21st Jun 2021


Montreal could prove a costly distraction

  • The great limestone cliffs are little more than carbon sequestered by a billion generations (Photo: European Commission)

Should you ever find yourself at a loose end with a group of engineers and sailors then I can recommend an interesting party game.

It is to imagine that you are the ill-fated Captain Smith of the Titanic and that the ship has just struck the iceberg. What are you going to do?

Read and decide

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Indeed, I offer to producer James Cameron, the plot for a new film in which, thanks to some heroic interventions, the Titanic doesn't sink and all the passengers are rescued.

There are broadly two possible strategies open to you to save the ship.

The first is to try to stop the water coming in. The second is to live with the influx while concentrating your energies on finding clever ways to stabilise the ship, absorb the incoming water and manage the rescue.

The two approaches mirror transatlantic attitudes to the problem of climate change, now being addressed by the 189 signatories to the UN Climate Change Convention in Montreal.

The purpose of the meeting is to decide what should happen when the Kyoto Treaty expires in seven years time.

Kyoto set targets for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Although 157 nations signed the treaty, it only really bites on 35 developed countries, including the European Union.

The United States declined to sign the treaty, much to the fury of the Europeans, being unwilling to be bound to any targets which, it suggested, would be costly to achieve and ineffective into the bargain.

Clean and green ideas

Instead the Americans have preferred to concentrate their energies on devising technologies that will lower emissions.

Clean and green ideas that will reduce the output of carbon into the atmosphere or lock it away by a process known as sequestration. Even against a rising background of global energy demand, which, so the International Energy Agency tell us, is set to rise by 50 per cent in the next 25 years.

By contrast the Europeans want Kyoto's targets to be followed by new, stricter goals, accompanied by the development of carbon trading. Which strategy will better save the Titanic - curbing the inflow or managing the wider problem?

The public could be forgiven for imagining that the sky was some sort of dustbin rapidly being filled with carbon dioxide as a result of our predilection for burning fossil fuels and that this was why the world was now heating up.

Unless we change our gas-guzzling ways, so fashionable theory has it, we shall soon be overcome by deserts, swamped by rising seas, inundated by freak weather and millions will die.

I wouldn't want to argue with this except to point out two things. First, the Titanic has already struck the iceberg, as it were, and secondly, that man's intervention in the planet's carbon cycle goes an awful lot further than the burning of fossil fuels which, I would argue, is relatively trivial in comparison. Let me explain why.

Area of another global warming peak

We know from a study of the Arctic ice cores that for the last four hundred thousand years the world has experienced alternate cycles of heating and cooling, the peaks being broadly 100,000 years apart. More or less on schedule we saw the ice age some 50,000 years ago. Now we are in the area of another global warming peak.

The graph of carbon dioxide concentrations over this period mirrors that of temperature to the extent that one can broadly predict temperature from carbon dioxide and vice versa.

But which came first: the chicken or the egg? There are good reasons to suppose that temperature leads carbon dioxide: for if it didn't, surely the earth would just go on getting hotter and hotter? Moreover, as no one was burning fossil fuels 100,000 years ago, why did the earth heat up?

Secondly, the limited data that we have beyond present times suggests that the earth was already in the current warming cycle long before we started to burn fossil fuels in any quantity.

In recent years we seem to have embarked on a super-warming period, but without 100 years of data we shall not be able to tell whether or not this is trend or fluctuation.

So the probability is that we shall be experiencing global warming - and go on experiencing global warming - even if we were never to burn another lump of coal or barrel of oil again.

So why Kyoto? Whatever the natural level of warming may be, there seems to be pretty strong evidence that carbon dioxide increases it. It therefore makes sense to try to reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and in the sea.

The sea is important because according to the scientists at the United Nations Environment Programme there is 50 times more dissolved carbon in the sea than in the atmosphere.

The same scientists also suggest that the carbon exchange between the atmosphere and the surface waters of the sea is some 20 times the annual discharge of carbon from burning fossil fuels. Twenty years worth of emissions dissolve into and out of the sea each year.

In addition land plants take from the atmosphere the equivalent of twelve years worth of emissions each year, while a similar amount is released as they decay. These natural flows are some 30 times the artificial fossil fuel flow, which suggests that attention to the natural flows might just possibly be more rewarding as a strategy for reducing carbon in the sky.

For example, cutting emissions by 15 per cent (the Kyoto target for Europe was 8 per cent on 1990 levels) would yield an annual benefit of approximately 1 billion tonnes of carbon. A mere 1 per cent of additional carbon sequestration into the biosphere could achieve the same result.

I'm with the Americans

It is easy to rail against the factory chimney, the long motorway queue of smoking exhausts. Yet we do not rail against the unseen death and destruction wreaked upon the seabed by heavy beam trawlers that can render a whole habitat worthless in a single pass. We do not rail, much, against over-fishing, or the pollution of the sea.

Yet a tonne of carbon locked in the shells of shellfish is a tonne of carbon safe for millions of years. The great limestone cliffs that wall much of the European seaboard are little more than carbon sequestered by a billion generations of shellfish.

The danger with the current European focus on targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions is that it may simply deflect attention from the destruction of the teeming biosphere.

As China, India and other countries develop, the probable danger comes not from their carbon emissions but from their impact on the terrestrial, and in particular the marine, carbon-absorbing biosphere.

Every tonne of forest cut down for factories, every tonne of shellfish destroyed by pollution, represents a carbon load equivalent to, but far more dangerous than, a tonne of oil burnt.

For a tonne of shellfish will lock away the tonne of oil emissions for a million years in shells at the bottom of the sea. And each year they will repeat the process. The logic of targeting the oil burn while killing the shellfish seems perverse.

On the Titanic analogy it is like plundering the pumps for material to plug the side of the ship. On this one, therefore, I'm with the Americans.

The author is editor of EuropaWorld


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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