COP 27 – the 27th Cop-out??

Currently, a number of parties have descended on Sharm el-Sheikh for COP 27. This is the 27th “Conference of the Parties” to deal with climate change. Everybody, by now, should be aware that a major contributor to climate change is the increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and we have to reduce emissions. In the previous 26 conferences various pledges were made to reduce such emissions, but what has happened? According to Nature, CO2 emissions are set to reach a record high of 37.5 billion tonne in 2022. So much for a controlled reduction of emissions. In my opinion, the biggest effect from such conferences is the increased emissions due to getting all the participants to them. In this context there are apparently over 600 fossil fuel lobbyists at this conference. So the question then is, why has so little been achieved?

My answer is the politicians took the easy way out: to be seen to be doing something they implemented a carbon trading scheme. This allows money to flow, and the idea was that economics will make people transition to non-fossil-based energy by raising the price of the fossil fuels. To make this look less like a tax, they then allowed the trade of credits, and politicians issued credits to “deserving causes”. There were two reasons why this had to fail: the politicians had the ability to sabotage it by issuing credits to those it favoured, and secondly, there are no alternatives that everyone can switch to. Therein lies the first problem. Price does not alter activity much unless there is an alternative, and in most cases there is no easy alternative.

The second one is that even if you can develop alternatives, there is far too much installed capacity. The economies of just about every country are highly dependent on using fossil fuel. People are not going to discard their present vehicles and join a queue to purchase an electric one. They are still selling new petroleum-powered vehicles, and a lot of energy has been invested in making them. Like it or not, the electricity supply of many countries is dependent on coal-fired generation, and it costs a lot to construct a new plant to generate electricity. No country can afford to throw away their existing generation capacity.

In principle, the solution for electricity is simple: nuclear. So why not? Some say it is dangerous, and there remains the problems of storing wastes. It is true that people died at Chernobyl, but that was an example of crass incompetence. Further, in principle molten salt reactors cannot melt down while they also burn much of the waste. There is still waste that has to be stored somewhere, but the volume is very small in comparison. So why is this not used? Basically, the equipment has not been properly developed, the reason being that reactors were first designed so they could provide the raw material for making bombs. So, when the politicians recognized the problem at the end of the 1980s, what should have happened is that money was invested for developing such technology so that coal-fired power could be laid to rest. Instead, there was a lot of arm-waving and calls for solar and wind power. It is true these generate electricity, and in some cases they do it efficiently, however they cannot handle main load in most countries. Similarly with transport fuels. Alternative technologies for advanced biofuels were developed in the early 1980s, but were never taken to the next stage because the price of crude oil dropped to very low levels and nothing could compete. The net result was that technology was lost, and much had to be relearned. We cannot shut down the world industries and transport, and the politicians have refused to fund the development of alternative fuels.

So, what will happen? We shall continue on the way we are, while taking some trivial steps that make at least some of us, usually politicians, feel good because we are doing something. Unfortunately, greenhouse gas levels are still rising, and consider what is happening at the levels we are at. The Northeast Greenland Ice Stream is melting and the rate of melt is increasing because the protection from the Zachariae Isstrøm glacier that protected the coastal part of the ice stream broke off. Now, warmer seawater is penetrating up to 300 km under the ice stream. Global ocean levels are now predicted to rise up to a meter by the end of the century from the enhanced melting of Greenland ice. More important still is Antarctica. There is far more ice there, and it has been calculated that if the temperatures rose by four degrees Centigrade above pre-industrial levels up to two thirds of that ice could go.

Unfortunately, that is not the worst of the problems. If the climate heats, food becomes more difficult to provide. The most obvious problem is that most of the very best agricultural land is close to sea level, so we lose that. But additionally, there will be regions of greatly increased drought, and others with intense floods. Neither are good for agriculture. Yet there is an even worse problem: as soil gets hotter, it loses carbon and becomes less productive, while winds tend to blow soil away. So, what can we do about this? Unfortunately, it has to be everyone. We have to not only stop venting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, but we have to work out ways to take it out. Stop and ask yourself, does your local politician understand this? My guess is no. Does your local politician understand what a partial differential equation means? My guess is no.