What could be more important than sustaining habitable living conditions on Earth? Climate change, biodiversity loss and other environmental problems demand changes on an order of magnitude well beyond the trajectory of business-as-usual. And yet, despite accumulative social and technological innovation, environmental problems are accelerating far more quickly than sustainable solutions.
The design industry is one of many industries mobilising to address environmental imperatives. While sustainability-oriented designers are working towards change from many angles, addressing climate change and other environmental problems on this scale demands much more dramatic transformations in economic ideas, structures and systems that enable – or disable – sustainable design.
Put simply, designers cannot design sustainable future ways of living on scale without a shift in economic priorities. Human impacts on planetary processes in the Anthropocene require new types of ecologically engaged design and economics if the necessary technological, social and political transitions are to take place.
World making design
Design is crucial to this debate because it is key to the creation of future ways of living. Designers make new ideas, products, services and spaces desirable to future users. With the shape of a font, a brand, the styling of a product, the look and feel of a service, the touch of a garment, the sensation of being in a particular building, designers serve the interests of customers (generally, those with disposal income). They do so according the logic and modes of governance generated by what is valued by economic structures. Design is the practice that makes capitalism so appealing.
Designers make new products, services and spaces that shape future ways of living – and can use their skills to create sustainable options. But there is a dilemma here. The market rarely prioritises interests that do not pay the bills or otherwise bring capital to the table.
Design sits at the intersection of economic value and social values. Design transforms what economic systems value into new ways of living – which in turn produce certain types of social values. This work is generated by priorities in the design industry, driven by economic imperatives.
Blind spots in conventional economics
Traditional neoclassical economics was developed in an era when all knowledge systems essentially ignored ecological concerns. In conventional economics, value – which is created by generating profit and accumulating capital for owners and investors – is systematically extracted from the systems in which economic systems are embedded: the social and the ecological systems.
Contemporary economic systems reproduce this tradition by rewarding individuals and companies for using (and often exploiting) resources to generate profit, regardless of the ecological or social consequences. The extractive and exploitative dynamics of capitalist economics generate economies locked into accelerating climate change, species extinction and other severe environmental and social problems. This economic system continues to produce ever greater degrees of crises as planetary boundaries are breached in ever more extreme ways.
But there are economic alternatives. Heterodox economic theory (such as ecological, feminist and Marxist economics) challenges the assumptions of mainstream economics. It has shown how neoclassical and neoliberal economics produce unsustainable economies that consistently devalue the natural world, women’s work and the labour of other groups historically denied equal access to capital.
For example, the Iceberg Model depicts a feminist economic framework where non-market activities, including the unpaid labour that buttresses capitalist economics, are made explicit.
The challenges of the Anthropocene demand that we overcome the exploitative and anti-ecological biases in neoclassical and neoliberal economics. One popular alternative is Kate Raworth’s Donut Economics. This would prioritise both social justice and environmental sustainability to create a safe operating space for humanity. Unlike conventional economics, heterodox economics takes the ecological context and planetary boundaries into account – while also addressing the interests of historically disadvantaged populations.
Ecological economics and design
The design industry, like most industries, is governed by economic ideas, structures and systems. Economic systems determine priorities in design studios and design education – including whether or not designers can focus on sustainable solutions.
And so economic factors govern whether designers can direct their energies towards making sustainable ways of living possible – or not. Few of us are employed to do tasks that make it possible to respond responsibly to environmental circumstances because the current political economy is not oriented towards prioritising the preservation of life on this planet.
When the priorities of an individual designer who is oriented towards sustainability conflict with those of the design industry, which is often governed by an economic system oriented towards profit, the designer finds it hard to make a living. If sustainable solutions will not generate profits, they will not succeed in this economic system (without either government intervention or charitable support). The design industry does not systemically prioritise the needs of the environment within this economic system because the way value is generated in contemporary economics depends on the systemic dismissal of ecological priorities.
New design economies
Addressing this dilemma is a severe challenge. It is now evident that the economic system must be designed to reflect priorities and values associated with preserving habitable conditions on the planet. Climate change and other severe environmental threats require dramatic shifts in economic priorities. The fields of economics and design must be redirected so that economic services, structures and systems will support socially distributive and environmentally regenerative design.
