Pros and cons of human intervention with climate change

By Wan Lixin
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail Shanghai Daily, January 8, 2016
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These days, there are no doubts about mankind's contribution to climate change due to the burning of fossil fuels. If the burning of fossil fuels continues at current rates, our planet's temperature will rise, which will lead to crop failures, extreme weather, and a rising sea-level.

If we are serious about stabilizing the planet's temperature in the near future, the net amount of carbon dioxide we can emit is, according to scientists, zero.

Unfortunately, emissions reduction is painful. In 1997, when the Kyoto climate-change conference was held, wind, solar and hydropower satisfied just three percent of the world's energy needs. In 2012, after 15 years of political bargaining, the contribution of these renewables to the world's energy mix remains unchanged.

Many blame this on a lack of political will to take on vested interests — particularly those in the fossil fuel industry.

But Oliver Morton in his new book "The Planet Remade: How Geoengineering Could Change the World," hints at the impossibility of zero emissions by pointing to the magnitude of our current emissions.

"The 30 billion tons of carbon dioxide emitted in 2013 came from burning three trillion cubic meters of gas over the years; from burning almost three billion barrels of oil in each of its months; from burning a bit less than 300 tons of coal in each of its seconds. The infrastructure needed for all that burning was almost as complex as it was essential," Morton explains.

Stabilizing the climate by reducing emissions would mean replacing the entire global energy infrastructure.

If we had the capacity to replicate the world's largest nuclear power plant every week, it would take 20 years to replace our current stock of coal-fired power plants. We are reminded of Chernobyl, Fukushima, the risk of radioactive waste and the potential built up of nuclear weapons, and think of other options — and are told that it would take 150 years to replace these plants with solar panels.

The solution proves to be even more elusive when we realize how unequal the world is.

Today's emissions are mainly contributed by the two billion people now enjoying "prosperity" in rich countries. But there are five billion people in the developing world who would be eager to burn more fossil fuels if it brings them closer to the affluence they aspire to.

Morton writes: "They deserve better."

"Those people should be able to lead the lives that the affluent two billion lead today, with access to the industrial and agricultural goods and services that copious energy makes possible. And so should their children and grandchildren," Morton argues.

Some countries are more committed to carbon reductions than others, but that would not go far unless all are involved, particularly the big emitters.

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