Crutzen’s tough medicine for a sick planet

Arguably one of the most significant figures of the last two centuries was in Dublin last night, where he presented a lecture in TCD, organised by the Royal Irish Academy. The man in question is Prof Paul Crutzen, the brilliant Dutch scientist and 1995 Nobel laureate in Chemistry for his work on stratospheric ozone depletion. This work was critical in the detection of the massive Antarctic ozone ‘hole’ in the early 1980s, and the subsequent international agreements to rapidly phase out the use of ozone-depleting CFCs.

It’s hardly an exaggeration to state that without Crutzen’s pioneering theoretical chemistry, it is entirely possible that ozone depletion would by now have extended unchecked, leaving large parts of the planet exposed to deadly solar UV radiation, and drastically redrawing the map of the habitable world.

Stratospheric ozone depletion was an early warning shot that human actions had the very real capability of having profound global consequences. Crutzen was also a leader in the development of the ‘nuclear winter’ theory that posited that a significant nuclear exchange would lead to a sharp drop in temperatures and a prolonged ‘global dimming’ as a result of huge amounts of smoke and aerosols ejected into the atmosphere. This would lead to widespread crop failures and global famine. Crutzen’s work pretty much put the kibosh on Reagan era neocon dreams of SDI and a ‘winnable’ nuclear war.

As if ozone depletion and nuclear winter weren’t enough for his CV, Crutzen also first introduced the term ‘Anthropocene’ (Era of Man) back in 2000. As a scientist, he recognised the ever-increasing human impacts spreading from the local and regional to global scales, and posited that man, for better or worse, is now the chief arbiter of planetary climate for the forseeable future.

He opened his presentation with a picture taken some 76 years ago of himself as a baby. Things, he pointed out, can change dramatically in the course of one short human life. He listed off the escalating tally of human impacts: in just three centuries, human population has increased ten-fold; worldwide, there are some 20 billion farm animals, including 1.4 billion cattle – a potent new source of the powerful GHG, methane.

Industrial output has increased 40-fold, our energy usage has shot up 16-fold, the amount of fish we catch is up 40-fold, water use, 9-fold, and so on. Perhaps his most compelling slide of the presentation was entitled ‘The Great Acceleration’; it was sub-divided into 12 sections, from population growth to fossil fuel usage, river damming, GDP, FDI and more besides. In the case of phosphates, their extraction rates for fertilisers has been prodigious, but only four countries are significant producers, and all global phosphate production is expected to peak by 2020. Its depletion, Crutzen pointed out, “is not being discussed, maybe because it’s such an awful future”.

The nub of Crutzen’s talk was around global warming and climate change. Climate stabilisation, he pointed out, would require greater than a 60% reduction in CO2 emissions globally, as well as a 70-80% reduction in NO. Yet, instead of reducing, or even stabilising, CO2 emissions are increasing at the breakneck rate of 2ppm per annum (Ireland’s dip in GHG emissions in 2009, due to the recession, is unlikely to put much of a dent in this figure).

Arresting global warming will take a wide range of sustained actions, from sharp reductions in GHG emissions, to dramatic improvements in energy efficiency, the greater use of both nuclear and renewables. And even if world leaders were now to finally act in concert, this belt-and-braces approach, he recognises, may still be inadequate, given just how far this crisis has been allowed to fester without remediation.

In an essay published in the journal ‘Climatic Change’ in 2006, he argued that an “escape route” is needed if global warming begins to run out of control. Crutzen proposed a method of artificially cooling the global climate by releasing particles of sulphur in the upper atmosphere, which would reflect sunlight and heat back into space.

This might sound crazy or reckless, but such is Crutzen’s reputation in atmospheric research that the proposal has been taken seriously, even though he knows only too well that it will do nothing whatever to address the damaging effects of rising CO2 levels, principally in ocean acidification. Drastic circumstances demand drastic remedies. “I wrote that paper in despair”, he told last night’s meeting. “When you see what has to be done to stabilise emissions, you get very upset”.

Any discussions around geo-engineering must not, he underlined “affect our resolve to reduce CO2 emissions. That must remain the number one priority, but unfortunately it’s not happening”. He concluded, as he began, with an image of a baby, but this time from another generation entirely. “My grandson will experience what we are doing (failing to contain GHG emissions) most vividly”, he said, with a note of anger in his voice for perhaps the first time in the evening.