Humankind already has the knowledge to make sustainable and socially just ways of living on this planet possible. What we do not yet have is the ability to make these transitions possible in the current political context. New types of design and economics could be a basis for systemic transitions.
Key to this transition is ecologically literate education in both design and economics. Both fields must be radically transformed to meet the challenges of the Anthropocene. With critical, ecologically-engaged design and economic education, new redirected design economies could facilitate sustainable transitions and make another world not only possible – but desirable.
Much of the focus on climate change mitigation, or pollution in general, tends to focus on energy production. However, in truth this is merely one of several sources of carbon emissions. Agriculture and land use changes tends to be the next biggest headline at about a quarter of emissions (which is actually arguably larger than it looks given the amounts of fossil fuels used in agriculture both by farm machinery and the production of fertilisers).
After that its the acquisition of raw materials (mining, refining and processing of base metals and minerals). And concrete, as one of the mostly widely used materials in the world, tends to figure quite highly in this category. And at almost every step in its life cycle concrete has an environmental impact.
As I discussed in a prior post, the world is running out of sand for concrete production. Hence, there’s now a whole series of “sand Mafia’s” emerging in the developing world to steal sand, so the issues with concrete goes way beyond just climate change. Then you have to transport all these ingredients long distances, which consumes a lot of energy (cos they are kind of heavy!).
And, at the end of the building’s life, when its demolished, you’ve got numerous environmental problems. Notably the disposal of masses of concrete rubble (at one point back during the boom in Ireland they did a survey and found that 4/5’s of all the material entering Irish landfills was builders rubble).
Of course, as an engineer I’d have to point out that there are good reasons why we use concrete. Its cheap, it can be moulded into complex shapes, its durable, easy to maintain and fire proof. Basically you can do your worst to a concrete building and it will still stay standing. Hell, there was even a concrete building close to ground zero at Hiroshima that took the full force of a nuclear blast and survived. And keep in mind, we’ve been using concrete since ancient times. So we need to move beyond the simple “concrete bad” narrative, same way plastics is a bit more of a complex issue than it seems at first glance.
While concrete can be recycled, its more a form of downcycling. That is too say, you’ll get a lower quality of concrete afterwards, so you can use it for say roads or backfill, but not build a new skyscraper from the stuff. Another alternative is to change the composition of the concrete, using other materials such as fly ash, shredded rubber, waste glass, etc. into the mix. The downside is that this is again downcycling, not recycling and its generally not going to have the same structural properties.
Hence why other more radial measures are being proposed, for example a concrete tax. I’d point out that perhaps the problem here is the short life cycle of many modern buildings. I’ve seen concrete buildings that are maybe only 20 years old getting demolished. Sticking a carbon tax on, with the condition that some significant portion is refunded if the building stays in use for some extended period (e.g. at least a hundred years), or that its design life allows it to last that long, would create an incentive to only use concrete where necessary and make sure those buildings are built to last (as well as a financial incentive to refurbish rather than demolish).
There’s also alternatives to concrete. Wood as a construction material is something I’ve previously discussed. And while there are structural limits and issues with fire safety that need to be addressed (as well as where you source the wood from of course), these aren’t insurmountable. And there’s also the option of steel framed buildings. Now while yes steel, like most metals, is very energy intensive to manufacture, it has one unique advantage over concrete (or wood for that matter) – it can be recycled with 100% material efficiency (i.e. virtually no waste). So encouraging steel framed construction would offer several advantages.
But as so often is the case with climate change we are confronted with a problem whose dimensions aren’t immediately apparent. And where there is no nice and neat one size fits all solution, just lots of hard choices.
No matter what your beliefs, views, morals, ethics, economic principles, etc. are we all share in the desire to sustain life because we too are life. If you break down the word sustainability into its roots you are left with the words sustain and ability. So sustainability literally means the ability to sustain.
It does not mean electric vehicles, it does not mean wind power nor does sustainability mean banning plastic straws.
So if sustainability means the
ability to sustain then that poses a question, what are we trying to sustain?
