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Failing to square the circle



The arithmetic is simple enough.  Fossil fuels – coal, gas and oil – make up 84.5 percent of our energy consumption. Hydroelectricity accounts for 7 percent; nuclear 4.5 percent.  Wind and solar – the supposed salvation of human civilisation – provide 3 percent; with other renewables adding one percent.

The crisis is simple enough too.  The energy cost of extracting fossil fuels and of deploying non-fossil fuel alternatives is now too high for the economy to bear.  The result is that the entire planet is now in the early stages of an energy crunch which can only get worse with each passing year.

It is for this reason that any proposed solution to our economic, environmental or energy crises which fail either to save significant amounts of energy or to add new sources of cheap energy alternatives can only serve to hasten the process of collapse.

It is in this light that we should view the latest attempt to resolve climate change which drew headlines last month.  In an article for New Scientist, for example, Adam Vaughan explains that:

“Spreading rock dust on cropland around the world could save around a tenth of humanity’s ‘carbon budget’, the amount of carbon dioxide we can afford to emit without triggering catastrophic levels of global warming.

“Earth’s three biggest CO2 emitters – China, the US and India – have the most to gain from the strategy, which is known as enhanced rock weathering (ERW). Rocks naturally absorb CO2, but ERW accelerates the process by grinding them up to increase their surface area.”

In theory, this process could remove up to 2 gigatonnes of CO2 every year; the equivalent of the annual carbon emissions of global shipping.  This sounds great until you realise that you are going to have to emit gigatonnes of carbon dioxide quarrying the rock, grinding it down into powder, shipping and trucking it to the farms where you intend to spread it, and running the agricultural machinery which will distribute it onto the fields.  The 15.5 percent of our energy which comes from low-carbon and no-carbon sources, remember, has already been earmarked to replace the fossil fuels we can no longer use.  It cannot be used simultaneously to produce, transport and distribute rock dust around the planet.

It is not my intention to be particularly hard on the researchers behind this project.  They are merely the latest in a long line of scientists researching second-order solutions which distract from the real crises before us.  Indeed, compared to Britain’s unofficial Prime Minister’s determination to squander millions of pounds on machines to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, the rock dust proposal sounds eminently sensible.

The fact remains that, in the absence of some abundant, energy-dense and energy-cheap, new source of energy (which has thus far failed to put in an appearance) none of these carbon-capturing processes will ever leave the laboratory bench.

As you made it to the end…

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