Climate Tinkering

Standard

Technology has been and will be a critical part of any climate change solution. If we are to stop emitting large amounts of carbon into the air, we need to stop burning fossil fuels and start using alternative sources of energy. We could simply stop consuming as much, I suppose, and live a simpler life. That’s fine for me, I already have been lifted into relative prosperity but I for one am not prepared to condemn a billion people to remain in poverty. Energy is related to economic prosperity. Energy efficiency and conservation are good practices but in a still growing world, they don’t address development issues.

Besides, people seldom pay enough attention to exhortations to ‘be good and sacrifice your interests’ to make a real difference. Not to mention the rebound effect.

A lot of progress has been made. Thanks to the US government’s support of alternative energy programs, the commercial price of solar power is now competitive with any other alternative, including coal and oil. Natural gas still has an advantage and for a while that’s okay. Natural gas is cleaner than other fossil fuels but even it has to go within the next decade if we are to achieve our climate goals. Environmentalists may need to choose between fracking and bitumen in the short term.

We have also made progress with biofuels and wind power but they have their own problems. Ethanol from corn takes almost as much energy to produce as it provides for vehicles – and all that energy comes from fossil fuels. And it creates other environmental problems. Ethanol or methane from other sources are better. Bio-fuels, of course, release carbon, as well, but that carbon was recently taken out of the atmosphere by growing the product: a presumably virtuous cycle. Still, even these sources have their issues – requiring some oil and gas energy and lots of water. But hope is on the horizon from third generation ethanol production from cellulose or from fast growing pond scum (I should warn you – such scum has been genetically modified).

What about nuclear power? We should keep what we have but the likelihood of being able to build more plants is low, given the successful (if often misguided) campaign against it. Besides, new plants – if we started today – wouldn’t be commissioned for 12-15 years. As for fusion, it is ten years away and always will be.

But what if all our efforts aren’t enough? What if we keep putting carbon in the air at a slower rate but faster than we can take it out through natural carbon sinks? Then we still have a problem. And given the likelihood that we may in fact fail to do what we should and could do in the next forty years – what are the alternatives?

Some have suggested geo-engineering. Two proposals have gotten a lot of attention because they are cheap and easy to do. The first is to dump iron filings in the ocean to promote algae blooms – it certainly appears to work (on the surface) and has even been tried – illegally. The problem is that no one can say whether it really removes that much carbon from the air or, for sure, what the long-term or even short-term impact on ocean health will be. Sick oceans are not in the world’s best interests. Which is why it is now illegal to try this particular hare-brained experiment.

Another option would be to dump sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere. In the lower atmosphere, this chemical produces rather nasty and deadly smog but in the upper atmosphere they produce aerosols that reflect sunlight back into space. We would wind up with a slightly darker but cooler world. It is in effect a manmade volcano. In two years, the sulfur comes back to earth (acid rain anyone?) so at best it is a temporary solution or one that needs constant renewal. But it can be done with current technology.

More hopeful technologies exist in labs all over the world. Those GMO ethanol-producing algae are a fair option in a controlled environment (and could make for interesting pool parties). Better yet are artificial trees that remove carbon directly and produce solid carbon compounds that can then be buried or otherwise disposed of. Both of these have the advantage of not requiring us to perform ill-considered experiments on the only planet we know we can live on. Science may yet save the day.

And that’s somewhat more than ten minutes.

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