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MONTREAL—Covering entire deserts with sun-reflecting plastics. Fertilizing oceans with iron to increase phyto-plankton growth and soak up carbon dioxide. Blasting sulphate aerosols into the stratosphere and installing massive mirrors in space to decrease incoming solar radiation to Earth.
What may seem like stories out of a science fiction novel are actually part of a new wave of “geo-engineering” technologies designed for large-scale scientific manipulation of natural systems. The goal: to slow down global temperature increases and mitigate the worst impacts of climate change.
But a growing tide of critics argue that geo-engineering technology is not only unproven, but may pose a grave threat to the planet. Its allure, according to Diana Bronson of the technology and environmental watchdog organization ETC Group, is that "techno-fixes" appear to offer a silver bullet solution to climate change—while allowing business as usual to continue.
“Geo-engineering is both a set of technologies and a drive political strategy,” said Bronson. “It is a way to let rich countries not take responsibility for their climate debt; it is a way to continue living the way we do in an energy intensive and unsustainable way and it is a way to continue pumping fossil fuels from the ground and into the atmosphere.”
In Japan in October, critics won a victory at the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), an intergovernmental convention of 193 nations. All parties to the CBD announced they would be adopting a “precautionary approach” to geo-engineering, and agreed to prohibit real-world geo-engineering experiments.
“The agreement basically is a moratorium," said Bronson. "It was a very hot issue and entered many late nights of negotiations, and the text that came out is a very compromised text. Nevertheless it is a very important step forward. This is the first time that any intergovernmental body has made a decision on geo-engineering.”
While the CBD moratorium prevents the real-world testing of technologies with potential global implications for life and biodiversity, it does not prevent investment or small-scale research in geo-engineering—and the Canadian government has shown interest in becoming an increasingly larger player.
“I don't think the Canadian public, or even Parliament, has any idea that the government of Canada has already invested in geo-engineering research,” said Bronson.
The CBD agreement has created a speed bump on the techno-fix superhighway.
“Essentially what the decision [in Nagoya] says is that until we understand the implications of geo-engineering on biodiversity, or until there is a regulatory framework in place to monitor and control such activities, no geo-engineering should take place,” said Jaime Webbe of the Montreal-based Secretariat of CBD.
Geo-engineering is typically divided into two main categories: technologies designed to limit incoming solar radiation to the earth, and technologies designed to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it. Both categories include everything from simple ideas—such as changing the colour of roads to better reflect sunlight—to seemingly more outlandish plans to spray sulfur—a byproduct of extractive industries such as the Alberta tar sands—into the upper atmosphere to emulate volcanic eruptions and limit incoming solar radiation.
Billionaires Bill Gates and Richard Branson have established multi-million-dollar funds to develop these technologies. Gates is the major benefactor of the Fund for Innovative Climate and Energy Resources, a $4.6 million fund managed in part by University of Calgary scientist David Keith, who researches and advocates geo-engineering.
While Keith agrees the CBD agreement is a positive step towards the creation of governance structure for how geo-engineering takes place, he, along with other scientists, also view it as a sign that the technology will eventually be implemented.
A major point of contention at the CBD talks in Japan was whether or not to include Carbon Capture and Storage technology (CCS) in the definition of geo-engineering. The final text excluded CCS from the definition—thereby allowing its real world use—with a footnote from Bolivia expressing disagreement and calling for “full consideration by the Conference of the Parties of [CCS] impacts on biodiversity in general.”
“There is a very complex debate that goes on around carbon capture and its relationship to geo-engineering, and it came to a head in Nagoya,” said Bronson. Excluding CCS from the definition of geo-engineering "was a compromise resulting from a number of countries negotiating together and some of those countries—including Canada and Norway—being very insistent that CCS not be included in the definition."
Henry Lau, spokesperson for Environment Canada, told The Dominion he disagreed.
“Carbon Capture and Storage is not a geo-engineering activity, because CCS provides a way to avoid emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere," he said. "Geo-engineering activities attempt to modify interactions between the Earth's surface and the atmosphere; CCS methods store carbon dioxide underground.”
