All the dark clouds and silver linings on the climate crisis, explained

There are about a dozen potential feedbacks. Most are probably lurking somewhere beyond +2.0°C – but not necessarily far above that average global temperature, and some could even activate before then.

The problem is mostly political

Gwynne Dyer

3. We are running out of road

We are not cutting our emissions and we never have. ‘Renewables’ are barely keeping up with the growth of coal, oil and natural gas. Fossil fuels still account for 82% of global energy production. The renewables – hydro, nuclear, wind, solar and geothermal – only account for 18%.

The problem is mostly political. Most of the countries that got rich by starting to burn fossil fuels long ago have now stabilized their emissions, although at a very high level. The other three-quarters of the world’s population – China, India, Brazil and the rest – want to be rich too, and they’re not willing to wait any longer.

That’s where the huge growth in new emissions is happening. Fossil fuels are still the cheapest way to get rich, and we can’t force the global south to stay poor. So we either subsidize them to build non-fossil energy sources instead, or we all live with the consequent global warming.

4. The crisis may be right now

The extraordinary climate events of the past year – the sudden upward lurch in global average temperature and the attendant wildfires, heat waves, floods and storms – far exceed what the scientists’ climate models predicted. Their predictions have usually been right, but now they lay far behind the reality.

Maybe it’s just random events, but we may have triggered some unexpected feedback. For example, some scientists suspect that our recent successes in cleaning up the ‘brown clouds’ that used to sit over big Asian cities and cutting sulfur dioxide emissions from 60,000 giant merchant vessels mean that more sunlight is reaching the surface and causing more warming.

If that is the case, what could we do about it?

The better news

1. New energy sources

Wind and solar energy have grown very fast in the developed world, but they can’t take over the whole job of generating power because they fluctuate. Sometimes wind doesn’t blow, and every night it gets dark. So the best news on the energy supply front is that geothermal power, using very hot rock (200°C-400°C) to generate steam and drive turbines, is no longer confined to volcanic areas.

There’s hot rock almost everywhere if you drill down three or four kilometers, and fracking techniques can be used to get high-pressure steam from those rocks to generate power 24/7. The first megawatt-range geothermal pilot plant is going operational in Nevada right now.

Solar power will also become reliable 24/7 once they build massive solar arrays in high Earth orbits, but that will have to wait for Elon Musk’s ‘Starship’ to deliver on his promise of a cost-to-orbit price of less than $200 ( £158) per kilo.

2. Carbon dioxide removal

We are bound to overshoot both our ‘aspirational target’ of 1.5°C higher global temperature (in fact, we’re there right now) and our ‘never exceed’ limit of +2.0°C. Even if we could just stop the temperature where it is right now, all the ice on the planet would eventually melt and the sea level would rise by 70 meters, so we will need to get the temperature back down. In the long run, that means we will have to take at least half a trillion tonnes of CO2 out of the air.

Happily, the very first megatonne-range machines for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere are being built right now. The full job may take as little as a century or two, and the annual cost would be about the same as all of the world’s defense budgets.

3.Precision fermentation

As the climate gets hotter and wilder, we’re going to lose a lot of cropland to floods, droughts and intense heat. Our population is still rising, so there may not be enough for everyone to eat. We are also losing biodiversity, mainly because we have taken over most of the world’s land to grow our crops, and the only remedy is to give a lot of that land back to nature.

What we need is ‘food from the sky’: food that does not require precious land to grow on. Luckily for us, such food is now becoming available. It’s called ‘precision fermentation’: carefully chosen microbes grown in bioreactors with water, hydrogen, carbon dioxide and light, doubling their mass every three hours. Drain the soup off once in a while, dry it, and you have a powder containing 65% protein (or carbs, or fat) that can be turned into any kind of food you want.

It can be turned into perfectly acceptable food for human beings, but the first priority will be animal feed. Half of all our farmland is used to grow feed for cattle. Feed them food ‘from the sky’ instead, and you can start rewilding a lot of that land and still have plenty of food for people and animals alike.

Global cooling

Cutting emissions is far harder both politically and technically than people thought, and the ‘never exceed’ +2.0°C average global temperature will probably arrive by the mid-2030s. We really don’t want to go there, but we need more time to get our emissions down.

We know at least two ways of holding the temperature down temporarily that would probably work and are neither very risky or too expensive. One is putting sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere to reflect some incoming sunlight. (Volcanic eruptions have already road-tested this technique for us.) The other is to spray an ultra-fine mist of seawater up into low-lying clouds to thicken them up and achieve the same result.

For many years various zealots have blocked any outdoor research on these techniques, but it needs to happen now. Ending GHG emissions is still the main goal, but if we can’t hold the heat down in the meantime, global order will collapse and we’ll never get there.

Cheers up. We’re not doomed yet.

Intervention Earth: Life-saving Ideas from the World’s Climate Engineers by Gwynne Dyer is out now (Old Street Publishing, £12.99)

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