Mad scientist + abolitionist
Our current efforts to solve climate change suck and also don’t suck enough. In this piece I have collated some research on sucking carbon out of the air, carbon pricing, Australia’s current renewable plans and carbon consumption habits.
I recently watched the ABC TV show Fight for Planet A starring Craig Reucassel from The War on Waste, two shows with great values investigating if and how Australians are making an environmental difference. It seemed like the methods he looked into were just about keeping the peace and wouldn’t actually change the status quo. I enjoyed the format and Craig’s wit especially when he challenges politicians and company owners to do better. I think both shows fall short in keeping the focus on reforming businesses which use plastic and fossil fuels. He chose to follow households and see how they can make personal lifestyle changes instead. Unfortunately I think this feel-good morale inflates the idea that small changes can make a huge difference. The only issue is the changes mentioned like having a shorter shower, recycling and making cows eat seaweed really won’t make a big difference compared to large lifestyle shifts like a plant-based diet, though he does touch on living without fossil fueled transportation. Localising the issue to our behaviour also contributes to the delusion that we can solve the problem by doing little things and shifts the cause away from plastic and fossil-fuel industries. But I do get the purpose is to feel empowered when it’s so often easy to feel helpless in regards to global issues.
Besides lifestyle changes, we can utilise community action groups and take class action lawsuits directly against politicians, organisations and governments. Recently, six Portugese youth filed a climate lawsuit against 33 European countries for putting their lives at risk by failing to reduce emissions. Similarly, five American states have filed climate change lawsuits against oil and gas corporations for the “havoc they knowingly wreaked”. This is the kind of activism we need most. Stop telling a story of how it’s up to individual people to make a difference in their lives by recycling and using less electricity and start telling the story of shitty businesses and corrupt governments.
Recycling as a major public goal continues the idea that if we only recycled better, we wouldn’t have a waste problem. With climate change, it’s the same, fossil fuel companies emit carbon gas waste into the atmosphere and then tell us to use better heating. Plastic companies frame recycling as the solution so they can keep selling and using cheap packaging instead of the more expensive compostable packaging. South Australia is on the right path with a recently-passed waste avoidance Bill. It includes the ban of single-use plastic products and will commence in 2021.
The plastic and fossil fuel industries have conned us into thinking that the solution is in recycling and reusing their products. It’s not. That message perpetuates the problem. We’re desperately struggling to reduce emissions and use renewables instead of banning and preventing the cause. Governments allow this to happen because cheap fuel and packaging make a country appear like it’s succeeding in terms of financial growth. Australia’s commerce involves the supply of some of the worst assets you can trade — coal, live animals and gas. Livestock causes the destruction of 1500 football fields of forest every day in Eastern Australia.
Australia is heading in a fatal direction with “gas-led recovery”, a financial campaign led by Scott Morrison with a misnomer for a name. It makes no sense to be spending money on natural gas companies when the government has already found — in its own research — that hydrogen should replace natural gas. This way it would use current pipelines to prevent expenses of new infrastructure and be a cleaner energy source for industrial processes like green steel. Even in Australia’s new $1.9 billion low-emissions technology roadmap, they point to fossil-fueled hydrogen, factory-produced carbon capture instead of funding renewables and environmental R&D. This roadmap is a guise to reduce scrutiny and keep funding corrupt industries to profit from fossil fuels. The Australian government is often run by politicians who care about getting rich at any cost even if it means continual suppression of environment research and the commitment of crimes against nature such as the destruction of The Great Barrier Reef and heritage sites.
Clean hydrogen is also not the solution, as it requires renewable energies to power its extraction from H2O through electrolysis. It’s also four times more expensive than electricity as a fuel for transport. (See this Real Engineering video for a quick breakdown on hydrogen.) It would be better to support electric car iniativeslike subsidising electric car prices and puting free electric vehicle charging stations around the country instead of trying to increase our GDP by exporting hydrogen to industrial companies.
We need to think globally, scientifically, and economically about the main cause of climate change: the exponential growth of the human population alongside the rise of fossil-fueled industrialisation. Let’s look at methods to reduce carbon in the atmosphere by three underrepresented alternatives. These methods aren’t about finding one solution — they all matter. But let’s talk about methods which could actually counteract the consumption habits and production of fossil fuels and reduce the global temperature by two degrees celsius.
