In 2015, politicians met in Paris and agreed to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius. The meeting was hailed as a breakthrough. Now, one year later, that limit seems almost impossible to achieve. When the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change meets in Geneva this month it will discuss research that shows global temperatures this year twice peaked at 1.38 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
It seems the only hope of slowing this advance is to shut down all coal-burning power stations and ban the use of combustion engines across the globe within fifteen years – according to a report in the Guardian newspaper.
“If the world puts all its resources into finding ways to generate power without burning fossil fuels, and if there were international agreements that action must happen instantly, and if carbon emissions were brought down to zero before 2050, then a rise of no more than 1.5C might just be achieved,” said Dr Ben Sanderson of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. “That is a tall order, however.”
The problem was made particularly severe because moving too quickly to cut emissions could also be harmful, added Field. “If we shut down fossil fuel plants tomorrow – before we have established renewable alternatives – we can limit emissions and global warming, but people would suffer. There would be insufficient power for the planet. There is an upper limit to the rate at which we can move to a carbon-free future.”
Banning all combustion engines means taking every petrol or diesel driven vehicle off the road. Global economies would collapse. Even if alternatively powered cars could be produced at reasonable cost, it seems unlikely that 48-ton trucks can ever be developed to run on alternative fuels, and certainly not within a fifteen year time-span.
The situation is now so bad that not only do we need to reduce our CO2 emissions to zero, but we must also develop a method to extract CO2 from the atmosphere and store it on Earth. At present, the technology just isn’t available to do that.
“Some negative emission technology will inevitably have to be part of the picture if you are going to keep 1.5C as your limit,” said Professor Jim Skea, a member of the UK government’s committee on climate change. “There will always be some human activities that put carbon into the atmosphere and they will have to be compensated for by negative emission technology.”
But what form that technology takes is unclear. Several techniques have been proposed. One includes spreading crushed silicate rocks, which absorb carbon dioxide, over vast tracts of land. Another involves seeding oceans with iron to increase their uptake of carbon dioxide. Most are considered unworkable at present – with the exception of bioenergy with carbon capture and storage. Under this scheme, vast plantations of trees and bushes would be created, their wood burned for energy while the carbon dioxide emitted was liquefied and stored underground.
Unfortunately, ‘bioenergy with carbon capture and storage’ would mean covering so much of the planet with plants used for combustion that there wouldn’t be sufficient left to grow enough food to feed us all.
Basically, it would seem that scientists now believe that unless we can develop clean technology to produce all the energy we need, and convert every vehicle on the planet to run on non-CO2 producing fuel, and do it all in such a way that the world economy isn’t affected, within fifteen years, we’re all doomed.
Cambridge University climate expert Professor Peter Wadhams provides the last word on the subject:
…I think we just have to hope that some kind of extraction technology, as yet unimagined by scientists, is developed in the next couple of decades. If not, we are in real trouble.”
There is, however, another alternative. We can all follow the lead given to us by U.S. Republican presidential nominee, Donald J. Trump, and become climate change deniers. He believes all the world’s scientists are wrong, and climate change is just a malicious rumour put about by the Chinese for their own nefarious (and somewhat vague) purposes.
We could all follow Mister Trump’s lead, bury our heads in the sand and hope we don’t eventually end up as the latest edition to the McDonalds’ burger range. Unfortunately, he has such a poor record for being right on anything that most bookies would place him as a rank outsider on this one.
Personally, if this writer were a betting man, he’d know where to put his money. Even if it’s unlikely he’d still be around to collect the winnings.
 “Scientists warn world will miss key climate target “ Guardian, August 6th 2016