Others who describe themselves as ‘experts’ may conclude that “the impact of climate change is relatively small… (and) will take us into uncharted territory, but so do many other things…”, or indeed, that air pollution is a bigger problem globally than climate change, or that we can afford to delay dramatic emissions reductions for decades (and any other number of ecological red herrings). However, when you sit and listen to a Nobel laureate and one of the most distinguished scientists of the last century laying it on the line so plainly, the dense haze of pseudo-scientific sophistry clears and the plain, unvarnished facts come into plain view.

And so we all must choose between believing in complacency and comforting lies or accepting some deeply painful truths. The very truths that, once grasped and truly internalised, may yet set us free.

ThinkOrSwim is a blog focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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12 Responses to Crutzen’s tough medicine for a sick planet

  1. Barry Reilly says:

    I was at the lecture too, John, and found Crutzen’s logic irresistible (even though the man himself didn’t sound at all well). When it got to question time, the first contribution is from some wing nut “challenging” Crutzen to prove the link between atmospheric CO2 and global warming. Jesus wept; these zombies are everywhere, waiting to pounce on real scientific experts with their Google-inspired ravings. Spreading disinformation on this issue really is a new fundamentalist religion.

  2. Eric Conroy says:

    The facts you quoted from Crutzen are very revealing and worth re-quoting. I’m going to the Claiming Your Future event in the RDS next Sat. (are you going?) and would like to garner plain facts about climate change. To clarify are all the many-fold increases over 300 years (like the population growth)? An industrial output inc. of 40 fold would not make sense to me over 300 years – the industrial revolution had not started in 1710.

    I am appalled that, in the current recession, there is all the talk of economic growth and absolutely no mention of climate change. With the clear link between CO2 emissions and economic growth, we must move away from GDP growth as a panacea for all our problems. Therefore we need to bombard all sectors of society (incl. unions and civil society) with the trajectory we are on.

    A 5% annual GDP increase, which is universally accepted as desirable, leads to doubling the economy every 14 years. This means doubling natural resources usage in a finate world and doubling CO2 emissions (on current trends) – this is completely unsustainable.

  3. Coilin MacLochlainn says:

    Thursday on Prime Time, energy minister Eamon Ryan went in to bat for Metro North, following on Trevor Sargent’s bid to ratchet up support for it a few days earlier. This follows on John Gormley’s recent re-ordering of his political priorities, relegating climate change to the bottom of his list. This was in a comment to the press, and it could have been just semantics, but even so.

    The words ‘economic growth’ have entered their vocabulary again and there’s no talk of taxing carbon now that a depressed economy is doing the heavy lifting for them. All this points to a party desperate to salvage some votes in the pale-green middle ground with an election in the offing. And it looks like they may be succeeding, with a slight lift to 4% in today’s Red C poll, but they’ll need more than that.

    The Metro would run through Sargent’s constituency, creating local jobs, which explains his enthusiasm for it. Ryan’s reasoning is that a public private partnership deal would pay the upfront construction costs and that payback time for us would be after it entered service, in 2017 or thereabouts, by which time he expects the country to be back in clover and able to afford the €3 billion price tag, or €6 billion, depending on who you believe.

    Sure, we need modal shift to public transport, but can we really afford to sink €3-6 billion into a Metro when the priority is to invest in renewable energy as quickly as possible? Overground light rail or trams would do the job equally well and at a fraction of the cost. Building the Metro would be highly energy-intensive and contribute substantially to carbon emissions during construction. Yes, jobs need creating, so find a better way. Offshore windfarms together with storage pump reservoirs onshore would provide abundant uninterrupted energy. These need to be built now while we can still get the fossil fuels for it. So start building, and let’s create some jobs.

    And then there’s the small matter of growth, which is unlikely to last anyway, no matter what, given that the global economy is hitting the wall on so many different fronts, the latest being that we’re approaching peak phosphate, which will bring conventional agriculture to its knees. Economies will not get out of the rut. The Greens seem to think that once we fix the budget deficit and sort out the banks, growth will return and lift all boats. This is to ignore the fact that an energy crisis is just four or five years away and that if we haven’t got our own energy by then, and our own food supply, we’ll have a lot more to worry about than whether or not we have a Metro, or an airport for that matter. Growth is an illusion, as Douthwaite warned twenty years ago, and economist Clive Hamilton reiterated this year in Requiem for a Species, which should be required reading for all politicians, especially the Greens.

  4. John Gibbons says:

    @Eric

    Some of Crutzen’s stats are on a three century scale (eg. population), others would relate to the 20th century – sorry, I didn’t itemise, was more trying to convey the sense of dramatic changes on all fronts occurring in – historically – the blink of an eye.

