Climate 21

Climate Interventions - What Are They And Can They Help - A Chat With Prof Wake Smith

March 02, 2022 Tom Raftery / Prof Wake Smith Season 1 Episode 62
Climate 21
Climate Interventions - What Are They And Can They Help - A Chat With Prof Wake Smith
Show Notes Transcript

Have you come across the term Climate Interventions before? If not, possibly you've heard of Geoengineering.

Prof Wake Smith lectures in Yale about Climate Interventions, and is about to publish a book called  Pandora's Toolbox, The Hopes And Hazards Of Climate Interventions. So obviously, I invited him to come on the podcast to enlighten us on the topic.

We had a fascinating conversation covering the limitations of our Net Zero goals, why we might need Climate Interventions, and what Climate Interventions we could use.

This was an excellent episode of the podcast and I learned loads as always, and I hope you do too.

If you have any comments/suggestions or questions for the podcast - feel free to leave me a voice message over on my SpeakPipe page, head on over to the Climate 21 Podcast Forum, or just send it to me as a direct message on Twitter/LinkedIn. Audio messages will get played (unless you specifically ask me not to).

And if you want to know more about any of SAP's Sustainability solutions, head on over to www.sap.com/sustainability, and if you liked this show, please don't forget to rate and/or review it. It makes a big difference to help new people discover the show. Thanks.

And remember, stay healthy, stay safe, stay sane!

Music credit - Intro and Outro music for this podcast was composed, played, and produced by my daughter Luna Juniper

Prof Wake Smith:

This is the idea of flying airplanes up to the lower stratosphere and blowing out of the back of them. Reflective aerosol particles that would stay aloft for 12 to 18 months and reduce the incoming sunlight by one or 2%.

Tom Raftery:

Good morning, good afternoon or good evening wherever you are in the world. This is the climate 21 podcast, the number one podcast showcasing best practices in climate emissions reductions. And I'm your host, global vice president for SAP. Tom Raftery. Climate 21 is the name of an initiative by SAP to allow our customers calculate, report and reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. In this climate 21 podcast, I will showcase best practices and thought leadership by SAP, by our customers by our partners on by our competitors if their game in climate emissions reductions. Don't forget to subscribe to this podcast in your podcast app of choice to be sure you don't miss any episodes. Hi, everyone. Welcome to the Climate 21 podcast. My name is Tom Raftery with SAP and with me on the show today I have my special guest Wake. Wake, would you like to introduce yourself?

Prof Wake Smith:

Sure, I am a lecturer at Yale University and a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School in both contexts, I'm a researcher and professor and author on the topic of climate interventions. I've also just turned my course syllabus into a book which will be published in late March, the title of which is Pandora's toolbox, the hopes and hazards of climate interventions, right. So climate interventions is is is my life these days? Wow.

Tom Raftery:

Wow. And obviously, you're hoping to get rich off the back of that book?

Prof Wake Smith:

Actually, not I have written in the epilogue that any revenue I derived from the publication of the book will be donated to climate intervention research. Now, I'm not sure that's a big sacrifice. anybody's gonna buy the book, but, but no, I've decided to make this a not profit making endeavor in order to try to establish some bona fide ease that I really have a message you're trying to spread and and it isn't my intention to profit while doing so.

Tom Raftery:

Okay, very good. So, before we get into the message, just briefly, why? Why did you get into climate in the first place something that's not something that people were looking into deeply? I suspect or not many people were looking at the DPS aspect 20 3040 years ago,

Prof Wake Smith:

you were entirely right. And the subject was new to me not too long ago, not climate generally, but climate interventions. Specifically, I had a long career in the commercial aviation and aviation finance fields. So I have run a global cargo airline, I was the president of a division of Boeing. I was a bankruptcy and restructuring consultant in that field, and ended up in the private equity industry as it pertained to commercial aviation. But I became aware of some years ago, that, again, the climate problem ain't getting any better. And my industry, the commercial aviation industry was one among many industries contributing to the problem. But I became aware that there was also a way in which the commercial aviation industry could contribute to a solution. And it was via that path that I first came into the field of climate interventions, looking at it initially from an aeronautical and financial perspective. But one thing leads to another. And so I now teach a course and right have written a book that is a comprehensive look at all of the potential tools in the climate intervention

Tom Raftery:

toolbox. And what are climate interventions.

