Cool heads over global warming

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Smoke from wildfires across the western US fill the horizon as the sun sets over Utah Lake  this month. Photo: Reuters

Smoke from wildfires across the western US fill the horizon as the sun sets over Utah Lake  this month. Photo: Reuters

Time is short but it is still possible to avoid a climate crisis, according to two new books, one each from either side of the Tasman. Tom McKinlay reports.

There’s a crisis in Professor Tim Flannery’s house.

Ralph Chapman

Ralph Chapman

It sounds like it might have something to do with the sixth mass extinction.

That’s the mass extinction brought on by global warming, referenced in his new book, Atmosphere of Hope.

In it he quotes Elizabeth Kolbert’s 2014 study that confirmed the current global rate of extinction is about 1000 times greater than the normal or background extinction rate.

Inasmuch as we tend to hear of extinctions after the fact, they might be expected to involve whimpers rather than bangs.

Species quietly slipping out of existence as the environments that support them become slowly more hostile.

But what is going on at Prof Flannery’s place is something else.

There’s a cacophony, a determination to not go quietly. And there’s also an alternative explanation.

The ruckus is courtesy of a 3-year-old with strong views about nappy changing, explains Prof Flannery down the phone line from Sydney.

The crisis abates and something resembling peace is restored, at least as far as the phone can pick up.

So the Australian climate scientist can turn his attention to the matter at hand, the imminent release of his new book.

It too is concerned with the present and future of 3-year-olds.

Atmosphere of Hope is something of a misnomer.

It argues that there is now little of that most precious commodity, little hope of the international community doing enough to keep global warming on the right side of the 2degC ”guardrail” agreed at 2009’s Copenhagen summit.

On the phone, Prof Flannery insists hope remains but argues, as he does in the book, that to keep the world’s climate from becoming unmanageably hot and dangerous for todays 3 years olds, we need to commit to what he calls ”third way” processes and technologies that will allow us to remove carbon from the atmosphere directly.

Tim Flannery

Tim Flannery

The prospect of keeping global warming within 2degC of pre-industrial levels by cutting emissions alone is fading, he says.That’s one take on the world’s most pressing existential crisis.

Another is courtesy of Associate Professor Ralph Chapman, director of Victoria University’s graduate programme in environmental studies, who is on the phone from Wellington, where all seems calm.

However, the man who has been working on climate change since 1988 – he was a Kyoto negotiator for New Zealand – prescribes urgency rather than calm, and also has a new book to argue for it.

Time of Useful Consciousness: Acting Urgently on Climate Changetakes as its starting point a phenomenon familiar to pilots.

The ”time of useful consciousness” is the ”time between when one loses oxygen and when one passes out, the brief time in which some life-saving action is possible”.

That’s where we are with climate change, Prof Chapman says, so the question becomes: ”What actions in this time period are truly vital?”

So far so grim, but both men are writing in order to catalyse the efforts they say can still turn things around.

First, though, they provide reminders of why the time for action is upon us.

Quoting the World Bank, Prof Chapman writes: ”The science [of climate change] is settled … Our world is on thin ice.”

Tipping points such as the melting of the Greenland ice sheets are not far off (estimated to occur at about 1.6degC of warming above pre-industrial levels) and even the slightly more distant prospect of a 2.7degC rise altering the Gulf Stream threatens if the current emission pathway towards 3degC warming continues.

We have already warmed the world by about 0.9degC.

Prof Flannery chimes in with warnings about ocean acidification – also caused by CO2 emissions – which is already ”having severe economic and environmental impacts”.

Of course, both books are out as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change talks loom in Paris in late November and December, and Prof Flannery’s (due on shelves next week) follows quickly on the heels of his country’s ”vastly inadequate” carbon dioxide-cutting target of 26%-28% on 2005 levels by 2030, set as part of the Paris process.

New Zealand’s target of a 30% reduction on 2005 levels has been similarly described.

Critically, neither is regarded as sufficient to give the planet a chance of staying under 2degC of warming.

Prof Flannery says he expects to see an agreement in Paris in December but does not think it will put the world on a path to stay inside the 2degC guardrail. Prof Chapman agrees.

”The bottom line of the carbon budget is simple,” Prof Flannery writes.

”To have a 75% chance of avoiding more than 2degC of warming, over the first half of this century humanity can emit no more than 1000 gigatonnes of CO2.

“That sounds like a lot, but by 2012 only 672 gigatonnes remained. At the rate we’re burning fossil fuels, we’ll have used up the entire carbon budget by 2028 – just over halfway into the budget period.”

So to the two men’s prescriptions.

Prof Flannery argues that even if we manage to avoid 2degC of warming, that’s no guarantee that we won’t face catastrophic climate change. Remember the Greenland ice sheets could be collapsing by then.

So he suggests investing now in ”third-way” technologies (so called as they are about neither emissions reductions nor geoengineering) that by 2030 might be in a position to start removing carbon from the atmosphere in meaningful quantities, as well as having another look at carbon capture and storage.

