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Realistic Alternative Technologies and Climate Change

Barbara Harriss-White (barbara.harriss-white@area.ox.ac.uk) is an emeritus fellow at Wolfson College, Oxford University.

Dawn of the Solar Age: An End to Global Warming and to Fear  by Prem Shankar Jha, Sage India, Delhi, 2018; pp 308, ₹495. 

 

While most of the world acts as though it denies climate change and while climate change is assaulting the planet with ever-more-frequent extreme weather events, Prem Shankar Jha argues that it can be stopped in an 80-year time span provided that action is taken now. A small number of long-known technologies (under rapid refinement around the world either in prototypes or developed to scale in local applications) can replace fossil electricity and transport fuel without massive disturbance to existing physical infrastructure, lifestyles and structures of consumption.

Invoking Occam’s razor, two massive policy instruments would incentivise this assault: a global carbon tax and a global commitment to long-term stabilisation of prices for energy and transport fuel. The narrow time horizon required could be met: four decades would be needed to reduce carbon emissions to zero and another four to suck 800 gigatonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere. Collateral benefits would range from improved health, through a massive boost to employment of all kinds, a check to deforestation and savings in foreign exchange, to an ending of resource wars.

In the book’s first and second parts, after an exploration ranging through glaciology and geological history to the sciences of tipping points and of melting, unafraid to point-up controversy among modellers, Jha nails human activity as the culprit behind our planet’s physical systems’ spinning out of human control. Fashionable remedies in geo-engineering together with environmental-friendly “red herrings” (wind, solar photovoltaic, tidal energy, ethanol—and later on in the book hydro-power, “deep earth massage” [not Jha’s phrase for fracking], hydrogen fuel cells and nuclear fusion) are systematically examined and dispatched with a heavily critical boot. Jha invokes time frames, scarce or unavailable resources, competition with food, and excessive costs to condemn them. He then welcomes realistic technological alternatives and describes the evolution of each in the face of political and engineering obstacles, error and trial. For electrical energy, they are solar thermal power concentrated in towers and compatible with existing generation and distribution infrastructure. For transport fuel of all kinds of purity, biomass can be converted to biochar briquettes and/or, combined with municipal solid waste, and can be synthesised through thermochemical gasification to produce methanol—whose residue can be used as building material. All the better if methanol can be integrated with the processing of other agro-products like sugar and paper.

Since “zero emissions” are necessary but insufficient social responses to climate change, the existing CO2 needs to be removed from the atmosphere. Hydrogen, extracted from sunshine and water, may shortly be combined with CO2 captured from flue gases to produce methanol, which Jha judges to be a better use of greenhouse gases (GHG) than carbon capture and storage.

Jha then turns to the widespread opposition to his alternatives. These range through investor caution in the face of volatile fossil fuel prices, the fossil energy industries’ purchase and sequestering of patents for new technologies, entrenched agricultural lobbies for ethanol; the deliberate planning, funding and politicisation of resistance from coal, oil and gas producers and their lobbies for economic protection from the state and the inertia of path-dependent subsidies to oligopolies.

Politics of Sabotage

Amounting to much more than a critique of “market ideology,” Jha’s examples lay out the politics of actually existing markets and of their state support. Practices such as the fraudulent discrediting of increasingly convincing climate science and its practitioners, and the sabotage of major reports such as Brundtland’s, so that the best means of addressing the environmental crisis went unmentioned, are scene-setters for the failure of Kyoto’s administered carbon markets to have any significant physical effect. Jha concludes reluctantly that either governments are in denial or they deliberately privilege the electoral short term over the long term.

The book has global scope but ends by tracing India’s lacklustre engagement with climate change—considered a problem for its perpetrators to fix rather than its victims—until the 2015 Paris Agreement. At this point, India expressed some resolve to reduce emissions. For the future, Jha’s project for India requires a combination of agricultural residues and municipal waste (enhanced by refitting sugar refineries) to generate transport fuel, while solar thermal plants sited in India’s deserts could replace existing electricity fairly consistently with its existing infrastructure. The existing official plans are far more cautious than Jha’s.

Jha is a senior economic and political journalist, author of a long line of well-researched, prescient and significant books, a former member of the Brundtland Commission and a polymath of great curiosity. In this book, remarkably, he has succeeded in integrating decades of technological research in chemistry and engineering with that of economics in plain English for the non-specialist. He shows there is no excuse for non-scientists failing to understand the basic science.

It would be strange indeed if such a book did not generate questions. Below are examples of two.

Two Questions

First, the planet is entering an ecological crisis, of which climate change is but one component. Trade-offs between planetary bio–geo–physical subsystems need “mainstreaming.” Jha’s argument that crop residues can be taken from the soil to generate methanol ignores the likely negative consequences on soil structure and micro-biodiversity. His assumption that municipal waste can be used as raw material ignores both its potential for recycling and reuse and the fact that metals and glass are mixed among the plastic (which is biomass), cardboard, polythene and human waste deposited in urban drains and dumps. We also need to know more about the physical properties of the by-products of the realistic technologies.

Second, one of Jha’s criteria for realism is an assumption that “the machine that drives capital accumulation cannot be stopped” (p 267). But there is a contradiction between his identifying the pathologies of capitalism (or market ideology) as forces arranged against realistic technological solutions to climate change, and developing a master plan for India as though those forces did not exist—as though business owners want to decarbonify. Furthermore, if there is to be no change to lifestyles as a condition for realistic alternatives, poverty will persist—alongside the black economy. Since capitalism creates poverty alongside wealth, and since poverty-reduction requires state intervention, there will need to be a much more redistributive state and a disruption to the social status quo, the preservation of which, Jha argues, is a necessary condition for the realistic alternative technologies. Arguing that in generating some employment, technologies to address climate change will address poverty too, does not yet stand up to scrutiny. The political pathways through which binding global agreements on taxing carbon and on stabilising unreliable and inflationary energy prices are to be achieved, are not addressed. They bristle with obstacles.

Nonetheless, this is a very stimulating and exceptional addition to a shelf of books generally reduced to arguing that climate change cannot be addressed under capitalism.

 

Updated On : 11th Jun, 2018

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