A small step for carbon capture. Powered solely by renewable energy, Climeworks’ direct air capture plant in Orca, Iceland, captures CO2 from the air. Climeworks’ storage partner Carbfix mixes the CO2 with water and pumps it deep underground where it reacts with the basaltic rock formations and mineralizes: the CO2 literally turns into stone and is permanently removed.

BOOK REVIEW: Pandora’s Toolbox: The Hopes and Hazards of Climate Intervention, by Wake Smith, Cambridge University Press

Pandora’s Toolbox provides a highly readable description of climate change and of the many and varied ideas for geo-engineering and carbon capture. 

The window of opportunity has now closed on keeping the average world temperature rise since the industrial revolution began to below 1.5 degrees Celsius. Climate scientists around the world are deeply pessimistic about the future.

Wake Smith is a lecturer in climate change at Yale University. In his book, he describes the necessary changes and technologies we will have to use to combat climate change, in particular drawing down carbon from the atmosphere to reduce the likelihood of its worst effects.

Most people think that if we achieve net zero emissions then we are sorted, but that it is not the case. The greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere will keep temperatures high and sea levels rising for centuries to come, unless we do something to take those gases out of the atmosphere.

The thing is none of the technologies that can do this at present are proven or at a scale sufficient to meet the problem, he says. What’s more, unlike with renewable energy, there’s no clear financial incentive to develop them and install them at scale.

If we want to keep society more or less the way it is, governments are going to have to dig deep into their pockets because nobody else is going to have a reason to develop the technologies of carbon capture to a sufficient scale to make a meaningful difference.

Smith argues that our descendants will demand climate intervention – some form of atmospheric carbon dioxide removal. 

But what will it be? Climeworks’ plant in Iceland that mineralises carbon dioxide is just a drop in the ocean, and is really expensive. There’s no clear benefit for anyone to scale it up and roll it out to the degree that it will make the difference it needs to make. He says it is hard to prove that natural climate solutions, such as planting trees, really do the job that it’s claimed they do in permanently absorbing and storing carbon.

Smith says that we need to understand that the engineering, planning, zoning and approval process for all new developments need to recognise that the world will be very different in 2100. He says we need to support small farmers, who farm the majority of agricultural land in the world, and we need to develop new drought-resistant varieties of maize, wheat and rice or millions will simply starve.

We must get to net zero emissions, he says. There is simply no alternative. We can’t keep stripping the planet indefinitely. The question is therefore how do we deal with fossil fuel companies who keep reinventing themselves and persuading us that we need their products? How will we make the energy transition as rapid as possible?

The clear conclusion, he says, is that we need to use as many tools in the toolbox as possible, from reducing food waste to stopping fugitive emissions from pipelines and landfill sites. 

Smith believes it is likely that there will be some degree of personal sacrifice, especially for the energy-profligate proportion of the population.

We need to find another way of cooling buildings besides airconditioning. “All the ways in which we use energy that would be resented by our great-grandchildren will need to be rethought and in most cases reduced”, he says.

He concludes, “I wish we were on a path that will not require climate engineering, but that’s not the case”. 

He would also like to say “that the pandemic has demonstrated that humanity can do great things when the need arises, but this seems only half true”.

What we have learnt is that “we are much more vulnerable to worldwide disruptions than we thought, and that we lack the sort of capable, empowered institutions that are required to respond effectively to global scale crises. Moreover, being prepared is essential”.

Myriad natural systems are at breaking point, but these are precisely the systems that we rely upon and will save us.

While in public, politicians try to pretend that we can preserve the status quo. But I often wonder what they think in private when they read the reports prepared for them on future security. At the very least, they need to read this book, or something like it. Some level of political courage is required.

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  1. … He says it is hard to prove that natural climate solutions, such as planting trees, really do the job that it’s claimed they do in permanently absorbing and storing carbon……But it is easy to prove that cutting down trees is bad for the environment in many ways including emissions but we still do it at the rate of knots.