The most popular apologue that is used to describe climate change is that of the boiling frog. Said apocryphal frog, representing our society, sits contently in gradually warming water, not realising he is in danger until the water finally boils and cooks the frog dead.
But this metaphor is not adequate for 2023.
I would like to posit the metaphor of a frog in a similar situation, except here he is looking directly at a rising thermometer, he can see bubbles starting to form, steam starting to rise, and all the while other frogs are repeatedly yelling at him (and have done for years) the fatal outcome of his inaction.
This dire situation was confirmed last week by the Interplanetary Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) latest report which issued its “Final Warning”. Its message is clear: we need to act now to avoid surpassing the goal of staying below 1.5℃ above pre-industrial temperatures.
Over the years, a smorgasbord of solutions have been suggested, all touted as the one that will finally save the planet. These range from personal lifestyle changes, like becoming vegan, societal restructures, PCT, to the frankly bizarre, like feeding cows on seaweed to minimise their burping. But given the scope of the crisis, many scientists are warning that merely being more ‘green’ is not enough, we need to look towards actually ‘repairing’ the climate.
Geoengineering and Biomimicry
Geoengineering refers to large-scale operations to alter the climate, cooling down the atmosphere and removing excess carbon in the air. Perhaps the most debated geoengineering proposal is stratospheric aerosol injection (SIA), the plan to spray sulphur dioxide in the sky, particularly above the poles, to reflect the Sun’s rays. This would effectively simulate the cooling effects of ash clouds from volcanoes and lower the planet's temperature.
But it is also fraught with problems. Firstly, the link between sulphur and acid rain cannot be ignored which presents the potential for exacerbating the problem rather than solving it. On top of this, geopolitical tensions and unequal, sometimes adverse, effects have led to one paper describing SIA as “a fate worse than warming”.
Consequently, scientists have begun debating SIA’s more amicable younger brother, Cloud Brightening. The poster boy of ‘biomimicry’, a process imitating other natural processes on a larger scale, cloud brightening involves spraying a thin mist of ocean water in the air so that more salt crystals evaporate into the atmosphere, in theory, making the clouds ‘brighter’. This will in turn reflect sun rays and could cool the poles by around 2℃.
By using sea water and boats instead of sulphur and planes, cloud brightening is a much more affordable and less controversial proposal. But it’s also much newer and thus needs far more research, funding, and trialling before it can become operational. Estimates suggest this could be around seven years, a long time considering the arctic is heating at four times the rate of the rest of the planet.
Carbon recapture is popular in the sustainability tech community at the moment, especially as it comes in many forms, literally. Schemes vary from ideas to recapture the breath from office workers, to turning carbon emissions into rocks. In fact, a new trend in start-ups is that of carbon recapture with many companies operating huge machines to suck carbon out of the atmosphere and permanently store it in the ground.
The only apparent issue is cost. With around £440 per tonne of carbon recaptured, and an estimated 36bn tonnes of carbon emissions released per year, reaching the scale required in the time frame we need is going to be a difficult, if not insurmountable, task.
The Old Reliables, New and Improved
However, climate regeneration solutions, though applauded, have been described by Wake Smith, lecturer at Yale University, as “aspirin, not penicillin … not a substitute for decarbonisation.” Fundamentally, we cannot continue our dependence on carbon and need to switch to renewable sources of energy as soon as possible. Now, preferably.
New technologies are emerging for this goal, some minimal, i.e. power-generating brakes in elevators, some on a far grander scale. Solar ‘Collecting’ fabric is being developed, able to generate power from clothes and textiles. The potential for this is huge, every individual could generate their own power just by leaving the house, or having curtains for that matter.
Hydro power is being revamped too. New companies are testing out how to generate power from rain and, impressively, how to harness the power of the Gulf stream. Recently, one project tested their method of doing this and produced impressive results. Though expensive, if given the investment, this project could raise five gigawatts over five years - enough to power 750,000 homes a year. Yet, while there are a lot of zeros there, it must be taken into account this is still minimal, Florida alone, where the project is based, requires over 200 terrawatts!
An Important Reminder
Unfortunately, while innovation and technology is exciting, when it comes to climate change, its absence has not been the limiting factor, political will has. Effective decarbonisation technology has been around for decades - millenia if you count primitive, wheat-grinding watermills and windmills. Generating energy from solar, wind and hydro power has always been regarded as the best way of continuing a functioning society without burning fossil fuels; the main argument against it for many years was cost, but with the price of renewable energy dropping by 89% since 2010, it’s hard to see any reason for these energy sources not to be a global priority.