Carbon removal methods are like the upkeep of the Earth’s hygiene by cleaning the harmful greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. I’m not talking as much about the carbon capture and storage of fossil fuels from coal, oil, and gas factories. Those carbon capture strategies should definitely be used by carbon-producing industries such as fossil fuel plants, but clearly, it would be better not to have those industries in the first place. I’m referring to carbon removal through climate engineering methods. Global warming is created from the sun’s radiation getting trapped inside the increasingly carbonised spherical roof in our atmosphere. Until we convert entirely to carbon-neutral or carbon-negative emissions in our business and personal practices, we’ll continue to burn fossil fuels by driving, using electricity, heating and eating, and the planet will get warmer, causing innumerable disastrous climate effects.
The earth already captures carbon incredibly well through photosynthesising lifeforms and inorganic mineral collection. The development of carbon capture methods is just beginning and the methods are either improving the natural ways our planet sequesters carbon or building machines that collect and convert efficiently. The first is cheap and easy, and the second is currently expensive but getting cheaper and more effective . It’s one of many solutions to global warming we need to pursue.
Direct air capture methods imitate what trees and photosynthesizers do naturally by capturing carbon dioxide out of the air. Current carbon capture technologies can do the work of 40 million trees and that’s fully grown trees. Planting trees is a slow process and we need to work fast in order to plant enough, which may not be possible given how long it takes for them to work effectively. Trees are also deforested at an alarming rate thus losing all their work of decades of carbon sequestration. They’re also burned when a fire rampages through a forest and their stored carbon is depleted. Ironically, fires are more likely to happen because of global warming and not having enough trees. We need a change in mindset from short-term gains to long-term foresight.
Klause Lackner’s team at the Center for Negative Carbon Emissions in Arizona have developed carbon capture trees which work 1000 times faster than a natural tree and are increasingly cheaper, currently at $94USD per square ton of carbon removal.
Others propose a more direct artificial photosynthesis through the photoelectric chemical conversion of CO2 into oxygen and energy. However, current models deem it expensive. Similarly, these trees look cool and use artificial photosynthesis but they’re not scalable.
Faux trees convert CO2 to O2. Image from phys.org
A major benefit of capturing carbon is being in control of how it’s stored and converted. If we convert carbon from CO2 into calcium carbonate pellets, we can use and store them more efficiently. One method that has incredible potential is flash graphene. It is a technique that can convert any type of carbon into the extremely useful graphene. Graphene can be used to strengthen concrete by 40% with only 1% of it in the mixture. Graphene can be used to make green concrete which is stronger than regular concrete by 34% with only 0.07% of graphene in the mixture. These breakthroughs can convert carbon into reusable technology instead of the likely unsafe, and costly process of geological carbon storage.
A cheap decarbonisation method is coating mountain rocks, roads and roofs with olivine to capture the CO2 brought down by rain and storing them in the calcium carbonate composite. Another extremely promising method is ocean fertilisation: essentially feeding nutrients to the phytoplanktons which use photosynthesis like plants to convert sunlight and CO2 into oxygen and/or excrement. Ocean fertilisation has been an excitingly cheap and simple solution to implement. We need to give more credit to these oceanic microorganisms. In fact, they are the critters that created our breathable ozone in the first place, not trees. They’ve been working since the beginning of life on this planet and fertilise all land and life — it’s the ocean we need to work on more than anything, as it sequesters the majority of carbon.
We’re focusing on strategies which only account for 20% of emissions while 80% of the problem remains. Ocean fertilisation is potentially the best all-round solution to a negative emission technology.
Ocean fertilisation will need to work in coordination with deacidification. We’ve lost incredibly healthy and foundational phytoplankton on a global scale of 1% per year. I recommend this playlist on some further innovative strategies including Steven Gillet’s talk on past methods and new nanotechnological solutions for carbon and silicates including deacidification.
Carbon capture is necessary but not sufficient and improving old methods like ocean fertilisation is just the beginning. We may need to consider bioengineering new phytoplankton through the use of gene drives in order for them to out compete larger microorganisms and prevent harmful algae blooms from occurring. Tracking can also be undertaken through the use of satellites to see the ocean and atmospheric changes and make adjustments to the bloom areas. There’s no natural way out of this. We shouldn’t be afraid to change the planet through these climate engineering techniques, as we’ve already drastically and irredeemably changed earth in the last century. We need to make up for our mistakes, as sustainability is no longer sufficient.
Many countries already have a price on carbon. The countries with the highest price on C02 per metric tonne have had great reductions in their emissions and the countries that delay carbon pricing are only increasing how much the tax will need to be, as climate change gets worse, according to IPCC and the World Bank. The challenge is enforcing it upon the companies that pollute the most and using carbon pricing as a deterrence scheme. It would be excellent to supplement carbon pricing with a plan to change energy practices altogether, like the Green New Deal, which outlines a way to supercharge the economy through developing renewable infrastructure and technologies.