Third-way technologies ”recreate, enhance or restore the processes that created the balance of greenhouse gases which existed prior to human interference”.

We are currently putting about 10 gigatonnes of carbon into the atmosphere a year, so the third-way technologies need to be able to do the job at scale.

Prof Flannery highlights 11 ”sustainable activities” that have the potential to withdraw at least one gigatonne of carbon (about 3.7 gigatonnes of CO2) from the atmosphere per year.

Among the obvious starters is planting trees, which grow by drawing down CO2.

To remove one gigatonne of carbon annually by planting trees would involve reforesting an area the size of Australia by 2050, Prof Flannery says.

A big job but possible.

It would cost $20-$100 a tonne of CO2 captured, or about $370 billion all up.

Another possibility he considers is the production of biochar, which is created by burning vegetable matter in the absence of oxygen.

The biochar is then added to soil, improving it, but also locking away carbon for up to 100 years.

At this stage, the biochar industry is too small to make much of a contribution, but Prof Flannery says it could yet scale up.

But he gets most excited about the prospect of seaweed farming.

Because seaweed grows very fast, it could be used to remove CO2 at scale, according to scientists at the University of the South Pacific.

While growing and processing the seaweed in meaningful quantities is ”far beyond” current capacities, it has the advantage of requiring no new technologies, he says.

Other possibilities raised are carbon-negative plastics and cements (already in production on a modest scale), new chemical processes that can create fuels from water and CO2, and attempts to replicate photosynthesis.

Some would be money-making propositions, others would need government funding to realise, but taken together they could, by 2050, be drawing four gigatonnes of carbon from the atmosphere, he says.

Carbon capture and storage also gets another look from Prof Flannery, who describes the work of Professor Ernie Agee, of Purdue University.

Prof Agee has been investigating the possibility of freezing CO2 out of the air over the Antarctic and burying it in the snow.

None of this is any reason not to reduce carbon emissions by as much as possible now, Prof Flannery says, but given we are currently on a worst-case trajectory, in coming decades such ideas might begin to look very attractive.

Prof Chapman’s analysis is somewhat different.

The ”time of useful consciousness” to which he refers is all about the capacity of governments, nations to work together to avert a climate crisis.

”We will be in a state at some point, maybe in two decades’ time, when governance will start to fall over, when our systems will cease to function because rational decision-making will go out the window,” he says.

With another half a degree or degree of warming, climate destabilisation may well see refugees knocking down the doors and governments starting to fail under the pressures.

There’s a short window between denial of a problem and surrender to its effects, Prof Chapman says.

”And it is that window we are starting to go into now.

”Obama put it quite well … `We are the first generation to start to feel the effects of climate change, and the last to be able to do anything about it.’ Which is exactly the same concept, really, that there is this short window.”

But the Paris talks are unlikely to get us there. So what else is there?

Prof Chapman likes the idea, previously mooted by others, of a climate club.

”Which is the notion that a kernel of important nations agree, so the US and Europe, on a climate agreement, which involves quite rapid decarbonisation, and then they put border tariffs on imports into those countries.”

Then anyone who wants to trade with the US or Europe, which is everyone, has to tackle their own carbon emissions first.

”So it becomes an expanding club, a bit like the World Trade Organisation, in which everyone wants to join but the price of joining is to put a sufficient price on carbon.”

It is an incentive mechanism that could work sufficiently well but requires concern for the climate trumping trade considerations, Prof Chapman says.

”The dominant narrative internationally has been about freeing up trade and investment to grow the economy and that’s all very well if growing the economy is not enormously damaging,” he says.

At some point, governments are going to realise that the most important thing is not growing the economy but keeping the world’s climate system together, and move it to No1 on the agenda.

”The G7, which has clearly been thinking about these issues and has lifted climate change on its agenda, is going to have to go, ‘OK, this is No1 and the sine qua non of future trade and growth’.”

It is easy to glibly prognosticate about the end of civilisation when discussing climate change, he says.

But a rolling back of civilisation as we know it is in prospect.

”The fact is that it could actually start to undermine the sort of civilisation we have developed, with sophisticated trade linkages, globalisation, growth and income to extraordinary levels by historical standards.

”It could actually start to undermine our civilisation quite soon. Not in an instant collapse kind of way but with the sort of spreading of state failure.

”I am seeing more and more concern on the part of people like the Pentagon, the White House, various centres of strategic studies.”

For all the stern and sober realism of the two men’s books, they both end on a positive note.

The situation, Prof Chapman says, is far from hopeless; rapid shifts in public and government attitudes are not only possible but plausible. And New Zealand is in a strong position to be a force for change.

Prof Flannery says we have the tools we need to avoid climate disaster, but we need to crack on.

A growing number of people are taking action in their own lives or in the public sphere, he says.

”Between deep, rapid emissions cuts and third-way technologies, we can do it.”

Three-year-olds might still stand a chance.

Time is short but it is still possible to avoid a climate crisis, according to two new books, one each from either side of the Tasman.

• Tom McKinlay reports.

This article was originally published online at: ODT New Zealand and retrieved on 8/29/2015