and may not even work; nevertheless, the research should continue just in case significant discoveries do emerge. In a startling remark, Anderson notes that the 2013 IPCC report put geoengineering in the spotlight because some climate models suggest that it may be necessary to keep global temperature rises below 2°C, in keeping with current economic framing. In other words, economics trumps physics. Hunt tells of a geoengineering project he worked on that had to be canned because of concerns about the “perception” of what the engineers were doing: in contrast, he wryly points out there have been no “perception” concerns about our pumping 35 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. In closing, the pair did their best to conclude on an optimistic note.

This repost below includes the complete embedded video, my subheadings and text highlighting. As well, my transcript covers that section of the video beginning at 20:10 and ending at 32:40 minutes. (Note: The transcript excludes an uninteresting section from 18:31 to 20:10).

To watch the Video on You Tube, sans transcript, click on the following linked title.

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Dr. Hugh Hunt & Professor Kevin Anderson discussing Climate Change realities uploaded to You Tube by Nick Breeze, December 20, 2015

TRANSCRIPT

SCREEN MESSAGE: Turning to geoengineering now – in a sense we’ve already been geoengineering the planet for around 250 years, by burning fossil fuels. Looking ahead, can we introduce ‘controlled’ geoengineering to address the problems we face? Is it feasible policy-wise, and also technologically – in other words, can we actually do it?

Hunt – I think it’s really unhelpful to say we have been geoengineering for the last 250 years because that kind of says therefore it’s okay to do geoengineering in another way. We have to accept the fact that if we are now going to enter into modifying the club in some way, actively and intentionally, that’s very different from what we’ve crept into unintentionally.

CO2 emissions in 2015 will be 60% higher than they were in 1990, the year of the first IPCC report

Anderson – We’ve known for a quarter of a century now — the first IPCC report came out in 1990 and the emissions this year [2015] will be 60 percent higher than they were in 1990.

“We’ve pretended to hear about climate change for a quarter of a century”

We’ve pretended to hear about climate change for a quarter of a century. In this millennia, emissions have been about almost two, two and a half percent higher growth than they were during the 1990s.

Geoengineering includes “negative emission technologies”, sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere

But you just made this point about what you’re calling geoengineering, but some people prefer to call it “negative emission technologies”. That’s one of the options where we suck the carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. That’s one the geoengineering options that’s available.

All IPCC scenarios for 2°C assume you can have negative emission technologies

That is already embedded in all of the scenarios that governments are using to think about what they need to do. It’s in there and it’s hidden. We look at the IPCC scenarios, virtually all of the IPCC scenarios for 2°C assume you can have negative emission technologies suck the CO2 out of the air.

Negative emission technologies must be in IPCC reports to fit our current economic framing – economics trumps physics

And the reason they need to be there is because without those, the rates of reductions beg fundamental questions about our political and economic framing. So what you have — if you have a certain view that our society can only deliver a certain level of carbon reductions every year — you can’t go above that — you have to suck the CO2 out of the air. If you don’t suck the CO2 out of the air, then for 2°C temperature rise, you have to have a reduction rate that people say cannot fit with our current economic framing of society.* So, in a sense, economics trumps physics.

[*For clarification, see Latest IPCC Climate Report Puts Geoengineering in the Spotlight Scientific American, October 2, 2013. – “Mention of ‘geoengineering’ in the [2013] report summary was brief, but it suggests that the controversial area is now firmly on the scientific agenda. Some climate models suggest that geoengineering may even be necessary to keep global temperature rises to below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels.”]

Decision makers are being hoodwinked into thinking there is a pathway forward that will work – but it won’t

Hunt – I think that this thing, in my view, says that whatever we are proposing to do really is unlikely to work. I suspect it’s unlikely to work because the decision-makers are being hoodwinked into thinking that there is a pathway forward that will work. I can’t see it working…

It’s too risky to assume that some technology is going to solve the carbon problem for us

Anderson – No, I can’t see it – Even if it does work, it’s too risky to assume that in 2050 to 2070 some technology is going to solve the problem for us. It’s just too risky. I think we have to look at what can we deliver today. I think it’s incredibly unlikely we’ll hold to 2°C. But it is a choice. We know we had to do that today. It does require this social-political change in the short term.

