As another UN climate meeting comes and goes it is easy to mock the failings of climate diplomacy, as Bjorn Lomborg does in his recent article in The European. The catalogue of failed commitments he describes is hard to dispute, though what he ignores is that a world with weak commitments to act is better than his preference for a world without any commitments at all.
Where we really differ, however, is in what to do about the current situation: go for grand geo-engineering projects and ‘new’ (but unspecified) energy sources or create the incentives (including a new deal on climate) for the scaling up of the vast potential of tried and tested renewable energies. Here I spell out why I prefer the latter.
First, it would be risky and very costly to throw money after completely untried and untested geo-engineering projects instead of up-scaling and improving the accessibility of existing and proven clean energy technologies. The money spent on renewable energy (RE) annually will pale into insignificance in comparison to pursuing extravagant and un-regulated experiments. To take just one suggestion, delivering enough aerosol to counter projected warming would cost between $2-$8 billion each year according to studies, and that’s just one of a range of approaches some of which rise to $390bn a year, way more than annual spending on renewables and without the guarantee of results!
The chances are it also wouldn’t work. UEA climate scientist Naomi Vaughan warns, “as soon as you stop any type of solar radiation management, the rate of warming is extremely fast – the system readjusts”. Seeking to artificially generate a cooling effect through injecting sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere, mimicking the effect produced by “volcanoes” that Lomborg advocates, could only delay global warming rather than prevent it. Other adverse effects of CO2 emissions, like the acidification of the oceans, would continue as before.
Second, it is naive to think that nations will allow disruptive geo-engineering solutions to be pursued without some form of global oversight or agreement. So in fact the messy politics of climate diplomacy will not be bypassed by going for elaborate techno-fixes. Similarly, lack of leadership is not going to be solved by absolving governments of any responsibilities other than to pump money into new engineering and energy solutions that may take decades to yield results and at what cost environmentally and financially?
Third, many of the solutions already exist. A clean energy revolution is possible. Far from renewables being driven by ‘well-meaning westerners’, India and China are stealing the lead with ambitious national targets and flourishing export industries. Renewables will account for nearly half of the increase in global power generation to 2035—with China generating more than the US, Japan and the EU combined while Brazil is already a world-leader in renewable energy and is set to almost double its output from renewables by 2035.
Fourth, there are many opportunities to re-direct the vast amount of money that is currently wasted on fossil fuel subsidies to supporting this clean energy revolution. Globally, subsidies to fossil fuels are in the order of US$ 600 billion per year, of which about US$ 100 billion is provided to producers (and not poorer consumers). If even a fraction of this were diverted to lower carbon forms of energy their impact could be hugely enhanced.
Far from being a waste of time, stronger targets at international, regional and national level drive investment opportunities: the $4 trillion industry that benefits from climate policy and is already sustaining a large number of jobs and growth. The potential from renewable energy sector development is estimated at 3 million jobs in Europe by 2020 and then there are the benefits of reduced spending on energy imports: in 2011 net imports of fuels to the EU amounted to EUR 388 billion (Europe 2020 targets – Climate and Energy). Ultimately what investors are after are ‘long, loud, legal’ signals about the direction of change: long term time frames, legal commitments and positive state support.
A global accord, which binds all countries to address this issue and commit resources to it, is surely one way of sending these signals. They also reduce the bill for adaptation. The costs increase the longer we fail to deliver effective mitigation commitments- adaptation costs will double with a 3°C temperature rise.
Finally, there are basic questions of morality and responsibility. How would small island states and those living in the front line of climate change react to proposals to abandon all efforts to agree on cuts to greenhouse gas emissions and merely throw money after untried and untested geo-engineering solutions? How much compensation would people want for giving up their homes and livelihoods while we keep our fingers crossed that techno-fixes will yet save us all?
Wishing away the complications of global climate policy while writing off the potential of renewable energy in preference for extravagant techno-fixes surely presents the most dangerous way forward of all. As Dr. Watson, leader of a geo-engineering project, puts it: “…we must not get drawn into discussion where economics becomes the key driver. Impact on humanity and ecosystems must be, and continue to be, of primary consideration.”