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Climate action being delayed by ‘technological promise’, study finds

Effective climate change action is being delayed due to an overreliance on the possibility that future technology breakthroughs may make the shift to a low-carbon economy easier, researchers have said.

Many hope that nuclear fusion, widespread carbon capture, ice-restoration using millions of wind-powered pumps, and spraying particulates in the stratosphere can alleviate the worst impacts of climate change without resorting to economic and lifestyle changes.

But Lancaster University researchers say we must not wait for technologies that may never become viable.

“For 40 years, climate action has been delayed by technological promises,” researchers Duncan McLaren and Nils Markusson from Lancaster Environment Centre said.

“Contemporary promises are equally dangerous. Our work exposes how such promises have raised expectations of more effective policy options becoming available in the future, and thereby enabled a continued politics of prevarication and inadequate action.

“Prevarication is not necessarily intentional, but such promises can feed systemic ‘moral corruption’, in which current elites are enabled to pursue self-serving pathways, while passing off risk onto vulnerable people in the future and in the global south.”

The study finds a history of such promises, showing how the overarching international goal of ‘avoiding dangerous climate change’ has been reinterpreted and differently represented in the light of new modelling methods, scenarios and technological promises.

The researchers argue that the targets, models and technologies have co-evolved in ways that enable delay.

“Each novel promise not only competes with existing ideas, but also downplays any sense of urgency, enabling the repeated deferral of political deadlines for climate action and undermining societal commitment to meaningful responses,” they said.

“Putting our hopes in yet more new technologies is unwise. Instead, cultural, social and political transformation is essential to enable widespread deployment of both behavioural and technological responses to climate change.”

The researchers map the history of climate targets in five phases: “stabilisation”, followed by a focus on “percentage emissions reductions”, shifting to “atmospheric concentrations” (expressed in parts per million), “cumulative budgets” (in tonnes of carbon dioxide), and currently “outcome temperatures”.

The first phase technological promises, which the researchers believe began around the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, included improved energy-efficiency, large-scale enhancement of carbon sinks, and nuclear power.

The 1997 Kyoto Summit brought about the second phase, which focused on cutting emissions with efficiency, fuel switching and carbon capture and storage (CCS).

In the third phase (around Copenhagen, 2009), CCS became linked to bioenergy, while policy focused on atmospheric concentrations.

Phase four saw the development of sophisticated global carbon budgeting models and the emergence of a range of putative negative emissions technologies.

Policy in phase five focused increasingly on temperature outcomes, formalised with the Paris accord of 2015.

Earlier this month researchers said that climate change could cause sudden “catastrophic” losses in global biodiversity over the next century.

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