The Scientific Alliance Newsletter - Changing and informed scientific debate

23rd March 2012


Mixed messages on climate and energy policy
This week, there have been a number of interesting news items relating to what may or may not be happening to the climate. First, we have Emeritus Professor Stephen Salter of Edinburgh University, who spoke to MPs at a meeting organised by the Arctic Methane Emergency Group to suggest that salt water should be pumped into the Arctic atmosphere to whiten clouds and reduce the rate of melting of the ice cap in summer (see Climate ‘tech fixes urged for Arctic methane).

Professor Salter has long been involved in pioneering work on wave power, and is perhaps best-known for designs such as ‘Salter’s duck’, a device which harvests wave energy via the movements of a pendulum. He has previously put forward the idea of cloud whitening but now thinks things have become so serious that towers to pump very fine droplets of seawater into the atmosphere should be erected in the Faroe Islands as a quicker fix than the original concept of building a fleet of ships to carry out the task.

The supposed problem, as might be clear from the title of the organising group, is the possibility of large-scale release of methane from clathrates on the seabed in the Arctic as the ocean warms. This remains a supposition but is one of the more credible ‘tipping points’ which have been suggested. However, it seems unlikely that, with slow warming (which is what would occur in the sea, even if air temperatures rose quite fast) there would be a sudden, catastrophic release of methane. Rather, the rate of release could speed up in summer, but would slow again as water temperatures dropped in winter.

Since methane in the atmosphere is quite short-lived, this is unlikely to cause any major long-term problem. But the crux of the issue is to know what is causing warming in the Arctic in the first place. The enhanced greenhouse hypothesis predicts that the poles would warm faster than lower latitudes; this is happening for the Arctic, but does not seem to be the case in the Antarctic. There is no direct evidence that this is the driver; indeed, warming generally seems to have stopped elsewhere for a decade or more. It is also quite possible that Arctic ice may be melting faster because of changes to ocean currents, a hypothesis which has not yet been fully tested. Until the reason for warming is known, it isn’t possible to put in place a credible response.

Professor Salter considers the potential release of methane to be a planetary emergency. In similar vein, the EU’s chief climate policy negotiator, Artur Runge-Metzger, made remarks which were reported in a story headlined EU climate broker: World faces 4 degrees of warming. To quote from this piece (on the Euractiv website) “A report by the Royal Society last year found that with planetary warming of four degrees or more, the limits for human and environmental adaptation ‘are likely to be exceeded in many parts of the world’. The London-based Royal Society report estimated that at four degrees of global warming, half the world’s current agricultural land would become unusable, sea levels would rise by up to two metres, and around 40% of the world’s species would become extinct. Meanwhile droughts and wildfires would ravage the globe.”

But again, this depends upon the IPCC view being correct. The problem is that responses to what is being trumpeted as a potential catastrophe show no signs of being effective. Drastic cuts in carbon dioxide emissions are called for by governments, and targets have been agreed across the EU and a number of other countries. But, we also see that this may not affect the bigger picture. For example, in another Euractiv story, we learn that OECD says emissions set to surge 50% by 2050. This, of course, follows a record level of emissions in 2010, despite the recession which affected so much of the world. The OECD, I should say, does not see this as a desirable situation, believing that the result would be a 3-6°C temperature rise by the turn of the century.

There seem to be plenty of calls for a stronger emissions policy, and even an enthusiasm among the European political class. But without a global commitment, including China and the USA, such a stance will do nothing to reduce overall emissions. In the meantime, Europeans may think they occupy the moral high ground, but the reality is somewhat different. In the Daily Mail, we read Is carbon cutting a waste of time? Figures show Britain’s ‘footprint’ has increased by 20% despite green taxes.

The story refers to a Defra study which estimates the carbon intensity of imported goods. More renewable energy and higher electricity and fuel prices may reduce the UK’s emissions, but that means that more and more goods are manufactured abroad in countries such as China where more electricity is generated from coal and energy is used less efficiently. The net result is that the European economy suffers and global emissions increase; a lose-lose situation.

A first step down the road to sanity for European energy policy would be for the rigid targets for renewables to be done away with. If the desired result is for lower emissions, it surely doesn’t matter how this is achieved. At least one government is reportedly looking to do that by placing nuclear on a level playing field with renewables as a low-carbon technology (UK wants 2030 renewable energy target to be scrapped). This would be a sensible, ‘least regrets’ policy, and pretty much win-win. If the enhanced greenhouse effect is real, more nuclear will help mitigate the effects by reducing CO2 output; if not, then we still have a reliable, efficient provider of base load electricity. But when was politics ever about devising sensible policies?

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