Prof Wake Smith:

They're all the stuff we need to do to solve the climate problem other than the stuff everybody knows about. That that ladder stuff being reducing emissions, or adaptation, but reducing emissions or mitigation, and adaptation are the two tools that the world is broadly aware, need to be pursued. I'm afraid those tools will not prove to be sufficient in and of themselves, to secure a climate future that future generations will find acceptable. And so again, climate interventions or geoengineering refers to all the other stuff that we might additionally need to do to secure an acceptable climate future.

Tom Raftery:

And why do you think that is? Why do you think that, you know, just getting to, for example, Net Zero, isn't enough.

Prof Wake Smith:

So let me first say, I'm thrilled that the world is focused on net zero, that is the first climate framing that the general public seems broadly to understand and accept. And so it's a great thing that countries and companies and even some people, buildings, all sorts of segments of society are now aspiring to net zero and setting ambitious net zero goals. The problems are at least twofold. One of them, we won't achieve those goals, or at least we will not achieve them on the timeframe that is currently considered. And if that first statement is true, then achieving net zero will not be enough. Back to the first half of that, though, 2050 is the most commonly referred to date by which countries or companies or other entities aspire to get to net zero, I just think that's very unlikely. For most actors, it's entirely impossible for the world as a whole. And so even if somebody gets to net zero by 2050, if the whole world hasn't gotten to net zero by 2050, we're still making the climate problem worse, right. And then essential thing to grasp about the climate problem is best illustrated with the bathtub analogy. So if we think of a bathtub, we've got to speak it with water flowing in, in the case of the bathtub. In the climate arena, that speak it is our ongoing flow of emissions into the atmosphere. Right to our bathtub, we've also got a tub that's holding water, and we've got a drain by which water leaves the system. What informs the climate, what makes the climate whatever it is, is not the flow of water coming out of the spigot, it's the level of water in the bathtub. Sure. And so as we continue to run the spigot, we fill fill, fill, fill the bathtub, and whenever and PS, if the world does an extraordinary thing, and cuts the flow out of the spigot in half, the water level of the bathtub is still rising, that didn't get us where we need to go, we need to get the emissions all the way to zero. It's not like air pollution, where there's some acceptable level we should probably live with. In the case of climate, we need to get emissions all the way to zero. And only then does the water in the bathtub stop rising. But the real problem here is that the drain in the climate bathtub is essentially clogged. There is a natural process by which Mother Nature removes carbon from the climate system. But that process takes centuries. On a human timescale, it's essentially the drain is clogged. So at whatever water level, the bathtub is when we finally turn the spigot off, that's the water level or the the temperature level at which the world will have to live for centuries. And if it's too hot, if it took us too long, to turn the spigot off, and the water level is too high, ie the climate is too hot, then the generations that live after net zero will have an enormous problem, which is how to survive and thrive in a world which by then we'll have perhaps 10 billion people in it as a post to the seven and a half billion we've got today. And how are all those people going to thrive on a two planet. That's the the context in which I'm afraid that we are not likely to hit Net Zero quickly enough to preserve the climate we want to live in.

Tom Raftery:

Okay, but there's a difference between not hitting net zero in time and hitting that zero and it's still not being enough. So those are those are two different kind of concepts. Both of which I think you've said are your propositions. So A, you don't think we'll get to net zero in time and B, even if we do get to net zero. It's not enough anyway. We need to do more is that is that essentially a summary of what you're saying?

