Porfessor Jim Hansen NETS

Longstanding climate change siren, Professor James Hansen talks to Nick Breeze about negative emissions technologies NET's, accelerating emissions, the need for international and intergenerational cooperations. Is he optimistic?

Nick Breeze (NB): Negative emissions technologies: views and thoughts?

James Hansen (JH): I think negative emissions [technologies] will be necessary to get back to safe levels of CO2 but we shouldn’t count on them for being a cure-all. I can see that some things are certainly possible and more or less natural, like improving agricultural and forestry practices. We can even speed up the weathering process if we use the rock dust and some of the agricultural and forestry areas.

We can get some of the CO2 drawn down and put it on the ocean floor as limestone but compared to what we keep putting up there... if we don’t stop emissions, or slow them down quickly, the task will be too big for negative emissions.

NB: It is a given that emissions have to come down. That is not really a discussion?

JH: Yes, absolutely, and there is no reason why they wouldn’t if they would simply make the price of fossil fuels honest.

NB: Of course, we still have an atmospheric burden of CO2 even if we start to reduce. With the weathering [NET’s], do you know of any studies that are going on into this at the moment in the world?

JH: There are studies at medium scales. David Beerling in the UK, has a group that has some test sites where the farms are applying rock dust and they are doing some experiments to see what the effects are. But the scale is still pretty small.

NB: Ocean sinks are under strain; are they too degraded?

JH: The ocean is still a sink today, even though we are filling up that sink to a degree. Still, the CO2 emissions from fossil fuel burning, only 55% is being taken up by the ocean, by the biosphere, by the soil. Those natural sinks are working. If we would reduce our emissions below that by 55% or more we would stabilise emissions. We would still have to go further to draw down the CO2.

NB: These are the Representative Concentration Pathways (RCP’s) that have NET’s in the more ambitious scenarios, don’t they?

JH: Well the scenarios so far… the real world has been outdoing the scenarios. We keep increasing [emissions] faster and faster, rather than beginning to reduce the emissions. That is simply because much of the world is still developing. The undeveloped world has every right to raise their standards of living and they are doing in the way that we in the west did, by burning fossil fuels.

We really have an obligation to work with these developing countries to find the energy that they need without the CO2 emissions and that is possible but we are not doing it.

NB: Is this the equity side where we need to address our own behaviour in the wealthy west but we are not doing it?

JH: Well, India and China would like to have the best technologies in particular for nuclear power. They don’t want the 50-year technology that we are using in our power plants in the United States.

It is because we now know how to burn nuclear fuel in ways that are much safer. You cannot have the same kind of accidents that you had at Fukushima. So we should be working together with them but we are not doing that.

We are even prohibiting the export of technologies but we are not doing that and that is crazy. We are all in the same boat - we are all going to experience the same fate so we better start working together.

NB: There seems to be a big intergenerational divide where young people don’t seem to recognise borders and older people are erecting them everywhere.

JH: Yes, that is my hope… the young people have different attitudes that the older generation but right now the politics are still driven but the older generation, the baby bookers. The younger people are starting to say, ‘Okay boomer!’ and I think that is a good sign. I think we still start moving soon because of the pressure from the young people.

NB: Are you confident that our response, when the younger generation comes on board, will be exponential enough to solve this problem?

JH: Well, it needs to start soon because the more we put there the harder the solution becomes. I am hoping that in the next year or two we will see a real change. We need to see a change in the United States, that is for sure.