A Culture of Solutions and the Climate Disaster
We live in a world in which solutions are expected for every problem. This belief is supported by the idea that a positive attitude plus effort and technology will always find the answer to any problem. Meteoric advances in technology have ingrained in us the mantra of solutionism at any cost without questioning if the solutions work or if they end up creating more problems in the end.
Our obsession with solutions has led us very often to ignore the real problem and instead manipulate it to fit the solutions available. If we reduce the variables of a problem to fit the solutions that suit us, we are not really solving the problem; we are just thinking we are doing it.
This solution-at-any-cost culture is quite evident in climate change. The status quo global climate leaders are experts at finding solutions to every problem, even intractable ones like reversing the extensive damage we have done to the planet’s climate systems.
A culture based on solutionism can’t accept that the climate disaster has no solution. It could have had a solution some decades ago but our culture of solutionism didn’t present the reality of the problem, concentrating instead on the possibility of unproven technological solutions in the future. We have never changed this tactic and we continue proposing more technology that appears to fix the climate disaster but only hinders any realistic strategy.
Already in the 19th-century, physicists John Tyndall and Svante Arrhenius discovered the greenhouse gas effect that explained how increases in CO2 in the atmosphere coincided with the ending of the ice ages. During the early 20th century several scientists were able to corroborate with data what their 19th-century colleagues had found. In the 1960s climatologist, Harold C. Fritts used the information from tree rings for climate reconstruction while in 1979 Helmut Landsberg and Brian Groveman did the first quantitative reconstruction of mean temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere, clearly showing a relationship between CO2 concentrations and a rise in temperatures.
All the climate research since the 19th century has never been correctly explained to the public and as a result, the majority of people are still mired in confusion and unrealistic hopes about a possible solution. The global climate status quo experts only took notice of our climate woes when the United Nations created the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 1988, which released its first report in 1990.
Since its beginning, the IPCC has been a champion of climate solutionism. Their teams of ‘solutionists’ are experts at morphing the problem to fit the solutions that the climate establishment influenced by corporations and governments finds acceptable for a continuation of business as usual. The media repeats these solutions without explaining them and the public continues as unaware of the realities of climate change as decades ago.
After the first IPCC report in 1990, there were several international meetings in which the countries pledged their commitment to emission reductions. The first climate agreement was the Kyoto protocol in 1997 which came into force only in 2005 after long negotiations among countries. This binding agreement involved the pledge of the future EU plus 37 other industrialized countries to reduce their emissions by 5% below the 1990 levels over five years from 2008 to 2012. The countries could engage in emission-exchanging gimmicks among themselves or with Third World countries with low emissions. Even with all those tricks and a very conservative target, most participants were unable to reach their goals, proving how impossible it is to even reduce emissions by a small amount while continuing business as usual.
After further meetings with no significant emissions reduction, the Kyoto protocol morphed into the Paris Agreement in 2015. This non-binding treaty cleverly concentrated on temperature goals since the emission strategy had failed. According to the treaty, the world’s average temperature shouldn’t increase above 1.5°C of preindustrial levels; by using temperature, the solutionists were able to choose the preindustrial level that fitted their proposed solutions while appearing to be doing something about the climate disaster.
Status quo climate solutionists working towards the Paris Agreement’s goals include Global Optimism created by Christiana Figueres, the UN Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) until 2016, the World Economic Forum’s New Deal for Nature, the Carbon Pledge group of corporations that promises carbon net-zero by 2040, and many others.
These solutionists claim to have all the answers promoting an optimism that is betrayed even by their unfeasible carbon net-zero objectives. Net-zero involves a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions to ensure that any ongoing emissions are balanced by active removal or carbon sinks. The scheme is based on the same creative accounting that has been used since the Kyoto protocol and hasn’t produced any results. Their self-serving but optimistic strategy includes carbon emission reporting by corporations, the reduction of carbon-emitting energy sources, the active carbon capturing and sequestering, and the use of carbon offsets with tree planting and wind and solar farms. Let’s analyze these proposals and their validity as solutions.