Prof Wake Smith:

Essentially, although I would have the nuance a little bit differently, if if despite everything I'm saying, we do get to net zero by 2050, no problem, we're good. We'll have little climate annoyances, stronger hurricanes, more heat waves, but the climate will be close enough to the climate, then would be close enough to the climate now that the world would be fine. And we would, the climate problem would be resolved. The problem is if we don't get to climate to net zero by 2050, and we fill the bathtub much higher than is now hoped for. To put it in more concrete temperature terms. If by the time we get to net zero, we're three degrees above the baseline climate rather than one and a half degrees as people hope today, three degrees will be an unacceptable world to lots and lots of people. Quick net zero, no problem slow net zero, and therefore higher temperature when we get zero, big problem. And in the in the world in which we have that ladder, big problem, that's when net zero will prove not to have been a sufficient solution to the climate problem.

Tom Raftery:

Okay. So you think our chances of getting to net zero by 2050, or slim,

Prof Wake Smith:

almost non existent, a miracle would have to happen. But but but I don't mean a religious miracle. If if nuclear fusion, which we had some good news on in Europe just a couple of weeks ago, turns out to obtain we containment, we can control it, that would solve so, so much that would nearly do it on its own. So miracles such as that are possible, right. But in the absence of a stunning miracle, technologically, I think our chances of getting the whole world getting not Europe getting not France getting not Yale University getting to net zero, but the whole world getting to net zero by 2050. I think the chances of that are are vanishingly small. Among the

Tom Raftery:

resigned, China has already said that their goal for net zero was 2060. So right there, we're not going to hit net zero by 2050.

Prof Wake Smith:

Right there, and lots of other countries don't have a net zero goal in the first place. We're not in a world where everybody is pulling in the same direction. In fact, we're in a world where lots of forces are still pulling in the opposite direction. And one way in which that's true, is simply population. Again, if population goes from seven and a half billion to 10, or 11 billion by the end of this century, that will mean a quarter to a third more emissions, all other things being equal, as well, the global south I'll call it wants to join the global north, in living the energy rich lifestyle that we in the Global North enjoy. So those people aren't seeking to use less energy, they seek to use more energy. So as population grows, and the global south gets richer, though, those those forces will lead to more emissions rather than less. So emissions, cutting emissions is really a tug of war between opposing forces. And right now, the forces that increasing missions are still winning the tug of war, which is why COVID aside, our emissions are still growing, they're not yet shrinking.

Tom Raftery:

Yeah, yeah. I mean, we have a goal in Europe of reducing our emissions 55% by 2030. And that's, that's actually a legally legally binding mandate on all 27 nations of the EU. And that's going to be massively difficult, because, I mean, just in terms of context, we managed to reduce our emissions 7% in 2020, but they went back up 5% in 21. So between 21 and 20, we've had a net reduction of 2%. Now it's against our 9090 baseline of which we've already reduced 24% but that still leaves 31% to get out of the system in the next seven years and 10 months or so. Which is you know, Words fail me in terms of how challenging that's going to be and I don't think most people have comprehended the level of success. make change that this will require.

Prof Wake Smith:

I agree with all of that. And of course, the 7% reduction in 2020 was due to COVID. So it was really the fact that that a pandemic wreck to the economy that caused emissions to decline is not virtuous action triggers smart policy on the part of countries. I'm, firstly, thank you, Europe, for being the moral leader of the world on this issue. The Europeans are, have set extraordinarily high ambition ambitions, and the rest of the world should take note of that, and thank them for that. Unfortunately, I would bet that we will not that Europe will not meet that goal. Afraid that one thing that people have not yet internalized is that solving the climate problem quickly, will require that we all be a bit poorer, and no one is voting to be poorer. So the Europeans have voted in this climate legislation, without really understanding or leveling with each other, that this will reduce economic growth and reduce wealth. And as soon as voters realize that's what they've signed up for, I'm afraid there will be a sort of brown populism that breaks out where people suddenly say, wait a minute, we don't want to go along with higher energy prices. Nobody ever told us that was the consequence of these goals. And so I'm not even sure that lead in this decade, that law will still be a law, I worry that when the people finally understand what they've signed up for, they may decide they want less of that.

