Climate Watch

Are climate change activists barking up the wrong tree?

Sucking carbon from atmosphere a dream?
sucking carbom.jpg

Developed countries are bullying Africa into inappropriate strategies to combat global warming while they themselves might have been barking up the wrong tree.

In the debate about global warming and how it should or could be combated, mitigated and/or adapted to, a whole new front has recently developed.

The new debate is best summarised, at least on its simplest level, by a recent article on the Vox Energy and Environment website: “One of the more uncomfortable, little-discussed aspects of global warming is that we’ve reached the point where sharp cuts in emissions alone are unlikely to be enough to avoid big temperature increases.

“Climate models suggest we’ll also need to figure out how to pull some carbon dioxide back out of the atmosphere toward the end of the century if we want to stay below the agreed-upon 2°C warming limit. The UN's most recent “Emissions Gap” report gives an illustration.”

Another article in Science Magazine, reporting on President Barack Obama latest plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions, states: “…climate researchers are wondering whether even more extreme measures will be needed – such as using machines to suck carbon dioxide from the environment. Now, a new study of these so-called carbon dioxide removal (CDR) technologies finds that the strategy would have only a minimal impact.”

Models developed by researchers indicate that even if a way is found to suck a massive five gigatonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere every year, the influence on the surface pH of the planet’s oceans would be miniscule by the year 2200.

And, as the Vox Energy and Environment article puts it: “We at least have some notion of how to cut emissions. But sucking carbon dioxide back out of the atmosphere? At the massive scale likely needed? No one really has a clue how to do that. It’s a huge, embarrassing blind spot in climate policy.”

A scientist, with the ironical name of Noah Deich (if you are one of those believing that the story of Noah in the Bible is about a previous round of climate change) has just launched the Centre for Carbon Removal with the aim of pulling efforts together to figure out whether there’s a viable path for removing lots of CO2 from the atmosphere.

Asked about the report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggesting that we need to remove between two and 10 gigatonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere by 2050 to avoid 2°C of warming and if and how it can be achieved, Deich said among other things, that presently there is not even enough data available to judge which technologies will be able to achieve such a goal, and which ones would be folly to invest in, because they won’t be sustainable or won’t get to scale.

Going to Paris

President Obama’s recently announced plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions are part of a trend among governments of especially developed nations to position them for and protect their images at the Conference of the Parties or COP21 summit to start on 30 November in Paris.

As the James Martin Fellow at the University of Oxford, Tim Kruger, puts it in an article for Business Spectator: “With this commitment, the US can enter the climate negotiations in Paris with its head held high and can push for a global deal to head off dangerous climate change. Whoo-hoo!

“The reality – it’s a development that is both fragile and feeble.”

Similar efforts are experienced at present from Canada and Australia to India. Last week’s announcement by South Africa’s transport public enterprise, Transnet, of a new carbon calculator, might fall in the same category.

But then, as Kruger puts it at the end of his article on the Obama announcement: “Not that the US should come in for special criticism – the commitments from the EU and from China are similarly insufficient to head off the threat of dangerous climate change.”

Judged against the background the history of climate change over hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of years and the new turn in the climate debate about “sucking carbon from space”, it would appear as if there is an attempt by man to take over the “management of nature”.

Apart from the dangers involved due to the still huge gaps in our knowledge and understanding of how climate change works and its role in the evolution of, and on, our planet, this development or trend could also have religious implications, taking us into very emotive territory on the subject.

And then there are the economic implications of the fight against CO2 emissions, even for developed countries. The Australian edition of The Daily Telegraph reported recently about a “… set of Big Scary Numbers around ambitious action on climate change, leading to lower economic growth, lower wage growth and the winding down of the coal industry.”

Implications for Africa

For developing nations, and Africa in particular, the choices they are being asked to make in the name of building ‘green’ economies and development paths, could have a profound impact on them.

Often what amounts to pressure, is packaged in seemingly beneficial, almost ‘charitable’ programmes by developed nations, like the reaffirmation earlier this year by the Group of Seven (G7) industrial powers of a pledge to mobilise US$100 billion a year to help poorer nations tackle climate change.

There was, however, a rider attached to this pledge – the G7 in the same breath agreed that “… the world should phase out fossil fuel emissions this century, in a move hailed as a historic decision in the fight against climate change.”

What this amounts to is that the developed nations are asking or pressurising the developing world to skip a developmental stage that they themselves went through, leaving the globe as a whole with the problem of warming gas in the atmosphere.

The implications for Africa and other developing regions are dealt with comprehensively in an article on The Conversation website by visiting professor to the University of the Witwatersrand, Mike Muller.

Muller concludes his article with: “We know from the experience of North America and Europe that it is possible to create new physical environments that are pleasant to live in and meet peoples’ needs. So our plea to the green idealists from the north is to recognise that we are in an Anthropocene age.

“Developing countries are building new environments which must meet the needs of their present and future generations. We need to ensure that these meet peoples’ aspirations within an altered but sustainable and socially acceptable ecological framework.”

The African representatives among the some 40 000 delegates from around the world who will converge on Paris for COP21 should be wide awake to ensure that they do not become part of the pack that barks up the wrong climate tree. The future of our continent might depend on it.

by Piet Coetzer

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