Monday, 9 November 2009

Greatest promise?

We got a circular around work last week asking for individual scientists to contact Channel 4 news to respond to a particular climate change question. Anyway, here's what I (ignorantly) sent them ...

"Which idea, policy or technology do you think holds the greatest promise or could deliver the greatest benefit for addressing climate change?"

In the immediate future (~10 years), I believe that the greatest promise is offered by technologies related to carbon capture and storage (CCS). In principle, these will allow technological societies to retrofit existing infrastructure while continuing to use fossil fuel resources without exacerbating either climate change or ocean acidification. In an ideal world, these problems would be tackled by energy conservation and by expansion of renewable and nuclear fission energy provision, but these options are either limited in extent or are (irrationally) unpopular.

In the further future (~30 years), I believe that the greatest promise is offered by technologies related to nuclear fusion. There are a number of options being investigated on this front (of which the best-known is ITER under construction in France), but I expect that one or more will be successful and will allow us to meet longer-term energy requirements without the production of CO2. Assuming there are no further innovations in transportation technology, I would also expect nuclear fusion to provide a means for generating carbon-free hydrogen for use in land and (possibly) air travel.

Should climate change prove more rapid and deleterious than we currently believe it will be, I believe that some geoengineering technology may be helpful in temporarily offsetting climate change to allow us time to adjust our activities. Specifically, I believe that the deployment of stratospheric aerosol technology may allow us to decrease excessive global temperatures. However, since this particular technology does nothing to address the root cause of climate change, it categorically should not be viewed as anything other than a temporary "fix". Furthermore, as indicated by the recent Royal Society report, all geoengineering technologies have significant negative aspects (e.g. deleterious side-effects, prohibitive cost), and none should be viewed as preferable options.

My answers above have focused on purely technological angles to climate change, to which I would add a couple of policy / presentational points. Firstly, given that climate change measures are costly (at least in the short term), it should be recognised that there are strong financial incentives to avoid pursuing them, and policy relying on the better natures of individuals and governments is unhelpful. Mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon must be the route forwards. Secondly, and this is more a presentational point, it cannot be stressed enough that, on climate justice grounds, emissions targets should always be expressed in per capita terms and should acknowledge not just present-day emissions but those historical emissions of technological societies that have gotten them to their present state. All too often public discussion is needlessly clouded by focusing on emissions on a country-by-country basis, which ignores (all too conveniently it usually transpires) relative size. Further, technological societies are overwhelming responsible for our current situation, but this fact is often overlooked, creating great injustice when the emissions of less developed societies are scrutinised.

Finally, a point that is only rarely heard in current environmental discussions is that climate change is not the only ecological cliff-edge to which modern societies are heading. The growth of human societies (both in terms of numbers of individuals and resource consumption) is creating ever greater strain on the ecosystem services on which these same societies unknowingly rely. Coupled to this is the related loss of biodiversity, which has both practical and moral angles to it. Solving climate change, which seems a forlorn hope at the best of times, does very little for other such invisible hurdles.

Needless to say, as with other such requests for input, I've heard diddly-squat back. If I hear anything about this news item, I'll post it up.

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