The carbon removal solutionist strategy that has been getting the most attention so far is the carbon capture and storage, a method that involves retrofitting industrial facilities (like cement or steel plants) to keep carbon from releasing into the air and, instead, funnel it underground. The solutions are vague about the efficiency of the method and completely mum about the energy required for this retrofitting and the emissions that will inevitably happen.
The first carbon capture project was the 2014 Petro Nova coal plant in Texas, touted by solutionists as a wonder that could prevent 90% of CO2 from entering the atmosphere. In reality, the carbon capture mechanism required so much energy that Petra Nova had to build an entirely separate gas power plant to fuel it. While solutionists concentrate on the 90% of emissions supposedly saved, the whole contraption ended up producing more emissions, especially since other parts of the coal plant, including older units that couldn’t be retrofitted, continued emitting.
Since then other carbon capture methods and projects have been developed but none can bypass the further need for energy, high investments, and no reduction in emissions. For example, the Petro Nova Coal plant only agreed to install the carbon-capturing technology in exchange for being allowed to transport the removed CO2 to a separate oil field to inject underground and help release more oil. Even with this concession that nullified the benefits to the planet, the Petro Nova Coal plant had to close due to insolvency caused by the carbon capture expenses combined with the drop in energy prices due to the pandemic.
The Biden administration Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm recently touted the government’s huge investment in this type of carbon capture as an optimal solution, even if there is no evidence to prove its workability. Ms. Granholm aptly expressed what the strategy really means:
“Carbon capture will help the oil and gas sector to be able to ramp up production, but in a way that’s clean.”
This statement betrays their real objective -not cutting emissions, but appearing to be doing so. A 2020 article by June Sekera and Andreas Lichtenberger titled “Assessing Carbon Capture: Public Policy, Science, and Societal Need”, published in the Biophysical Economics and Resource Quality Journal found that industrial carbon removal methods incentivized by governments are net CO2 additives instead of removers.
An even more ambitious solutionist approach is the direct air carbon capture which got 3.6 billion from the recent US infrastructure package passed by the senate. The Energy Department recently allocated US$ 12 million aiming to remove 100,000 tons of CO2 from the atmosphere. This sounds like a solutionist joke since the highest emitter in the US, Vistra Energy, produced 119 million tons of CO2 just in 2018. It has been calculated that the energy required for removing one billion tons of CO2 using direct capture is the equivalent of the entire electricity output of the US.
According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), there are currently two technological approaches for direct air capture, both of which involve directing streams of the atmosphere over a chemical membrane that separates the CO2 from the rest. In the liquid method, the air passes through chemical solutions (hydroxide solution) and in the solid one through solid sorbent filters. In both cases the membranes bind with CO2 and when heated release the CO2 to be captured. Simon Nicholson the co-founder of the Institute for Carbon Removal Law and Policy at American University says that the CO2 can be concentrated for the creation of diamonds, or transformed into a liquid and combined with hydrogen to make fuels.
Even the IEA admits that the reuse of captured CO2 will involve further emissions, especially if you use it to create synthetic fuels or extract other fossil fuels. The IEA is a poster child of solutionism so they counter criticism about the high energy cost of these methods by arguing that the energy can come from bio-fuels and other renewable energy sources, effectively green-varnishing their solutions.
Just to put their energy solution in perspective it is important to understand our present dependence on fossil fuels. In 2020 fossil fuels still provided 84% of our global energy, which means that any production of bio-fuels and renewable energy resources will require the use of fossil fuels for the agricultural machinery, mining, and manufacturing of materials and infrastructure for renewable energy.
It is easy for solutionists to say that renewable energy is the answer without giving any details. In this solutionist game, the key is vagueness and spewing of facts without much context. What most people hear in the media is a series of disconnected reports about the marvel of a city, an island or a small country getting all their electricity from renewable energy, without telling people that electricity is only 18% of the energy we use worldwide.
