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"With the impacts of climate change becoming more evident every day and the need for action more urgent, it's likely that rich, panicky governments will gamble on quick-fixes rather than risk inconveniencing their electorate and/or offending industry." This is the warning expressed in a recent report from the Ottawa-based Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC Group).
"Every crazy idea is being brought out and dusted off to try out on policy makers," says Pat Mooney, co-author of the report and executive director of the ETC Group.
The focus of the report, entitled Gambling with Gaia, is geoengineering. Geoengineering is the intentional, large-scale manipulation of the environment by humans to bring about environmental change, particularly to counteract the undesired side-effects of other human activities.
Among the scientists covered in the report is Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen, whose controversial geoengineering essay proposes to blast particles of sulphur into the stratosphere – increasing particulate pollution – to shield the Earth from the sun's rays. Crutzen presented his findings at the UN conference on climate change in Nairobi in November 2006. An Associated Press report notes that Crutzen said he was "not enthusiastic" about the proposal, but made it to startle policymakers into realizing that "if they don't take action [on climate change] much more strongly than they have in the past, then in the end we have to do experiments like this."
Despite his intent, the Nobel Laureate noted that the reception to his idea was "more positive" than expected. The article notes that during the same week as the UN convention, NASA's Ames Research Center was hosting a closed-door, high-level workshop on Crutzen's proposal and other geoengineering ideas for fending off climate change.
Geoengineering isn't only being discussed behind closed doors. Experiments have also begun on the open ocean, reports the ETC Group. Since 1993, there have been at least 10 experiments to seed sections of the ocean's surface (from 50 to 150 square kilometres) with iron filings. The European Union and at least nine national governments – including Canada's – have supported these "iron fertilization" projects. The experiments are based on the argument that iron nurtures plankton growth -- and plankton absorbs carbon dioxide through photosynthesis.
It's not clear whether carbon dioxide absorbed by plankton will remain permanently sequestered, however. "You can't get two scientists to agree on the results," says Mooney. "Some say they see great potential in the field. Others say that the carbon dioxide may be captured temporarily, but might pop up again in a few weeks." The consensus that does exist, continues Mooney, is that this is "risky business."
After one expedition in 2002, in which three tonnes of iron particles were dumped into the ocean, the project's chief scientist, Dr. Kenneth Coale, told Popular Science: "What is still a mystery is the ripple effect on the rest of the ocean and the food chain." One fear, notes Popular Science, is that huge plankton blooms, in addition to gorging on CO2, will devour other nutrients. "A fertilization event to take care of atmospheric CO2 could have the unintended consequence of turning the oceans sterile," said Coale.
Despite the uncertainty within the science community regarding whether iron fertilization works, or if it has unintended consequences (like the sterilization of parts of the ocean), the business community is moving forward.
Planktos Inc. is a self-described "for-profit ecorestoration company" based in San Francisco with offices in Europe and British Columbia.
In 2007, Planktos will begin what its website terms: "plankton restoration, by replenishing forest-sized areas of ocean with natural iron-rich dust, just as Mother Nature does." This will provide the company with "saleable carbon credits for emerging environmental markets."
By purchasing carbon credits, companies or individuals can "buy the right to pollute" according to ETC's report, "by investing in projects that are deemed by 'experts' to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide." For example, Plaktos will "negate" your SUV's annual carbon footprint for the bargain basement price of fifty bucks.
The problem, says Mooney, is that there's no scientific proof that carbon dioxide absorbed by the plankton won't be re-released. "But companies serving the carbon market need only keep carbon dioxide out of sight for long enough to cash their cheques," says ETC's report. "If the carbon dioxide pops back up to the surface in a year or five, proving its source could be extremely difficult."
In Weyburn, Saskatchewan, home of the world's largest carbon-sequestering operation, another geoengineering experiment is already well underway – and is proving highly profitable. Oil giant Encana is compressing carbon dioxide and pumping it 1500 metres underground.
According to a February 10 article in the Globe and Mail, this system of sequestering carbon dioxide prevents the greenhouse gas from entering the atmosphere and "wreaking havoc with the environment," and "is seen by some experts as the ultimate solution to global warming." Encana, however, has other reasons to pump carbon dioxide underground. Its ultimate function is to force more crude oil to the surface; the company's output has jumped from 10,000 to 30,000 barrels a day since beginning the practice.
For projects that won't profit from carbon capture and sequestration (those that won't see an increase in output), companies like Shell and Suncor are looking for Canadian government support to develop the technology. This is not where the government should be spending climate change funds, says Lindsay Telfer, director of the Sierra Club's Prairie Chapter. "We're talking about some of the wealthiest corporations in the world, there's no reason why government needs to be subsidizing this development."
Much like carbon sequestration in the oceans, it's not yet clear if carbon sequestered underground would actually stay there. Even if carbon dioxide does stay underground, "carbon capture and sequestration is a Band-Aid solution," says Telfer. "We need to be transitioning away from fossil fuels towards more renewable energy sources."
Both Telfer and Mooney recognize the value of geoengineering research and the important role technology can play in addressing climate change – they have no illusions about the immediate need for dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions – their concern, however, is that government and industry will be seduced by quick-fix technological 'solutions' that don't address root problems – and that might not even combat climate change.
"We need to look at the root problem that's driving climate change. We know it's burning of fossil fuels, but what is the system that that's happening in?" asks Telfer. "Part of that root cause is that we have a toxic economy." Our economic system promotes the idea of "infinite growth," a concept, she says, that is fundamentally unsustainable.
Humanity (primarily in the West) consumed more resources after the Second World War than all of human history before that, says Mooney. And global energy demands are expected to jump 60 per cent between 2002 and 2030. Not only is this environmentally unsustainable, he says, but a fundamental injustice.
Benefits and impacts of 'development' and technology are not equally felt, says Mooney. Right now, between 300,000 and 500,000 people die in developing countries each year due to the impacts of climate change, he says. He's concerned that geoengineering 'solutions' will also hurt those with the least money and power on the planet. "Who gets to adjust the mirrors in the stratosphere?" asks Mooney, referring to another geoengineering scheme that would place trillions of sun deflectors in the stratosphere. "And if you stop crops from burning up in the US, do you burn up the crops in Africa instead?"
Geoengineering "doesn't at all address the inequities in impacts," says Telfer. She notes that if we do manage to fend off climate change without addressing root environmental and social problems, we'll simply face a new crisis. "Next, it will be water."
"Are there root issues here that we're going to have to deal with if we're going to address climate change in an effective way?" asks Telfer. "Are we willing and ready to go there?”
“I think we need to be talking about it."
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.