15 Things I Learned from Sir David Attenborough and Tim Flannery

I was lucky enough recently to be accepted as a Fellow of The Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. An immediate benefit of that kind honour was the chance to meet with, and listen to, Sir David Attenborough in conversation with Tim Flannery, author of Atmosphere of Hope: Solutions to the Climate Crisis.   I am no climate change expert, far from it, but I am always interested in entrepreneurial ideas and any thinking which can help to avert the potential of global warming past 2c.  Here are 15 things I learned today from Sir David Attenborough and Tim Flannery as a carbon newbie.

  1. If we planted trees on an area the size of Australia, we could recapture just 1/10th of the carbon dioxide emissions we have put into the atmosphere (4 gigatons)
  2. We are already committed to a rise in global temperature of 1.5c.  It is doubtful the Great Barrier Reef will survive 1.5c warming.
  3. COP21 projection work all says we cannot cut emissions fast enough to avoid 2c warming by reducing emissions alone.
  4. Research groups in China are looking at geo-engineering; which is an attempt to alter earth’s climate by stopping the sun’s rays. One way to do that is by injecting sulphur into the atmosphere. There are apparently individuals on planet earth today that could afford to do this because it is relatively inexpensive. Mr Branson, are you reading this? I hope not, this sounds seriously risky.
  5. There is no global regulation of geo-engineering so any nation could decide to unilaterally act to take such measures.
  6. Two main strategies exist for alternative strategies to emissions reduction: Biological pathways (green plant storage) and Chemical pathways.
  7. One of the biggest potential biological solutions is offshore capture of Co2 through seaweed and kelp farming.  A desktop study (only) suggests that if we plant 9% of the oceans with seaweed farms we could capture ALL of the Co2 we are putting out into the atmosphere, and use the farms to grow enough shellfish and prawns to feed a population of 10 billion! 9% of the oceans is 4.5 x the size of Australia. Stamford University is raising money to put seaweed farms 25m below the surface of the Pacific Ocean on grids, deep enough for a supertanker to pass over the top, but still able to get sunlight for growth.
  8. Chemical pathways currently require energy to operate which are unfeasible until we get more clean energy into the system.
  9. Carbon negative concrete (already in production) doesn’t use carbon in manufacturing process but absorbs CO2 once built and used. About 5% of CO2 emissions come from the process of making concrete. Who knew?  Well carbon specialists and architects obviously but not me. But engineers won’t use it yet. #changeresistors Upside, carbon sequestering; downside more concrete jungles.
  10. Silicate rocks in the mid-geological ridge can be mined, ground up and the absorb CO2 as it weathers if spread on beaches.  If you mined 5-6 g-tonnes and put it on beaches, it could absorb huge amounts of Co2.  But it’s currently too destructive and costly to mine.  Silicate deckchair anyone?
  11. Plastic and carbon fibres can be manufactured from atmospheric Co2, potentially at a fraction of the cost of current prices of carbon fibres, possibly replacing aluminium and steel which are  major contributors to current emissions.
  12. We could store CO2 in the ocean crust – 5km down, or possibly the Arctic or Antarctica.  Co2 falls out of the air as carbon dioxide snow at -72.8c. If we could create 100km chiller boxes powered by solar, chill the air a bit (how, how) we could then capture the CO2 snow that fell and store up to 1 gigaton of carbon every year.  So instead of Shell drilling for oil, we dig up the last wildernesses and turn them into Big Yellow.  Hard to argue against it?
  13. Data suggests we are moving towards a major methane threshold and release from the Arctic tundra. Methane is responsible for around 20% of our warming potential including also wetlands and cattle.  55 million years ago a release of methane caused a major spike in the temperature of the planet.
  14. A study in South Korea is looking at how used coffee grounds could capture methane, so if the Arctic methane does release, everyone needs to run to Starbucks really fast and up their caffeine intake.
  15. The Global Apollo Programme seeks to leverage the sun’s energy and create cheap renewable energy that can power the whole planet. If we could capture 1/5000th of the sun’s energy that hits Earth, we could provide energy for the whole planet.

Now it has to be said, I don’t know if a single word of that is TRUE.  Even is there is such a thing as truth. What I listened to was a discussion by two eminent brains about technology that feels like Star Wars is already here. But what I do believe to be true is that the ingenuity of the human species – despite all our flaws and the damage we have done – is what is most likely to get us out of the hole we’ve dug for ourselves, and I just love hearing about final frontiers about to be crossed.  Peter Diamandis should have been there – he would have loved it.

Sir David Attenborough’s final answer to the question “What evidence or hope is there that humanity will stop devastating the planet on which we live?” felt hopeful to me.  And goodness knows, we could do with a daily dose of hope.
“None. Not really. Except. Only 200 years ago it was considered perfectly acceptable worldwide for one human to own another. I hope for another such philosophical leap in the moral perspective of humanity that will mean we will soon find it equally intolerable for us to misuse our world.”

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