Sustainability is solely about
The next question you may ask is “What
life are we looking to sustain?”
All life. From amoeba to fungi to
parrots to whales to squirrels to human life and more. When the goal of
sustainability is to sustain life then it becomes clear why ending our reliance
on fossil fuel matters, why electric vehicles make sense, why wind and solar
power makes sense, why banning plastic straws and all of the other things that
the proponents of sustainable movements are promoting matter.
Let’s look at a few examples of why a
number of the issues that the proponents of sustainability push back on
starting with the burning of fossil fuels.
Fossil fuels are hydrocarbons,
primarily coal, fuel oil or natural gas, formed from the remains of dead plants
and animals that have been converted to crude oil, coal, natural gas, or heavy
oils by exposure to heat and pressure in the earth’s crust over hundreds of
millions of years. In common dialogue, the term fossil fuel also includes
hydrocarbon-containing natural resources that are not derived from animal or
plant sources. The burning of fossil fuels by humans is the largest source of
emissions of carbon dioxide, which is one of the greenhouse gases that allows
radiative forcing and contributes to global warming. (https://www.sciencedaily.com/terms/fossil_fuel.htm)
As you can see burning fossil fuels
are not sustainable because they produce large amounts of carbon dioxide and
carbon dioxide is one of the main causes of climate change. If climate change
happens at the extent that scientists product that it will, life as we know it
will forever be altered. This also speaks to why electric vehicles are so
important. Fossil fuels also comes from sources that are not renewable such as
coal, natural gas and oil.
Electric vehicles rely solely on electricity,
while it is true that some of the electricity that is produced by electric
vehicles comes from coal-fired power plants, electric vehicles also don’t have
a tailpipe hence they don’t produce emissions and electric vehicles can
generate power when the driver applies the brakes.
Solar and wind power on the other
hand are completely renewable, free resources that are available to everyone.
Wind power makes complete sense to everyone as wind blows, a wind turbine
(think the blades on a windmill) captures the wind energy, then the power
generator inside the turbine spins and converts the wind that was captured into
usable electricity without burning any source of fuel or emitting any gas noe
harmful chemicals. Wind power is one of the simplest and most sensical sources
Solar on the other hand can be a bit
trickier to understand and is also an extremely effective energy source that is
free and limitless. Solar power gets generated due to sunlight hitting the
solar panel, the solar panel has a converter within it that is able to convert
the heat that the sun’s rays produce into energy. The energy that the converter
produces gets stored in a battery and the battery releases the energy to power
the home, vehicle, equipment, appliance or anything else that is attached to
the battery. Solar power eliminates the need for fossil fuels and yes while
there is an upfront cost in utilizing solar power the upfront cost often get
offset as many solar power systems generate more electricity than what is needed
to power the device, vehicle, appliance, equipment or anything else that is
connected to the battery and the excess power can be sent back to the power
grid. Power companies will often pay you for generating the excess power so
solar typically ends up being cost-neutral, profitable or close to it for the
person, entity, business or organization that produces it.
Banning plastic straws are an
interesting movement within the realm of sustainability. We all assume that
plastic straws are recyclable when in fact most cities, towns, municipalities
and recyclers cannot recycle plastic straws. Plastics as a whole are tricky to
recycle as only harder, non-stretchy plastics can be recycled by most recycling
facilities. Plastic milk containers, hard plastic water bottles (aquafina,
dasani, fiji), laundry detergent containers (when fully rinsed out), plastic
strawberry, blueberry, blackberry and raspberry boxes can be recycled by most
municipalities and over 90% of plastic items including crinkly plastic water
bottles (poland springs) and plastic straws cannot be recycled by most
China used to be a huge buyer of
plastics and even the plastics that municipalities often could not recycle from
many countries in the world including the U.S. were being sent to China.
Billions of pounds of plastic were shipped to China only two years ago, China
would then sell the plastics to companies that made recycled plastic products
and this was an extremely viable solution for the worlds plastics. Then China
stopped buying plastic from the rest of the world two years ago and the bad
news of this is that most of the plastics that cannot be recycled are now
getting dumped in the ocean. This is why you are hearing about the massive
efforts to clean up the plastics in the ocean as the gigantic volumes of
plastic in the ocean are literally killing fish, turtles, sharks, lobsters,
shrimp, whales and other marine life.
