Post No.: 0327
You probably already know about photovoltaic solar panels, solar thermal energy, hydroelectric dams, wind turbines, bioenergy and geothermal energy when it comes to renewable energy sources or technologies. There’s also nuclear power, as it currently is with fission power, and hopefully soon in the future in the form of sustainable fusion power.
Well what other technologies are there that could help us to live a more sustainable future for the environment, and maybe even reverse global warming to a state had humans not entered the Industrial Age?
Several different types of ‘carbon capture and storage’ technologies are currently being tested. For instance, basalt rock is being tested and claims to, under perfect conditions, be able to lock carbon away into minerals within a few years. Ocean carbon sequestration includes pumping carbon dioxide into aquifers in the sea. However, what these technologies can do will likely be only a mere drop in the ocean (no pun intended), and there are the huge cost and infrastructure requirements too, and potential side-effects. Humans are still currently pumping out way more carbon dioxide into the air – and therefore across national borders because we all share the same common atmosphere – than they are putting or can put back into the ground via such technologies.
Carbon can also be converted into useful products like fertilisers or fuels. But again even optimistic forecasts don’t see these make up for the amount of carbon dioxide that’s being released into the atmosphere; although it’s arguably better than nothing.
Proposed ‘geoengineering’ (direct ways to control the weather) possibilities include pumping a fine mist of saltwater droplets into the cloud layer to create whiter, more reflective clouds, which would therefore reflect more of the sun’s heat away. There’s injecting iron into the oceans to promote the growth of green phytoplankton, which photosynthesise and therefore take up carbon dioxide. And there’s somehow alkalinising the oceans to rebalance the acidification of the oceans. But all of these deliberate and large-scale interventions on Earth’s natural systems to counteract the effects of global warming don’t come without huge risks and potential unforeseeable consequences. Some people, on the other paw, argue that it’s time to consider these options because we’re at the late stage, or even beyond it, when we must do something that, although not ideal, is arguably better than the alternatives.
I absolutely hope that technologies will one day solve our fuzzy environmental problems – yet this doesn’t mean that we should relax, carry on as usual and think ‘I’m sure it’ll all be fine’ or ‘we’ll adapt as we’ve always done so far’ or ‘something will come to the rescue in time’, unless and until we do find and develop proven and viable technologies, and/or nature happens to naturally find a way to deal with all of our mess (e.g. microbes that will sufficiently digest our plastics without any negative side-effects to the ecosystems and food chain).
Every hope is indeed currently worth exploring, but hope (which is more like faith or crossing one’s claws in some cases) is not a real strategy. Although every little bit that helps should help – in the same way that every little bit of greenhouse gas added to the atmosphere counts and adds to the aggregate effect – at the moment there is nothing to suggest that we can lock the carbon dioxide away as fast as we will unlock it into the atmosphere at current and predicted future rates of economic production.
Furthermore, there is a moral hazard to give false or over-hyped hope about possible technologies that’ll save the future – such as carbon capture or conversion technologies that’ll be sufficient, sustainable, resource-effective and cost-effective – for it can end up making people think that it’s absolutely okay to carry on as usual with burning fossil fuels and continuing with their wasteful and polluting lifestyles of mindless or conspicuous consumption.
And despite the clear and well-known problems of fossil fuels and mounting plastic waste – shale gas extracted via hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking’, is on the increase globally! Therefore efforts or claims to cut greenhouse gas emissions, even in already ‘developed’ countries and by already huge multinational energy companies, are overall just a load of **** it seems.
Some people and organisations (non-profit and for-profit, governmental and non-governmental) around the world are trying to deal with some of our collective problems, but it’s currently going to amount to too little compared to the waste and emissions that’s still being generated. If we’re rational, we should understand that we need to change our lifestyles, industries and economic expectations. We must prevent or minimise the accumulation of these problems in the first place, such as by consuming fewer limited resources and contributing less to the eventual waste in the first place. Use less and waste less. Besides, nature already has some ‘technologies’ that’ll take and lock up some of the carbon from the atmosphere quite well if only we allow and help it to – such as trees, plants, peat moors, sea grasses and algae – but we’re still chopping trees down faster than allowing them to fully (re)grow, and we’re still draining peatland to make more farmland, because of commercial interests and a growing global population!
Mature trees may no longer be net sinks of carbon dioxide – if a tree isn’t growing any larger then it isn’t locking in any more carbon (although some carbon will lock in the soil as a result of vegetation continually rotting and renewing). Yet of course if we chop those trees down and burn them then it’ll release that carbon into the atmosphere again, which means that we really need more forests in total. Forests help biodiversity too thus bring other environmental benefits.
