A key climate change commission placed a bomb under the environmental debate last week. The National Infrastructure Commission, which advises the UK government on progress (or not) to Net Zero, published a report saying it cannot be met by renewables and efficiency alone. We will have to resort to what is called “geo-engineering”. This can mean everything from carbon capture to mirrors in space. Restoring peatland to planting forests.
“Technological fixes” have generally been anathema to green evangelists. They prefer things like reversing economic growth, banning cars and aviation and not eating meat. But it is becoming clear that the hair shirt approach will not be adequate to do the job. According to the Commission, there is already too much CO2 in the atmosphere from previous industrialisation.
So geo-engineering is coming, like it or not. It will be one of the Big Issues at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow in November. Next week’s report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, it’s sixth and most comprehensive since 1988, is expected to report that the climate is heating up even more rapidly than previously thought. Scientists who previously dismissed geo-engineering, like Britain’s former Chief Scientist under Labour, Sir David King, are coming round to technological solutions because, in his words, “time is running out”. He set up the Cambridge Centre for Climate Repair.
Now, mirrors in space is still the realm of science fiction and not taken seriously by the Commission. Mind you, now that we have tech moguls, like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, putting their billions into private space travel, I wouldn’t rule out one of them offering to put some reflective materials in geostationary orbit to divert the sun’s rays.
There are already plans for vast solar arrays in the Sahara. Geo-engineering could make Africa an energy super power. However, if solar farms are too big they can create environmental problems of their own. Then there is cloud seeding in the Arctic which has been advocated by Professor Stephen Salter of Edinburgh University.
Seas can also be used to capture carbon dioxide. A quarter of our emissions are already absorbed by the oceans and this could be enhanced by, for example, growing plankton farms. However, this might have awkward knock-on effects, such as making the seas more acidic.
It sometimes seems that, for every genius fix, there is an ecological blowback. Just as with nuclear power which was once thought of as the ultimate clean energy source.
In practical terms, according to the National Infrastructure Commission’s Chairman, Sir John Armitt, we must look to tried and tested methods of scrubbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing it under the ground. This can be done in two ways. By growing lots of trees, or “biomass” which absorbs CO2, burning it, and then storing the gasses produced. Or by burning conventional fossil fuels in power stations and then “sequestrating” CO2 through what is called Carbon Capture and Storage, CCS. Some novel schemes under development in America aim to utilise the captured CO2 to help make materials like carbon fibre, plastics and even concrete.
Since we would need to grow an acreage of trees twice the size of India, biomass looks the least likely to deliver rapid results. Which leaves CCS. This is an attractive idea in principle, and one that the former SNP First Minister, Alex Salmond, was promoting over a decade ago. He saw it as complimentary to wind and tidal energy, to Scotland becoming the Saudi Arabia of renewables.
Scotland could continue to develop oil wells in the North Sea, he thought, and expiate our carbon sins by storing CO2 in disused oil wells. Even using the CO2 to extract difficult-to- get deposits of oil. By using the existing pipe network and platforms it could, Mr Salmond hoped, provide an alternative to decommissioning. What’s not to like?
Unfortunately, it never really caught on. People said it would be too expensive. Opinion rapidly turned against the North Sea Oil industry. The UK government cut funding for the original Peterhead CCS experiment on cost grounds in 2015. But CCS is not lying down. Indeed South of Scotland Electricity and Equinor (the new moniker for the Norwegian National Oil Fund) are planning a new Peterhead Power Station which will be the first gas-fuelled plant to use-full chain carbon capture and storage on a commercial scale.
By capturing 1.5 million tons of CO2 annually, it alone could meet 15% of the UK government’s carbon capture target by 2030. Many carbon capture schemes are financed by Big Oil companies like ExxonMobile, to the distaste of environmentalists. But Peterhead is backed by the acceptable face of the fossil fuel industry, the Norwegian state, so it may well make it to construction.
There has been an understandable reluctance hitherto to look at big projects like carbon capture. The Commission says it could put up to £400 on heating bills. And it also seems a little too good to be true. We tend to discuss climate change almost as a lifestyle choice – about making micro-changes like not rinsing dishes before putting them in the dishwasher as advocated by Boris Johnson’s former spokesperson, Allegra Stratton,last week. But these gestures while they might make us feel better are largely a waste of time. Like melting down railings in the Second World War. The climate challenge is so great and so imminent that technology is really our only hope.
China burns half the world’s coal – the most polluting fuel of all – and is still installing coal fired power stations at a rate of one a week. It built 40 gigawatts of coal capacity in 2020 alone. India is not far behind. We in the west can’t order these nations not to develop. The US climate ambassador John Kerr echoed Donald Trump last week by saying that China must curb its “staggering fossil fuel use”. But they aren’t going to listen. Asia will to continue ramping up Industrial emissions for many years. So we need to find ways of combatting climate change on an industrial scale.
Moreover, in a democracy like ours and America’s, it is difficult for any government to say that people must get substantially poorer, or must abandon their way of life. We already have a problem of fuel poverty. Halting industry, as advocated by the Green Party,would make millions unemployed and wreck the financial system. That could itself have catastrophic climate implications. It might lead to the election of populist leaders like Brazil’s Jair Bolsanaro, who appears to be accelerating the destruction of the Amazon Rain Forest in his dash for growth.
With floods, storms and wild fires dominating the news, voters are increasingly climate conscious. The debate is over and it is up to government to act – not just issue vague targets and aspirations. The irony is that industrial technology got us into this mess with the industrial revolution. It is becoming clear now that only industrial technology, on a global scale, is going to get us out of it.