Plastic straws clearly do not sustain life, nor does fossil fuel, nor does conventional farming (I will get into more detail on this area in a later piece). No matter what your beliefs, views, morals, ethics, economic principles, etc. are we all share in the desire to sustain life because we too are life. If our air is too dirty to breathe and our water is too polluted to drink and there are no more fish in the oceans then we all suffer. So please take sustainability seriously because without it there is no life.
Around 50 million tonnes of electronic waste, or
e-waste, is being thrown away each year, according to a new joint United
Nations report – which exceeds the combined weight of all the commercial
airliners ever made, or alternatively, enough Eiffel Towers to fill the whole
To highlight the rising challenge posed by
mountains of discarded electronics worldwide, seven UN entities came together
to launch the report at the World
Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Thursday, in a bid to offer
some solutions to a behemoth-sized problem that is making the world sicker and
adding to environmental degradation.
The joint report, entitled, “A New Circular Vision
for Electronics – Time for a Global Reboot”, calls for a new vision for e-waste
based on the “circular economy” concept, whereby a regenerative system can
minimize waste and energy leakage.
is a growing global challenge that
poses a serious threat to the environment and human health worldwide”, said
Stephan Sicars, Director of the Department of Environment at the UN Industrial
Development Organization. “To minimize this threat, UNIDO works with various UN
agencies and other partners on a range of e-waste projects, all of which are
underpinned by a circular economy approach”.
According to the report, a deliberative process must be
instilled to change the system – one that collaborates with major brands, small
and medium-sized enterprises, academia, trade unions and civil society.
“Thousands of tonnes of e-waste is disposed of by
the world’s poorest workers in the worst of conditions, putting their health
and lives at risk”, maintained Guy Ryder, Director-General, International
Labour Organization (ILO). “We need better e-waste strategies and
green standards as well as closer collaboration between governments, employers
and unions to make the circular economy work for both people and planet.”
Despite growing e-waste, “A New Circular Vision”
points to the importance of technologies from the so-called Internet of Things
– a network of devices that contain electronics and the connectivity that
allows them to exchange data – through to cloud computing advances, which can
all result in smarter recycling and tracking of e-waste.
“A circular economy brings with it tremendous
environmental and economic benefits for us all” said Joyce Msuya, Acting
Executive Director, UN Environment Programme (UN Environment). “Our planet’s
survival will depend on how well we retain the value of products within the
system by extending their life.”
The report supports the work of the E-waste
Coalition, which includes International Labour Organization (ILO); International
Telecommunication Union (ITU); United Nations Environment Programme (UN Environment); United
Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO); United Nations Institute for
Training and Research (UNITAR); United Nations University (UNU)
and Secretariats of the Basel and Stockholm Conventions.
Nine years ago, Britain generated nearly 75% of its electricity using natural gas and coal. In 2018, this dropped to under 45% – a remarkable transition away from fossil fuels in under a decade.
As energy efficiency improved, demand fell, and the UK generated less electricity than at any point since 1994. Our own analysis below looks at the past year, using similar data for Great Britain (as Northern Ireland has a separate power system), and we include net imports from France, the Netherlands and Ireland as an overall part of electrical generation. Here are a few things we found:
In 2018, Britain was coal-free for a record 1,898 hours – that’s up from just 200 hours in 2016. Coal generation fell for the sixth year in a row, and the country now has substantial periods without coal power (the longest stretch was just over three days straight).
For comparison, the 5% of electricity generated from coal was a broadly similar level to the combined total of solar and hydro (see table at end of the article). Wind increased its output to 17% of the total, and combined with solar these two renewables generated more electricity than nuclear – another significant milestone.
However, low levels of coal generation averaged across the year mask its importance at times when the electrical demand is particularly high. For example, over the week of the Beast from the East cold snap in February 2018, the gas system experienced significant stress and coal stepped in to provide nearly a quarter of Britain’s electricity. As coal generation is set to be phased out by 2025, the electrical system needs to continue to find alternative power sources to cope during extreme weather events.
