The Planet Remade by Oliver Morton

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(Read Between 04/02/2017 – 23/04/2017)

I decided to read this book because it was on a number of previous year’s books of the year lists. I normally try to read one or two of these books the next year to see what leading minds think were important books of the preceding year. On top of this I was interested to see what could be done in the face of climate change. Oliver Morton decided to look at Geoengineering as a response to one of the biggest issues of our time. He has written for some of the world’s leading journals such as the Economist, Nature and The National Geographic.

The book makes you consider some of the moral dilemmas of Geoengineering and climate change. For instance, one key issue with climate change is that the people who end up suffering the worst from its effects are for the most part, people who are emitting a small amount of carbon-dioxide emissions and are typically farmers or poorer people in developing countries. Another issue is the sheer time it takes to repair the damage we have already done. For instance all big emitters would have to cut their emissions by 100 percent in order for the atmosphere to be stabilized in this century.

This harrowing fact shows the need to take corrective action is now and this is where geoengineering comes in. Geoengineering is deliberate intervention in Earth’s climate to slow down and hopefully reverse the process and effects of climate change and therefore alleviate the planet’s warming. Geoengineering itself is an idea burdened by ethical questions, such as should humans be able or allowed to play Mother Nature with our planet? Throughout our history humans have seen weather and climate being beyond us and the work of gods or forces beyond our control. Therefore many people feel uneasy about tampering in something which is ‘bigger’ than us. However when we see the effects that industrialization and now mass urbanization etc. have done to change our planet, is it not already too late to wonder whether we should tamper with climate?

Even if we were to get beyond the overall ethical dilemma of whether we should or not be running geoengineering projects, many issues would still remain with it. Imagine the issue of regulation of geoengineering projects. Would countries allow planes to fly over their airspace or boats to sail into their waters even though they were helping the planet? I think in today’s security conscious environment it is easy to see lots of countries supporting the idea of geoengineering but opposing some of its practices.

The backdrop to this book is that in 1750 pre-industrial revolution the CO2 levels were 280 parts per million, in 1950 they were 310 parts per million. Today they have reached 400 parts per million. Even after political action on climate change we still continue to rely on fossil fuels. In 2012, 15 years after the Kyoto protocols, solar and hydro generated power still only provided 3 per cent of the world’s energy needs. Whereas in the same 15 years CO2 emissions were more than half as high as they were at the time of Kyoto.

Morton notes that if the world had the capacity to deliver one of the biggest nuclear plants ever built, week in and week out, it would still take 20 years to replace the current amount of coal-fired plants. However we currently build roughly three or four a year and retire the same amount. If we tried to replace coal plants with solar panels at the rate they were erected in 2013, it would roughly 150 years. These figures are just to replace the coal plants, it doesn’t take into account gas and oil, cars, furnaces and ships.

Also renewable energy takes up a lot of room. For instance the rate at which British citizens consume electricity is roughly 40GW. To generate this at one watt per square metre would mean devoting 20 per cent of the area of the country to renewable energy.

With these points it’s easy to see that at current rates it is taking too long to replace how our energy is provided. Also by the time they are provided the emissions will have risen substantially once again. It also takes up too much space, which we are already running out of due to growth in population and the resulting use of land for either living or agriculture to feed this growing population. Against this scary backdrop Morton discusses some of the leading geoengineering ideas and outlines their pros and cons.

I don’t want to give away some of the forms of geoengineering that Morton discusses in the book in case you wish to go and read the book for yourselves. However, what fascinated me most about some of the solutions was the effects they had, not just the productive but also the destructive. Like any solution to most problems in any walks of life there are likely to be adverse effects and this is no different when it comes to geoengineering. As one solution helps one part of the world, it may effect another entirely different part in a negative way. It once again underlined the difficulties that undertaking these projects will pose. But rather than dampen the reader’s enthusiasm for geoengineering projects, it makes the reader consider that there will be have to be clever and careful planning to see which combination contribute the most whilst causing the least damage.

I found that the latter chapters of the book dragged on a little but the first half was a fascinating read and therefore I would recommend this book to readers. Even if some of the geoengineering projects mentioned are never even practiced, the book makes the reader consider how delicate our planet is and how every change can have serious unintended consequences. It also forces us to see that the longer we wait and continue the route we are on, the harder it becomes for humankind to reverse and solve it down the line.