Inside Science: What next when three wise men of climate change change their minds?

The phrase ‘net zero’ has caught the imagination of millions.

Work to create algae in the Southern Ocean to soak up carbon has come with a fresh, unexpected set of problems. PIC: Contributed.
Work to create algae in the Southern Ocean to soak up carbon has come with a fresh, unexpected set of problems. PIC: Contributed.

It embraces the premise that innovative technology will deliver carbon capturing solutions, enabling those of us who live in wealthy countries to continue living our current lifestyles. It leads us to believe that technology can save us and helps us feel morally responsible if we take small steps to reduce our carbon footprint; from insulating our homes, to eating less meat or travelling fewer miles.

The headlines convince us that, with the implementation of technological solutions, only small changes in our lifestyles will be enough to

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deliver a sustainable future. But this belief is less fact and more fiction.

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If you don’t believe me, then please take note of revered scientists James Dyke, Bob Watson and Wolfgang Knorr who, after more than 80 years of collective thinking about climate change and promoting net zero, recognised the dangers of the problematic beliefs they once supported, in an article for the online academic journal ‘The Conversation’.

Saying “Sorry, I got it wrong” is never easy, but as advances in science help us to understand all the sources of greenhouse gases and how

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they interact with our oceans and our land, more of us may need to learn to adjust our thinking.

The issue with relying on technological solutions is neither the shortage of innovative carbon reducing ideas, nor the financial investment needed (consider the hundreds of millions of dollars being poured into developing lab-grown meat) but the possibility of unforeseen consequences when technological solutions shown to work locally, are implemented globally.

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One such idea, driven by optimism and innovation but challenged by putting into practice and scaling-up, is the addition of iron filings to the Southern Ocean. The iron stimulates the growth of naturally occurring algae, which “clumps up”, dies and sinks to the ocean floor, taking carbon with it.

This could be considered as a potential means of removing carbon from the atmosphere. However, other research has shown that the process may stimulate the release of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas, and there is currently no data regarding what happens to the carbon in the algae once on the ocean floor. Much more research is needed to be confident that we understand the potentially significant risks -as well as the benefits - of such technologies: and we simply do not have that much time.

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What cannot be mistaken is the momentum created by the net zero story. Many different sectors have published their ‘Roadmaps to Net Zero’ and are committing to targets for carbon reductions. Such plans ride on the belief that technology will make up the difference to avoid catastrophe.

However, without significant change from all of us, these plans outline more of a transition than the transformation that is needed.

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The shift that can be seen, marked by these eminent scientists – three wise men indeed - learning from their mistakes, is an increasing realisation that technology alone will not save us.

Professor Maggie Gill OBE FRSE is emeritus Professor in the School of Biology, University of Aberdeen

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and a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. The RSE is Scotland’s National Academy, which brings

great minds together to contribute to the social, cultural and economic wellbeing of Scotland. Find

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out more at rse.org.uk and @RoyalSocEd.