    Re. good ol’ economic growth, it’s clearly become the cargo cult mantra of industrial/post-industrial civilisation. If we invoke it often enough, the great god of ‘growth’ will reappear, to once more shower us with goodies, and all will be well.

    The High Priests presiding over this cult had their annual jamboree some days back in Kenmare, from where they mulled thoughtfully over the entrails of the deceased tiger economy and made their (mutually contradictory) prognostications based on careful study of the auguries. Doubtless, they then consulted their astrological charts and of course listened sagely to the earnest advice of leading specialists in the associated field of phrenology….

  5. John Gibbons says:

    @ Coilin

    Agree entirely. Climate change is off the agenda for the Greens, as well as politics, policymakers and the media in general. Too bad it can’t simply be wished away, though.

    Eamon Ryan is quite the riddle-wrapped-in-enigma. Back when I was still contibuting a weekly IT column, he summoned me in for an off the record ‘chat’ about Metro North – a pretty damn hard sell, as it turned out, over sandwiches in the Holy of Holies.

    Despite some misgivings, I decided to back him with a positive article, which concluded with what I thought was a pretty clever line: “when in a hole, start digging”. In truth this had more to do with my regard for Ryan as a can-do politician who understood the climate crunch better than anyone else in Dail Eireann, and more to the point, had a seat at the Cabinet table than any deep enthusiasm on my part for what looked like a madly expensive way of getting a few kilometres of public transport infrastructure built.

    Give his train set a nice big plug and he’ll deliver the goods on the substantive issue of tough climate legislation. That’s how I’m told politics works. Guess I was wrong, and not for the first time. The Greens clearly have a hard-core animal rights constituency that needed to be placated (nothing wrong with animal rights, BTW).

    But if addressing climate change as a matter of the utmost urgency ain’t a ‘core value’ of the Greens, then what in holy hell are they actually about? I put up with their flat-earth opposition to low-carbon nuclear power (oh dear, another ‘core value’), all the time thinking that at least they’ll deliver a strong Climate Law. And now, as you point out, they’re jabbering with the best of them about ‘growth’.

    Peak oil? Energy security? Climate change? No votes in any of this lot. Besides, I bet you don’t hear too much on the doorsteps about the International Energy Agency fessing up about peak oil being, at the outside, 5-10 years hence. Or, for that matter, the said IEA (bean counter to the global fossil fuel sector) warning that continuing on our current energy trajectory takes us straight to a 6C warming this century. Or, in the vernacular, straight to hell on earth.

    I can see why Paul Crutzen has been driven to despair. He knows – and you and I know too – that this isn’t a Disney movie, we’re not going to miraculously conjur up a Lassie-come-home happy ending to this story. And maybe, in their heart of hearts, the Greens know that too, and have quietly given up on the big stuff and have instead decided to concentrate on what politicians do best – and that’s scraping enough votes to keep a few seats after the next election. And if there’s one thing that’s certain: there are no votes in climate change.

  6. Coilin MacLochlainn says:

    I would agree that Eamon Ryan is a can-do politician, and so is Gormley, and they have done a lot in their short time in office, but it won’t mean much if the over-arching problem, climate change, is not addressed. Tough climate change legislation would prepare the ground for a low-carbon economy. The Greens promised it on entering Government but have not delivered. Climate change mitigation will be impossible if continued growth is entertained in all areas of activity.

    We’re in trouble, too, if renewable energy is delayed, and if an alternative economy and system of agriculture is not put in place. We need to prepare for the transition and develop an economic system that can live within the carrying capacity of the planet.

    Reclaiming the Future (RtF) is talking about working with grassroots communities, localisation, transition towns and so on. I’m not sure how this will be scaled up to deliver significant change, but they’re making the right noises.

    Growth will be needed in renewable energy, new agricultural methods and other sustainable ventures, but otherwise it will have to be about powering down and introducing steady-state, no-growth economics across the board.

    If nothing happens it will mean a very hard landing, with systemic collapse in supply chains, grids, energy and food, well before we enter the six-degrees death zone that we’re rushing towards this century.

    Sargent vlogs his organic veg growing, but then calls for Metro North, which is equivalent to undoing the good work of thousands of conscientious organic growers trying to save a little bit of planet. Perhaps he should try to save the Teagasc centre in Kinsealy, also in his neck of the woods, for providing training in low-impact, low-carbon farming before everything goes pear-shaped.

