Much-Hyped Technologies that Just Fail at Decreasing Carbon Emissions

By now, it seems that the only people still against the idea of climate change being caused by human activities are those with a vested interest in denying it. Still, where there is sickness, there will be snake oil salesmen.

Proposed solutions to global warming tend to have the common characteristic of not limiting the global population or curtailing consumption. Talk about cheaper solar panels and everybody cheers, suggest that people should eat less meat and you’ll be lucky to escape with your life.

A certain proportion of these schemes range from the wacky to the merely mismanaged. Here we present a short list of initiatives that won’t be saving the world, either because they’re not cost-effective, don’t work or have unintended consequences that are worse than the problem they’re trying to solve.

Biofuels

In theory, biofuels are a great idea: plant a crop that will trap carbon dioxide, ferment it or extract its oil, and concoct a fuel that most internal combustion vehicles currently on the road can burn without modification. The amount of carbon released is therefore offset by that absorbed while the fuel is produced.

In practice, the history of biofuels (in the United States, at least) reads like a study of why politicians shouldn’t be entrusted with anything important. The first problem is that there’s only so much arable land available in the world. Producing biofuel means that fewer food crops will have to be planted or more rainforest cleared – as it turns out, both happened.

Even worse is the fact that industrial farming methods are typically not carbon-neutral to begin with. When transport, tillage, fertilizer and the like are factored in, biofuels may actually be worse than fossil fuels as far as CO2 is concerned.

Lighting Fallacies

Replacing all street lights with LED’s can easily reduce energy consumption by two thirds or more, while solar-powered installations are even better.

Somewhat surprisingly, this has led to a new problem: when lighting is cheap, people tend to use too much of it. LED’s also operate at different wavelengths than the traditional sodium bulbs, and light pollution is now posing an ecological threat by disrupting the natural circadian rhythms of many species. Several manufacturers offer outdoor LED lights with optical filters or shielding to minimize this effect.

Indoors, the switch to LED and compact fluorescent bulbs has also had a few negative consequences. If not recycled properly, fluorescent bulbs can leach highly toxic mercury into the groundwater, while LED’s contain lead, arsenic and a whole laundry list of other dangerous chemicals. While better than old-style incandescent bulbs, it’s also worth remembering that their efficiency may be less than you assume. The best LED grow lamp isn’t the one that consumes the least electricity, but the one that provides plants with the closest imitation of sunlight.

Planetary Engineering for Dummies

Often, the only way to know whether or not an idea is good is to test it on a small scale. Sometimes, this isn’t possible, meaning that we have no way of knowing whether or not that idea is actually good.

Pouring massive amounts of lime or iron into the sea falls into this category, as does deliberately causing volcanoes to erupt or spraying cloud-forming chemicals into the atmosphere. A related idea is to use genetic modification to create plants that are either more efficient at absorbing CO2 or better at reflecting sunlight. Now, the only way in which this can have a noticeable impact is to release these strains into the wild – we can only hope that this will produce the result we’re hoping for and no other.

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