What we really, really need, however, are more rainforest trees in tropical regions because they store more carbon per hectare than forest trees in other regions. Rainforests are also home to much more biodiversity than other forests too. Unfortunately – although forest areas may be growing in some temperate areas due to human interventions – it’s rainforests in tropical areas that are suffering from major deforestation. In July of 2019, the equivalent area of about three football pitches of Amazon rainforest was being cleared every minute on average according to satellite data! And this is just the Amazon rainforest. So reforestation must account for the right types of trees in the right parts of the world because not all trees are equal.
Sea grasses are said to be faster than trees in taking up carbon so these can help as part of the solution too. Sea grass meadows can also help prevent coastal erosion and provide habitats for marine life. ‘Blue carbon’ refers to the carbon dioxide removed from the atmosphere by the world’s coastal ecosystems – these include algae, marshes, mangroves and sea grasses.
But if there isn’t enough available land and coastal area in the world to counteract our current levels of carbon emissions then our levels of carbon emissions must simply reduce. Lifestyles need to sufficiently change. For example, getting away from the idea of ‘heating spaces’ to ‘heating people’ when people are cold, such as by wearing more clothes when it’s cold unless one is already encumbered by lots of clothing – instead of automatically turning up the heating and expecting it to be at a certain temperature all-year-round in the house. Apart from the elderly, young or sick, people are becoming more feeble when they ‘cannot live’ without preferable temperature conditions. It should be just a natural part of living with the changing seasons!
In England at least, people also like their lawn spaces and tend to like mowing them frequently in the summers, more for the look in their own eyes than for the benefit of wildlife or sinking carbon. It’s like nature wants the grass to grow (and it’s not like this grass is invasive) but humans want to constantly cut it down for human aesthetic reasons (and use a lot of electricity or fuel in the process). Cut the grass sometimes, but not so much.
We think of ideas and technologies and that makes us feel good and safe to carry on as usual, but there have been countless such ideas that never actually got off the ground, including ideas that were first considered at least over two decades ago, like using shape-memory alloys that, if enough heat is applied to them, will disassemble a product like a mobile phone within seconds so that the parts will be easy to separate and recycle, or perhaps fix. This vision hasn’t really come to fruition as phones have become more complex in design and other factors are more important to consumers than recycle-ability (when we let their wallets speak rather than their mouths).
There was also the idea of generally limiting product designs to using only two different types of polymers (e.g. polypropylene and ABS) so that recycling these products would be far easier. But companies care more about minimising their production costs and going for the precise aesthetic results they want, rather than limiting their choices to only two or three plastic types or indeed caring about how easy their products can be recycled once the customer has paid for them. Products are also seldom designed to be easily repaired, so customers feel the need to buy new products to replace them completely even when they’re only partial broken, which increases industry profits but hurts the environment. For example, manufacturers would rather us buy a new phone than try to fix our current one.
It’s evidently as if people and industries won’t change unless there are external regulations to force them to. It’d take laws to force manufacturers to use only two or three plastic types in their designs (unless something couldn’t be designed to functionally work without a different type, such as a thermosetting polymer) in the above example. In Post No.: 0265, Furrywisepuppy pointed out that we often know what we need to do but the real problem is getting everyone to actually do it!
So there’s a fallacy in thinking that ideas will always lead to desired outcomes. Some ideas might do but many will fail due to various reasons. This means that we shouldn’t overlook the things that we can do now – that aren’t as easy or effortless as we’d like but would absolutely work or help. It’s like we don’t need more or newer exercise machines – we just need to do more exercise. Hope is sometimes taken as an excuse to diminish the severity of a problem so that we can just carry on as usual without a guilty conscience. We have clean electricity technologies today if the political will is there. Jobs can be created there; although some require a lot of land or water area, ideal conditions to be reliable, and some argue that these will still be insufficient for our needs (or really greedy wants, because ‘needs’ and ‘wants’ aren’t the same thing).
Meow. If you regularly read Furrywisepuppy’s posts and my posts then you should know that we don’t peddle fears. But when it comes to the environment, we must be clear about the current urgent state of affairs. Even here, it’s not about emotional appeals but reason, and it’s hard to nuance this situation. We should continue to research and develop ideas, for the magic bullet (or more likely it’ll need a combination of them) might absolutely be found or purrfected soon. So I’m not against the hope that nascent or future technologies will come to the rescue so that we can carry on living how we want to live without sacrifices or guilt – I’m only against it when it’s used to diminish our personal responsibilities for doing the things that we know will help now. And the best ‘tech’ for carbon capture and storage, as well as biodiversity, are trees, plants and other photosynthesising life – so let’s first help them to help us!