Paul Frijters shares a dream.

The world is getting hotter and wetter due to humanity increasing its carbon dioxide and other greenhouse emissions over the past 200 years. Even if we achieve global net-zero carbon, it will take centuries to return the earth’s atmosphere to that of pre-industrial times. But it is unrealistic to expect poor countries to do anything else than use the cheapest sources of energy they can find to fuel the economic growth they need to increase the wellbeing of their populations. So on that basis alone we should expect several more decades of high greenhouse gas emissions. Even the devastating recession following the coronavirus outbreak is little more than a blip in that trajectory. Cheaper solar helps in the transition to less carbon intensive energy, but fossil fuel has gotten cheaper too.

It’s natural to be horrified at the enormity of the impact of climate change and to feel powerless to stop it. There is a persistent and growing desire to halt the greenhouse emissions that has been reflected in the various forms of international emissions’ trading or command-and-control mechanisms aimed at big emitters, or consumer action, or legal culpability and other measures implemented since the 1980s. Arguably they have had no noticeable positive effect, for one core reason: all the measures taken to date require a political coalition that unites most countries in the world for many decades. Add the need for globally-transparent and thorough monitoring and the requirements become impractical.

So schemes have so far failed although people have become rich by giving their political friends heaps of emission permit and many have played the subsidise-my-invention game. One recent example of the latter is revealed in a Forbes article about the failure of Bloom Energy in California, producing supposedly greener-fuel energy cells with the help of green tax credits. The Swansea Tidal Lagoon plan to generate tidal energy in the UK was another such proposed multi-billion dollar project that was far more expensive than “regular” wind and solar and thus asked for huge government subsidies.

“Schemes have so far failed although people have become rich by giving their political friends heaps of emission permits.”

Many serious and committed people advocate all kinds of schemes to halt and reverse the growth of greenhouse emissions. The problem of free riding, lack of real enforcement mechanisms, and our inability to measure a lot of emissions, make it hard to see that it can really work.

It’s reasonable therefore to assume that we won’t get a world coalition lasting a century to fight climate change. But there is another path in some form of geoengineering.

Leading the way is attenuating the sun’s rays with reflective particle clouds released high in the atmosphere. This so-called global dimming happens already by particles released from burning some fossil fuels and naturally by annual sand storms. It has been seen in its extreme following major volcanic eruptions.

Those releases remain in the lowest reaches of the atmosphere and bring on detriments including acid rain, health problems, drought and storms and only last a few weeks. So a global dimming programme would have to release particles in huge quantities and higher – into the stratosphere – to arrest global warming without the same degree of attendant negative effects of low-level releases.

A global dimming programme would have to grow continuously if it weren’t accompanied by significant global efforts to curb carbon emissions for otherwise the problem it would address would grow.

Clearly dimming has uncertainties. And somebody or bodies will need to do it and pay for it. But unlike trading or mandates it would not necessarily need a world coalition – just some large countries that are prepared to simply do it. However there may be legal risks in the event of unanticipated cross-border detriment such as acid rain.

Meanwhile there is an outlook based on seeing how we can adapt and save as much as we can. As one of it’s advocates I look to augment nature through zoos, plant banks, breeding programmes for endangered species, genetically-engineered reefs that can stand warmer waters, national park programmes that protect certain habitats, ocean-fishing nurseries, re-wilding, subsidies for forestry and wetlands, and so on.

I among others in this group hold the view that we humans should take technological measures to expand natural capital through means far beyond preserving and adapting to changes. We want humanity to openly wear the mantle of rulers of this earth with the responsibility for looking after it and beautifying it.

For example, we should look to greening the deserts and barren mountain ranges. Partly this is happening already through fertilisation by greater concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide. The benefits of this run out at some point because other bottlenecks are hit, such as the availability of water and other nutrients. But in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the Emirates, and other wealthy desert nations, desalinated water can be used in huge irrigation systems.

“I can foresee vast ocean farms feeding human communities that live largely beneath the surface of the oceans.”

This could be further scaled up. Desalination has developed greatly and it’s now affordable to have whole populations depend on it. The current costs of large desalination schemes in the Gulf is as low as 50 US cents per cubic metre. As with other technologies, the price has come down tremendously the last few decades and, of course, continued economic development makes it within reach of more and more countries.

With a massive increase in desalination, we’d see a huge increase in vegetation and everything that feeds off it. Again, unlike carbon emission controls, greening a desert can be done by individual nations without much help from others.

I envisage a similar development in barren mountain regions of Central Asia and elsewhere. There too, shortages of nutrients and water create bottlenecks. But we could create large ecosystems round mountainous areas such to generate rain in the same way the Amazon forest irrigates the Andes. The idea that we humans should think of how to construct the ecosystems such that we get sufficient rain where we want it, is now much less a fantasy than a decade ago.

The oceans provide still greater opportunities and space. I am thinking of submerged cities that have many layers stretching down as deep as we can go. Humans can do so much to fertilise the oceans and I can foresee vast ocean farms feeding human communities that live largely beneath the surface of the oceans, using energy from the wind and sun above it, and tidal forces in it as well as other low-carbon thermal sources, including nuclear.

We could genetically engineer new species of plants and animals to go beyond preserving diversity, towards addressing the question of how much diversity we want.

In times of coronaviruses it is easy to think of the threats to our current natural environment. In terms of a doom that we must avert by adopting autocratic control systems. I advocate a far more optimistic project; one where humanity takes up the role of propagator of natural capital and expands what we have to.

Paul Frijters

Paul completed his Masters in Econometrics at the University of Groningen, and a PhD in wellbeing economics at the University of Amsterdam. He is now a Professor of Economics and …

Read More »