I argued on my Climate Cliff page that it could already be too late to stop climate change running away from us despite massive carbon cuts.
If we instituted a truly massive ‘war-time economy’ against burning coal and oil and gas, there might still be a chance to avoid the climate cliff and the sheer cost of geo-engineering. (See footnote). But I don’t see it happening. We’re still pumping out ever more CO2. So what can we do if we go over the Climate Cliff?
What is the ‘crash position’?
Green Deserts: (Afforestation). Desalinated sea-water could be used to irrigate deserts and grow forests, sequestering all our carbon emissions! This is a climate fix even if we continued burning all our fossil fuels. This is one of my favourites because of all the great side benefits; food and fibre and fuel. Done right, this could create attractive orchards and paper mills and timber towns across the Outback and Sahara. We would enjoy food grown from within our deserts! The main problem? The cost: this is one of the most expensive geo-engineering schemes, and costs $3.5 trillion, or 5% of the global GDP.
White Skies: pour sulfur dust into the upper atmosphere to shield us from the sun. This may be one of the cheapest ’emergency cures’ but also has some very nasty side effects.
Olivine dust: Spreading this dust everywhere will suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, but costs around $200 Billion a year. It has less side effects than White Skies, but costs more and does not have the great food, fibre, and fuel benefits of Green Deserts (and what would be the value of protecting rare tropical rainforests by flooding the market with timber from the Outback and Sahara!?)
The sheer cost!
If we really decided to invest in clean energy, we would not need to waste money on problematic geo-engineering schemes. The same money would instead prevent global warming instead of wasting (roughly) $200 billion on the ‘cure’. Some of these schemes cost around $200 billion a year. (Or $2 trillion a decade!) This is an enormous amount of money. This money could pay for a clean energy system for the planet in about 3 decades ($6 trillion total!) if we put it towards nuclear power, rather than some of the schemes listed below.
As Engineer Poet estimated:
This needs to be compared to the cost of other measures. A nuclear powerplant at €2000/kW (Nth of a kind, assuming a rationalized regulatory system) operating at 90% capacity factor displaces about 1 ton CO2 per MWH or about 7.9 million tons per 1 GW plant per year, ~470 million tons over a 60-year lifespan. Investing €200 billion per year in nuclear powerplants would produce 100 GW of new plants per year, which would cut emissions by about 790 million tons/yr each year. Ten years into a construction program at this pace, the net CO2 emissions from coal combustion would be cut by about 7.9 billion tons per year, roughly 1/3 of the total human emissions of 26.4 GT/yr.
This rate of production would quickly saturate the European, US and Japanese electric markets and require installations in nations far afield. It would require less money (you’d be done after 30 years), require moving far less material, and have many knock-on effects such as radically reduced air pollution and improved balances of trade in the OECD.
The obvious conclusion:
1. If we act fast enough right now we could save a stack of money, save a stack of ecosystems, and save a stack of lives by preventing the worst of climate change. Then we wouldn’t have to spend money on these geo-engineering ‘cures’. As the Stern and Garnaut Reports both concluded, prevention is far, far cheaper than a cure. 20 times cheaper!
2. If we leave it too late, we will be stuck with the bill for both the clean energy we have to build anyway and these geo-engineering schemes! We will still have to spend trillions on a clean energy system, as we will eventually run out of fossil fuels anyway, AND then also fund expensive geo-engineering projects like those mentioned below.