Our analysis shows that annual renewable generation has increased by 27 terawatt hours (TWh) over the three years since 2015. This is particularly impressive considering the Hinkley Point C nuclear plant will produce a similar annual amount of electricity but will take three times as long to build (from contract signing).
But what about the decade ahead? Could Britain repeat its success since 2010 and reduce its coal and natural gas generation by a further 30 percentage points? Under this scenario, the country would then generate just a sixth of its electricity from fossil fuels.
It’s definitely possible, but the next decade will be more challenging for two main reasons: the demand for electricity is expected to rise rather than fall, and incorporating ever greater levels of variable renewable generation will need additional flexibility.
To achieve this, new renewable generation – new solar panels, new turbines, new hydro, tidal, marine and biomass generation – will have to replace an estimated 100 TWh per year (about four Hinkley Point Cs) from fossil fuels. That would require a build programme that was broadly 50% greater than the previous nine years.
Given the continued development of offshore wind in particular, this seems challenging but achievable. Solar and wind prices keep falling, which will help. Indeed, the UK’s business and energy secretary Greg Clarke recently said that “it is looking likely that by the mid 2020s, green power will be the cheapest power. It can be zero subsidy”.
However, at some point over the next decade, electrical demand will stop falling as electric vehicles gain market share from fossil fuel vehicles, and electrical heating for homes becomes more popular. As an indication of the scale of the transport demand, in 2017 UK cars and taxis travelled 254 billion miles. If all those journeys were taken in electric vehicles about as efficient as the latest Hyundai or Tesla then total electrical demand would increase by a quarter (over 80 TWh).
These vehicles would need the equivalent of three Hinkley Point Cs to charge them over the year.
This is also a similar level to current generation from renewables. The UK also needs to consider how to fill the gap that would be lost from fuel duty, which is forecast to raise around £28 billion this financial year.
If charging these vehicles adds to electrical demand at peak times, there would be substantial new infrastructure costs (more pylons, stronger electrical sub-stations). If Britain adopts a smarter system, fleets of electric vehicles could provide network support by changing their times of charging or even providing electricity back to the grid. This could provide a massive new form of flexibility that is needed to accommodate greater levels of weather dependent renewable generation. This is not an easy task, though, and needs better communication between vehicle, owner and power companies.
Overall, 2018 saw steady progress for low carbon generation, including record months for wind, biomass and, mid-heatwave, solar:
Looking to 2019, with more renewable capacity being installed, it is possible that solar could overtake coal, and renewables could generate more than nuclear for every single month. They could also generate more than coal and gas combined over a month for the first ever time. If any of these do happen, it will be yet another indication of the speed at which Britain’s electricity system is changing.
The electrical generation data is from Elexon and National Grid. Data from other analyses (such as BEIS or DUKES) will differ due to methodologies and additional data, particularly by including combined heat and power, and other on-site generation which is not monitored by Elexon and National Grid.
Renewables in this analysis = wind + solar + hydro + biomass.
Rob Bellamy, University of Manchester and Matthew Watson, University of Bristol wrote that Nations may soon be desperate enough about global warming to consider deliberately engineering the world’s climate.
Should we engineer the climate? A social scientist and natural scientist discuss
This is an article from Head to Head, a series in which academics from different disciplines chew over current debates. Let us know what else you’d like covered – all questions welcome. Details of how to contact us are at the end of the article.
Rob Bellamy: 2018 has been a year of unprecedented weather extremes around the world. From the hottest temperatures ever recorded in Japan to the largest wildfire in the history of California, the frequency and intensity of such events have been made much more likely by human-induced climate change. They form part of a longer-term trend – observed in the past and projected into the future – that may soon make nations desperate enough to consider engineering the world’s climate deliberately in order to counteract the risks of climate change.
Indeed, the spectre of climate engineering hung heavily over the recent United Nations climate conference in Katowice, COP24, having featured in several side events as negotiators agreed on how to implement the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement, but left many worried that it does not go far enough.
