As a climate catastrophe looms larger than ever before, scientists at the Cambridge University are working on setting up a research center to find radical ways of fixing the planet’s rapidly deteriorating environment, before it spells our doom.
Desperate times call for desperate measures!
As clichéd and dramatic as it may sound, it’s probably what the Cambridge scientists had in mind when they took the much-needed initiative, which is being coordinated by Prof Sir David King, former Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
“What we do over the next 10 years will determine the future of humanity for the next 10,000 years,” Sir David told the BBC News, adding: “There is no major center in the world that would be focused on this one big issue.”
Part of Cambridge university’s Carbon Neutral Futures Initiative, the Center for Climate Repair is being headed by climate scientist and mathematician Emily Shuckburgh, Director of Research at the University of Cambridge and Honorary Fellow at the British Arctic Survey.
“This really is one of the most important challenges of our time, and we know we need to be responding to it with all our efforts,” Shuckburgh told BBC News.
Concerns that the ongoing efforts alone will not make much of a difference in the fight against climate change has led to this new line of thinking, which is expected to stem the rot by drastically reducing CO2 emissions.
Some of the ideas that the researchers are looking forward to exploring include refreezing the polar regions, recycling carbon dioxide, and greening the oceans – collectively known as geoengineering.
Conceptually, the approach is as simple as brightening/whitening the clouds above the polar regions to increase their ability to reflect heat back into space; it’s the implementation that may prove to be tricky.
The idea being proposed is to deploy unmanned ships with tall masts and pump seawater up the masts through special nozzles, thereby producing tiny salt particles that can then be sprayed into the clouds, making them more reflective.
Recycling Carbon Dioxide
If CO2 emissions from various sources could be harnessed and converted into synthetic fuel, a good portion of the world’s emission problems would be solved, but again, it’s the method that needs to be perfected.
Prof Peter Styring of the University of Sheffield – a researcher specializing in novel sorbents and processes for carbon dioxide capture, purification, and utilization – is working with Tata Steel on exactly such a pilot in Port Talbot in South Wales.
If all goes well, it would go a long way in making large-scale CO2 recycling a global reality.
“We have a source of hydrogen, we have a source of carbon dioxide, we have a source of heat and we have a source of renewable electricity from the plant,” Prof Styring told BBC News.
“We’re going to harness all those and we’re going to make synthetic fuels,” he added.
Greening the oceans by promoting the growth of vegetation such as algae and plankton on the surface is another approach under consideration.
The idea is to fertilize the oceans with iron salts which are known to stimulate such growth; the more the growth the more the absorption of CO2 from the air by way of photosynthesis.
Earlier attempts at ocean greening have shown that the amount CO2 absorbed is not enough to make the scheme worthy of the resources involved; plus, there’s the likelihood of upsetting the ecological balance.
But, don’t forget these are desperate times, and considering the enormity of the impending threat, all available options need to be revisited.
“Early in my career, people threw their hands up in horror at suggestions of more interventionist solutions to fix coral reefs,” Prof Callum Roberts of York University told BBC News.
“Now they are looking in desperation at an ecosystem that will be gone at the end of the century and now all options are on the table,” he said.
“At the moment, I happen to think that harnessing nature to mitigate climate change is a better way to go. But I do see the legitimacy of exploring [more radical] options as a means of steering us towards a better future,” added the professor.
A recent study, ranking the environmental targets of different countries, holds the climate change policies of dozens of them, including China, Russia, and Canada, responsible for the expected 5C-plus temperature rise by the end of the century.
Published in the journal Nature Communications in November last year, the paper reveals that these countries are not pursuing their climate change pledges to the United Nations sincerely enough to avoid an environmental catastrophe, which as of now is a foregone conclusion.
According to the Paris Agreement of December 2015, adopted within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), hundreds of countries pledged individual NDCs, or Nationally Determined Contributions, toward a collective environmental goal.
The NDC calls for member countries to ensure that their individual contributions to climate change are ambitious, progressive and Agreement-centric enough to achieve the “aspirational levels” of 1.5 °C – 2 °C by 2100.
However, the authors note that the NDCs are self-serving and not in keeping with the Paris Agreement, as a result of which the aspirational level targets have little chance of being met.
“Current NDCs individually align, at best, with divergent concepts of equity and are collectively inconsistent with the Paris Agreement,” writes study head and lead author Yann Robiou du Pont from the Australian-German Climate & Energy College, University of Melbourne, along with co-author and university colleague Malte Meinshausen.
If the existing state of affairs does not change soon enough, we could well be looking at a 2.3 °C increase in global temperatures by 2100,” say the authors.
“Extending such a self-interested bottom-up aggregation of equity might lead to a median 2100-warming of 2.3 °C,” they write.
Robiou du Pont and Meinshausen do, however, believe that “tightening the warming goal of each country’s effort-sharing approach to aspirational levels of 1.1 °C and 1.3 °C could achieve the 1.5 °C and well-below 2 °C-thresholds, respectively.”
Calling the suggested target revision a “new hybrid allocation,” the authors say that it’s a reconciliation between “the bottom-up nature of the Paris Agreement” and its “top-down warming thresholds and provides a temperature metric to assess NDCs.”
The UNFCCC objective of stabilizing GHG (Greenhouse Gas) concentrations, based on the principle of Common But Differentiated Responsibilities and Respective Capabilities (CBDR-RC) to push global warming targets, is far from being met as portrayed by the NDCs.
“While the quest for a common understanding of what is a fair effort-sharing continues, rapidly falling technology costs of renewables and increasing mitigation co-benefits shift the attention away from effort-sharing considerations,” note the authors.
“However, current bottom-up NDCs do not add up to a global ambition consistent with the joint temperature goals,” they say, suggesting that “a 5-year stocktake requires all countries to pledge enhanced actions and support.”
Per the current NDCs, India is leading the pack with a warming target of 2.6 °C, which is rather impressive considering it only marginally exceeds the upper target threshold of 2C.
“The greenest countries on this assessment are the least developed,” The Independent quotes Robiou du Pont as having said.
“Given that they pollute so much less, have polluted so much less and have low per capita GDP, they could increase their emissions to some extent, and that would be fair,” Robiou du Pont told the online newspaper.
The industrialized nations, on the other hand, are the poor performers, with China and major energy exporters like Saudi Arabia, Canada and Russia among the top offenders with their NDCs leading to a potentially catastrophic 5C-plus warming.
“Many industrialized countries perform poorly. After all, we know that industrialisation brought climate change,” Robiou du Pont told The Independent, adding that it did not mean that these countries could not take corrective measures.
Among the countries pursuing policies that are likely to lead the planet to a 4C temperature jump, are Australia (heavily dependent on coal exports) and the United States, which is looking to balance its industry, energy and agricultural emissions by encouraging more renewables.
Slightly better-off are EU countries, with most of them producing emissions that would raise the planet’s temperatures by 3C.
“It is interesting is to see how far out some countries are, even those that are considered leaders in the climate mitigation narrative,” the Guardian quoted Robiou du Pont as saying.
It is, therefore, heartening to know that initiatives like the Center for Climate Repair are being undertaken and that serious efforts are being made to save the planet from an imminent ecological disaster.