We must leave coal underground

Scientific consensus on anthropogenic global warming is stronger than ever; greenhouse gases have reached the highest level in over one million years and continue to climb at the fastest rate on recent record; and the world is rapidly squandering its dwindling carbon budget – the allowable amount of greenhouse gases we can emit up until 2050 to have any hope of restricting global warming to 2°C and thus limiting ‘dangerous’ climate change.

The Climate Commission’s latest report card, The Critical Decade 2013: Climate Change Science, Risks and Responses is a comprehensive document that sets out the scientific basis for urgent action on climate change, reminds us of the risks for Australians, and warns that we?ve got some serious work to do.

The main take-away message from the report is that it is still possible to keep global temperature at ‘manageable levels’ if global efforts, including from Australia, accelerate.

A big part of this accelerated effort, says the report, will mean “major changes to the ways in which energy is produced.” And one of the most major changes is that most of the world?s known fossil fuel reserves will have to be left in the ground.

The current amount of carbon embedded in the world’s indicated fossil fuel reserves (coal, oil and gas) would, if burned, emit an estimated 2,860 billion tonnes of CO2 – nearly five times the allowable budget of about 600 billion tonnes of CO2 scientists say we can emit to 2050 for a 75 per cent chance of limiting temperature rise to 2°C.

As it is, says the report, “the rate at which we are spending the (carbon) budget is still much too high”. Under a business-as-usual scenario, scientists say we are on track to have spent it by 2028, at which point we could emit no more and the world economy would need to be completely decarbonised.

For Australia, this means leaving most of its coal in the ground.
Matthew Nott

Earth Masters; Playing God with the Climate

Clive Hamilton is the Professor of Public Ethics at the Centre for Applied Philosophy at Charles Sturt University. He is a member of the Australian Governments Climate Change Authority and is the Founder and former Executive Director of The Australia Institute. Hamilton was granted the Order of Australia in 2009 for “service to public debate and policy development, particularly in the fields of climate change, sustainability and societal trends”.

Clive Hamilton has written a new book “Earth Masters; Playing God with the Climate” and will be launching it at the Candelo Bookshop in Bega at 5pm on Friday June 14th.

In his book, Hamilton investigates the scientific basis and ethical dilemmas of geoengineering, a process whereby humans can physically alter the planet to reduce the rate of global warming.

This can be done by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and depositing it elsewhere, or by reducing the amount of solar irradiation absorbed by the planet.

Whist it would be infinitely easier to reduce the cause of the problem, it is becoming increasingly obvious governments around the world are incapable of stopping the relentless increase in CO2 emissions that is fuelling both economic growth and disastrous global warming.

At first glance, geoengineering solutions seem to be an easy way out of the environmental crisis, and the range of possible solutions have been attracting significant funding from oil companies like ExxonMobile, and billionaires like Richard Branson and Bill Gates. However, our understanding of the total impact of these technologies is embryonic, and there is no way to safely test most of them without full-scale deployment.

Earth Masters covers the processes involved in the two most well-known and ‘viable’ geoengineering techniques: those that aim at removing carbon dioxide from the atmospher, and solar radiation management, a technique designed to cool the planet by reflecting radiation into space.

For the carbon removal methods, Hamilton describes ocean iron fertilisation and liming as well as land-based storage in trees, crops, agricultural wastes, soil, and algae. Solar management techniques includes such methods as cloud brightening and simulating the impact of volcanic eruptions through the spraying of sulphate particles into the upper atmosphere to cool the earth.

The point that Hamilton makes is that none of these methods are really testable in anything other than a very small scale or simulated way: there’s no way to see what implications of these techniques would be without actually doing it.

Of particular concern is that, regardless of any potential damaging impacts, geoengineering solutions appear to be politically easier to handle than emission reductions. In addition, our efforts to find an ‘easy’ solution have caused us to lose precious and limited time that could have been spent reducing emissions. We risk subsuming the ability to work with the environment and curb our outrageous hunger and desire for growth to “a lobby that unites fossil fuel corporations opposed to carbon reduction policies with investors in geoengineering technologies”.

The Australian Book Review says “It is a book that every politician, policy-maker, and citizen should read. The future of the planet and its inhabitants simply demands it.”

All are welcome to the book launch. Entry is with a gold coin donation.
Matthew Nott