Is this it? Is this the long-awaited tipping point, the moment when a sufficient fraction of society not only wakes up to the dangers of global heating, but starts to demand action? An estimated four million people in more than 160 countries were on the streets last Friday. The majority of the crowds were children, inspired by Greta Thunberg and the Fridays for Future movement, in which pupils across the world left their classrooms in order to protest against inaction on climate change.
I teach climate change and sustainability to university students. So I feel profound shame when I see school children having to ditch their lessons in order to explain the science to the grownups. Politicians are still failing to implement radical policies that would leave fossil fuels in the ground. Even more worrying, they are preparing to meddle further with the climate by attempting to implement major schemes of carbon dioxide removal (CDR).
CDR once meant “compact disc recordable” which allowed the miracle of copying your favourite music on to something with higher fidelity than a cassette tape. It was a 1990s and 2000s thing. Along with Baywatch, the Spice Girls and humanity’s last chance to take sensible steps to avoid climate breakdown. Now, CDR covers proposals that range from high tech – huge arrays of direct carbon-capture machines that would suck out carbon dioxide from the air, compress it, then store it underground for thousands of years – to the much more down-to-earth idea of planting trees that would absorb carbon as they grow.
There are many reasons why planting trees is a good idea, and recent research has detailed how important this could be for the climate if we got serious about it. But planting billions of trees may absorb only a sixth of the carbon that humans have emitted so far.
Fortunately, planting trees is just one of a range of natural climate solutions which could draw down large amounts of carbon dioxide. The restoration of rainforests, peatbogs, mangroves, kelp forests and other ecosystems will all be vital. The only chance these schemes have of helping us avoid climate breakdown is if we rapidly slash carbon emissions now. The best way to restore the Earth’s climate is to reduce our pressures on it and let it regulate itself.
But sharp reductions in carbon emissions risks economic growth. High-tech CDR schemes promise politicians faster results and so reduce the pressure for de-carbonisation. They tempt us with a burn now pay later strategy. But carbon removal technologies are as much of a solution to climate change as liposuction is a solution to obesity. We must rapidly wean ourselves off fossil fuels. Everything else just kicks the can down the road.
Which is perhaps the greatest attraction of CDR, because doing what is required becomes someone else’s problem. Specifically, our kids and future generations, because they will have to figure out how to make all this work. If carbon removal fails, then it will be straight to geoengineering, such as spraying sulphuric acid into the stratosphere to produce cooling clouds. I’m not joking – it’s an example of solar radiation management.
Our children are now threatened with dangerous climate change unfolding over the course of their lives. The millions marching last week should regard technological climate solutions as empty promises of salvation from their parents. Parents who should know that hard work not wishful thinking is the only route to a flourishing future.
James Dyke is an assistant director of the Global Systems Institute at the University of Exeter
First published by inews.co.uk, 25 September 2019