Reflecting sunlight might be a geoengineering technique we can use to buy time

Hunt – What I’m thinking then is what might buy us some time. I was saying this earlier. We know these technologies to remove CO2 from the atmosphere will be needed. And we know that they’re going to take some time to achieve, it brings us to these other questions of what might be called geoengineering – can we reflect sunlight?

Slowing the melting of the polar ice caps by reflecting sunlight back into space might buy us time

What ways are there of cooling the earth? For me the big crisis that is looming is loss of polar ice in the next 5 to 10 to 15 years. If we can manage so it reflects some sunlight back out into space, maybe only two or three percent of incoming sunlight, then maybe we can prevent, slow down the melting of the ice caps. And maybe then we get these technologies to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Then again, can we do all these things quickly enough?

But I don’t see how we can do all these things quickly enough in the timeframes that we’ve got in front of us.

Solar radiation management is a risky, even dangerous thing to try, because we don’t understand the dynamics of the stratosphere

Anderson – I’m very concerned about solar radiation management. First, it’s a lovely term, isn’t it? – “solar radiation management”. It assumes we can do it – and we just have to manage it. But that’s a fair challenge doing that. And these are techniques from people who are talking about it, that we are going to try to apply. But you look at them – I mean one of the common ones that’s discussed is to pump sulfate into the stratosphere, a part of the atmosphere we really don’t completely understand – we don’t understand their dynamics. But fine, we’re going to pump sulfate into the atmosphere, send rockets up there periodically, and that sulfate will reflect sunlight back into space. But it also migrates towards the poles, and we have to keep replenishing it. We could try that, but we don’t understand the stratosphere well enough. That’s a dangerous thing to do.

Two concerns: the technique may not work; it’s like putting a band aid over gangrene – it hides the problem

There are lots of techniques, some more or less dangerous. But another concern is, firstly, it may not work. Secondly, it will be used by some – it’s already being discussed in this way – as a sticking plaster (band aid) over gangrene. You put the sticking plaster over the gangrene and you can no longer see the problem. So you can’t count on doing what you’re doing.

What if solar radiation management requires an international protocol and a rogue state breaks the protocol – what then?

But let’s imagine the solar radiation management requires some international protocol for us to do this. And then there’s the [unintelligible] 25:00 ?? problem later on that breaks the international protocol. What happens then? Because suddenly you’ll get almost like a step change in the temperature because underneath it you’ll see that emissions will continue to rise because they use this as an excuse for not doing it.

It’s right to say that we must not implement solar radiation management, but should we ever say “no”?

Hunt – I think it is right to say that we really must not be aiming to implement solar radiation management. It’s not a desirable strategy, in all sorts of ways. But when we get to a situation – if we get to a situation in 10-15-20 years time when we think – My god, the ice cap at the North Pole has gone and the permafrost is melting and we’re measuring methane coming faster than we’ve ever anticipated. And look, there is this technology that we could try, which might refreeze the poles. At that point in time, does it make sense to do it? I don’t think we should ever say “no”.

Using salt to make clouds is another option to consider, but first we have to understand the process a bit better

Anderson – Some other people may look at this idea that you put salt particles into the atmosphere; they act as cloud condensation nuclei, in other words clouds form around them. So there are ways, if you like, evaporating the sea water to produce salt, and that would produce clouds. Now clouds aren’t that well understood. Sometimes clouds can reflect the sunlight back into space, they can also, of course, reflect the heat back down to earth. We have to try to understand that a little bit better. But that’s another option to consider.

We should do the research – But our policy framing must assume they don’t work

Personally, my view on this is that we should do the research. We should do the research on these techniques and we should do the research on techniques to suck CO2 out of the air, but all of our policy framing must assume they don’t work, so they are an insurance policy that has a very high probability of never paying out. But we should nevertheless do the research but assume that they won’t work. Unfortunately, what we’re doing is we’re not doing very much research and we’re assuming that they do work.

One geoengineering project was cancelled over concerns over the perception of what we were doing

Hunt – It is interesting that the research that I’ve been involved with in geoengineering with the SPICE program — which stands for Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering – a small test that we wanted to do, which didn’t involve pumping anything into the stratosphere, we had to postpone that, we had to stop doing that because of concerns about the perception of what we were doing. There wasn’t concern about what we were actually doing; it was concerns about the perception of what we were doing.

