Tim Flannery: Our Warming World

Environment, Impact
Tim Flannery on Heron Island, QLD, which is located in the southern segment of the Great Barrier Reef.  Photo by Cloudy Rhodes.

Tim Flannery on Heron Island, QLD, which is located in the southern segment of the Great Barrier Reef.
Photo by Cloudy Rhodes.

This is an edited transcription of a presentation by Tim Flannery entitled 'The Governed Planet' delivered on 12th October 2018
Photos by Cloudy Rhodes

Leading Australian scientist and climate writer, Tim Flannery, says we have 32 years to tackle climate change before it’s too late. He is, however, remarkably hopeful for an effective global response to climate change.

I wanted to give you a presentation today in light of the ‘Global Warming of 1.5ºC’ report that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a couple of days ago. [I want to] unpack some of the issues around that, both in terms of impacts and in terms of innovation, and what is required to stay at 1.5ºC degrees. I just want to begin with a brief statement on climate change targets. So the 1.5ºC target is going to be exceedingly difficult to reach. It will require immediate and dramatic action and we will reach 1.5ºC above pre-industrial temperatures by about 2040. So that's around 20 years from now. The 2ºC world looks very different. So with 2ºC of warming, which we'll reach perhaps around 2070, or thereabouts, we'll see quite a different planet. At 1.5ºC of warming we can expect 80 percent of the world's existing coral reefs to die. At 2ºC we can expect 99 percent of the world's coral reefs to die. At 1.5ºC we'll see an ice-free summer in the Arctic once a century. At 2ºC will see an ice-free Arctic about every decade. Sea level rise will be 10 centimeters higher under a 2ºC target than it would under a 1.5ºC target.

A 1.5ºC world is survivable but a 2ºC world will be extremely challenging. The sad fact is that under the Paris Agreement we are headed towards 3.3ºC of warming by the end of the century. And of course if the other nations were like Australia we would be heading way beyond that because our emissions are still rising. Our emissions are increasing at a time they dramatically need to be decreasing and that is because our policy instruments are not strong enough to cause the decline.

We are committed to very dire consequences even if we cut emissions immediately. So what we need to do is two things: cut those emissions as hard and fast as we possibly can now [and] build a new economy, effectively, that is based on the idea of drawing CO2 out of the atmosphere. We need to be much more creative in our approach and Richard Branson is the guy who really has taken this on. Since 2007, when he set up the Virgin Earth Challenge, we have seen a new approach to drawing CO2 out of the air. So the Virgin Earth Challenge is a prize of £25m, which will be awarded to a technology that has the promise of pulling one gigaton of CO2 out of the atmosphere per annum. Al Gore and myself are judges [and] we hope soon to announce a winner. We've seen 11,000 entries go through the Virgin Earth Challenge process and I've seen them. Many of them are totally crazy but there's a few real gems among them. Basically they all work on one of two principles: either biological drawdown [of CO2] or chemical drawdown.

“At 2ºC we can expect 99 percent of the world's coral reefs to die.”   Photo by Cloudy Rhodes.

“At 2ºC we can expect 99 percent of the world's coral reefs to die.”
Photo by Cloudy Rhodes.


Carbon Drawdown
To illustrate biological drawdown [we can look at] reafforestation. We all understand growing trees but how many trees would we need to plant to have an impact? Well, let's imagine we want to drawdown just 10 percent of what we currently put up into the atmosphere every year. To do that by planting trees we need to cover an area the size of the United States, including Alaska, in forest. So while this is a valuable approach it can't be the whole story. The soil carbon store is about twice as large as the living carbon store (the tree carbon store). So we can do more if we treat our soil as well and that's a very valuable approach. Biochar, for example, is one element in an approach to increasing soil carbon and storing carbon in the soils. The big sleeper in the whole thing though is seaweed farming. The oceans are 72 percent of the surface of the Earth. Seaweed grows 30 times faster than land based plants and we have a ready sink for that seaweed just one kilometer down in the ocean. So there is big potential in seaweed.

Drawdown Solutions
I want to just look at kelp as one of the big potential solutions. Kelp farming is already a multi-billion dollar a year industry. We know how to grow kelp [and] we know how to use it for many purposes but we need a new approach to kelp if we're to use seaweed to store carbon. The biggest scoping study done on the potential for using seaweed to draw down CO2 was done at the University of the South Pacific in 2012. They established that if we could cover nine percent of the ocean in seaweed farms we could basically offset all of our global annual emissions. That is pretty stunning. I was very happy when I read that but I went and calculated what nine percent of the world's ocean is and it's an area about 4.5 times the size of Australia – a big, big challenge. We could also, mind you, by growing fish in those seaweed farms, provide 200 kilograms of high quality marine protein per annum for a population of 10 billion. So there is some real potential, in terms of sustainability, [when we] look at mid-ocean kelp farms.