  7. denis says:

    You can`t get a much more environmentally unfriendly industry as tourism—-it depends totally on fossil fuel transport, by ship. bus, car, and aeroplane, [ and think of all the energy wasted in building the ships, buses ,cars and aeroplanes ], but it is a huge part of Irelands economy.
    Where do you actually stop when looking for a low energy, non growth economy ?
    Without economic activity you get no employment , no wages, no means of making a living.
    John, you have alluded in the past to the type of economy that Coillin is talking about—-how do you see it working ?
    Should we spend all our fossil fuel now, with a resultant spike in Co2 output, to build these ” renewable energy systems ” ?
    What happens in 25 years time, when they wear out and have to be replaced—-do you think they will be able to reproduce themselves, and give us enough energy to keep going at the same time ?

  8. John Gibbons says:

    Denis

    Not quite sure where to start with this one. The globalised economy is to my mind now a binary process, i.e. 1 or 0. It’s either full steam ahead, or the whole thing is banjaxed. Do I think we can ‘grow’ out way out of the current mess? No. Digging faster just deepens the hole, however ‘green’ your new shovel may be.

    I honestly don’t have an answer to your question viz. whether we should ‘spend’ our fossil fuels now to build renewable systems. Perhaps because I think it’s a moot point. “We” are going to keep doing precisely what we’re doing right now, until circumstances make that no longer possible. We’re that locked into the current mindset.

    You mention 25 years hence. That takes us to 2035. We almost certainly won’t have any Arctic summer sea ice whatever by then. Global CO2 levels will be, on current trends, another 75ppm higher, taking us to a CO2e tally of the wrong side of 500ppm. Quite how hitting the brakes with that lot already in the atmosphere is going to help much, I can’t really see.

    I honestly think we’ll be well up the creek by then, so much so that I’m not sure the systems that might be needed to be replaced at that time will still in fact be functional. Still, maybe I’m just a gloomy bugger and in fact we’ll be fine.

  9. Coilin MacLochlainn says:

    @John,

    I think absolutely we should use fossil fuels now to build renewables, I don’t think we’ve a choice. Building offshore windfarms and pumped storage reservoirs is not going to require more fossil energy than we’re already using in road construction. (I will stand corrected on that if someone has stats that say differently.) That’s why I’ve suggested we abandon the remaining capital motorway projects and get on with building the renewables infrastructure.

    Now Ciaran Cuffe, minister for planning, is talking up the Metro, saying it would create 4,000 jobs. He was on the Right Hook on Newstalk today, and George Hook had only one question for him: could we afford it? If he had looked at yesterday’s Irish Times he would have seen that An Taisce have advised scrapping the Metro plans and installing busways or quality bus corridors instead. But he didn’t put this to Cuffe.

    I just read that South Korea is investing $35 billion in developing renewable energies this year. On the basis of population size (Korea’s being 50 million people) that equates to Ireland spending €2.5 billion, a realistic and achievable figure, which would need to be repeated until the job is done.

    But abandoning new road projects (and the Metro) is not the only way we can offset the carbon impact of building renewables. For example, the house insulation programme begun by the Greens has the potential to radically reduce the amount of oil used for home heating, if every house is insulated properly. Attic insulation doesn’t cost much and is a good start.

    Ireland also has the potential to increase the use of wood pellet burners for domestic heating; this is carbon neutral (if you count the fuel only). We have millions of acres suitable for growing willow trees to supply the pellets. It is just typical that an indigenous resource like this is still not developed. Like Kevin Myers was saying, we raise hundreds of thousands of cattle every year but we don’t even have a leather industry. We need entrepreneurs and seed funding. If all this, and more, were done, we wouldn’t have any spike in carbon emissions from building the renewables, as Denis suggested.

    Regarding the maintenance of renewable systems once they’re installed, by that time we should have an abundant supply of renewable energy and ways of mining and manufacturing that do not require fossil fuels. We are talking about a zero-carbon economy ultimately, let’s not forget.

    You think it possible that such systems might not function 25 years after they are built; I presume you mean if the global financial system and the supply of credit collapses completely. But that is the armageddon scenario and we will just have to plan to avoid that. We can’t give up!

    It won’t work out fine if we don’t make it happen. That is why it is surreal listening to the national discussion and hearing only talk of budget deficits and bank bailouts. Those problems can be sorted out with the stroke of a pen, admittedly a heavy and painful stroke. But the process could also be used to tackle the greater problems we face, that are not being discussed on the airwaves. I don’t think the government has anything to lose by going for broke at this stage and putting the country on the right track.

