Science and Climate Change

In the previous post, I questioned whether science is being carried out properly. You may well wonder, then, when this week the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a rather depressing report, and a rather awkward challenge: according to their report, the world needed to limit the temperature rise to 1.5 degrees C between now and 2050, and to do that, it needed to cut carbon emissions by 45% by 2030, and net zero by 2050. Even then significant amounts of carbon have to be removed from the atmosphere. The first question is, then, is this real, and if so, why has the IPCC suddenly reduced the tolerable emissions? If their scientists previously predicted seriously lower requirements, why should these be considered better? There are two simple answers. The first is the lesser requirements were based on the assumption that nations would promptly reduce emissions. Most actually increased them. The second is more complicated.

The physics have been verified many times. However, predicting the effects is another matter. The qualitative effects are easily predicted, but to put numbers on them requires very complicated modelling. The planet is not an ideal object, and the calculation is best thought of as an estimate. What has probably happened is their modelling made a projection of what would happen, and they did this long enough ago that now that they can compare prediction with where we are now. That tells them how good the various constants they put into the model were. Such a comparison is somewhat difficult, but there are clear signs in our observations, and things are worse than we might hope for.

So, what are we going to do? Nothing dramatic is going to happen on 2040, or 2050. Change will be gradual, but its progress will be unstoppable unless very dramatic changes in our behaviour are made. The technical challenges here are immense. However, there are a number of important decisions to be taken because we are running short of time due to previous inaction. Do we want to defend what we have? Do we want to attempt to do it through sacrificing our life style, or do we want to attempt a more aggressive approach? Can we get sufficient agreement that anything we try will be properly implemented? Worst of all, do we know what our options are? Of these questions, I am convinced that through inaction, and in part the structural defects of academic science, the answer to the last question is no.

The original factor of required emissions reduction was set at 1990 as a reference point. What eventuated was that very few countries actually reduced any emissions, and most increased them. The few that did reduce them did that by closing coal-fired electricity generation and opted for burning natural gas. This really achieves little, and would have happened anyway. Europe did that, although France is a notable exception to this in that it has had significant nuclear power for a long time. Nuclear power has its problems, but carbon emissions are not one of them. The countries of the Soviet Union have also actually had emission reductions, although this is as much as anything due to the collapse of their economies as they made the rather stupid attempt to convert to “free market economics” which permitted a small number of oligarchs to cream the economy, sell off what they could, use what was usable, pay negligible wages and export their profits so they could purchase foreign football clubs. That reduced carbon emissions, but it is hardly a model to follow.

There is worse news. Most people by now have recognized that Donald Trump and the Republican party do not believe in global warming, while a number of other countries that are only beginning to industrialize want the right to emit their share of CO2 and are on a path to burn coal. Some equatorial countries are hell-bent on tearing down their rain forest, while warming in Siberia will release huge amounts of methane, which is about thirty times more potent than CO2. Further, if we are to totally change our way of life, we shall have to dismantle the energy-related infrastructure from the last fifty years or so (earlier material has probably already been retired) and replace it, which, at the very least will require billions of tonnes of carbon to make the required metals.

There will be some fairly predictable cries. Vegetarians will tell everyone to give up meat. Cyclists will tell everyone they should stop driving cars. In short, everyone will have ideas where someone else gives up whatever. One problem is that people tend to want to go for “the magic bullet”, the one fix to fix them all. Thus everyone should switch to driving electric vehicles. In the long term, yes, but you cannot take all those current vehicles off the road, and despite what some say, heavy trucks, major farm and construction equipment, and aircraft are going to run on hydrocarbons for the foreseeable future. People talk about hydrogen, but hydrogen currently requires massive steel bottles (unless you are NASA, or unless you can get hydrides to act reversibly). And, of course, there is a shortage of material to make enough batteries. Yes, electric vehicles, cycling, public transport and being a vegetarian are all noble contributions, but they are just that. Wind and solar power, together with some other sources, are highly desirable, but I suspect that something else, such as nuclear power must be adopted more aggressively. In this context, Germany closing down such reactors is not helpful either.

Removing CO2 from the atmosphere is not that easy either. There have been proposals to absorb it from the effluent gases of coal-fired power stations. Such scrubbing is not 100% efficient, but even if it were, it is not dealing with what is already there. My guess is, that can only be managed by plants in sufficient scale. While not extremely efficient, once going they look after themselves. Eventually you have to do something with the biomass, but restoring all the tropical rain forests would achieve something in the short term. My personal view is the best chances are to grow algae. The sea has a huge area and while we still have to learn how to do it, it is plausible, and the resultant biomass could be used to make biofuel.

No, it is not going to be easy. The real question is, can we be bothered trying to save what we have?