It is clear that the status quo solutions don’t have as an aim to stop fossil fuels but to use technological advances to make their extraction appear clean. This status quo knows that stopping fossil fuels now is impossible. This brings us to another type of solutionist, the one who believes that stopping all fossil fuels now will solve everything. In reality, if we stopped fossil fuels right now, our economies would collapse and our lives would change dramatically. Just imagine our lives with only 16% of the energy we currently use. Could we have industrialized agriculture and transport food where it is needed? No. Could we continue using our computers and phones for our Zoom meetings while we sip a latte? No.
Once the carbon has been removed it still needs to be put somewhere. As we saw with the Petra Nova plant, the most economically rewarding is to redirect the CO2 for oil extraction, but even that wasn’t viable. The other options include transport to geological formations for storage and the injection of CO2 into the ocean.
Whichever method you use, it will require transport which involves pipelines and contraptions that require further energy. CO2 pipelines can cause safety and health hazards to the surrounding communities. CO2 can escape without notice since it has no odor and if it concentrates it can seriously affect the health of the people around it. If the leak or rupture happens near fossil fuel extraction sites those will explode in contact with high concentrations of CO2.
If the idea of captured CO2 funneled in pipelines to aid in the extraction of more fossil fuels merits the second prize of solutionism, the carbon sequestration method that involves the injection of CO2 into the ocean wins the Nobel Prize. The ocean has been paying the price of our excess CO2 creation by absorbing it for decades making it more acidic and harming marine fauna. Forcing the ocean to absorb more CO2 will only compound the problem.
Carbon Offsets or Sinks
Solutionists insist that natural carbon sinks like the ocean and the forests can still be used in their efforts to achieve carbon net-zero. Unfortunately, they choose to ignore that the deforestation caused by the mining, tech, manufacturing, and agribusiness corporations involved in the net-zero scheme have transformed the Amazon and other forests from net CO2 absorbers to net emitters and that the ocean already has an imbalance caused by the excess CO2 it has absorbed.
Carbon offsets rely on a false emissions accounting in which renewable energy is counted as 100 percent clean energy. This has been a trick of solutionists for a long time, to concentrate on the on-site emissions of renewable energy while forgetting about the emissions produced by the manufacturing and infrastructure required. How can wind energy be clean, when the magnet for each wind power unit requires the mining of 900 lbs of neodymium and 900 lbs of dysprosium, plus tons of concrete, steel, and plastic? It can’t, the mining and manufacturing of these components produce emissions and horrific pollution, so how can these energies be clean?
Another example of carbon offset false solutionism is the case of the energy company Drax, the biggest CO2 emitter in the UK and the third in Europe. The company proudly advertises its 90% emission savings on its website but is even happier with the more than £800m it received in climate subsidies last year. The trick for this effective green-washing is to claim a carbon offset by burning woody biomass, cutting the emissions on paper, but not in the real world.
The solutionists on paper tell us they have figured out everything in computer models that solve problems that don’t exist. Christiana Figueres and status quo climate experts prohibit pessimism about climate while presenting unfeasible solutions. The saddest part is that even stopping fossil fuels now would not reverse the damage already done. The recent extreme climate events constitute the handwriting on the wall. The message is that the planet’s systems are deeply disturbed and the feedback mechanisms that have been entrained are nearly impossible to reverse. Their solutions appear to work in the real world but instead, they work only in a game.
Our current responses to the climate troubles can be compared to a Sisyphean task -a vicious cycle of climate change acceptance followed by technological solutions that add to the problem so that our efforts remain eternally fruitless. A few decades ago, we had a possibility of a solution but now it is the time for acceptance and a drastic change in priorities. Unfortunately, solutionism has convinced people that solutions are available, precluding any changes in the priorities of our status quo. In this situation, the only thing that will liberate us from this Sisyphean task is the action of the perturbed Earth’s systems and the effects these will have on our survival. Maybe then, the solutionists will quit finding solutions for problems that don’t exist and finally focus on the most important problem we face, the climate disaster.