A paler shade of green

Are we entering the anthropocene, a new, man-created geological epoch? I don’t like the term: there’s an implicit assumption that we’re in charge. Climate change has a very different message for us.

One Labour MP commented on Hilary Benn’s recent speech in the Syria debate, ‘If only a shadow Foreign Secretary would talk about climate change with such passion.’ Unfair, not least because it’s not his brief. But it is an issue that’s inspired some fine rhetoric in Paris this week. Compared to Copenhagen in 2009, the hard truths of climate change are accepted by almost everyone, right-wing US diehards excepted.

The issue is how we deal with them (the hard truths, that is) – by investing more heavily in green forms of energy and/or looking for technological solutions. The earth as a self-regulating system (in James Lovelock’s terms), effectively an organism in its own right, which we disrespect at our peril, or the earth as servant of mankind, mankind ultimately omnicompetent, pushing back frontiers of knowledge and technology, destined to find answers to everything, well, almost everything.

I go with the former, because it keeps us grounded, keeps us in touch with our lives and our world as it is, and doesn’t posit some technology-driven future which could undermine that sense of connection with the Earth (inadvertently but appropriately capitalised!), and ultimately our very humanity.

But I am, that said, all in favour of investing in technological solutions. If India continues to build up its coal-mining capacity, and burn more and more, how might clean coal technologies make a difference? And carbon capture not just from coal. There’s also ongoing research into making clouds more reflective. And much else.

Awareness is everything. Having won the argument over climate change – it is for real, we have to face those who argue that current wind and solar technologies are too inefficient or too expensive, and use that to make a case for reducing or withdrawing funding now.  (The UK government being a case in point.) Their argument in one sentence: put funding, and it could be vast funding, into new technologies, and some will work, and some will not, but trust in technology and we will find an answer.

As a strategy it’s high risk. It’s dangerous to trust in hypothetical futures. There are current strategies which may be inefficient, and still small scale, but they have impact, and will in time – as, for example, solar cells become much more efficient and energy storage is improved – put subsidy behind them, and be fully commercial. We can’t risk losing the momentum we have.

I can’t get into carbon taxes and cap-and-trade here (expertise I haven’t got!), but they are of course another strand of the argument.

In the meantime we rely on imported gas, nuclear (handing over to the French for expertise and the Chinese for finance, high risk, given the importance of energy security), and fracking (also, high risk, this time in terms of local environments). How we strike a balance is not something this blog can address.

There’s a letter in a recent edition of The Times arguing for the potential, in the longer term, for turning CO2 into fuel – ‘artificial hydrocarbon fuels’. (CCU – carbon capture and utilisation.) It’s a process that requires vast amounts of energy, but as the writers say, ‘it is no use burning hydrocarbons to make hydrocarbons’. We’d need to use renewable energy sources, and that, they argue, should include nuclear power, with the ‘ultimate solution’ being to use solar power.

That struck a chord with me, not least because it sums up the dilemmas we face.

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