Monday, August 31, 2015

Atmosphere of Hope: Tim Flannery and Clive Hamilton on #climate engineering at #MWF15

This article was originally published at

Professors Clive Hamilton and Tim Flannery on the morality, necessity and possibilities of engineering the climate by carbon dioxide removal (CDR) technologies. A Melbourne Writers Festival event, Saturday 29 August 2015.

I attended the discussion between Professors Clive Hamilton and Tim Flannery at the Melbourne Writers workshop on Saturday morning. Climate change has been a prominent theme of this year's festival, and I have attended a few sessions examining climate stories, sense of place, and importance of communication and narrative.

This session focussed on the importance of a third way of tackling climate change through research and development of climate change removal technologies which Flannery has written about in his most recent book: 'Atmosphere of Hope. Searching for solutions to the climate crisis.'

Climate engineering technologies and processes can be separated into two main categories: solar radiation management (SRM) that prevents radiation from reaching the earth; and carbon dioxide removal (CDR) technologies that mostly mimic biological and earth system processes in removing and storing carbon.

Much attention to date has been focussed on solar radiation management such as proposals to inject sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere to mimic the effects of large volcanic eruptions in cooling temperatures. The downsides to this technology is that once started, we would need to maintain the SO2 injection to keep temperatures from increasing. If we stopped the aerosol injection, the temperatures would immediately rebound in a sharp spike. This process would also not stop continuing ocean acidification from occurring, a major side affect of increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Nobel award winning scientist Dr Paul Crutzen suggested we should be investigating a plan B: geo-engineering solutions to climate change. He issued a 2006 paper called Albedo Enhancement by Stratospheric Sulphur Injections: A Contribution to Resolve a Policy Dilemma?, which basically raised the issue for serious debate in the scientific community. Although Crutzen cautiously raised the issue for debate, it was David Keith who actively advocated and promoted the idea of solar radiation management by aerosol injection.

I looked at this issue in some depth in reviewing Ferraro et al 2014, a study looking at the possible impacts of solar radiation management: Weakened tropical circulation and reduced precipitation in response to geoengineering. Read my article from January 2014: Climate Geo-engineering study on sulphate injection shows Hydrological disruption to rain and severe drought.

Hamilton and Flannery made it clear that they are not discussing aerosol or sulphate injection,

"We are not talking about solar radiation management (SRM). This should be ruled out." Tim Flannery said.

Flannery then went on to say that there is a suite of technologies like ocean fertilisation, and seaweed farming which can be utilised for carbon dioxide removal. Some of these are problematic such as the possibility of ocean fertilisation contributing to de-oxygenisation and dead zones in deeper levels of the ocean.

The problem with lack of effective policy action on mitigation has affected scientists like Flannery. If you read the personal statements from climate scientists on Joe Duggan's Is this How You Feel? website, you get a deep sense of the mismatch between the science and climate policy.

"Over the last decade I have been perched between despair and hope", said Flannery.

We should be looking at reducing atmospheric carbon by 40 GT per year. So what does it look like? Well, to reduce carbon by 10 percent of this figure, or 4 gigatonnes per year say using trees would require an area the size of Australia. But it gets complex as growing more trees changes the albedo which then feeds back into more warming. So anything we do is significant in terms of planetary function explained Flannery.

"We should be concentrating on focussing relentlessly on reducing fossil fuel emissions above all else." said Flannery. Australia has done a particularly bad job on this" he argued outlining how overly generous land use accounting emissions under the Kyoto treaty allowed Australia to actually increase fossil fuel emissions. The clause that allowed us to do this was even nicknamed "the Australia clause".

"So, our primary goal above all else should be to reduce fossil fuel emissions." said Flannery.

Separately, we should be investing in the research and development of carbon negative technologies. But the lead time is long, and it will often take 20 years or more to bring these technologies to fruition. Carbon reduction through these technologies should be accounted for entirely separately from fossil fuel emissions reduction Flannery argued.

Between reducing fossil fuel emissions and the dangerous prospect of solar radiation management geo-engineering, carbon dioxide removal technologies are a third way to reduce emissions, that mimics biological and earth systems.

"It holds the promise of strengthening earth systems net capacity to reduce carbon dioxide at scale."

"By 2050 these technologies might be able to draw down about 12 to 16 Gigatonnes of carbon per year out of the atmosphere," said Flannery "That's my best guess."

Farming seaweed may be one of the technologies used. Seaweed is particularly efficient at drawing CO2 because it grows extremely fast. Seagrasses and seaweeds help buffer ocean waters from ocean acidification, plus it aids in fish farming and shellfish farming. If we could grow seaweed over 9 percent of the world's ocean, about 4 times the area of Australia, we could achieve the necessary carbon removal.

