Tackling the CO2 issue

Here’s a shock for all who know me: I say, “Good on you Tony Blair.”

In one paragraph of a speech to the Gleneagles Dialogue on 15th March he gave a clear-eyed summary of the issues facing the world with regard to greenhouse gas emissions. Here it is:

Per capita GHG emissions are over 20 tonnes per year in the USA; in Europe and Japan over 10 tonnes; in China close to 5 tonnes. Some estimate they will need to be around 2-2.5 tonnes as a world average by 2050 to allow the necessary reduction of 50% in the global total. But since the poorer nations will see their emissions rise as they industrialize and since the world population may well grow from 6 to 9 billion, the emissions in the richer nations will have to fall close to zero and those in the poorer countries will have, over time, to fall as they industrialize.

Of course, this assumes that greenhouse gases are the primary cause of climate change. That’s not a discussion to have here. Suffice it to say that our methods of production are fairly ruinous and if carbon awareness is the catalyst for change then this is all to the good.

Back to Tony Blair. Whatever you think of him, he has access to the world’s power brokers. Thanks to his closeness to people like Sir Nicholas Stern, he is clearly aware of the issues and he is still has the ear of the great and the good acquired when he was Prime Minister of the UK.

A lot of talking is taking place, as is the way of the world, and global agreements aren’t going to happen suddenly. This is the downside of the political process. But he is optimistic that these agreements can be achieved with a recognition that developing countries cannot be held back from their aspirations.

Here are some of his conclusions:

Personally I see no way of tackling climate change without a renaissance of nuclear power. There will have to be a completely different attitude to the sharing of technology and to the patent framework that allows it.

We will need a focus of a wholly different order on clean coal technology and carbon sequestration. Energy efficiency – often wrongly seen as less sexy as a means of reducing emissions – will have to be translated to its proper place at the centre of any global strategy.

Nuclear power stations take years to build while China, according to the Guardian, is cranking out the equivalent of two coal-fired power stations a week. The BBC reported China’s plans to build 544 of them but didn’t give a time-scale. While on the subject of China, it has a number of out-of-control fires in coal seams. A few years ago, the New Scientist reported a speech in which estimated that “the carbon dioxide put into the atmosphere from underground fires in China are equivalent to the emissions from all motor vehicles in the US”

Blair mentioned ’carbon sequestration’. This is usually done by grabbing CO2 at the point of emission and selling it to people who need a supply of of the gas or, more likely, by burying it somewhere safe. Pushed into oilfields, it not only fills the space left by extracted oil, it also helps recover more oil. (I know … to generate more CO2 when it’s burnt …)

Localised sequestration – on factory chimneys and power stations – is a great idea and no doubt we’ll see a lot more of it. But the third greatest emitter of greenhouse gases is the transport sector, at around 20 percent. This is difficult to grab and sequester and it becomes part of our atmosphere. The same goes for the Chinese coal seam fires and other CO2 sources – humans breathing out or animals venting perhaps. A number of scientists have been working on ’air capture’ devices which grab passing CO2 molecules as they flow through.

The method requires electricity but, since the devices can be placed anywhere in the world, they could capitalise on local geothermal or other green energy. One of these ’artificial trees’ the size of a shipping container would be able to remove a ton of CO2 from the atmosphere per day.

This is not a ’get out of jail free’ card, but it’s a promising idea which has already been demonstrated at laboratory scale by Global Research Technologies. It would be nice to think that this could go into general production and be funded by all polluting nations. It promises to be a “quick fix” while we get on with the more serious business of slashing our emissions in the first place.

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