What are the solutions?
The only way to reverse some of these catastrophic patterns, and to regain some stability in our climate and weather systems, is “climate repair” – a strategy we call “reduce, remove, repair” – which demands that we make very rapid reductions to achieve net-zero global emissions; that there is massive, active removal of excess greenhouse gases from the atmosphere; and that we undertake to repair some of our most damaged climate systems.
We must quickly refreeze the Earth’s poles and glaciers to correct these wild weather patterns, slow down ice-melt, stabilise sea level, and break the feedback loops that relentlessly accelerate global warming. This will “buy us time” while we bring atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations down to safer levels.
This strategy for creating a manageable future for humanity, while clear, is by no means straightforward.
Emissions reduction at the scale and pace required is fraught with challenge. The biggest industry in the world is the energy industry – very largely fossil-fuel driven since the Industrial Revolution – with a massive transition required. Nonetheless, this represents considerable economic potential for those companies that recognise the financial opportunity in developing and taking new post-fossil-fuel technologies to market.
Financial incentives are required to fast track the transition. Mission Innovation – a group of 22 countries and the European Union, representing 90% of global GDP, formed at the 2015 Paris Climate Conference – represents one model for creating the necessary ecosystem. This group made a voluntary commitment to spend $30 billion per annum of public money by 2020 on the development of post-fossil-fuel technologies, in order to de-risk their development and enable them to get into the marketplace more efficiently and more quickly. They have now agreed to raise this to $35 billion per annum by 2025.
We urgently need more private sector understanding of these opportunities. Investment that is fit for purpose in the 21st century is the only investment that should be countenanced. This means focusing on those companies taking us safely into this future, and not on those that are creating the stranded assets of the future.
Greenhouse gas removal at scale requires considerably more research funding to enable the development of the safe technologies that are needed to remove tens of billions of tons of excess greenhouse gases from the atmosphere per annum. A carefully valued carbon price is required to incentivise the development of a greenhouse gas removal industry. A combination of different solutions – from nature-based through to bio-mimicry – will be needed to meet the removal requirements already baked into countries’ net-zero commitments.
Climate repair requires significantly more research and investment. “Repairing” systematically seeks to draw the Earth back from climate tipping points, buying time during which reduction and removal can happen. Political, financial, and societal will is needed, with the right incentives in place to enable rapid research and deployment.
The most urgent effort is to refreeze the Arctic. Marine cloud brightening, in which floating solar-powered pumps spray salt upwards to brighten clouds and create a reflective barrier between the Sun and the ocean, is known to cool ocean surfaces and is a promising way to promote Arctic summer cooling. It mimics nature, and can be scaled up or down in a flexible way. Studies of marine cloud brightening, its climate impacts, and interactions with human systems, are underway.
Research is critical, to ensure the solutions in question do not bring with them unintended consequences, which could be unleashed if these techniques were deployed in an emergency. Public engagement is needed, to understand which solutions are publicly acceptable, and which are not.