Michael McCarthy: A simple plan to save the world

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The world has often been changed by a piece of technology that appeared obscure to the generation in whose time it was invented. What are those things called? Stirrups? And you do what, you put your feet in them? But then you can... swing your sword a lot harder... and not fall off? Oh I see.

Nobody had heard of the nuclear chain reaction when Leo Szilard, the Hungarian-American physicist who had worked out how to trigger it, wrote to the American President Franklin D Roosevelt in 1939, warning of its potential consequences (and because nobody had heard of Leo Szilard, he got Albert Einstein to co-sign his letter).

Eventually, the letter landed on Roosevelt's desk, and so began the process of America acquiring the atom bomb before the Germans or the Japanese could build one for themselves. But the concept remained entirely obscure, until it burst upon the world at Hiroshima six years later. If you'd mentioned nuclear fission in the mean time among the general public, you'd have been met with blank looks. Nobody knew what it was. And so it is today with carbon capture and storage.

Boring term, isn't it? If you analyse why it seems so anodyne, it's perhaps the passivity inherent in the term "storage". Memorable catchphrases tend to involve strongly active verbs or nouns. Zap those germs. Put a tiger in your tank. Boost your brainpower. Storing things has never been much of a copywriter's come-on. Yet in a quirk of history, it is the successful storage of one item in particular – the carbon dioxide molecule, CO2 – which is going to decide the shape of the future.

When the issue of global warming emerged nearly 20 years ago, it offered the environmental movement – perversely – a kind of hope, or at the least, a much tighter focus. This was because its implications were wide-ranging in a way that those of whaling, say, or industrial pollution, were not.

The threat of the warming atmosphere was a threat us all; the imperative to do something drastic about it therefore a universal one.

For the idealists of the green movement, this meant change, which was what they had always wanted – change in human behaviour, to a more caring, less exploitative and less wasteful way of life. The climate threat seemed to mean that this would have to happen, now. People would be obliged to live in respectful harmony with the earth. They would be obliged to alter their ways: swap their cars for bikes and public transport; substitute renewable energy systems for coal-fired electricity; and consume less of everything. The alternative was catastrophe. It was go green, or die.

It has gradually become clear that this dream is not going to be realised, which is a sad recognition for anyone who sympathises with the environment movement to have to make. The world is going to tackle climate change, in so far as it does at all, with a bit of behaviour change, and a certain amount of renewable energy, but most of all with technological fixes. This is partly because, as the Marxists found, the human character is sadly unreformable: partly because politicians have realised that asking voters to give things up is no basis for re-election; and partly because of dynamic forces in world affairs, not least the scramble for natural resources headed by the explosive expansion of China and its economy, followed closely by India and the other Asian tigers, with the rest of us joining in.

The key fact in all of this is a simple one: to generate its electricity, the world is going to continue to burn more and more coal, the most carbon-intensive of all the fossil fuels, and therefore the greatest contributor to climate change. Never mind what you may want to happen; this is what is going to happen. It is a monumental and terrifying threat to the stability of the atmosphere.

Yet in the technology of carbon capture and storage (or CCS) there is the ability, theoretically at least, to nullify this threat: CO2 is separated out from power station waste gases, liquefied, and pumped into underground geological formations, such as former oil wells. It can potentially reduce carbon emissions by 90 per cent.

There is no other technology which can do it; good judges, including some of the most senior figures in Gordon Brown's Cabinet, see it as the only hope for the future of the world (this is not an exaggeration). It has been proved in its parts, but not yet in an ensemble – that is, it has not yet been shown to work on a big power station.

Yet the urgency with which the idea should be prosecuted is missing, and this is nowhere more evident than in the Government's efforts, roundly castigated as inadequate by the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee in a report last month.

The Government's position is infuriating to many observers because it is doing quite a lot – organising a competition to build the world's first CCS demonstration plant – yet it is not doing it fast enough, and is likely to give the green light to a new generation of coal-fired power stations, whether or not CCS proves viable, or indeed economic, for energy companies to install (and that decision is all down to the market). Ministers will instantly point to the fact that they are doing something, to disarm the criticism that they are not doing enough.

It wasn't like this with the Manhattan Project, which built The Bomb. Urgency was its defining characteristic. Whatever you think about nuclear weapons, that was a response to an immense challenge which was swiftly brought to completion. Carbon capture and storage is now the only realistic response to climate change in the future we are about to live through, yet there is more urgency about developing new computer games.

Unless, that is, there is a famous scientist somewhere, even now, remembering Szilard and Einstein and drafting the letter which will next year land on the desk of President Obama, or President McCain.

m.mccarthy@independent.co.uk

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