Tom Raftery:

I would challenge that, just because I don't think a shift to renewables necessarily means higher energy prices, I think the opposite is true. Because the cost of renewables keeps falling, it's no cheaper to build net new renewables than it is to run existing fossil fuel plants. So I think, and in fact, we're seeing it with the price of gas and Europe today, the price of gas has just gone up ridiculously high, whereas the the cost of fossil fuels keeps falling. So I think, yes, we do need to invest significant amounts of money to transition. But I do think as well, the the, the cost of that isn't a sunk cost. Because, you know, once you build a fossil fuel plant, you have to keep fueling it. So that money that you keep having to put into it, once you build a renewable plant, essentially, the costs go away, or at least they stay static, that they're not variable, they don't keep going up. The cost of running are the costs of maintenance and staff, it's not the cost of fuelling on top of that again. So the costs of another say the cost of building it up in the first place, they keep falling as the cost of wind has fallen 50% in 10 years, and the cost of solar has dropped like 90% in the same time. And you know, cost of storage is similarly falling. So, yeah, I would challenge the fact that it will raise energy bills and it'll make people poorer.

Prof Wake Smith:

And I would challenge back again, firstly, gas is a fossil fuels. So if gas prices go up, that's that's problematical. But if the market were capable of funding this transition on its own, we wouldn't need legislation. The fact is that, in limited instances, renewable fuels are now cheaper than fossil fuels. But the reason the market keeps importing and burning fossil fuels is that in a variety of other instances, they are they are the cheaper alternatives. And is well, it's not merely the cost of the fuel or the power generation that comprises the full economic picture. There is the distribution and storage requirements. And renewable fuels require far more distribution, infrastructure and far more storage infrastructure than do fossil fuels. After all, the wind doesn't blow all the time and the sun reliably doesn't shine for half the day. And so, transitioning to a fully renewable, the initial penetration of renewables is inexpensive. Getting the last bit of fossil fuels out of the system will prove very expensive and And yet we can't wait around for the tape for the technology to make these things cheaper. The European law says we've got to get to negative 55% of emissions by 2030, whether it's inexpensive or not. So So I suppose I can hope that you're right, that it'll prove to be super cheap. But that ain't the way I would bet.

Tom Raftery:

Alright. Okay. And so let's say we get to net zero by 2060, or 2070, or something like that. What kind of climate issues are we likely to see, because we've blown through our 2050 goal?

Prof Wake Smith:

Well, firstly, my prayer is that we get to net zero by 2100. But I'm not certain the fat ether, right? I don't think we're going to miss by a little we're likely to miss by a lot. And the the first chapter of the AR six report that the IPCC is now in the process of issuing the first chapter, or the working group one, issued in September illustrated five climate outcomes, the middle of the road climate outcome was 2.7 degrees higher by 2090. That was their middle of the road, they had two that were lower, and two that were higher. But I think that's the kind of range of climate outcome that's much more realistic. Your question was, what the consequences of such a temperature anomaly would be. Firstly, it's all the Horsemen of the climate pocalypse that we've already heard about. So it's droughts and floods and weird weather and stronger storms, and wildfires and so on. But more problematical than those will be. High wet bulb temperature heat spikes were the combination of high temperature and high humidity gets to an environment that mammals can't survive in. And if you get too many of those heat spikes in areas that are impoverished you in Seville can go inside and flip on the air conditioner. A pastoralists in nice air cannot. And so some of his family and half of his goats may die in that wet bulb spike. And if you have large and moreover, droughts may become strong enough and persistent enough that lots of places that support agriculture today can no longer support agriculture in that warmer climate. So we have the possibility that lots of the world that is now habitable becomes essentially uninhabitable or at least becomes places where livestock and crops can't thrive. And that then brings on the prospect of massive, unwanted deaths on the one hand, and massive climate migration on the other. Once again, in a world now with a third more people than we have today. There can be big problems that derive from this. And if you have a country, again, that the countries of the cell and in Africa, if a lot of those countries can no longer support their populations. Not only do those people want to come to Europe, but those states are at risk of becoming failed states. You know, bad stuff could happen.