    As long ago as the 1980s it was apparent to anyone that bothered to read about it that this is what lay ahead of us. It is all becoming only too real now. The Icelandic singer Björk last week said there have been prophets of doom in every age, predicting apocalypse, but that people always managed. She was not discounting the possibility that we faced imminent turmoil and upheaval, but saying that the human spirit would prevail and we would find a way to survive, only differently and in fewer numbers.

    Britain is falling way behind on its plans for windfarms. Only a quarter of the capacity it had planned has so far been built. This is due to local resistance to wind turbines in the landscape. I think the same would apply here, by and large, which is why I believe the turbines should be built offshore, avoiding most of the planning issues. It would be a lot more expensive but it would have the advantage of moving more quickly through the planning process, and speed is of the essence. The longer the delay in lowering emissions, the greater the final carbon dioxide loading of the atmosphere and the more intractable the problem becomes.

    So instead of talking about what reductions we can achieve by 2050, we should be focusing on 2020 and trying to get the greatest possible reductions by then. It is interesting to see that Arnold Schwarzenegger is wound up by this issue and is trying to get his climate bill in California passed. It would bring reductions of 25% in emissions levels by 2020.

    Offshore turbines take longer to put in place, but this has to be set against the delays we see in planning, such as with the Corrib gas pipeline.Terrestrial windfarms could be similarly delayed, and it may be twenty years before enough of them come on-stream. That’s why offshore is the best option.

  10. denis says:

    @ Coilin—-the trouble with wind turbines [and all other mechanical, energy extraction systems] is that they are a 20 year wonder—-they will not produce enough energy to supply the grid and have a surplus to duplicate themselves in their lifetimes, even apart from the fact that they are virtually usless at giving a reliable electricity supply, without using another fossil fueled generator, now usually gas, as a backup over 70% of the time.
    The last point alone, should make it quite obvious, that they can never be even a partial solution to our future energy needs, in a world where cheap fossil fuel is running out, and even if it wasn`t, should no longer be burnt due to the resultant climate change from it`s CO2 output.

  11. Coilin MacLochlainn says:

    @Denis, – The UK are planning an offshore wind energy strategy on a very large scale. They would not be planning this if it was a “20-year wonder”, as you say. Ireland would have an energy surplus if we did the same. The reliability of energy supply would be ensured by having pumped storage reservoirs, which use energy to store water at a height when the wind is blowing, and then release the water to produce hydroelectric energy when the wind is down. The regularity of supply can additionally be managed by having an interconnected grid. There is rarely a calm over the entire country, there will nearly always be wind somewhere and some wind farm generating. So with interconnection you reduce the chances of interruption of supply very considerably. We will have to reduce fossil fuel use in other areas to compensate for using oil in the manufacture of the wind energy infrastructure. There are other energy sources worth tapping as well, such as solar, geothermal and wave. We need to get on with building the stuff asap; small beginnings have been made already, but the planning process needs to be adjusted to allow for rapid deployment.

  12. denis says:

    @Coilin—-I know that for the well meaning intelligent observer, such as yourself, the case for renewables, looks like a no brainer.
    However, when one analyses the various elements of a renewable scenario, using an energy return on energy invested [EROEI] accounting system, the results show, almost incontrovertibly, that no form of renewable energy will ever be able to produce enough energy over its projected life span to capture the the same amount of high quality energy derived from fossil fuels, that went into it`s construction, deployment, and maintainance, as well as giving any sort of meaningful electrical output to the grid.
    This method of evaluating energy producing systems, has been known for many years, but has only recently been revisted and the errors in the methods of previous calculations have been realised.
    Many engineers know the folly of expecting any meaningful return of energy from wind turbines, but they are being continually ignored, as the greedy wind energy entrpreneurs invest in wind farms, not to make renewable electricity, but rather to harvest the subsidies that corrupt / poorly informed governments offer for the green myth of free electricity from the wind [ tide, waves, solar ] .
    No practical electrical storage system exists, that could provide the amount of power required to run the country for the length of time necessary to give a secure supply between low wind periods, which could be well over a month in duration.
    Finally, given the impossibility of storage, all renewable energy systems absolutely have to have a backup electricity supply, which is now accepted to be an open cycle gas turbine, which can be fired up inside a very short length of time, but which is most inefficient, and produces lots of CO2, thereby mainly negating any advantages, real or perceived, of the low CO2 outputs from renewables.

    We have to spend much more time looking at renewables in a critical, engineering, no nonsense way, or elese we will find out in the future, that we have been squandering our precious remaining fossil fuel on an impractical green dream.

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