Tech-no-fix: why technical fixes won’t mitigate climate change

Three years ago, I felt like I was a lone voice in my sector. I was banging on about our increasing reliance on the hope of a magic bullet (or a number of them) to solve climate change. Perhaps my approach was wrong, but I just got glazed looks, or the doe-eyed response from proponents of technological fixes like nuclear or carbon capture and storage that: ‘ all I care about is preventing runaway climate change’. As if I don’t! But this is now changing….

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Two mechanical engineers, Patrick Moriarty and Damon Honnery have just published a paper in the Journal of Cosmology that sums up part of my argument – yes it does seem like a rather odd journal to publish in, especially when they have published in Energy Policy before.

Moriarty and Honnery, two mechanical engineers from Monash University, in Australia argue that technological fixes, such as carbon capture and storage, nuclear power, geoengineering, incremental improvements in energy efficiency are ‘too little, too late.’ The also argue that there may not be enough time to reverse renewable energy’s dwindling share of the global energy mix. One example the authors cite is that in the EU – who proudly declare their ambitious pledges to cut greenhouse gases (GHG) – only 8% of new electricity capacity under construction would use renewable energy sources.

29 leading international scientists, identified nine processes in the biosphere for which the researchers considered it necessary to ‘define planetary boundaries’. Of these nine, the authors found that three boundaries had already been transgressed: climate change, interference with the nitrogen cycle, and biodiversity loss (Rockström et al., 2009).

The authors conclude that economies should take a needs approach to development, focussing on adequate provision of food, potable water, shelter, health and education services for all. And, the only way to achieve this on a finite plant is to abandon the one-eyed obsession with global economic growth accompanied by dramatic cuts in ‘energy and material consumption’ in the Global North.

In their new book Rise and fall of the carbon civilisation Moriarty and Honnery put a figure on this – an 80% cut in energy and material consumption by the highest consumers in developed nations. Their paper echos the conclusions Andrew Simms and I drew in Growth isn’t Possible: Why we need a new economic direction, and is also supported by Professor Tim Jackson’s report/book Prosperity without Growth.

With a blink of an eye, challenging growth is gradually becoming mainstream (although scientists recognised the finiteness of the planet’s resources ever since the formulation of the second law of thermodynamics). For example, last year, leading science journal Nature published an editorial on why GDP is a poor measure of progress. In Europe, the De-Growth movement is, well,  growing, and fast. And, in two weeks time, the Centre for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy will be hosting an international conference on why we need a steady state economy, and how we might get there. Speakers include Andrew Simms, Peter Victor, Tim Jackson and Dan O’Neil (European Director of the Centre for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy).There will also be a number of workshops, one of which I will be speaking at.

What this shows is that low growth, zero growth, de-growth, steady state economics or a dynamic equilibrium economy (whichever terminology you prefer), is moving from the margins to mainstream. When crises hit – such as the credit crunch in August 2008 – the appetite for new progressive thinking increases. And the events of the past 2 years shows, just how many people out there are willing to openly think outside the straight-jacket of orthodoxy and recognise that there are alternatives.

To see what the kind of cut Moriaty and Honnery describe really entails, I suggest checking out ‘Ration Me Up‘, the monthly ration book I co-developed with the artist Claire Patey using a grant from the Arts Council. This tool has been enormously successful in communicating to everyone from Ed Miliband (ex-Secretary for State for Energy and Climate Change, and potential new leader of the Labour Party) to the general public, the harsh reality of the challenges we face. But there is growing evidence that good lives don’t have to cost the earth.

In a couple of weeks, the Centre for Alternative Technology will publish ‘Zero Carbon Britain II’ that shows that the UK can transform itself to a zero carbon economy. No one says it will be easy. There will need to be dramatic falls in consumption, but it can be done. What has been lacking up until now, is the political will. Cue, new coalition lib-con government.

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