Tom Raftery:

Yeah, yeah. So what kind of climate interventions should we be thinking about? And when should we start deploying them?

Prof Wake Smith:

Taking them in that order, in the climate interventions toolbox or what in the title of my book, I've phrased Andorra's toolbox, and PS, the use of the Pandora myth and metaphor is intended to warn in the very first word that this isn't a bowl of cherries there, there. There's risk in all of this. But the tools in the toolbox broadly, can be segregated into two segments. One of them involves capturing carbon from the atmosphere and therefore the climate system and sequestering it back in the Earth's crust, carbon dioxide removal and sequestration. And the other involves managing sunlight reducing a little bit the amount of sunlight that stays in the climate system, and thereby cooling the earth in that way. And so those two things are very Different things. Carbon dioxide removal is penicillin, it would solve the climate problem. Back to my bathtub analogy. Carbon dioxide removal widens, the drain gets the drain unclogged, and gets the climate system to be begin to vent or eliminate carbon that we have put there. So that would be a great thing. The end, we cannot. There's no acceptable climate future without loads of carbon dioxide removal. Even getting to net zero quickly will require loads of carbon dioxide removal, because there are all sorts of industrial activities, including my former field of aviation, that are just very difficult to decarbonize. So the path to net zero whenever we achieve it will be comprised of say, 75% emissions reduction, and 25% negative emissions to offset the ongoing positive emissions that we can't get rid of by that time. So there's no acceptable climate future that doesn't have loads of carbon dioxide removal. But PS this eight trees trees are a mostly climate repair fix fiction. They're mostly greenwashing, what we're talking about here are huge industrial enterprises that are going to suck carbon out of the air and pump it back in underground, where we got it from when we drilled for oil in the first place. So all of that is a must have, but it'll be super expensive. So we're exporting to the future and obligation to pay for a big waste remediation operation that the future will be unhappy having to pay for, but likely will elect to pay for nonetheless, we should get going on carbon capture immediately. And the bit that we should commence immediately is firstly harvesting co2 from smokestacks. Before we start sucking it out of direct air, we should be sucking it out of smokestacks before it reaches the direct air. And we should be scaling that technology as quickly as we possibly can. The other side of the our climate interventions toolbox is solar radiation management, having a little less sunlight stay in the climate system, by reflecting it somewhere by reflecting it on the ground by reflecting it in the air via clouds, or reflecting it yet higher in the atmosphere via aerosols. But the solar radiation management would slightly cool the Earth relative to the non engineered state. And if we can't get our, if we don't get to net zero as quickly as we need to. And we can't remediate the carbon in the atmosphere as quickly as we need to we carbon capture after all may take a century or two, then we may need to cool the Earth artificially by blocking a little bit of the incoming sunlight.

Tom Raftery:

Okay, so I guess two questions come out of the the blocking solar light coming in? A? How do we do that? If that's at the scale of needed? And B, if we managed to do that? What kind of impact will that have on things like plant life and our food production?

Prof Wake Smith:

