Tim Flannery’s new book, Atmosphere of Hope, is supposed to offer us a ‘third way’ – new solutions to climate change. It makes for a depressing read.
The book seems to leap from a kind of hopelessness into wishful thinking and an almost reckless faith in technologies that are barely at the conceptual stage.
The hopelessness emerges from the failure of governments anywhere to tackle climate change with the kind of urgency the issue clearly deserves. Instead, in places like Australia, we have a political and economic system that is even rejecting established, job creating technologies. How do we deal with such intransigence and obstructionism?
For Flannery, the solution – what he terms the ‘third way’ – is an attempt to circumvent the problem by proposing massive investment in new technologies. The problems with such an approach are many.
Tim Flannery’s suggestion that geoengineering technologies are a ‘third way’ implies that these unproven technologies are a legitimate replacement for existing mitigation needs and technologies. While new technologies can obviously complement mitigation, they cannot solve climate change – nor can they circumvent the clear need for structural and behavioural changes.
How can we expect a political system that has been so complicit in creating climate change, and so resistant to acting on it, to support and invest in unproven new technologies for solving climate change?
Flannery seems to expect technology to overcome the political realities we face, when it is obvious that technologies are the products of and subject to the same political and cultural forces that have created the problem in the first place.
Flannery’s support for negative emissions concrete is a case in point. The concrete would effectively need to fully replace existing concrete production systems and would have to be used in all of the projected infrastructure growth globally in order to draw down carbon dioxide emissions at a meaningful scale.
This is clearly based on a business as usual model – we will build just as much but just use a different better material. It is also based on an unspoken assumption that governments will agree to invest billions in this technology and change policy settings so that existing concrete producers either go out of business or adopt this new technology in a very short period of time.
Will this happen within the existing free market system? Or will governments buy the patents and donate the technology to all countries and peoples? Will they put in place regulations that say it is unlawful to produce conventional cement? Even if the technology works – and that’s far from demonstrated – the structure for ensuring the technology is taken up as needed doesn’t exist.
Flannery supports a number of technologies that currently exist at small scales. He seems to assume that it is a simple matter of scaling them up. He does not grapple with the enormous resource demands and destructive potential involved in industrialising small scale systems. One only need look at contemporary industrial agriculture to understood how important scale can be. His suggestion that seaweed farming, which is small scale, can and should be scaled up so that 9% of the world’s oceans are used for seaweed production seems incredibly naïve.
Some of the technologies that Flannery supports border on the bizarre. The technology for producing carbon dioxide snow would require 446 hundred cubic metres of refrigerators in the Antarctic powered by approximately as many wind turbines as are found in Germany. The fridges would bring the air temperature down to minus 78.5 degrees. At that temperature carbon dioxide freezes and will fall out of the air as snow. It will then be buried beneath real snow and ice, presumably by an army of bulldozers and other heavy equipment.
The cost is unknown, the impacts on the environment are unknown, and the effectiveness of the technology is unknown. The estimated drawdown would be about 1 gigatonne.
Some of technologies proposed are just downright dangerous ideas. While Flannery seems to be resistant to spraying sulphur aerosols in the upper atmosphere or dumping iron in the oceans, he supports the notion of storing captured liquid carbon below the sea floor. Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) technology is still beset with technical problems and rapidly rising prices (which explains the lack of interest and investment in CCS now being seen globally). Furthermore, the deep sea floor technology doesn’t exist – but even if it did, the risks associated with the transport, excavation and storage of carbon dioxide in deep oceans is obvious.
Ultimately, these sources of hope for Flannery are just distractions from the real problems that must be faced and solutions that must be implemented. Geoengineering technologies provide excuses for decision-makers not to act – allowing powerful interests such as the fossil fuel industry, big forestry and agribusiness to undermine international efforts to deal with climate change.
Until we make sure that existing solutions are implemented and enforced, proposing new solutions can only hinder the work that needs to be done.