The coal-burning Clinch River Power Plant, one of the largest air polluters in Virginia. Photo: Matt Wasson/Flickr
Show Hide image

Hacking the climate instead of reducing emissions is “irrational and irresponsible”, report finds

A major new study of geoengineering techniques finds them an unrealistic distraction from more immediate action to tackle climate change.

Not only do two of the most popular ideas put forward for mitigating climate change – so-called “geoengineering” – need substantially more research before they can be considered safe, but doing so instead of reducing carbon dioxide emissions today would be “irrational and irresponsible” on the part of the public and policymakers.

That’s the summary of a major investigation by the US National Research Council, published this week in the hopes of informing “the technological, ethical, legal, economic and political discussions that surround the topic of climate intervention”. The two proposals studied – removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, or blocking heat from the sun – are seen as unrealistic and overambitious, relative to our current technological abilities.

Human intervention is the major contributing factor in the changing chemistry of the Earth’s atmosphere. Its fragility and complexity has meant that a small global rise in temperature in the last century (roughly 0.85 degrees) has already had severe ramifications, like depleted polar sea ice, accelerated sea level rise and more intense, more prolonged heat waves. Over the last few years, as greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise and international governments struggle to achieve serious agreement on fixing the problem, some scientists and entrepreneurs have gravitated towards geoengineering as the solution.

To give a sense of how serious climate change is, and how long-lasting the damage will be, it would take a thousand years to get back to the pre-Industrial Revolution “normal” equilibrium if all our carbon dioxide emissions (besides, well, breathing) were to stop today. To avoid the worst effects of global warming, present day gas emissions would have to be reduced by at least 90 per cent, but the political, economical and social issues blocking action may well continue for years to come. The UN Climate Summit at Paris in December 2015 will have 196 countries attempt to agree on a new agreement for a meaningful legal action on climate change, but the chances of a major new deal are slim.

This sense that time is running out has given geoengineering, previously a fringe discipline, a new kind of respectability. Yet, as the NRC reports conclude, that’s not good enough - climate intervention technology is still in its infancy; there are plenty of issues left to be resolved, such as its effectiveness, economic cost and the potential for unintended consequences.

The 400-page report, authored by the 16 members of the NRC’s multidisciplinary Committee on Geoengineering Climate, is split into two volumes: one assesses carbon dioxide removal (CDR), the other solar radiation management (or “albedo modification”).

When it comes to CDR, the report finds that the technology to suck up and trap CO2 from the atmosphere is extremely primitive, and for reasons “largely related to slow implementation, limited capacity, policy considerations, and high costs of presently available technologies” it’s a non-starter for now. This includes methods like iron fertilisation, for example, where iron filings are dumped into oceans, causing massive plankton blooms. When that plankton dies, they take the carbon dioxide with them to the sea floor, where it (hopefully) remains indefinitely. Yet it could cause a knock-on effect by changing the ecology of the oceans, upsetting food chains, suffocating fish and leading to marine species extinctions.

The committee concluded that effective, industrial-scale CDR tech is still many years away, but regardless, “it is increasingly likely that we will need to deploy some form of CDR to avoid the worst impacts of climate change".

Albedo modification, the other alternative, deals with controlling how much of the Sun’s light and energy is reflected from the Earth back into space by spraying aerosols from planes – either to induce thicker cloud cover, or to make existing clouds whiter and, therefore, more reflective.

The report found that AR “shows some evidence of being effective at temporarily cooling the planet, but at a currently unknown environmental price”. The profound side effects of trying to control the amount of light and heat that reaches the Earth’s surface should not be underestimated – the unforeseen side effects on everything from agricultural yields to extreme weather are currently unknown. “Understanding of the ethical, political, and environmental consequences of an albedo modification action is relatively less advanced than the technical capacity to execute it,” the authors write.

The positives and negatives of two main types of geoengineering proposals. Image: NRC

The Committee concluded that "climate change is a global challenge, and addressing it will require a portfolio of responses with varying degrees of risk and efficacy". They go on:

There is no substitute for dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions to mitigate the negative consequences of climate change, together with adaptation of human and natural systems to make them more resilient to changing climate. However, if society ultimately decides to intervene in Earth’s climate, the Committee most strongly recommends any such actions be informed by a far more substantive body of scientific research — encompassing climate science and economic, political, ethical, and other dimensions  than is available at present."

Tosin Thompson writes about science and was the New Statesman's 2015 Wellcome Trust Scholar. 

Show Hide image

Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.