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Climate Technofix: The Search for a Silver Bullet

05 Jun 2013

We can put a man on the moon but we can’t stop the world warming by a few measly degrees?

“Technofix” is shorthand for the idea that the climate challenge will ultimately be solved by a technological fix that will obviate the need for expensive and disruptive policy measures. Humanity has achieved some amazing things in recent years when it put its minds to it: the eradication of smallpox, the “green revolution” in food production, and the moon landings for example. So why can’t we arrange for a technical effort on a par with the Apollo Program to fix our climate? Some people believe we can, either through the discovery of an as-yet-unknown cheap low-carbon energy source, or through “geoengineering” the planet to control its climate.

Geoengineering schemes include plans to dim the sun’s influence on global temperatures by various methods: spraying sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere, “whitening” clouds by spraying seawater at them, turning deserts into vast reflective surfaces, and even deploying gigantic mirrors in space. It’s easy to dismiss such proposals as the stuff of science fiction, but there are already calls for more research into these approaches, so that the world is ready if and when conventional mitigation approaches fail and we need to break out our options of last resort.

A risk of geoengineering schemes, however, is that for all we know the cure might be as bad as the disease. It’s known that so-called “sunshade” schemes will limit rainfall but the impact on regional climates cannot be reliably predicted. The European Union, through its Seventh Framework Programme for Research, has funded a major project to assess the implications and risks of such proposals. The initial findings suggest a global reduction in rainfall of about 5%, with much larger reductions across large areas in North America, northern Eurasia and South America.

While geoengineering will continue to receive attention, only the most hopeless optimists believe it will be a technofix for climate change in any real sense. Geoengineering techniques only approach viability when all other mitigation efforts have failed and catastrophic climate change is locked in. However unless and until we can predict the regional consequences of such techniques it’s hard to imagine a circumstance in which the world would agree to attempt them, even as a last resort.

A relatively “respectable” technofix with a great deal of official support is Carbon Capture and Storage/Sequestration (CCS): capturing carbon dioxide at the point of combustion, compressing it and pumping it underground into depleted gas fields or other geological formations. The European Union has offered two separate funding streams to support CCS technology, with the aim of getting a number of demonstration projects up and running by 2015. To date the take-up has been nil. Part of the problem is the reluctance of Member States to come up with the necessary matching funds, but in the most recent case the steel giant ArcelorMittal pulled out of a proposed “green” steelmaking project in northern France, despite all the funding being in place, citing technical reasons. The collapse in the price of carbon in the Emissions Trading Scheme is also a serious barrier to private investment, as noted by the European Commission in its recent CCS consultation document.

Despite the immaturity of the technology it has strong proponents in both industry and civil society. The European Union will certainly continue its support for CCS: a second call for proposals under the NER300 programme is currently open, and the European Parliament will also prepare a report proposing new ways to promote and fund its development. Separately, the respected climate scientist Myles Allen recently issued a high-profile call to effectively bet the planet on CCS. In an article for the UK’s Mail on Sunday he wrote:

It is perfectly possible to burn fossil carbon and not release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere: you have to filter it out of the flue gases, pressurise it, and re-inject, or ‘sequester’, it back underground. … The only thing that actually matters for climate policy is whether, before we release too much, we get to the point of burying carbon at the same rate that we dig it up.

Nothing else matters – not for climate, anyway. Not efficiency targets, nor even population growth, provided we meet this goal.

The attraction of Allen’s approach is that it sweeps away all the complications attending to climate policy, emissions trading schemes, renewable energy supports and efficiency targets in favour of a single policy that places the obligation for emissions reduction squarely on the shoulders of the emitters. Allen is at his most persuasive when he presents the issue of GHG emissions as essentially a waste management challenge: why shouldn’t those who emit harmful by-products be made responsible for their removal and storage?

As is so often the case, the simplicity of the scheme is seductive but deceptive. Even if we accept, purely for the sake of argument, his wishful thinking that a global deal would not be required to implement the policy, we have to contend with some very real practical limitations. Even if we assume the technology moves relatively rapidly from demonstration to production status, the scale of the challenge inherent in rolling it out on any appreciable scale is enormous. The Canadian scientist Vaclav Smil offers an illustration:

…in order to sequester just a fifth of current CO2 emissions we would have to create an entirely new worldwide absorption-gathering- compression-transportation-storage industry whose annual throughput would have to be about 70 percent larger than the annual volume now handled by the global crude oil industry whose immense infrastructure of wells, pipelines, compressor stations and storages took generations to build.

Is it likely that the development of such an infrastructure would attract less public resistance than renewable energy installations? Given the problems of scale, the most plausible prospect for CCS remains that suggested in the IPCC’s 2005 report on the technology: it will be part of a “portfolio” of mitigation measures rather than a silver bullet.

The search for a silver bullet may be one of the strains of thought that limits the public appetite for action on climate change. Dramatic advances in recent times have given us a degree of faith in humanity’s ingenuity which is warranted but risks blinding us to the fact that not all problems can be solved with technology alone.

In terms of climate change, the fallacy is assuming that technological solutions will be seamlessly integrated into our current way of life, and will allow us to carry on as before while the smart people get on with fixing the climate. The reality is that the rollout of new technologies, such as CCS and smart grids, will be part of a wider societal shift to a low-carbon economy. We will not be passive observers of the solutions to climate change, we will be active participants in changing how we do things, how we consume energy, how we travel and how we eat.

For example, smart grid technology represents a major technological advance on our current electricity distribution systems, but its role in decarbonisation is not necessarily a seamless transition for the public. Smart grids enable advanced demand management techniques including the ability to power down connected appliances such as fridges and washing machines to address spikes in demand or troughs in supply. These innovations have already been branded as “sinister” creations of “big brother” power companies by the Daily Mail, and how to deploy the technology in a publicly acceptable way is a key challenge.

The reality is that in the fields of renewable energy, electricity distribution, and resource and energy efficiency the world is already engaged in a technological and political effort that dwarf the Apollo Program in scale. Unfortunately it is decentralised, multifaceted, messy, uncertain and, at present, underperforming. We are not in a position to present the public with any reliable vision of a low-carbon future, let alone one in which the role of technology is well understood.

Of course we can never rule out a game-changing breakthrough, but if there really is a “silver bullet” technological solution to climate change, at present it lies not just outside our technical capabilities but outside our imaginative capacity.

Note: The Dublin Climate Gathering, taking place in June, will address the intersection of digital technology with the climate change challenge. For more information see http://dublin.climategathering.org/


This content forms part of the Environment Nexus project, which is co-financed bDG Communication of the European Parliament.

As an independent forum, the Institute does not express any opinions of its own. The views expressed in the article are the sole responsibility of the author.

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