Canada has a pollution pricing program similar to Australia’s, except in Australia, industrial polluters can emit up to a certain amount of carbon on the safeguard mechanism and then just buy credits as compensation. Australia is going in the opposite direction of the pledge made in the Paris Climate agreement to reduce emissions by 28% by 2030. The Australian government is one of the worst countries in the world in their action to mitigate climate change according to the Global Energy innovation Index. Estimates even say a carbon price of $111 per tonne of CO2 still wouldn’t be high enough to meet our Paris agreement targets. Britain has been successful in using a carbon price floor of $25 a ton and led electric utilities to switch away from coal and to cleaner solutions. Australia doesn’t currently have a roof or a floor price on carbon.
Graphic By Ranamode — Own work, via wikimedia CC BY-SA 4.0
One suggestion is to reduce the price on renewable energies to incentivise people to save money by converting to greener technologies. Likewise, renewable energy companies like electric vehicle manufacturers and solar power plants should be subsidised so they become cheaper.
If carbon capture methods cost approximately $100 USD per metric tonne of CO2 then we need to adjust our carbon tax accordingly. The tax fund could be distributed to the top climate change solutions and most effective methods should be getting more of the funding. Carbon pricing works, according to a decade-long study by researchers from Australian National University . It showed countries with a carbon price reduced their emissions by 2% per year and the countries without a carbon price increased their emissions, on average, by 3%.
Carbon price vs no carbon price in 142 countries. Best, Burke, Jotzo 2020
We can also tax the carbon footprint of everyday life as well as pay people for being carbon negative. This can be achieved by simply subsidising renewable energy companies instead of fossil fuel companies. If we did get taxed heavily for the carbon we emit and got paid even more for the renewable energy we produce by living a carbon negative life, we could save a lot of money. And wouldn’t that be a nice motivator to change to a more ethical lifestyle?
Having one fewer child prevents the most carbon from being consumed out of all the individual lifestyle choices we can make. Creating one person amounts to 60 tonnes of carbon emissions each year and has led to awareness campaigns such as Vancouver’s One Planet One Child.
Stopping a wealthy person’s carbon footprint by having one or no children is the single greatest action you can take outside of donating tens of thousands of dollars to offset your carbon emissions over a lifetime.
In terms of overpopulation as a contributing factor of climate change, it’s important to note that it’s predominantly developed nations and rich households who have 86% of the worlds CO2 emissions. Not developing nations like in Asia and Africa where 118 million births out of the global 140 million annual births are happening.
Graph from Our World in Data CC BY SA 4.0
In developed nations like Australia, we should not be offering monetary incentives to have children. Despite people’s fear of the economic implications of an aging population, automation and a global Green New Deal are likely going to happen to make up for the decline in the working-age population.
CREDITS: (GRAPHIC) J. YOU/SCIENCE; (DATA) SETH WYNES AND KIMBERLY A NICHOLAS, ENVIRONMENTAL RESEARCH LETTERS (2017 )https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/07/best-way-reduce-your-carbon-footprint-one-government-isn-t-telling-you-about
This article says we should have kids because they sometimes emit joy. Unfortunately joy doesn’t offset carbon and for many of us, kids make us more miserable due to the decrease in daily pleasure. Just to be clear on what our carbon habits are in Australia, here’s a graph:
*Land use, land-use change, and forestry (LULUCF). Overall emission figures given, less LULUCF, total 99.9% due to rounding. Source: Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources
The thing is, we need to do better even if we were to donate a 1000 times more than we do to offset carbon. Eating a plant-based diet has an even greater benefit than we realise after taking into account all of the carbon offsets that would happen as a consequence of reducing animal agriculture — estimates say that this shift alone could limit our warming to 1.5°C. Once you factor in all the forest regrowth and enormous stop on deforestation for animal grazing and animal feed, less farm-to-table travel, less animals burping and the fact that methane is 28 times as potent as CO2 you realise the enormity of the problem and the easiest solution: don’t eat animals.
These discussions need to be had to influence our cultural understanding of why the destruction of our planet continues. We need to truly consider altering our carbon footprint and to talk about the industries, governments and businesses that are the root cause. Our small habit changes in our daily life aren’t the larger and only solution. Push for reform and don’t settle for a slow destruction of our planet for future generations. We should switch our diet, our electricity, and our car to renewables. But most importantly, let’s switch our thinking from ethnocentric profiteering to global and systematic accountability for a sustainable future and make our governments do the same.
Previously published behind a paywall at: https://medium.com/predict/altered-carbon-footprint-94b4e3317034
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