Fixing the Planet: have we finally got some concrete options?

This talk, held at the British Library as part of their Out of This World series, saw speakers debating possible climate control solutions and the processes which may yet be able to save our collective bacon. With such a topic likely to become dragged down in doom-laden statements, muddied with subjective concern rather than objective fact, chair Mark Stevenson was strict about keeping things proactive and positive. I’ll take a similar approach here, reporting on what we can do to help ourselves rather than overly focussing on the very worrying situation we’re currently in.

After an introduction from climate scientist Chris Turney which proved, once again, that climate change really was happening and it really was bad, author Chris Goodall took to the stage to outline our options. “We really have only three ways of dealing with what is likely to be a severe problem for human society. Six degrees is enough to wipe out the living space of the planet: through desertification, through reduction of productivity, rise in sea levels etc. The first, and most talked about option we have, is to cut the emissions of greenhouse gases: both by reducing the amount of fossil fuels that we burn, and also reducing the amount of deforestation going on.” But there are two other options he considers feasible, and worth publicising, also. “The first is to increase the amount of carbon we extract, through natural and semi-natural processes, from the atmosphere, and put it back where it’s safe. There are 200 billion tons of co2 in the atmosphere that shouldn’t be there; we probably not only have to cut our emissions of fossil fuel to zero, we also have to take out the co2 that’s already in the atmosphere. The public debate is about cutting emissions, but actually it’s going to have to go a lot further than that.” And the third option? Admittedly rather madcap at first hearing but it could just work: “The third thing is that we can choose to reflect more sunlight back into the atmosphere.”

“If we can adjust the flow of carbon in and out of the atmosphere, we can make a significant difference. If we’re able to find a way to ensure that the land keeps more carbon dioxide, and the ocean stores more as well, we’ve gone a long way towards solving the problem. And it may be easier for human society to do that than to cut their use of fossil fuels. Disrupting the carbon cycle can take four key forms: reforestation, artificial weathering of rocks, sequestering carbon in physically robust forms such as biochar (more on this later), and land management. Restricting the grazing of animals, fencing [cattle] in and allowing grass roots to grow back, it’s as simple as that.”

Craig Sams, founder of both Whole Foods and Green & Blacks, and thus an indie-food-retailing legend, spent most of his speaking time extolling the virtues of biochar, which is a porous form of almost pure carbon made from woodchips, grass, rice prunings, and many other organic sources. Biochar helps soil to retain moisture, increase crop yields, and keeps out disease. Its drawback is that it is officially untested in the longterm, although Sams insists that after a decade of personal use, he has witnessed no downsides to the product.

Sams’ solution to climate change, as caused by irresponsible agriculture on an international scale, is this: “We, as taxpayers, created this. Everybody wants cheap food; the cheaper it is, the less sustainable it is. An organic farmer will increase soil carbon to 800 kilos to a ton, per hectare, every year. There’s a huge potential for the soil to function as a carbon-sink, but as long as we subsidise nitrate fertilisers, you feed the plant and wipe out the soil structure that would normally feed that plant. Adding biochar to soil accelerates the re-carbonisation of soil, but it has to be done with the right sort of agricultural practices. Get rid of agriculture subsidies, all subsidies, all around the world. Put a price on carbon, so every time someone emits a ton, they pay for it. Every time they sequester a ton, they get paid for it. Behavioural change.”

Goodall provided the corporate perspective. Why should corporations embrace a practice that is likely to engender short-term, and maybe longterm, losses? “There have to be root changes within the value systems of corporations, that make it possible to run for the long-term. There are companies that have already begun the process; Marks & Spencer have made a significance difference. It is possible to make significant changes: providing that you are working with the thrust of what your consumers want from you, then I think there’s every reason to believe that you can.”

While environmental activist Claire Fauset warned of the risks of not moving fast enough, and changing both our belief systems, and our economy, at a fundamental level (“We cannot have infinite growth on a planet of finite resources”), Turney was positive about the potential outcomes of the impending crisis: “No doubt there are going to be challenges ahead – but this is an opportunity. There’s a role for us to lead. We should be reaching out for a green revolution.”

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Fixing the Planet: have we finally got some concrete options?

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