We have known for some time that Seagrass meadows are key carbon sinks for combatting climate change.

So how do we store this carbon once it is seaweed or in biological form? Flannery said that we can put kelp/seaweed into methane digesters to capture and burn the methane and store the CO2. Deep ocean burial may be a possibility for storing CO2, but we would need to bury it perhaps 100 metres below ground at depths below sea level greater than 3000 metres.

Categories of carbon dioxide removal include: natural systems (such as afforestation), and Chemical pathways (such as new negative carbon cements, crushed olivine rock, carbon nanofibre).

To achieve 3 to 4 gigatonnes every year till 2050 is a big ask. The technology has long lead times with much research and development needed. It may take some technologies 20 or more years to be developed where they can be implemented at scale. Some may not be cost effective, some may be unable to scale up enough to make worthwhile. There may be only a few that can meet our needs of scale at reasonable cost.

Clive Hamilton said that he thought there was a real danger that some country may get desperate and embark on solar radiation management by spraying sulphur aerosol particles into the stratosphere. This may occur in the next 10-15 years.

A program to inject SO2 into the stratosphere could be done at reasonable expense with the resources and budget of most countries. The effects would be realized within a few months, reducing temperatures, but there would also be side affects such as changes to the hydrological cycle that would impact regions differently. If such a program was stopped, the temperature would likely accelerate back to it's old trajectory.

Tim Flannery outlined that solar radiation management is the second and very dangerous option, and should not be pursued because of it's likely adverse impacts.

One of the methods of CO2 capture is to use chiller boxes in Antarctica to capture CO2 snow, which could then be buried. The chiller boxes could be powered by wind energy, of which there is an abundant amount in Antarctica.

Would patents be a problem in new areas of research? Tim Flannery doesn't think patents by themselves are problematic, but are an indicator of areas of active research and development.

Due to the long lead time in new research and developing new technologies, the current decade will be our worst decade, Tim Flannery said.

"We have seen quite a shift over the last 12 to 18 months." said Hamilton. "Fossil Fuels have to rely on people like Tony Abbott to defend them."

One of the ironies is that conservative climate denial think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute and Heartland Institute have come out in support of geo-engineering solutions to climate change, particularly solar radiation management. This would appear to conflict with their climate denial they have been peddling, said Clive Hamilton.

Tim Flannery reiterated that abatement of emissions from fossil fuels has to come first, before any geo-engineering. He criticized Solar Radiation Management geo-engineering as just masking the problem for a period.

"We need to stop bullshitting people about what's happening" said Flannery.

It is important that we separate emissions reduction from fossil fuels from third way carbon reduction technologies. He was emphatic that they should be counted separately.

There was discussion over false hope, such as contained in the Garnault 2007 report whereby 'We think scientists will come up with solutions'.

There is a moral hazard in giving people a false sense of hope from science and technology solutions, which might result in less push for fossil fuel emission reduction. But we are going to eventually need these technologies. Many of them may fail to be scale-able or be prohibitively expensive. "Most new technologies fail. It is an inherently difficult process." Flannery explained.

Clive Hamilton said that the problem with CDR technologies is that it is a very long term slow approach. "We have to worry about Solar Radiation Management approach being implemented - that will work in just a few months." he said. Any country could implement sulphur aerosol injection if they felt the need to act: such action producing substantial impacts on the hydological cycle while failing to address the ocean acidification problem.

"We have probably already overshot the 2 degrees warming guardrail." advised Flannery. "We will need these technologies to assist in being carbon negative and limit and perhaps even reduce global temperature rise."

There were 4 questions from the audience, including whether we are underestimating impact of population. Clive Hamilton responded that the main problem is not how many people there are but in how much they consume and level of waste.

"The problem lies most in rich countries" he said, We should focus on how much we consume. Tim Flannery also replied: "We know how to fix the population problem: empower women. Give them education and control over their bodies."

A question raised that perhaps governments should buy out the fossil fuel investment.

Indeed, Clive Hamilton said that was almost achieved regarding Hazelwood power station with the Labor government offering $2.5 billion, however International Power played hardball and the deal wasn't done. Now we are in a situation where coal is in trouble. Tim Flannery commented that buying out all these reserves and resources would be very very expensive. It would be far cheaper to do it similar to the USA in emissions regulation, pollution regulation so that inefficient plants would close down.

Through regulating fossil fuel emissions and pollution pays principle, we can start bringing CDR options to scale, perhaps starting with negative carbon cement and production of carbon nano-fibre.

These developments are going to be happening more and more concluded Clive Hamilton.

