Friday, December 2, 2011

Fake Plastic Trees

I teach a Freshman and Sophomore level class at the University of Missouri on climate change. The first two thirds of the course are devoted to the science that grounds what we know about climatic conditions, patterns and trends. The last third of the course involves looking at what is involved in making the transition from science to public policy. How does science actually inform what we do. It is a fascinating class to teach because the content we move through during the course of a semester covers both science and policy.

At the end of the semester, I ask the students to try and practice what they have learned throughout the class in a simulation of the Copenhagen Climate talks in 2009. Most of the students are given roles as negotiators representing the different countries in the UN Framework talks. As part of their preparation I give each of them goals unique to their country which I have tried very hard to make as realistic and accurate as possible.

The class is run in the same way that the actual Copenhagen talks took place. One student plays Connie Hedegaard, the Danish Minister in charge of the conference and has complete control over what is discussed and debated. In addition to each countries individual goals, they all have the common mandate to somehow create an international policy to avoid the effects of dangerous climate change. This is the very mandate that the UNFCCC actually has and the problem that is trying to be solved at each and every one of these climate meetings each year.

In the class I am teaching now, the students are nearing the end of the frantic two week period in which they have to "solve the problem". The debates the students have in class are fascinating and hew incredibly close to what actually took place in Copenhagen two years ago.

The difficult part of these negotiations, both real or simulated, is that cutting emissions demands some cost. We simply can't continue on with business as usual. If atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gas are to be reduced we either have to reduce the amount we are emitting by transitioning to a low-carbon/no-carbon energy economy or develop some technological magical bullet that will fix the underlying problem without us having to turn down the heat or built a windmill.

We are all susceptible to the magic bullet. My students can't imagine a world in which energy is not limitless or their lifestyles are restricted by energy being expensive. But how many of us really can? Wouldn't a magic bullet be the perfect solution to this intractable problem? It is the easy way out of making the difficult energy transition we are otherwise faced with. Clean coal, carbon capture and storage, and even the construction of artificial trees all hold the same promise: a new technology that allows us to continue to do what we are already doing while solving the greenhouse gas problem in the atmosphere.

Carbon capture involves trapping the CO2 waste generated during the burning of fossil fuels (oil, gas, coal, etc) before it gets into the atmosphere and then storing it somewhere (underground?) where it won't be a problem.

Artificial trees are an untested but interesting geoengineering idea that involves the construction of machines that would mimic the process that takes place in an ordinary leaf - filtering out atmospheric CO2. In a real tree it is turned into wood and biomass. In an artificial tree it is stored as liquid CO2.

The problem with these technical solutions is that they do not exist, they haven't been proven to work beyond the prototype stage, they may have very adverse side effects, or the they are simply too expensive to implement. It all seems a bit like a Rube Goldberg solution to a very simple problem. If burning fossil fuels to generate energy also generates CO2, we could either use less energy or generate electricity in some other way. How do we make rational public policy decisions when the mass construction of artificial trees seems like a wise choice?

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