Hope isn’t a word that often comes to mind amid the rancour over climate change. But that’s the term Tim Flannery has chosen to sum up his latest assessment of our climate future.
In a new book the high-profile scientist “brings news of tools in the making” that could help avoid the climate catastrophe he has long warned about. The upbeat title – Atmosphere of Hope: Searching for solutions to the climate crisis – stems from Flannery’s investigation of nascent technologies with the potential to draw large amounts of carbon out of the atmosphere. There are no silver bullets, but together they provide grounds for optimism about humanity’s capacity to deal effectively with global warming. “It is possible the next decade will astonish us with the solutions that we discover to safeguard our planet for our grandchildren and their grandchildren,” he writes.
That’s not to say the world’s climate predicament has diminished. Speaking in Sydney to Fairfax Media this week, Flannery warns the challenge is “now gargantuan” and that deep, rapid cuts in greenhouse gas emissions are urgently required. “We need new tools because we’ve now been emitting carbon pollution at a worst-case scenario rate for a decade,” he said. “There is great inertia in the system that will carry us into increasingly dangerous climate territory.”
Flannery predicts addressing climate change will “define the lives of generations”. Even so, he is buoyed by a clutch of innovative technologies and strategies he labels a “third way” to address climate change. “The reason I have that hopeful perspective is because I researched these new third way technologies and realised they really do have the potential to pull us back from the brink,” Flannery said. “I think a lot of people will be surprised by that and I hope it energises people.”
Flannery labels them a “third way” because they are distinct from the two other well-known strategies to combat climate change – emission reduction and geoengineering schemes to interfere in the climate system. The most concrete and well-costed geoengineering proposal is for sulphur to be injected into the earth’s stratosphere to reflect sunlight back into space, allowing the planet’s surface to cool. The oceans have also been proposed as a venue for large-scale interventions to combat global warming. One suggestion is to add iron to the oceans to stimulate biological growth that absorbs CO₂ from the air and eventually sinks to the seabed. But these geoengineering options are untested, and could have dangerous side effects. Flannery says they are tantamount to “using poison to fight a poison”.
Flannery says the third way alternatives he has identified are very different from radical geoengineering proposals because they “recreate, enhance or restore” the processes that created a balance of greenhouse gasses prior to human interference. “They do not seek to fight one poison [excess carbon] with another [for example sulphur],” he writes. “Instead they look to restore or learn from processes that are as old as life itself. The third way is in large part about creating our future out of thin air.” This encompasses proposals and experiments that mostly draw CO₂ out of the air and sea at a faster rate than occurs presently, and to store it safely. “It’s what plants and a fair few rocks do.”
Some third way alternatives are already quite well-known, such as large-scale reafforestation and the addition of biochar to the soil. Biochar is a type of charcoal produced from the slow, oxygen-free burning of organic material. Creating biochar stores carbon for long periods and can be added to soil and improve soil quality. But Flannery sees even greater potential in less familiar methods to draw carbon from the atmosphere including large-scale seaweed farming, the manufacture of carbon-negative cement and new techniques for making plastic that draws CO₂ from the air. He canvasses strategies to absorb CO₂ by the “enhanced weathering” of silicate rocks and even making “CO₂ snow” in the Antarctic that could be stored in ice pits. Scientists are also investigating how the earth’s albedo, or reflectiveness, could help cool the planet. By painting infrastructure white, cities might offset some of the warming they are now experiencing.
In Flannery’s assessment third way strategies could together be pulling about four gigatonnes of carbon out of the atmosphere a year by 2050, about 40 per cent of current emissions. “These are the technologies we need to be focussing on, that will give us a future,” he says. But these innovations will only be effective if major investments are made in developing them now. “It’s a bit like solar,” Flannery says. “For the last 30 years solar PV has been reducing its cost by about 10 per cent per annum but for 25 of those 30 years it was still outrageously expensive and wasn’t really competitive … Many of these third way technologies are the same – we need to start investing in them now to make sure we have the tools there in future when we really need them, in 2030 or 2040 as the climate crisis deepens. Then we will be really searching for ways to deal with this and the only way we’ll have the tools is if we start investing now.”
Flannery has become a favourite target of climate change sceptics who accuse him of exaggerating the threat of global warming and of “quasi-religious” activism. He was the chief commissioner of the Climate Commission, a body established by the Gillard government to provide information on climate change before it was disbanded by the Abbott government. He’s now a member of the Climate Council, which is independent and funded by the community. Despite the bitterness of climate change politics Flannery doesn’t regret the spirited warnings he has issued in the past about the danger posed by climate change. Although he does say some of his commentary could have been “more precise”.
“Sure they have pilloried me but that’s the cost of progress,” he said. “If you are effective you will get attacked. You just wear that as a badge of honour … I’d worry if they stopped attacking me.” Flannery says most of the climate science he wrote about a decade ago in his bestselling book The Weather Makers has “stood the test of time.”
He is adamant deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions are needed despite the potential of the new technologies described in his new book. Flannery thinks there’s only a 50-50 chance that any international agreement reached at the United Nations Climate Change Summit to be held in Paris later this year will limit average global temperatures to no more than 2 degrees Celsius warmer than the pre-industrial average. He is critical of the Abbott government’s pre-summit commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions so they are 26-28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. “That is clearly very inadequate both to stay within the 2 degrees and in terms of what is happening elsewhere in the world,” Flannery said.
But he points out the Abbott government’s direct action plan to tackle climate change encourages the use of some third way technologies identified by Flannery, especially biochar. “I’d say to the Australian government, in terms of the direct action policy, why not look more widely across these third way technologies and decide where the real opportunities are for Australia and reconceptualise the issue a bit,” he says. Some of these new technologies have the potential to turn huge profits as well as helping to combat climate change. “What I really wanted to do in the book is refocus people’s perceptions about the tools available to deal with the climate challenge, especially these third way technologies,” Flannery said. “We are going to need them in future.”
Reasons for climate hope
The new breed of “third way” technologies that could help avert climate disaster:
- Seaweed farms – the cultivation of seaweed could be used to absorb CO₂ efficiently and on a large scale.
- Carbon-negative cement – the manufacture of cement contributes about 5 per cent of green house gas emissions but new methods of cement production are being developed that allow CO₂ to be absorbed and sequestered in cement over long periods.
- Carbon-negative plastic – plastics are now oil-based but carbon-capture technologies have been developed that combine air with methane-based greenhouse gas emissions to produce a plastic material.
- New carbon capture and storage – Conditions in some places on earth might allow the storage of CO₂ in liquid of solid form. One idea is to use the pressure deep in the ocean to keep CO₂ in liquid or solid form. Another is to capture and store CO₂ in the Antarctic as dry ice or CO₂ snow.
Atmosphere of Hope: Searching for solutions to the climate crisis is published on August 26 by Text Publishing.
Read the article on The Age.