Some comment on some of the more recent science

In May 2015 a study published in Nature Climate change by Guy Lomax, Timothy M. Lenton, Adepeju Adeosun and Mark Workman argued that it is vital we research and develop these carbon removal technologies and include them in climate policy. The study, Investing in negative emissions, argues in the abstract "Methods of removing CO2 from the atmosphere add vital flexibility to efforts to tackle climate change. They must be brought into mainstream climate policy as soon as possible to open up the landscape for innovation and development, and to discover which approaches work at scale."

Read the list of methods and links to research at the Centre for Carbon Removal.

Another study, published in August 2015, advises that already we need development of CDR technologies if we are to succeed in keeping global warming below the 2 °C guardrail as committed to at Copenhagen in 2009 and ratified in Cancun in 2010. T. Gasser, C. Guivarch, K. Tachiiri, C. D. Jones and P. Ciais in the study - Negative emissions physically needed to keep global warming below 2 °C that conventional emissions reduction must remain a substantial part of any climate policy but negative emissions will be essential to avoid exceeding the guadrail temperature.

The abstract for this study says in full:
To limit global warming to <2 °C we must reduce the net amount of CO2 we release into the atmosphere, either by producing less CO2 (conventional mitigation) or by capturing more CO2 (negative emissions). Here, using state-of-the-art carbon–climate models, we quantify the trade-off between these two options in RCP2.6: an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change scenario likely to limit global warming below 2 °C. In our best-case illustrative assumption of conventional mitigation, negative emissions of 0.5–3 Gt C (gigatonnes of carbon) per year and storage capacity of 50–250 Gt C are required. In our worst case, those requirements are 7–11 Gt C per year and 1,000–1,600 Gt C, respectively. Because these figures have not been shown to be feasible, we conclude that development of negative emission technologies should be accelerated, but also that conventional mitigation must remain a substantial part of any climate policy aiming at the 2-°C target.
According to Australian climate scientists Richard Matear and Andrew Lenton writing at the Conversation, "Present emissions are tracking close to the highest scenario (RCP8.5). If we want to keep warming below 2C it requires a substantial reduction in the amount of CO2 released into the atmosphere."

A third study published recently examined whether CDR technology would have a substantial impact in slowing ocean acidification. Mathesius et al (2015) concluded that "Focusing on pH, temperature and dissolved oxygen, we find that even after several centuries of CDR deployment, past CO2 emissions would leave a substantial legacy in the marine environment."

So, carbon dioxide removal isn't going to solve all our problems with ocean acidification in the short or medium term. It will take a millenia to work through.

"No CDR or suite of CDR technologies exists capable of removing the levels of CO2 at the upper range of what maybe required. This means that, while CDR could aid in limiting global temperatures below 2C, in practice this is not even yet possible, and would not be without risks." argue Richard Matear and Andrew Lenton in the article Reducing emissions alone won’t stop climate change: new research.

Reading Tim Flannery's new book Atmosphere of Hope may provide an element of hope in the leadup to the Paris Climate Conference (COP21) in December 2015, but like many others I dare not get my hopes up too high after the debacle of Copenhagen in 2009. With substantial diplomatic push from the USA, China, and Europe, Paris is likely to deliver an agreement of sorts, but at this stage is unlikely to reduce emissions nearly enough to stay under the guardrail. We are still heading for 3 to 4C temperature increase by end of century, which spells a disaster, unless we can up the ante on the politicians.

Rather than leave climate policy just to politicians, I think it necessary that more people speak up and place pressure for much greater action. We have already left it up to politicians for 25 years and they have well and truly bungled it through substantial in-action.

We need to listen to the words of Naomi Klein and call for not only climate policy action but system change to occurr. We need to have the largest mobilization of people calling to change the economic and social system driving climate change. Whether it means capitalism can be transformed into a more regulated, democratic and sustainable economic system subservient to society is up for debate. But as Klein points out: with climate change, everything changes.

Read an excerpt from Tim Flannery's book at the Guardian newspaper:

  • Tim Flannery (2015) 'Atmosphere of Hope. Searching for solutions to the climate crisis.', Text Publishing, Melbourne.
  • Guy Lomax, Timothy M. Lenton, Adepeju Adeosun and Mark Workman, (May 2015) Investing in negative emissions (abstract) Nature Climate Change 5, 498–500 (2015) doi:10.1038/nclimate2627 Published online 21 May 2015
  • T. Gasser, C. Guivarch, K. Tachiiri, C. D. Jones and P. Ciais (August 2015) - Negative emissions physically needed to keep global warming below 2 °C (abstract) Nature Communications 6, Article number: 7958 doi:10.1038/ncomms8958 Published 03 August 2015
  • Sabine Mathesius, Matthias Hofmann, Ken Caldeira and Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, (August 2015) Long-term response of oceans to CO2 removal from the atmosphere (abstract) Nature Climate Change (2015) doi:10.1038/nclimate2729
    Published online 03 August 2015