Averting the Disaster: With Kyoto Virtually Dead and Buried, a New Coalition of Governments Has Recently Begun to Focus on Technological Solutions. but Will They Be Enough?

Geographical, December 2005 | Go to article overview

Averting the Disaster: With Kyoto Virtually Dead and Buried, a New Coalition of Governments Has Recently Begun to Focus on Technological Solutions. but Will They Be Enough?


The Kyoto Protocol, which commits signatories to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to five per cent below 1990 levels by 2012 is currently the only significant international attempt to combat global warming. However, climatologists have estimated that stabilising global temperatures will require emissions cuts equivalent to 30 Kyotos.

US president George W Bush has chosen not to sign the Kyoto Protocol, saying that it would wreck the US economy. In the summer, the USA joined Japan, Australia, China, India and South Korea in an agreement that will focus on technological solutions, rather than on attempts to reduce emissions. Together, these nations are responsible for producing a large proportion of the greenhouse gases entering our atmosphere. The USA, for example, pumped out 5.8 billion tonnes of C[O.sub.2] in 2003--around one quarter of global emissions.

So what are these putative technological solutions? President Bush is particularly keen on biofuels. Soya beans can be used to produce hydrocarbons for use as a fuel for transport. Although this fuel would still produce C[O.sub.2], it's seen as being 'emissions neutral' because the plant consumed C[O.sub.2] to produce the beans. However, critics point out that a car consumes between ten and 30 times as much carbon as its driver, so supplying even a small proportion of the world's transport fleet with biofuels would require an enormous area of farmland.

Hydrogen has also been touted as a possible alternative fuel. It's highly attractive, as vehicles running on hydrogen produce only water vapour, but its energy-to-volume ratio is poor and it's difficult to store. Most of the current methods for the production of hydrogen also lead to the release of greenhouse gases.

There are other, more promising options. In Norway, for example, experiments are underway to capture C[O.sub.2] and store it underground. This so-called geosequestration has already been used to store one million tonnes a year since 1996, with no leakage yet detected.

It's hoped that a similar scheme will be up and running in the UK within a decade. The government has allocated 40million [pounds sterling] towards trapping C[O.sub.2] generated from power stations and compressing the gas into liquid for pumping into near-depleted oil and gas wells in the North Sea. Sir David King has said that geosequestration could cut UK emissions by 25 per cent.

Although sequestration methods are extremely expensive and currently only at the test stage, King believes that increased oil revenues would offset costs, as the fields become economical again.

Environmentalists would prefer a future powered by renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, biomass and geothermal. But with renewables currently meeting less than three per cent of our energy needs, that future is a long way off. In light of this fact, many environmentalists are placing their support behind nuclear energy, despite safety and waste-disposal concerns.

In their eyes, doing something is better than not doing anything at all. Six partners--the EU, the USA, China, Japan, Russia and South Korea--agreed in June to build a nuclear facility in Cadarache in France. …

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