We need more than technology to combat climate change


15 April 2014

With the recent confirmation by the IPCC that climate change is caused by humans, urgent action is needed to counter the impact it will have on lives around the world. The massive scale of the problem and the difficulties of combating it, mean that governments and NGOs have looked to increasingly diverse projects for solutions.

At first the goal was to simply reduce CO2 emissions, which are the biggest contributor to climate change. However, over time the focus has broadened to include; increasing the rate that CO2 is removed from the atmosphere, reducing the warming effects of increased CO2 levels in the atmosphere, and adapting to the consequences of warming. This shift in emphasis from combating climate change to managing it could have troubling consequences, one of which was highlighted recently.  

Reducing the warming effects of high CO2 levels tend to focus on limiting the amount of sunlight that reaches the earth's surface. Many, like a giant orbital sun shade wouldn't look out of place in a science fiction film. However these are real projects with real, and potentially disastrous, effects. One project, which aimed to cool the earth by injecting reflective particles into the upper atmosphere, has been heavily criticised in a recent report. This research suggested that it could cut rainfall to tropical regions by as much as 30%, devastating the ecosystems of Asia and South America. 

A heavily criticised proposal for a giant orbiting lens would theoretically limit the amount of sunlight that reaches the earth. (Image from Wikipedia)

The potential impact of this project is terrifying, but the fact that it was taken seriously is the most worrying aspect. Projects like this are indicative of a wider trend in climate change debates. One which aims to avoid, as far as possible, disrupting global markets that are hooked on fossil fuels.

In the above case this would be by investing large sums of money into massive new, and untested, technologies, but this approach is also evident elsewhere.  The EU cap and trade scheme and the REDD+ project are great examples of this trend. The first puts a monetary value on not emitting, whilst the second places a similar valuation on the ability of trees to remove carbon from the atmosphere. They aim, respectively, to incentivise people to emit less CO2 and cut down fewer trees. Just as with large technology projects, a great deal of money is being invested to combat climate change without upsetting the markets that have largely fuelled the problem.

Proponents of these sorts of solutions argue that investment in the right mix of incentives will encourage companies to adopt more environmentally conscious approaches, or that technological breakthroughs will provide the solution. However, trying to solve the problem without upsetting the system that has created it hasn’t worked and can have serious side-effects.

Market led approaches, like REDD+ and cap and trade schemes, allow companies to emit as much as they want as long as it is offset by lower emissions elsewhere or increased carbon capture from reforestation. By themselves they do nothing to reduce CO2 levels and simply let big polluters off the hook. They have often also further marginalised some of the planet’s poorest groups, and actually contributed to environmental degradation.

The REDD programme, of which REDD+ is the latest stage, demonstrates both of these trends. As the ability of forests’ to capture carbon becomes a commodity, governments and companies are given greater incentive to control these areas. This has often meant that the local indigenous groups are forced off their land by purchase or policy in the pursuit of profit. Just as worryingly, the REDD system prices natural biodiversity rich forest land equally with manmade plantations. This simplistic system has allowed logging companies to 'offset' the destruction they have caused with plantations that bear no resemblance to what has been lost. On their own, offsetting and giant technological solutions cannot fix the damage caused to local livelihoods and global ecosystems. A new approach is required.

WDM's work, such as the recent campaign for HSBC to stop investing in coal, argues for just such a change. Big companies cannot continue to be guided simply by profits. They must reject environmentally and socially damaging technologies and business models, not because it is profitable or even because it is the right thing to do, but because it is necessary. Solutions which ignore this will never effectively combat climate change and may end up causing more harm than good. 

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