The first part is easy. The second part is hard. Yes, we can do that. The most straightforward way to do this, which is straightforward, but choosing amongst bad options is referred to as Stratospheric Aerosol injection, or solar geoengineering. But by whatever term, this is the idea of flying airplanes up to the lower stratosphere, and blowing out of the back of them, reflective aerosol particles that would stay aloft for 12 to 18 months and reduce the incoming sunlight by one or 2%. So it's not a huge change. The Earth already reflects out about 30% of the sunlight that comes in because it bounces off of clouds or ice or white roofs or whatever it may be. And so we would seek to increase the albedo of the earth the reflectiveness of it from 30% to 31, or 32%. That's the you know, the magnitude of what we would be talking about, that likely would have a little effect, but likely not much effect on plant life and so on. It is a unlike carbon dioxide removal, it's a technique that could cool the Earth very rapidly. We don't have to wait centuries. In this case, we could do it in a couple of years, once we got started. It's extraordinarily cheap relative to everything else in the climate, solution, toolbox, all of all of the rest of which are super expensive. However, there are problems were in Pandora's toolbox again. And the first problem is we don't know what other stuff it might do that we didn't intend that it will do. So it might increase the intensity of the Indian monsoon too much, or it might decrease it or it might affect ecosystems in ways we don't intend or do other things in the atmosphere that we didn't predict. All of those physical impacts are mostly on explored because the world has put very little research into this. So it's it's clear, logistically that we could do it, it's clear financially that we could afford it. But whether the cure will be worse than the than the disease, that's entirely an open question. So it may prove that this turns out to be a bad idea, that's quite possible. The other major issue there is how to govern such a thing would just it's hard to imagine how the whole world how we're all gonna get together and hold hands and govern this global intervention, and figure out how much to turn the temperature dial and how to modulate it regionally, and how to compensate anyone whose climate is worsened by it. The governance structure for such a climate intervention, again, is impossible to imagine. But so too, by the way, the the governance of carbon dioxide removal and the governance of mitigation itself are also proving beyond our grasp. But the Paris Agreement is a noble aspiration, but it ain't working, yet the emissions are still going up. So solar radiation management is not unique in the climate sphere in being very presenting very difficult governance problems, but we can't have it unless we find ways to solve those problems.

Tom Raftery:

Right. I often ask people who come on this podcast, as we start to wind down, are they optimistic, but I'm not hearing a lot of optimism, your tone weak?

Prof Wake Smith:

Well, sort of, I'm a happy guy, I wake up every morning sun comes up, life's good. There are forward steps that we can take on climate in a variety of regards. And as long as there there are forward steps to take them there is cause for hope. But we are digging a deeper hole for ourselves with climate than the world realizes by and large. What I'm saying is not new to science. But it is news to the general public that getting to net zero won't solve the whole problem. But that's just what the science tells us. It's where we're at. It has proven to be a consequence of the miraculous economic development that much of the world has undertaken in the last couple of years. It's proven that that there is a climate consequence to that economic development. And one way or another. We're going to have to contend with that.

Tom Raftery:

Right. Okay. Wake, we're coming to the end of the podcast. No, is there any question I haven't asked that you wish I had or any aspect of this that we haven't touched on that you think it's important for people to be aware of? Sure.

Prof Wake Smith:

I guess the one thing that I would want to ensure is that people don't perceive that climate interventions of either sort are a substitution for mitigation. We still need to reduce and ultimately eliminate our emissions as quickly as possible. There's only one door and we got to go through that door. And none of this changes that. So it isn't a substitute for emissions reductions. It's Mostly these tools are mostly ways with which the world might be able to contend with the consequences of what we're doing to the climate. Now, after we get to net zero,

Tom Raftery:

okay, okay, very good. Work if people want to know more about yourself, wake Smith's, or about the book you writing. Are any of the topics we discussed in the podcast today? Where would you help me direct them?

Prof Wake Smith:

Wake Smith dot earth is my website from which you can both learn more about me and order my book. I hope people read my book. But I don't particularly care if people buy my book. So if you can steal my book, the money, just read it. There's stuff in there you really need to understand. And I hope that this podcast will help me reach a few people.

Tom Raftery:

fantastic week. That's been really interesting. Thanks so much for coming on the podcast today.

Prof Wake Smith:

Thank you for having me down.

Tom Raftery:

Okay, we've come to the end of the show. Thanks, everyone for listening. If you'd like to know more about climate 21 Feel free to drop me an email to Tom raftery@sap.com or connect with me on LinkedIn or Twitter. If you'd like the show, please don't forget to subscribe to it and your podcast application of choice to get new episodes as soon as they're published. Also, please don't forget to rate and review the podcast it really does help new people to find the show. Thanks. Catch you all next time.