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December 2 2021 6:04 AM ˚
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Climate of Impact: A streetcar named Glasgow

Climate Protest (Top)
People participate in a protest rally during a global day of action on climate change in Glasgow on November 6, 2021, during the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference. (Photo: AFP)
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The world’s attention is focused on the proceedings and outcomes of the UN COP26 International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) meeting in Glasgow. We will be told, as we have been repeatedly by the IPCC, that this is the last-ditch attempt to save the planet and perhaps humanity from the catastrophic consequences of global warming and climate change through the increasing accumulation of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in our atmosphere. اضافة اعلان

To that end, the world will be encouraged to abandon all fossil fuel-based energy generation, which for years has represented more that 80 percent of global energy consumption. The gathering in Glasgow will also enthusiastically and appropriately, welcome the increases of alternative energy sources in many countries, especially wind and solar, which currently provide about four percent of global energy consumption. 

Unfortunately, such alternative sources of energy are projected to remain modest compared to coal, natural gas and oil. This trend is compounded by rising energy demands in developing countries where fossil fuels remain a dependency.

Even developed countries such as Canada will not be able to meet the targets voluntarily set at COP21 in Paris. On October 6, the Globe and Mail reported: “Canada is on pace to fall well short of its emissions goals, according to a new government-funded report that says the country’s current strategies will reduce its greenhouse gas output by only 16 percent, relative to 2005 levels, by 2030 — a far cry from the 40-percent cut that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has promised.”

Ironically, the UK government (host of COP26) is permitting the first deep coal mine in 30 years to be created in Cumbria with most of the extracted coal to be exported to Europe. This underlines another misunderstanding perhaps widely held, namely, the atmosphere pays no attention to the source of GHG emissions. A ton of carbon absorbed in the atmosphere from Beijing has the same global impact as one emitted from Montreal.

With no sanctions and no carbon pricing agreed upon in Paris, is it realistic to assume that the world, with total primary energy consumption more than 80 percent dependent on fossil fuels in 2020, will restructure our societies and infrastructures in time to prevent CO2 atmospheric concentrations from passing the possible “tipping point” of 450 parts per million (ppm)? At the time of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, concentrations were about 367ppm. They have now passed 400ppm.

Many argue that it is still not too late to embark upon ambitious environmental programs to ensure that GHGs decline before CO2 accumulations in the atmosphere exceed 450ppm. This is the level the scientific consensus tells us will keep global mean temperatures from increasing above pre-industrial levels by more than 2°C with concomitant disastrous climate change far outstripping our global capacity to reduce fossil fuel emissions or adapt to a very different world. 

No alternative — no Plan B

Where is Plan B? There is none. We are simply re-embarking on the well-trodden path of consistent failure. Perhaps as a last resort, atmospheric geoengineering known as solar radiation management (SRM) will be considered, at least at an experimental level to determine whether we might have a useful fire extinguisher at hand when there is a consensus that rising above 2°C is inevitable.

The challenge is that, based on the last few decades of trying to come to grips with global warming and climate change by a few brave countries (e.g. consider Germany’s extraordinary increase to 44 percent wind and solar-generated renewable electricity-generating capacity by the end of 2015, that still only provides about 8 percent of Germany’s total primary energy consumption), none of our alternative solution technologies, as presently configured, is capable of being scaled-up to make a significant dent in the overwhelming use of inexpensive and very convenient fossil fuels (gas, oil, and coal).  

The UN General Assembly in Special Session met in New York in 1997, where we listened to statements from world leaders and others (including me) about the importance of reducing emissions. That meeting was followed by the UN Kyoto conference, where the Kyoto Protocol was adopted.

It was agreed that Annex 1 countries (37 developed) would reduce their emissions during two commitment periods on average by 5.2 per cent below their respective 1990 levels. Canada’s commitment was a six percent decrease by 2012 compared to 1990. By 2008, Canada’s emissions had increased by 24.1 per cent over 1990 and Canada withdrew from the protocol.
We have witnessed governments across the globe tailor their policies to their short-term political imperatives rather than to long-term challenges such as climate change.

The present policy paralysis illustrates our incapacity to come to grips with global warming and its impact on climate change despite the human and economic toll of the weather aberrations we witness on a daily basis.

Hopefully, as the realization takes hold that the 450ppm threshold will be passed, an international consensus will emerge and adaptation measures will be brought forward to address some of the most damaging early consequences. If nuclear continues to be rejected as a global solution, then in the absence of some yet to be discovered “breakthrough” technological developments, a Plan B must also examine solar radiation management (SRM or atmospheric geoengineering) and perhaps a broader utilization of carbon capture and sequestration. SRM could be a potential lifeboat should the failure to arrest and reduce CO2 emissions continue, as it has for decades.

A non-technical explanation SRM might be simply the following: By spreading aerosols with reflective particles in the atmosphere one could alter the albedo, i.e. the reflective capacity of the earth, thereby lessening the amount of radiation that penetrates to the earth’s surface, and as a result, lessen the heat that is trapped under the CO2 blanket. The measured reduction in the earth’s temperature resulting from the spread of volcanic ash after eruptions suggests that this would be effective and relatively inexpensive. It would not be a permanent answer and would have to be renewed periodically. 

Unfortunately, there is considerable resistance to the concept, which seems to find two areas of opposition. First, we see the dedicated environmentalists who believe that exploring this technology may detract from mitigation efforts of those seeking to arrest and reduce GHG emissions, especially CO2.

Second, there are some fearful of even limited testing, which they claim could result in unintended consequences, and who remain convinced that there will be technological breakthroughs that will make geoengineering of the atmosphere unnecessary. Surely it is irresponsible for this generation not to have a Plan B.

What better place to have such a robust discussion amongst experts than at COP 26 in Glasgow?

Under the title “COP26 Glasgow and the Lack of a Plan B” the early version of this text appeared in the Canadian Policy Magazine www.policymagazine.ca. Courtesy of the author and publisher. 

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