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As Time Goes By

The four Rs – reduce, resilience, repair & remove – are now considered to be the keys to tackling the climate crisis

THE TIME when reducing emissions alone could be sufficient has passed, argues the Climate Crisis Advisory Group (CCAG) in a recent report. ‘We failed to act early enough, when things would have been so much simpler,’ comments David King, the think tank’s founder and chair. This means that the double tenet of climate politics – emissions mitigation and infrastructural adaptation – may no longer be sufficient.

The CCAG maintains that four concurrent approaches must be deployed within a single ‘4R Planetary Strategy’ – reduce (another word for mitigation), resilience (adaptation), repair (finding solutions to mend damaged climate systems) and remove (taking back greenhouse gases from the atmosphere). Since we clearly lack the required ’planetary’ consensus in taking action to prevent calamitous climate warming, it may all sound like a utopia. At the same time, however, it gives a more accurate picture of the monumental tasks ahead, if we keep on squandering time.

For instance, the world’s archetypal rainforest is in dire need of repair. The Amazon has already shifted from being a carbon sink to a carbon source and, according to scientists from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, it may be on the verge of collapsing after decades of deforestation that have been reducing the necessary moisture to keep it warm and wet. In order to avoid it turning into a savanna, a huge reforestation programme is essential. The 20-year plan to restore vegetation on China’s Loess Plateau has already demonstrated that rain can naturally return when forests take back farmland.

The Arctic, which could soon experience its first ice-free day, needs to be repaired if we’re to avoid severe weather disruptions. The Great Barrier Reef, now experiencing the seventh coral-bleaching event in 26 years, should be saved if we’re to save scores of marine species and avoid oceanic die-offs. The CCAG reckons that a number of not-yet-existing technologies would be needed to do so. Some of them are unproven, such as stratospheric sulphate-aerosol injection or marine cloud brightening, with unknown side effects. Some of them are sci-fi-like, such as sending giant sunshades into orbit in order to manage solar radiation. (As noted in last month’s ClimateWatch, the UN Environment Assembly just rejected a Swiss proposal to assess risks and opportunities of such a technology.)

Then, there’s the fourth strategy we may end up needing – removing unwanted carbon dioxide molecules from the atmosphere, finally making subtractions instead of additions. Again, reforestation – or harnessing the great power of photosynthesis – is the lowest-hanging fruit, provided it’s executed on a grand scale. The Green Great Wall, the planned 8,000-kilometre stretch of trees connecting 11 African countries from Senegal to Djibouti, used to be the perfect example. Some progress has been made, but that project is now at a standstill

Another nature-based solution could be the regeneration of marine biomass. As an example, whale excrement plays a key role in fertilising the oceans, a vital tile in the mosaic of biodiversity. Extending protected areas, regenerating sea grass and favouring the shift of nutrients around marine habitats, can accelerate the removal of CO2 from the Earth’s atmosphere. Again, possible solutions must be carefully studied in order to avoid undesired consequences.

To make substantial CO2 subtractions, an improvement of direct air capture (DAC) technologies is needed. ‘There are 27 DAC plants commissioned worldwide, altogether capturing 0.01 Mt CO2 per year,’ says the CCAG report – a drop in the ocean. A recent study revealed that the dust of certain rocks, when spread on farming fields, sequesters a few tonnes of CO2 per hectare while also improving crop yields.

Not only did the world fail to act early enough, but the more time is being wasted, the more likely it is that we’ll have to resort to creative (and risky) ‘repair’ and ’remove’ solutions. The laws of chemistry and physics that govern our atmosphere are inescapable, as is the inherent fragility of our hopefully mighty planet. 

As the famed song says: ‘The fundamental things apply/As time goes by’.

Published on the May 2024 issue of Geographical Magazine


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