Ten technologies to save the planet

As the news on climate change becomes increasingly serious it is all the more important to affirm that the problem has solutions provided the world applies them soon enough.

Prominent UK environment writer Chris Goodall surveys some of those solutions in a well-researched fashion in his new book, Ten Technologies to Save the Planet.  In combination he shows them adequate to the deep reductions of global greenhouse gas emissions needed over the coming decades.

On the renewable electricity front he explores wind power, solar energy and the tides and waves of the oceans.  Where fossil fuel continues to be used for electricity he considers carbon capture and storage a viable technology and one which carries with it the additional possibility of extracting carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere for sequestration. Combined heat and power technologies through fuel cells and district heating plants using biomass offer significant emission reductions. House insulation and airtightness, including refurbishment of existing houses, are easy gains.  On transport, he points to the fast advances in technology for battery driven electric cars, and to the large number of companies working on developing biofuels from cellulose. Wood part-combusted to make charcoal and dug into the ground both sequesters carbon and in many soils improves fertility. Finally, he details various better treatments of soil, trees and plants to improve their carbon-sink properties.

All the technologies Goodall canvasses already have solid indications of technical feasibility. Some of them, such as wind power, are in substantial operation. Together they present a credible world in which we could live in reasonable comfort and in a great deal more safety than our current path offers. There are further technologies, such as nuclear energy, which Goodall discounts but for which others make a strong case.

Altogether there is good reason to feel encouraged. We can decarbonise our energy and our industry.  We are not doomed to destruction for lack of alternatives.

Why then, in view of the utter urgency of the need, isn’t the world in general and New Zealand in particular getting on with it?  Goodall feels obliged to evaluate the technologies in terms of their cost relative to fossil fuel. But why should competitiveness with fossil fuel matter as much as it still seems to? We now understand that the continued burning of fossil fuel is dangerous for the human future. The fact that it may be cheaper in economic terms doesn’t lessen that danger.

Within a market economy, Goodall urges measures to put a price on carbon either through direct tax or through capped emissions trading schemes.  He points out that a high carbon price (he suggests US$50 per tonne) would make almost all the technologies in his book competitive very soon.  Against those who say the economy would be crippled he argues that in fact the impact on GDP will not be large.

But even if it were large, governments cannot allow the burning of fossil fuels to continue unhindered.  The new technologies have to be adopted as rapidly as possible – by regulation and subsidy if market signals are not sufficient.

Unfortunately, many politicians remain scientifically ignorant and vulnerable to vested interests. Our own new government is still dithering, possibly even back-pedalling, on the modest measures adopted in the emissions trading scheme.

The recent calm and impressive statement of President-elect Obama may herald a new urgency. Announcing that he planned to reduce US 1990 emissions by 80% by 2050 through a cap and trade system and direct government investment in clean energy, he concluded: “Delay is no longer an option. Denial is no longer an acceptable response. The stakes are too high. The consequences, too serious.”

This column first appeared in the Waikato Times on 9 December 2008

Hot, flat and crowded

The following column was written for the Waikato Times in October.  For the Hot Topic posting I’ve brought the final paragraph up to date,  recognising that Obama will head the new administration. Hopefully that will lend substance to Friedman’s optimism.

Thomas Friedman’s recently published book Hot, Flat, and Crowded offers ground for cautious hope in the crisis now upon us. A three times Pulitzer Prize winner, Friedman is well known as the foreign affairs columnist for the New York Times and for his previous best-selling book The World is Flat, which explored the realities of globalisation.

Friedman is an enthusiastic American. Some of his views on international politics have little appeal for me.  But this book, properly, is well beyond any political alignment.  It faces up to global warming and biodiversity loss, sees how real and dangerous they are, and urges nothing less than a green revolution in America as the only way out for that country and indeed for the world.

As a leading journalist Friedman has had access to many leaders in science and industry and finance.  The result is an energetic and credibly detailed account of how America can move to clean energy.  Friedman is comfortable with a market economy and sees it delivering what is needed, but he is equally sure that its success depends on clear directives and regulations being put in place by federal government. He urges business to see the green revolution as opportunity not threat.

It is easy to despair when considering America.  For eight wasted years the Bush administration has refused to take measures to combat the climate change for which it, of all countries, carries the most responsibility. In annual emissions America as a country may now have been overtaken by China, but its per capita emissions are far greater and its past contribution to the level of carbon dioxide now in the atmosphere dwarfs anything China has achieved. The administration’s neglect of the issue, fed by scientific ignorance and susceptibility to powerful lobbying interests, has been staggering.

Yet it is America which provides many of the leading scientists who have uncovered the complex processes of global warming.  American politician Al Gore has done more than any other person to alert the world to its dangers.  California, the world’s seventh largest economy, has committed itself to large emissions reductions.  Other states and cities are following suit. America’s potential to lead the world in a green transformation is enormous.  Its fine universities, its technological capabilities, its wealth, if harnessed for the purpose make the revolution conceivable. Friedman, aware of both the negative and positive aspects of American society, settles for a sober optimism about what can be achieved.

He considers a change in America will also be the answer to China’s current reliance on dirty fuels.  China will suffer dreadfully from climate change as droughts and floods increase and crop yields diminish.  They must be aware of this and will surely follow any lead America offers towards clean energy.  Friedman visits China regularly and has ferreted out evidence of moves there towards a greener economy even in the midst of the headlong rush to fossil fuel-powered growth. He reports encouraging developments which, though nowhere near enough, indicate that China could follow an American lead.

We know all too well in New Zealand how hard it is to get political traction on this most serious of matters. The modest emissions trading scheme has met fierce opposition and looks likely to be diluted even further. Only a few politicians treat the question with the gravity it deserves, and most of the electorate still seems unaware of what looms threateningly for our children and grandchildren.

Here’s hoping that Friedman’s sober optimism proves justified and that Obama will, as he has recently announced, prevaricate and delay no longer but take up the task on which the human future now urgently depends.

Bali background book: IPS examines NZ’s place in post-Kyoto deal-making

Towards a New Global Climate Treaty: Looking Beyond 2012, edited by Jonathan Boston, with contributions by Ralph Chapman, Pamela Chasek, Steve Hatfield-Dodds, Colin James, Lucas Kengmana, Adrian Macey and Murray Ward, Institute of Policy Studies, VUW, November 2007.

The Institute Of Policy Studies at VUW has played an influential role in the development of New Zealand’s climate policy, through books, seminars and conferences. Some of the stuff they organise is so interesting that it makes me (almost) wish I lived in Wellington. This latest book – a follow-up to last year’s excellent Confronting Climate Change – draws on a series of roundtable discussions hosted by the IPS during mid-2007. About 120 people from sectors with an interest in climate policy – energy, agriculture, industry and many others – took part, and their comments provide a counterpoint to the more theoretical considerations of the various chapter authors.

I’m not going to attempt a detailed review of the content of the book – it’s sometimes dense, detailed and theoretical – but it does provide an excellent overview of the domestic and international context for the post-Kyoto negotiations, as well as look in considerable depth at the policy objectives the government might adopt, and how that flows from – and impacts – sectoral interests. The chapter on forestry and land use change is particularly valuable, as is Jonathan Boston’s opening chapter, which gives a swift tour d’horizon of the current situation. Boston and Ralph Chapman’s summary of the current science and its implications for emissions reduction targets and stabilisation targets is also highly recommended.

You won’t find this at the top of the non-fiction charts, but if you really want to know what’s going on in climate policy development here and overseas, there is no better place to start.