|C. Coimbra photo|
Editor's Note: This is the first in an excerpted series of a Yale Environment 360 interview by Richard Schiffman with Tim Flannery, an Australian scientist and author. He discusses how “third way technologies,” that mimic the earth’s natural carbon-removing processes could provide a critical tool for slowing climate change.
Yale Environment 360: In your earlier book, The Weather Makers, you forecasted a bleak future if we don’t change course. Yet you seem guardedly optimistic in your latest book.
Tim Flannery: I’m definitely more hopeful and that’s only happened in the last two years … One of the most heartening has been the change in public knowledge of climate change and attitudes toward it. When I wrote about climate change ten years ago I had to use a slide presentation with graphs showing the increase of C02 concentrations and increasing temperatures and all the rest. That is because back then the major impacts of climate change had not really hit yet. Whereas when I go around the world and speak now, everyone has a story about how climate change is impacting their lives. There is still a small band of deniers. But they are definitely in the minority now. Climate change is a lived experience of most people.
e360: You cite in the new book a report by the International Energy Agency saying that global carbon emissions had stopped rising between 2013 and 2014. What is the significance of this?
Flannery: That is the second bit of good news, the first being the increasing awareness of the issue. If the IEA data is correct, it’s a landmark achievement, to see global emissions from energy sources stall, and also to see the decoupling of fossil fuel emissions from economic growth. The global economy grew, but the emissions from energy sources — everything from transport to electricity production — stalled at 32.7 billion tons of emissions. That is really unexpected. Nobody thought that we would see that as early as we have.
e360: What factors have caused this leveling of emissions?
Flannery: There are two big factors. One is the incredible success of wind and solar in terms of penetration into the market. And the second has been the billions and billions of small actions that people like you and I have been doing, changing our light bulbs, making our housing more energy-efficient, cycling to work. These sorts of things have cumulatively been having a huge impact. I was skeptical whether these actions would all add up to anything. Well, they have now added up to something really huge.
e360: Why has it become necessary to develop these radical new approaches?
Flannery: We’re in a really difficult position right now. Even if we stop all fossil fuel use today, the planet is going to warm by one-and-a-half degrees within decades. The reality is we are seeing significant damage at one degree, which is near where we are now. We’re committed [by inertia in the system] to 1.5 degrees. A 1.5 degree rise is already looking like it is going to be too much. Sea level rise is going to be tremendously destructive. So the argument is that we need to do two things at once. We need to reduce emissions as fast as we can, and the second is to start investing now in these new technologies, in research and development.
e360: In your book, you talk about what you call “third way technologies.” What are these, and how do they differ from geoengineering?
Flannery: Some of them have been considered in the past as forms of geoengineering. But we need to be very careful about our language in this. I had to invent that term— third way technologies— to describe a basket of approaches that work in synergy with the planet to help reinforce the way the Earth system stabilizes itself. And they do that by drawing carbon dioxide directly out of the atmosphere and then putting it into something useful or storing it somewhere safely. So it is very much a functional distinction between geoengineering’s Band-Aid solutions and the third way technologies, which strengthen Earth’s own self-regulatory system by drawing C02 out of the atmosphere in ways the planet naturally does already, or in ways that simulate that.