How would we do it? One proposal is the Marine Permaculture Array (MPA). The first MPA was opened, and is now operating just within the last week or two, off the coast of Indonesia. They are sunk 25 meters below the surface of the ocean. They pump nutrients using wave energy or wind energy from lower down and fertilize the kelp. That's just another model of what kelp farming may look like in future. In these MPAs kelp is grown [and then] it's cut off and sunk to the bottom of the sea where the carbon is stored. But the high quality protein from fish, shellfish, oysters and so forth are harvested and sent to market.

These are potentially mobile [so] they can be harvested near the coast and sent back out into the ocean depths. It's a particularly promising technology for places like the Pacific Island nations where we have lots of marine devastation going on. Of course we can't assume that the deep oceans are devoid of life. There are things down there and we need to do a lot of scientific due diligence before we start dumping gigatons of kelp into the deep ocean.

Another possibility is putting wind turbines in the Antarctic. If we chill the air in the Antarctic by a few tens of degrees, CO2 falls out of the air as dry ice and can be buried in the ice caps and stored. It's been shown that it's quite a scalable project. We could be doing a gigaton a year with about half the installed wind energy that currently exists in Germany.

Carbon negative concrete is a reality. You can buy them in Australia. The problem that the industry faces is that it is at small scale and there's a great deal of conservatism among engineers and builders. So the product is out there. It's slightly more expensive in many instances but we don't have the experience in using it, at least for concrete contractors and layers. But the potential for carbon negative building materials is massive, whether it be concretes or timber fabricated products.

Silicate rocks is another area of huge growth and interest. James Hansen, one of the world's great climate scientists, thinks that we could lower atmospheric CO2 concentrations by between 30 and 300 parts per million by 2100 if we can grind up enough of silicate rock. The problem at the moment is how do we quarry, transport and grind up rocks now? We do it by burning fossil fuels. So until we can clean up the transport sector and clean up the stationary energy sector we won't be able to unlock the potential of this particular approach. There is however an existing opportunity right now in Greenland. The ice cap is melting rapidly and the glaciers are collapsing, revealing gigatons of rock flour which is ground up silicate rock. If that could be utilised, either at sea or on farming land, we could be drawing down 125 kilograms of CO2 per tonne of rock flour used.

Direct Air Capture (DAC) is another enormous area of growth. This is capturing CO2 out of the atmosphere using chemical processes. The companies to watch in this space are Carbon Engineering and Greyrock. They partnered together several years ago to deliver commercial Air To Fuel systems, so this is making fuel for aviation and so forth [from air using clean electricity]. In June 2018 Carbon Engineering announced that they'd broken through the $100 dollar US per barrel price. So that is really interesting. With oil creeping towards that price we will see direct competition and a very, very interesting situation I think, for Ford, for fuels made directly from atmospheric CO2.

Bioplastics a reality you can make plastics directly from CO2 capture from the atmosphere to make up a gigaton of such plastics. We need to double plastic use globally. It's not something people probably want to do but it will be it will be an element, no doubt, in the shift away from fossil fuels.


"If we could cover nine percent of the ocean in seaweed farms we could basically offset all of our global annual emissions."

Heron Island, QLD.  Photo by Cloudy Rhodes.

Heron Island, QLD.
Photo by Cloudy Rhodes.


"We've got 32 years, basically, to effect change."


Our Future
I want to just look out to 2050 now because I've laid out a pretty dire situation for you where we need to cut emissions drastically. [We need to] get on a war footing, effectively, and develop whole new industries. Let's not muck about with what we're envisaging here. We're envisaging a shift from a carbon emitting economy to a carbon absorbing economy. It has to be at that scale to have an influence on the atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases. We've got 32 years, basically, to effect change.

What will 2050 be like? I can't really say but what I do know is that it will be dramatically different from 2018. Our greatest asset, in terms of achieving a good outcome by 2050, is our imaginative capacity and our determination to make a difference. We can do it. It's 32 years but I am absolutely convinced that we can shift from a carbon emitting to a carbon absorbing economy over that time. California is leading the way. They want to be carbon neutral by 2045, potentially carbon absorbing by 2050. If California, the world's fifth largest economy, can do it I'm absolutely convinced that we can too. But we need a change of direction [and] it has to happen now. This is a critical year in terms of that transition.

Professor Tim Flannery is one of Australia’s leading writers on climate change. An internationally acclaimed scientist, explorer and conservationist, Professor Flannery was named Australian of the Year in 2007.