Tim Flannery finds some silver linings

Is there any light down that long dark tunnel? [29 September | Peter Boyer]

Spring has sprung and life is full of promise. This is surely a season for hope.

Tim Flannery [PHOTO ABC] and his new book

Tim Flannery [PHOTO ABC] and his new book

In Washington (where it’s autumn), a joint weekend statement by Presidents Barak Obama and Xi Jinping announced that within two years China will have the world’s biggest emissions trading scheme, covering power generation, steel, cement and other industries.

The two countries, between them responsible for nearly half the world’s emissions, also pledged to introduce new heavy-duty vehicle fuel efficiency standards by 2019 and to spend billions on helping countries accelerate their transition to low-carbon economies.

Most of this is old news, but it does show that climate is on the minds of the two superpower leaders and offers a glimmer of hope that some good may come from the crucial Paris climate meeting, now just two short months away.

Hope is also the theme of Tim Flannery’s new book. Introduced to Tasmanian readers at a Hobart launch last week, Atmosphere of Hope is based on Flannery’s belief that amid all the dire predictions about our climate future, there are some distinctly positive prospects.

Flannery, now heading Australia’s crowd-funded Climate Council, told his Hobart audience that our principal concern must be to cut our emissions. But even our best efforts won’t stop what is already locked in by past emissions. Warming will continue no matter what we do.

This has given rise to “geo-engineering” proposals to cool the planet, such as deflecting sunlight by shooting particles into the air or sinking massive tubes into the oceans to strengthen vertical circulation.

We should dismiss such schemes outright, says Flannery. Intensive studies show major practical problems, uncertain outcomes and a guarantee of international conflict.

But those studies leave open prospects for another geo-engineering option, to take carbon out of the atmosphere and store it forever in a form that does no harm. Ideas for achieving that enticing prospect make up Flannery’s “third way”.

The “third way” seeks to amplify natural processes whereby the sun’s energy is used to draw carbon from air and water and turn it into energy and solid matter. Such schemes might use oceanic plants, carbon-absorbing rocks and cement, and storage in the deep ocean or Antarctica.

It has to be said that much-hyped “clean coal” technology has never come close to success, beset by practical and financial problems. But there are many other untried options, says Flannery.

The aim of such technologies is first to neutralise human emissions and then to continue drawing down atmospheric carbon dioxide from its present level of about 400 parts per million to where it was before the industrial revolution, 280 parts per million or less.

Since 1750 humans have put around 1800 gigatonnes, or billions of tonnes, of carbon dioxide into the air. Each year now we add about 40 gigatonnes, and we’re at the stage where we can’t avoid dangerous warming unless we intervene to remove carbon.

Flannery is confident there are enough workable technologies together to handle such an enterprise, even at the stupendous scale required, but they will require massive capital investment and a long lead time to test and develop.

A recent Nature Climate Change paper pointed to the “vital flexibility” provided by carbon removal methods, and urged that they be brought into mainstream climate policy as soon as possible to invite innovation and identify the best technologies for large-scale deployment.

We need a positive outlook just to survive, but that alone isn’t enough, which is why nature has also given us fear. Hope to get us up in the morning, fear to grab our attention and get us moving.

I’m glad Tim Flannery has written this book, and I hope a lot of policymakers get to read it ahead of the Paris meeting. Above all, I hope it will help them appreciate that against the effort and money demanded by carbon removal, deep and early emissions cuts are a cakewalk.

Tomorrow at 5.30 pm, at IMAS Aurora Theatre (Castray Esplanade), Nils Axel Braathen, head of OECD’s Environment Directorate, will discuss economic instruments for managing climate policy, including taxes, trading systems, subsidies and regulations.

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