Chris Huhne’s recent letter to Brussels to push for greater reductions in carbon dioxide emissions is too late. Chris follows scientists who are firmly set in the camp that wants to cool the planet this century. Call them the coolers. Other scientists maintain this is too slow. It must be done more quickly. Call them the super-coolers.
The coolers’ sole strategy is to persuade the world to cut emissions of carbon dioxide – the most prominent greenhouse gas. The coolers’ plan is the Plan A that Europe follows. It’s intention is to limit global temperature rise to 2ºC. The super-coolers think this is unrealistic. They want to supplement Plan A by policies that cool the planet rather more.
Plan A is slow is because carbon dioxide is long-lived and there’s so much of it up there – slowing emissions now will take many decades to diminish its warming effect.. Plan A is also failing. According to the respected Climate Scoreboard, current pledges to reduce CO2 emission are still leading to a 4ºC rise by the end of the century. A bit of googling will shows a 4ºC rise means catastrophic climate change. Googling more brings visions of Hieronymus Bosch.
Super-coolers have a Plan B. CO2 is not much more than half of global warming especially when the effects of soot are included. The rest is mostly made up of short term agents that clear out of the atmosphere in a decade or so. Some come with only a small political penalty. The soot that darkens the air of the Indian subcontinent, which traps the sun and melts the Himalayan glaciers, is produced largely by poor people cooking on smoky wood-burning stoves. We can give them better stoves and have that wonderful do-gooding glow while saving our own skins. The soot from the traffic in the affluent parts of the northern world is a large blanket of muck hanging in the air we breathe. This warms the planet locally and wafts further north to land in the Arctic to melt sea-ice and glaciers. But political penalty is not that great. It can be dressed up as green jobs making green cars and green lorries with cleaner emissions. (Update 19th August: Cooking stoves may be bad for the climate but diesel exhausts are much worse. See Black Carbon’s Grey Areas)
Cut Methane emissions and the effects are almost immediate. Methane lasts in the atmosphere for about a decade. But methane has greater political problems because much of it is produced by livestock. Dissing beefburgers is politically difficult but crossing the farming lobby is political suicide. We must find ways of educating the public and buying off the farmers.
Professor Peter Cox has outlined his strategy for a Plan B. “There should be a plan B for climate change if reducing emissions of CO2 cannot be effected soon enough. This would take more seriously the effects of pathways with shorter time-scales than CO2, such as methane, ozone (NOx as a precursor) and black carbon. Plan B should also consider geoengineering: Sulphate [released into the upper atmosphere] looks best.”
The super-coolers think that Plan A just won’t work. Plan B is at least a plan to buy time while we think of something different – like extracting CO2 from the atmosphere by making biochar and burning biomass with carbon capture. The steady coolers have their focus on the long-term any any diversion from this is a dangerous distraction. They may point to the Harwell Paper to prove their point.
But, if this is new to you, dear reader, weep. There is an important and intense debate going on between the footnotes of peer reviewed science. It may be important but it’s hidden from most of us and so develops so slowly that the climate is changing faster.
Sadly, whatever the merits of the two plans, governments and their lobbyists will opt for the pain tomorrow of Plan A rather than the pain today of Plan B.
Stop press: James Hansen also has a Plan B: Global warming in the twenty-first century: An alternative scenario
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