Much of the debate turns on the scope of the definition of CCS. Carbon capture includes a broad range of technologies, typically divided into two categories: those designed to capture tailpipe and smokestack emissions, and those designed to remove carbon from the atmosphere for storage. The latter include everything from tree plantations to artificially fertilizing the ocean to increase its capacity to sequester carbon. It also includes proposals such as constructing artificial trees that attempt to chemically replicate photosynthesis.
“Those [technologies] which pull carbon out of the atmosphere are definitely covered under the moratorium,” Bronson said. “That includes everything like ocean fertilization, synthetic trees and bio-char...but CCS is categorically excluded when it comes to carbon captured at source.”
Canada has invested heavily in this kind of research, development and implementation.
“The government of Canada is supporting Carbon Capture and Storage with substantial investments in large-scale demonstration projects,” said Micheline Joanisse, a spokesperson for Natural Resources Canada (NRCAN). She points to over $3 billion in funding for projects in Alberta, Saskatchewan and British Colombia, including $466 million for CCS demonstration projects, as well as $151 million for research and development of new technologies.
A large portion of this funding has gone to the University of Calgary’s Institute for Sustainable Energy, Environment and Economy (ISEEE). The ISEEE is a multi-disciplinary research organization, and one of the largest CCS research centres in the world. It is also where David Keith sits as Director of its Energy and Environmental Systems Group.
On its website the ISEEE lists its "collaborators," including major tar sands corporations such as Suncor, Total, Shell Canada, and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. It also lists the Pembina Institute—the sole NGO, the governments of Canada and Alberta, and the United States Department of Energy.
According to research by ETC group, over the past three years, Keith has received at least $150,000 in Canadian government funding for CCS technology research, specifically for inventing technologies designed to remove carbon from the atmosphere. According to a 2010 NRCAN report on the University of Calgary's funding for Carbon Capture and Storage, NRCAN, through the ISEEE, provided $50,000 to Keith’s research in 2008-2009.
On December 23, 2009, Keith filed a patent for a device that would involve “carbon dioxide capture systems and methods for the recovery of CO2 from atmospheric air.” The patent describes how the invention could be implemented for the express purpose of generating environmental offsets, and creating carbon credits.
The same report states that in 2010 the federal government also awarded a $100,000 grant to Keith, along with Arvinder Pal Singh, Chief Technology Officer at Calgary-based Carbon Engineering, which describes itself as “an independent angel-funded company developing technologies to capture CO2.” The grant is to develop CCS technologies for the direct capture of carbon from the atmosphere, technologies that, under the CBD moratorium, cannot be experimented with outside the laboratory.
Environmental critics like Greenpeace look at Canada’s investments in technologies like CCS as little more than a public relations strategy to cover up or distract from Canada’s international reputation as major polluter. They argue that CCS is not a solution and has no real impact on the root causes of climate change.
Low-tech CCS applications, such as bio-char and tree plantations for example, have critics worried about an upcoming “Earth grab.”
Bio-char is a process by which plant materials are burned in a low oxygen environment and buried to sequester carbon. Both bio-char and tree plantations require massive amounts of land, as well as monoculture crops of trees or bio-char. Used on a large scale, critics warn this could lead to the displacement of communities, the destruction of forests and the transformation of land to to produce biomass rather than food. Additionally, these sorts of solutions create an incentive for the genetic engineering of crops to be used for fuel and carbon storage. Similar trends have happened around biodiesel and tree plantations for biomass power production.
In Canada, a bio-char proposal has been submitted as part of the Alberta Offset Scheme, the government of Alberta’s carbon-trade-based plan for emissions reductions. According to a report from the United Kingdom-based Biofuel Watch, Keith Driver, one of the Alberta Offset System’s chief advisors, has been tapped to draft the International Bio-char Initiative's first set of standards.
In many ways, the debate over geo-engineering boils down to a debate between two models of dealing with climate change: continuing with business as usual, and transforming an unsustainable system of production and consumption.
As tar sands development continues, the Canadian government appears to be betting on business as usual. "I would not be surprised to see millions more dollars in the coming years poured into these 'climate technologies,'" said Bronson. "[These technologies] are more a distraction from emissions reduction than anything else.”
Cameron Fenton is a former intern and Membership Coordinator with The Dominion and a community organizer in Montreal.
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.