Wednesday , November 21 2018
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The hopium of the people

Image: Matthieu Tremblay

If it sounds too good to be true, it almost certainly is.  That, at least, is the approach I’m taking to the flurry of crowd-funder videos currently doing the rounds on social media, promoting technologies that suck carbon out of the atmosphere.  As with a raft of other faux-green technologies that were hawked around social media, like solar roadways, waterseers and hyperloops, the machine that can suck carbon dioxide out of the air will never fulfill its promise.

To understand why, consider that the atmosphere is very big – roughly 5.5 quadrillion tons of gas.  But the carbon dioxide content is very small – just over 405 parts per million.  And humans release around 40 billion tons of the stuff every year.  So any machine that is going to attempt the task – even assuming 100 percent efficiency – would need to hoover up 2,470 tons of atmosphere to capture just 1 ton of carbon dioxide; and it would have to do this roughly a thousand times a second to keep up with our ongoing emissions.

Even when fitted to chimneys – where the carbon dioxide is at least concentrated – carbon capture technologies have proved excessively expensive in both financial and energy terms.  There is little point deploying technologies that are so energy-intensive that they themselves depend upon fossil fuels to power them.  However, this issue pales into insignificance when compared to the difficulty of storing any carbon dioxide that is captured.  As Kevin Bullis warned a few years ago in MIT Technology Review:

“Even if costs are made far lower than they are today, the impact of carbon capture will be limited by the sheer scale of infrastructure needed to store carbon dioxide… Vaclav Smil, a professor at University of Manitoba and master of sobering energy-related numbers, calculates that if we were to bury just one-fifth of the global carbon dioxide emissions, we would need to build an industry capable of handling twice the volume of stuff as the entire oil industry, an industry that took 100 years to develop, driven by a large and mostly expanding market.”

Selling captured carbon might provide a means of financing some limited deployment of carbon capture technology.  However, as Bullis notes, ironically:

“One market is for enhanced oil recovery; that is, injecting carbon dioxide into oil wells to increase the amount of oil they can produce. The carbon dioxide would stay underground. In some cases, this technique could double the amount of oil that comes out of a well. And, of course, burning that oil emits a fair amount of carbon dioxide.”

One reason why so many of us might be prepared to stump up the cash to fund carbon capture technologies – both those hawked around social media and those on laboratory benches in our universities – is that the alternative is too bleak to face up to.  As Mayer Hillman at the Guardian notes:

“There are three options in tackling climate change. Only one will work… the first and only effective course, albeit a deeply unpopular one, would be to stop using any fossil fuels. The second would be to voluntarily minimise their use as much as climate scientists have calculated would deliver some prospect of success. Finally, we can carry on as we are by aiming to meet the growth in demand for activities dependent on fossil fuels, allowing market forces to mitigate the problems that such a course of action generates – and leave it to the next generation to set in train realistic solutions (if that is possible), that the present one has been unable to find…

The stark reality, of course is that “we” are not going to do anything about climate change.  This is because – in the US, UK and EU where lifestyles will need to change the most – there is no “we,” but rather an increasingly polarised “us” and “them.”  Andy Stone at Forbes alludes to this when he says:

“Summing up, the path to least climate impact will require nations to work together to cut global carbon emissions by 45% in just over a decade.

“Such a cut in emissions will require an unprecedented degree of political will and global cooperation…

“Yet, despite the major political barriers to dramatic near-term emissions cuts, a terrifying realization is that such action is, in fact, the most realistic option available to hold climate change in check. Of the climate action pathways modeled by the IPCC, the scenario that requires boldest action in the near term is the only one that doesn’t also require a leap of faith that a suite of uneconomic, logistically challenging, and ultimately unproven negative emissions technologies will in fact deliver us from our collective peril.”

In more egalitarian societies in which the gap between rich and poor is narrower, an “unprecedented degree of political will” might be possible.  However, after decades of neoliberal politics and economics, only massive sacrifices on the part of the very wealthy are likely to prevent a further drift toward a climate change denying populism among the majority of impoverished citizens.  Speaking to the likelihood of the affluent making such sacrifices, Hillman points out that:

“Remarkably, public expectations about the future indicate that only minor changes in the carbon-based aspects of our lifestyles are anticipated. It is as if people can continue to believe that they have an inalienable right to travel as far and as frequently as they can afford. Indeed, there is a widespread refusal by politicians to admit to the fact the process of melting ice caps contributing to sea level rises, and permafrost thawing in tundra regions cannot now be stopped, let alone reversed.”

Even those – like Hillman and Stone – who have dropped the techno-rose-tinted glasses and acknowledged the huge changes to our lifestyles that are needed to reverse the climate damage that has already been done are oblivious to the consequences of that change.  More than six out of every seven people alive today only exist because of the Haber–Bosch process that produces synthetic ammonia (fertiliser) from fossil fuels.  Any genuine effort at reversing climate change had to have as its starting point a reduction in the human population at least to the level prior to the (industrial agriculture) “Green Revolution;” less than half of today’s population.  Instead – with a great deal of help from religions that implore us to go forth and multiply, and economists that need a new base for the global Ponzi scheme – we have grown our population as fast as agricultural productivity has improved.

Comic actor/director Woody Allen summed up our predicament thus:

“More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness; the other to total extinction.  Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.”

The choice before us is that we can take action to reverse climate change and a lot of people are going to die.  Alternatively, we can do nothing about climate change and a lot of people are going to die.  And since nobody has the wisdom or the bravery to make that choice, we can all sit around pretending that some incredibly implausible technology is going to come riding to our rescue… the opium of the people indeed.

As you made it to the end…

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