Matt Watson: Climate engineering – or geoengineering – is the purposeful intervention into the climate system to reduce the worst side effects of climate change. There are two broad types of engineering, greenhouse gas removal (GGR) and solar radiation management (or SRM). GGR focuses on removing anthropogenically emitted gases from the atmosphere, directly reducing the greenhouse effect. SRM, meanwhile, is the label given to a diverse mix of large-scale technology ideas for reflecting sunlight away from the Earth, thereby cooling it.
An engineered future?
RB: It’s increasingly looking like we may have to rely on a combination of such technologies in facing climate change. The authors of the recent IPCC report concluded that it is possible to limit global warming to no more than 1.5°C, but every single one of the pathways they envisaged that are consistent with this goal require the use of greenhouse gas removal, often on a vast scale. While these technologies vary in their levels of maturity, none are ready to be deployed yet – either for technical or social reasons or both.
If efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by transitioning away from fossil fuels fail, or greenhouse gas removal technologies are not researched and deployed quickly enough, faster-acting SRM ideas may be needed to avoid so-called “climate emergencies”.
SRM ideas include installing mirrors in Earth’s orbit, growing crops that have been genetically modified to make them lighter, painting urban areas white, spraying clouds with salt to make them brighter, and paving mirrors over desert areas – all to reflect sunlight away. But by far the best known idea – and that which has, rightly or wrongly, received the most attention by natural and social scientists alike – is injecting reflective particles, such as sulphate aerosols, into the stratosphere, otherwise known as “stratospheric aerosol injection” or SAI.
MW: Despite researching it, I do not feel particularly positive about SRM (very few people do). But our direction of travel is towards a world where climate change will have significant impacts, particularly on those most vulnerable. If you accept the scientific evidence, it’s hard to argue against options that might reduce those impacts, no matter how extreme they appear.
Do you remember the film 127 Hours? It tells the (true) story of a young climber who, pinned under a boulder in the middle of nowhere, eventually ends up amputating his arm, without anaesthetic, with a pen knife. In the end, he had little choice. Circumstances dictate decisions. So if you believe climate change is going to be severe, you have no option but to research the options (I am not advocating deployment) as broadly as possible. Because there may well come a point in the future where it would be immoral not to intervene.
SRM using stratospheric aerosols has many potential issues but does have a comparison in nature – active volcanism – which can partially inform us about the scientific challenges, such as the dynamic response of the stratosphere. Very little research is currently being conducted, due to a challenging funding landscape. What is being done is at small scale (financially), is linked to other, more benign ideas, or is privately funded. This is hardly ideal.
A controversial idea
RB: But SAI is a particularly divisive idea for a reason. For example, as well as threatening to disrupt regional weather patterns, it, and the related idea of brightening clouds at sea, would require regular “top-ups” to maintain cooling effects. Because of this, both methods would suffer from the risk of a “termination effect”: where any cessation of cooling would result in a sudden rise in global temperature in line with the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. If we hadn’t been reducing our greenhouse gas emissions in the background, this could be a very sharp rise indeed.
Such ideas also raise concerns about governance. What if one powerful actor – be it a nation or a wealthy individual – could change the global climate at a whim? And even if there were an international programme, how could meaningful consent be obtained from those who would be affected by the technology? That’s everybody on Earth. What if some nations were harmed by the aerosol injections of others? Attributing liability would be greatly contentious in a world where you can no longer disentangle natural from artificial.
And who could be trusted to deliver such a programme? Your experience with the SPICE (Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering) project shows that people are wary of private interests. There, it was concerns about a patent application that in part led to the scientists calling off a test of delivery hardware for SAI that would have seen the injection of water 1km above the ground via a pipe and tethered balloon.
MW: The technological risks, while vitally important, are not insurmountable. While non-trivial, there are existing technologies that could deliver material to the stratosphere.
Most researchers agree that the socio-political risks, such as you outline, outweigh the technological risks. One researcher remarked at a Royal Society meeting, in 2010: “We know that governments have failed to combat climate change, what are the chances of them safely implementing a less-optimal solution?”. This is a hard question to answer well. But in my experience, opponents to research never consider the risk of not researching these ideas.
