Tim Flannery says A decade ago climate experts were deeply worried. Now they are terrified.
We need to perform superbly in the next 10 years, he says, but the task is doable.
Robyn Williams talked to Tim Flannery at the Planet Talks, part of Womadelaide, in April 2018. There is a transcript available at the link above.
Flannery says that we have missed the chance to get in early to solve the climate change problem:
- because the greenhouse gases that will drive that change are already in the atmosphere. We have already put them in, they will be accumulating heat close to the Earth’s surface for several decades to come, and what that means is that the 2020s will be worse than the teens, the 2030s will be worse than the 2020s. Maybe by the 2040s if we really start pulling a finger out now we can start improving things. But we will face two decades of change now, even if we do our utmost.
We have not yet seen mass systemic climate change of the scale which is almost certainly to come as we pump CO2 into the atmosphere about 100 times faster than any other period recorded in geological history. We are now, he says, entering the acute phase of the problem.
By 2030 we will have passed through this acute phase and we will be in a phase, if we do nothing, which will really be a future where it will be very hard to alter the outcomes. If we leave it another decade, the greenhouse gas burden will have built up so much that no matter what we do it is going to be very difficult to reduce the impacts.
He says that 1.5°C is pretty much inevitable, and by 2030 2°C may also be inevitable, so we need to go beyond reducing emissions to decarbonising the atmosphere.
Flannery’s big thing for South Australia is kelp farming. He says seaweed grows 30 to 60 times faster than land-based plants, and it likes cold nutrient-rich water such as that found off the coast of SA. Then, he says, you need deep canyons where seaweed can be sequestered so that the carbon does not resurface over timescales that are meaningful in terms of climate change.
- Most of the seaweed that gets into the deep oceans seems to get there through submarine canyons. There are about 660 submarine canyons identified around the planet, and one of the largest and deepest is right here off Kangaroo Island, a 4 km deep submarine canyon, that is like a superhighway for taking seaweed, if you want, into the deep ocean and out of the system, along with all of the carbon that’s in that seaweed.
His vision is for:
a marine permaculture system operating off Kangaroo Island, which is producing not only seaweed but high-quality marine protein for export to Asia, which is utilising some of that seaweed crop while some of it is being sequestered in the deep ocean.
He pointed out that President Trump’s first budget contained a $50 a ton tax credit for the geological sequestration of carbon, and a $35 a ton tax credit for the profitable use of sequestered carbon.
He says the potential for kelp sequestration is that by 2050 we could be doing four gigatonnes of carbon a year, which equates to 15 gigatonnes of CO2 in round figures. Current emissions amount to about 50 gigatonnes of CO2 each year, so that is about 30 per cent of current output, which is significant.
To make it work you need sunlight and nutrients in the top 300 metres of water. He cites a brand-new seaweed farm project by a group called Marine Permaculture at Woods Hole on the east coast of the USA. They have built a 100-metre array which will be deployed in the Indian Ocean over the next four months or so. It uses renewable energy (wave energy and solar) to pump nutrient-rich water from 300 metres down to the kelp farm which sits 25 metres below the surface. The farm will produce kelp and other high-quality marine resources.
With kelp you can make “amazing food, medication, paper, structural materials, lots and lots of stuff, plastics, it’s endless what has been done in Asia with this stuff.”
Flannery says the industry, now in its infancy, is currently producing $12 million tonnes world-wide.
Other ideas Flannery mentioned included:
- Plastics – in future we will be able to use biological materials for plastics or direct air capture of CO2 for degradable plastics or plastic substitutes. Or just use banana leaves.
- Carbon fibre. Two years ago in the USA people made carbon fibre from atmospheric CO2 directly, at a cost, they say, competitive with current production methods. When it gets cheap enough it could replace aluminium or steel for many purposes.
- Flannery says he worked with Siemens for a number of years looking at a technology where you dissolve CO2 in water, run a weak electrical current through it and you can create the building blocks for a whole lot of materials that are useful in many industrial processes, and substitute for fossil fuels.
- Flannery says that in Greenland as the glaciers recede there are gigatonnes of rock flour being exposed which have silicates rocks in them. The silicate, which absorbs atmospheric CO2, can be ground up and added to soil or water.
- Another group of people are talking about capturing CO2 over the Antarctic icecap as dry ice. You chill the air a few tens of degrees, let the dry ice fall as snow and bury it in the icecap.
Flannery thinks that concentrated solar thermal technology, where you get high quality concentrated heat which is stored, such as the one being developed to grow tomatoes at Port Augusta, will be transformational.
He also gave a shout for hydrogen:
Let’s just pick apart hydrogen. As I said, 97% of the world’s nitrogenous fertilisers are made from natural gas at the moment, but right here in South Australia you are developing a plant that is going to be making them from wind and solar electricity, amazing stuff, cost competitively. So that is a huge step. And the hydrogen that will be generated as well, you can shandy that into the gas pipelines I think on the order of 15%, without deleterious effects. So again, you are lessening the demand for gas.
Actually, while writing the post I happened upon Steel Plant in Sweden Set to Operate Entirely on Hydrogen Fuel:
SSAB steelmaker wants to become the world’s first fossil fuel-free steel plant powered only by hydrogen.
When asked about biochar, Flannery said the difficulty with all of the terrestrial approaches is one of scale. To get five gigatonnes of carbon out of the air you need to cover an area roughly equal to North America with trees. Robyn Williams that seagrasses absorb 40 to 100 times more CO2 than tropical rainforests.
His final idea, in response to a question about changing our political system so that we move faster was to have one-term politicians and every piece of legislation would go through a citizen jury of people chosen at random.