30 September 2012

Geoengineering the Planet

Following on from my last column in which I described the unprecedented extent of the sea ice melt in the Arctic this summer, I want to take you to a dark place that you may never have considered going to before. I want to suggest that we may need to undertake some limited Geoengineering in the immediately foreseeable future. I realise this is a radical suggestion, particularly coming from a committed green like myself, but there is a good reason as I will explain.

To set the stage I want to start by challenging the idea that it would never be right to geoengineer our planet. If it were an ice age we were facing, with great ice sheets set to cover most of Europe, Russia, Canada and a large part of the USA. Crop production would be devastated and hundreds of millions of people would become homeless or starve to death. Would we accept geoengineering then to keep the planet warm enough for our civilisation to continue? I know I would and I suspect so would most other people. 

So now let’s turn our attention to the current situation. The reason I want to suggest we should consider geoengineering is because of methane. It is generally stated that methane has a global warming potential (GWP) which is around 21 times that of CO2, but while this is the figure used by the UNFCCC, it doesn’t tell the whole story. This is the 100 year averaged figure, but methane only stays in the atmosphere for around 12 years and in that time it has a GWP in the region of 90 times that of CO2.

At the moment the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere is around 392 parts per million (ppm). Methane is the next most important global warming gas, with a concentration of around 1800 parts per billion (ie 1.8ppm), this having risen around 150% since the start of the industrial revolution compared to an increase of around 40% in CO2.

Recent articles have highlighted the risks of significant methane releases triggered by the well above average rate of warming in the more northerly latitudes. On land methane is being released in the tundra as the permafrost thaws and wetland peat bogs warm, and in the oceans lie vast quantities of the gas in the form of frozen methane clathrates, which if mobilised could dramatically impact on our climate. The references in my last column to the Arctic Methane Emergency Group and the interview with Peter Wadhams both highlighted these risks.

Significantly increased methane emissions run the risk of pushing us into unstoppable runaway warming. But crucially their impact would be felt over a relatively limited time period. Within 12-15 years the released methane would disappear from the atmosphere. A temporary programme of geoengineering – I’m not going to discuss of what form, that’s another whole issue – might be necessary to prevent this scenario from becoming a disastrous reality.

But there is one crucial caveat which I would add. A key concern of opponents of geoengineering is that it would be used to avoid addressing the underlying problem of our excessive carbon emissions. Reducing the amount of incoming solar radiation for example might limit the warming of the planet, but unless we cut emissions it will do nothing to address ocean acidification; and without emission cuts the extent of geoengineering required would continually increase. This is a recipe for disaster.

So my suggestion is that if we were to go down this route, it would only be acceptable if it were accompanied by a massive global programme to transform our energy systems permanently to low or zero carbon forms. Otherwise all we are doing is delaying the inevitable. Without this we would be applying a temporary palliative, just pushing back the date of the disaster by a few years.

I can’t pretend that I like this scenario. As a species we have a poor record of taking action to benefit the environment on a large scale, but we may be on the verge of developments for our climate so dramatic that we have little option other than to consider such drastic measures. At least this time we would be doing it for the right reasons rather than the thoughtless geoengineering we have inflicted on the planet so far.

25 September 2012

one week in a wonderful world

By Charlotte Du Cann

I spent most of this last week at the Transition Network Conference in London meeting up with 300 people from the UK and other countries who are holding out for a different relationship with our planet. The conference was called Building Resilience in Extraordinary Times and I was co-ordinating a crew of social reporters to cover the conference's many workshops and activities. Over five days we discussed everything that would make our communities (and the world) thrive in times of chronic collapse and imminent resource depletion. We looked at community energy incentives, alternative currencies (the Bristol Pound also launched this week). social enterprises, education,  sustainable food systems, skillshare, the work of activists and artists and of the thousand inititaives that have sprung up over the last six years.

But most of all we came together in a certain spirit and realised we were not on our own.

This week was also the week on-line pressure group Avaaaz put out an appeal - one of their many - to stop the killing of lions in South Africa. This is a week where we were asked to stop the killing of badgers in the dairy fields of Gloucestershire, to look at the "liquidation" of pigs and cattle in the USA due to rising feed prices, the slaughter of thousands of people in the resource-rich Congo and illegal fishing and human rights abuses of indentured Burmese fishermen on Thai prawn boats. This is a week, like any other week, where those of us who are shocked by such things, who care deeply about justice and liberty, are asked pledge their support to the campaigns and activists engaged in stopping the destruction of the earth we are living on, and its creatures, including ourselves.

Avaaz used the following YouTube to send to their supporters as a reminder of what we are losing. I don't watch television or care for the proprietorial tone of nature programmes, yet it seemed to me that the most crucial thing we need right now to do is to ask ourselves: what do we really value? Do we think this is a wonderful world? Or is this clip just an escapist moment, a substitute for the real earth, where we can go Ahhhhhh..... to and then carry on eating industrially-farmed prawns and drinking cheap milk and using mobile phones that depend on African minerals, without a thought of the consequences?

So this isn't a column in the usual sense of highlighting a subject that requires attention. It's more of a pause for reflection. At the Transition conference I felt that unless we could come together as a people and work in harmony,  unless we could see the beauty of what we were doing, whether we succeeded in our tasks or not, there would be no resilience and no extraordinary turn around as the storm advanced towards us. No matter how well-organised or successful our projects were, if we didn't feel of one heart, we would not hold together as a movement, a community or a culture. So our task is as human beings to see this wonderful world, and make all our actions based on that feeling. On our kinship with all beings. Here it is: