How to solve "the biggest problem humanity has ever faced"

Glenn Freeman

Livewire Markets

Extreme weather events in North America last summer alone incurred a damage bill of almost $500 billion for insurers and reinsurers. “And these events will continue to get worse, they don’t expect this is all going to go away,” said Sir David King during his recent presentation at the Credit Suisse 25th Asian Investment Conference.

Sir David is the founder and chair of the Centre for Climate Repair and Climate Crisis Advisory Group at Cambridge University, and a former Special Representative on Climate Change to the UK Government. In a wide-reaching discussion, he helped define the climate change disaster, explained the urgency of the situation, and outlined some large-scale solutions he’s pushing the global community to quickly adopt.

“Irreversible melting is disastrous”

The surface temperature of the planet is today an average of 1.35 degrees centigrade higher than during the pre-industrial era. Sir David believes this will almost certainly blow out to a 1.5-degree differential.

Rising temperatures are most profound in the Arctic Circle, where they're up between 3.5 times and 4 times more than in the rest of the planet. This region includes landmasses that are part of Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, the United States (Alaska), Canada, Denmark (Greenland), and Iceland.

One of the most visible effects is seen in Greenland, which is around 80% frozen but is melting at an ever-increasing pace.

“The Arctic Sea is heating up so much that the air above the North Pole is warmer than many regions of the northern hemisphere. We’ve completely inverted that from being a cold region to being a warm region,” Sir David said.

“There is enough ice on Greenland that, when it all melts, sea levels will rise by about 6.5 metres, which is going to be disastrous for the global system as we know it. No cities on coastlines would survive anything like that.”

And with this “irreversible melting” of ice all over the planet, he believes sea levels could easily rise by two metres by the end of the century – which in itself would be disastrous.

Food security under threat

For example, the nations of China, Vietnam and Indonesia are among the world’s five largest producers of rice. Large swathes of these nations’ rice-growing regions are already subjected to regular flooding by salt water, which will worsen further as the temperature and sea levels rise.

“I do not see how we can manage this kind of loss of food product from farmland without suffering a major transition in the global economic system,” said Sir David.

“Barriers will be put up to stop food going from other countries into this region, there will be, I think, chaos. And we’re looking at a region of the world that may produce, by mid-century, more than 200 million climate refugees looking for somewhere else to live.”

Climate repair – A comprehensive strategy

There are steps that can be taken to help create a reliable, manageable future for humanity, despite the dismal picture painted so far. “But we can’t pick and mix here, we have to do all three of these elements of the strategy,” said Sir David.

1. Reduce – Deep and rapid emissions reduction. 

On the first point, he emphasises we can’t continue to use fossil fuels into the future. “We’ve already put too much, in the way of greenhouse gases, into the atmosphere, otherwise these extreme weather events wouldn’t be occurring, and the Arctic Circle wouldn’t be heating so rapidly,” Sir David said.

2. Create new greenhouse gas sinks and remove excess GHGs from the atmosphere

“Today we’re emitting 40 billion tonnes of GHG per annum into the atmosphere, which we have to reduce as quickly as we can but in an orderly fashion and in a way that is equitable,” said Sir David.

As a start, he believes we need to reduce the carbon in the atmosphere from the current level of around 500 parts per million to around 350 parts per million.

3. Repair the North Pole region and ice on land

“It may take us 50 or even 80 years to get ourselves into a ‘manageable future’ position, so we have to repair the North pole regions,” said Sir David.

“While we start on the first two Rs, we also need to learn how to refreeze the region.”

War in Ukraine, the energy crisis, and climate

The conflict in Ukraine and the associated sanctions on Russia has created vast energy supply shortfalls, particularly in Europe but across much of the globe. Sir David believes this situation should be viewed as an “accelerant” to increase renewable energy supplies and reduce emissions.

He referred to the example of Britain, where Prime Minister Boris Johnson in November committed to reducing emissions by ending the sale of petrol-powered vehicles from 2030. Johnson has also spoken about increasing investment in wind farms in the North Sea region.

“It’s fine for the prime minister to make these statements but let’s see what regulatory processes follow through to accelerate these changes through to the marketplace,” Sir David said.
“I don’t see any need to switch off from this process of Net-Zero. Climate change is the biggest global problem humanity has ever faced; we’ve been through many wars, but we have to move on as quickly as we can into that net-zero world.”

How to start reducing, unwinding the damage

Various technological approaches are being championed by the Mission Innovation program, which Sir King launched at the COP21 climate conference in 2015. During the Credit Suisse conference, he discussed two of these, both of which are based on “biomimicry” – which are human-led efforts to copy processes that are observed in nature.

Marine cloud brightening – Put simply, this involves reflecting sunlight away from the Arctic region by creating white cloud cover. This can be done by “seeding” tiny salt particles to essentially whiten black clouds.

“If these crystals, that are sub-micron in dimensions, land on a dark cloud that has big droplets in it that are going to snow or form rain, it will turn white and become reflective,” said Sir King.

As part of Mission Innovation, Stephen Salter, a professor of engineering at the University of Edinburgh, has designed a seagoing vessel that pumps seawater and helps send more droplets into the atmosphere.

“After testing a prototype, the goal is to surround the Arctic Circle region with about 700 to 1000 of these vessels, which we will only activate to create white cloud cover when the Met Office (the UK weather service) tells us the wind is blowing towards the Arctic,” said Sir King.

This would help to create new ice cover on the Arctic Sea and would also help to stop the melting of permafrost on land.

Whales, fish and carbon reduction – The second is a technological intervention with the dual aim of removing greenhouse gases while also boosting marine biodiversity. This includes mimicking the distribution of whale faeces and boosting Blue Whale populations, which have now shrunk to about 1% of their pre-industrialisation levels.

Sir David explained the important role whales play in creating a biological pumping action within oceans, bringing fertile material from the ocean depths up to the surface. Expelled through whale faeces, this material creates forests of phytoplankton, which is an essential food of small fish and an environment in which they lay eggs.

Considering the huge quantities of faeces a single whale expels, multiplied many times via the pod communities in which they live, they can create phytoplankton forests that span between 1,000 and 5,000 square kilometres of ocean.

“We’re concentrating on the oceans because they’re 72% of the earth’s surface and most of that is very deep oceans, which we’re focusing on,” Sir David said.

“Just as we have living trees being the carbon mass of forests, so these are the carbon mass of the oceans. The deep oceans of the world are essentially deserts, and we mean to return them to the whale, fish, and crustacean states they used to be.”

Who is driving the change?

Sir David emphasised the two most important groups that can drive change are:

  1. Political communities, and
  2. Financial communities.

Referring again to the energy crisis that has been magnified by the Ukraine war, he highlighted that energy infrastructure tends to comprise long-lived assets that survive for between 50 and 100 years.

“If that investment goes into old-style infrastructure, and this is what worries me in the talk around the Ukraine war, that can create stranded assets. There’s no way that in five years’ time, people won’t be again jumping up and down and asking for the end of investment in fossil fuels,” said Sir David.
“The future is strongly dependent on an awakening of those communities that have been financing a future that isn’t fit for us going forward in time.”

He also referred to oil and gas companies, “which have for many years been ‘greening’ their agendas, at least in public.”

“Many people regard that as greenwash, and I think it has to be described this way. Will these energy companies that are currently fossil fuel-based survive into the future? That depends on their own investment plans.”

Investing with purpose

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Glenn Freeman
Content Editor
Livewire Markets

Glenn Freeman is a content editor at Livewire Markets. He has around 10 years’ experience in financial services writing and editing, most recently with Morningstar Australia. Glenn’s journalistic experience also spans broader areas of business...

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