Meanwhile, we have pumped 35 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere – Isn’t that terribly worrying?

For me it’s a bit worrying that the perception of what we were doing in terms of pumping 35 billion tons of CO2 in the atmosphere seems not to be of any great concern. But the perception of research we might do into climate engineering is terribly worrying. I’m not saying that it isn’t terrible worrying, but I am saying that CO2 is also terribly worrying, and let’s get a balance.

We could reduce our energy consumption today, but we’re not prepared to do it

Anderson – Nor are they — ultimately all of it to me is a bit – because I take the view that we can make a big difference by making social changes now. We can just about hold to 2°C in these rapid and deep reductions by this small group of high emitters. Because we are saying we’re not prepared to do that, therefore we have to think about all these other sets of issues. And I think we do need to reinvigorate that debate about social change in the short to medium term, whilst you put the low carbon energy supply in place.

Instead, we have to think about all these other risky techniques that may not even work

Because all these other techniques are contentious in lots of respects and they may not work. If we could reduce our energy consumption today – and, as I say, that’s not everyone in the planet, that’s only a relatively small number of us – then that definitely would have an impact on carbon dioxide very quickly.

If we can reduce our CO2 emissions to zero, we can forget the geoengineering

Hunt – I was speaking to somebody from Friends of the Earth yesterday, who said “Oh, I really don’t like geoengineering. Maybe once we reduced our CO2 emissions down to zero then it might be worth trying.” And I thought it’s a bit like saying “Once I’m cured of cancer, I don’t mind trying chemotherapy.” If we can get our CO2 emissions down to zero, great, forget the geoengineering. We don’t need it.

*****

SCREEN MESSAGE — It’s been a fascinating conversation, but overall the outlook appears to be pretty bleak. To sum up – when you look at the climate situation, can you think f anything that inspires optimism?

Anderson – In as far as optimism… [long pause, Kevin looks at Hugh, who jumps right in]

Two reasons to be optimistic: first, when the crunch comes, a big change could be made quickly because the problem resides in a small population of emitters

Hunt – I’ve got optimism, firstly I think there is optimism that because the big CO2 problem resides with a relatively small, and relatively literate, highly abusive population, when it comes to the crunch a big change could be made. That’s number one.

Second, Hunt has great faith in the ability of engineers to rise to the challenge

Number two is, I think that — I’m an engineer and I think engineers – you look at the kind of things that were done in World War 2 and in other places. One of my heroes is Barnes Wallace who, as an engineer, turned the tide of World War 2 in so many ways – the bouncing bomb, the Wellington bomber – he is the inspirational figure who did these kind of things under great stress. We’re coming into a period of great stress, and I think that our young kids at school now, in the next ten, fifteen years, they’ll be going through university, going through engineering science degrees, they’re going to be our new generation of inspirational people. I’m not just relying on them rather hopefully, I just believe that the world we’re going into will be very stressful and people will rise to the challenge, and great things will happen.

We already have the two tools we need to keep global warming below 2°C – that’s a source of optimism

Anderson – I think we have all the tools we need to resolve this problem pretty much at our fingertips now. But we’re not prepared to use the ones that we have. And those tools are – those twofold ones — as I said before, very significant social change for a few in the short to medium term, and engineers doing what engineers have been good at doing for decades, if not centuries – and that is change our infrastructure towards a very low carbon future going forward. If you put those two together, I think 2°C still remains a viable goal.

We could see change emerge from different people and places, but least of all from prime ministers and leaders

But beyond that I think that something else is quite hopeful. We live in a complex world, not just a complicated world, a complex world. Climate change is a very complex problem. The great thing about complexity is that it has emergent properties. Things come out that you would never have anticipated, cannot anticipate. The good thing about that is it gives every single person, 7 billion of us, are agents for change. Most of us will fail. Most ideas will wither and die on the vine. But a few seeds will flower and come forth. And the role of society is to nurture those ones, to fertilize those ones, to learn from those and then say what do we need to convert – to scale that up.

And if you see the world as a complex problem, you’re no longer relying on the prime ministers and the leaders. You’re relying on all of us as part of that change.

That’s what I hope for – that we could see change emerge from different places. So we need to give ourselves some scope for thinking differently about the future.

END OF PART 4 / END OF SERIES

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