The SPICE project is an example where scientists and engineers took the decision to call off part of an experiment. Despite what was reported, we did this of our own volition. It annoyed me greatly when others, including those who purported to provide oversight, claimed victory for the experiment not going ahead. This belies the amount of soul searching we undertook. I’m proud of the decisions we made, essentially unsupported, and in most people’s eyes it has added to scientists’ credibility.
RB: Some people are also worried that the promise of large-scale climate engineering technologies might delay or distract us from reducing greenhouse gas emissions – a “moral hazard”. But this remains to be seen. There are good reasons to think that the promise (or threat) of SRM might even galvanise efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
MW: Yes, I think it’s at least as likely that the threat of SAI would prompt “positive” behaviour, towards a sustainable, greener future, than a “negative” behaviour pattern where we assume technology, currently imaginary, will solve our problems (in fact our grandchildren’s problems, in 50 years time).
RB: That said, the risks of a moral hazard may not be the same for all climate engineering ideas, or even all SRM ideas. It’s a shame that the specific idea of stratospheric aerosol injection is so frequently conflated with its parent category of SRM and climate engineering more generally. This leads people to tar all climate engineering ideas with the same brush, which is to the detriment of many other ideas that have so far raised relatively fewer societal concerns, such as more reflective settlements or grasslands on the SRM side of things, or virtually the entire category of greenhouse gas removal ideas. So we risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
MW: I agree with this – somewhat. It’s certainly true all techniques should be given the same amount of scrutiny based on evidence. Some techniques, however, often look benign but aren’t. Modifying crops to make them more reflective, brightening clouds, even planting trees all have potentially profound impacts at scale. I disagree a little in as much as we simply don’t know enough yet to say which technologies have the potential to reduce the impacts of climate change safely. This means we do need to be thinking about all of these ideas, but objectively.
Anyone that passionately backs a particular technology concerns me. If it could be conclusively proven that SAI did more harm than good, then we should stop researching it. All serious researchers in SAI would accept that outcome, and many are actively looking for showstoppers.
RB: I agree. But at present there is very little demand for research into SRM from governments and wider society. This needs to be addressed. And we need broad societal involvement in defining the tools – and terms – of such research, and indeed in tackling climate change more broadly.
MW: Some people think that we should just be getting on with engineering the climate, whereas others feel even the idea of it should not even be discussed or researched. Most academics value governance, as a mechanism that allows freedom to explore ideas safely and there are very few serious researchers, if any, who push back against this.
A challenge, of course, is who governs the governors. There are strong feelings on both sides – scientists either must, or cannot, govern their own research, depending on your viewpoint. Personally, I’d like to see a broad, international body set up with the power to govern climate engineering research, especially when conducting outdoor experiments. And I think the hurdles to conducting these experiments should consider both the environmental and social impact, but should not be an impediment to safe, thoughtful research.
RB: There are more proposed frameworks for governance than you can shake a stick at. But there are two major problems with them. The first is that most of those frameworks treat all SRM ideas as though they were stratospheric aerosol injection, and call for international regulation. That might be fine for those technologies with risks that cross national boundaries, but for ideas like reflective settlements and grasslands, such heavy handed governance might not make sense. Such governance is also at odds with the bottom-up architecture of the Paris Agreement, which states that countries will make nationally determined efforts to tackle climate change.
Which leads us to the second problem: these frameworks have almost exclusively arisen from a very narrow set of viewpoints – either those of natural or social scientists. What we really need now is broad societal participation in defining what governance itself should look like.
MW: Yes. There are so many questions that need to be addressed. Who pays for delivery and development and, critically, any consequences? How is the global south enfranchised – they are least responsible, most vulnerable and, given current geopolitical frameworks, unlikely to have a strong say. What does climate engineering mean for our relationship with nature: will anything ever be “natural” again (whatever that is)?
All these questions must be considered against the situation where we continue to emit CO₂ and extant risks from climate change increase. That climate engineering is sub-optimal to a pristine, sustainably managed planet is hard to argue against. But we don’t live in such a world. And when considered against a +3°C world, I’d suggest the opposite is highly likely to be true.
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