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The next 50 years -

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The next 50 years

The next 50 years, next 100 years and beyond will be unique in history in that one species, us,
will have the power to affect the future of the entire planet. If we continue burning coal, then by
2050, the risk of serious climate change from carbon dioxide building up in the atmosphere will be
very real. Martin Rees is calling for a huge effort for research on carbon capture and storage.

Transcript

Martin Rees: Hello, this is Professor Marin Rees at Cambridge University and here we are in Trinity
College.

Robyn Williams: And you're still...you said you weren't going to be Astronomer Royal but you still
are.

Martin Rees: I still am, yes.

Robyn Williams: Let me ask you questions about your article on the future. You wrote a book called
Our Final Century with no question mark. I'm delighted to see you're writing about our next 50
years. What's your overview of the next 50 years? Should be buckle down for a bumpy ride?

Martin Rees: I've never been that pessimistic, but I think in the next 50 years and the next 100
years of course we are entering an era which is unique in human history, unique in the planet's
history, where one species (namely, ourselves) has the power to affect the future of the entire
planet. And we're well aware of the consequences of a growing population, consuming more energy and
resources, more empowered by potentially dangerous technology. I think the key question is to
handle these issues optimally and to ensure that the benefits of globalisation are fairly shared
between the developing and the developed world.

One of the most worrying issues is projected population growth is going to be largest
percentage-wise in Africa which is the area that can least cope with it, and that's going to lead
to great inequalities between Africa and the rest of the world. But also of course we have the
challenge of food supplies, the challenge of energy and the need to derive our energy by ways that
don't produce CO2 because if we go on as we are now with the dominant energy supplies coming from
burning fossil fuels, then the straight projections say that by 2050 the CO2 concentration will be
double the pre-industrial level and still going up, and according to the best climate models of
course that is a circumstance which gives a real risk of really serious climate change. And if you
want to insure against that serious risk then we need to take action sooner.

Obviously we hope that in the second half of the century renewable energy will have taken over, but
what worries me most is the risk that the takeover by clean energy won't be soon enough to prevent
the CO2 from having risen dangerously high. That's why I think it's very important to keep banging
on about the urgency of developing carbon capture and storage technology because, as we know very
well, there are huge numbers of coal-fired power stations being built, nearly 100 last year in
China, for instance, and they have lifetimes of 30 years. If they continue to spew out carbon
dioxide over that whole lifetime then that is going to be bad news.

So I think it's very important to have a Manhattan Project scale international scheme to develop
CCS technology so that we can advance as early as possible the date after which we could insist
that all coal-fired power stations have that facility installed.

Robyn Williams: It is in principle doable, is it, this sort of technology?

Martin Rees: There are demonstration scale models. There's one coming online in Germany just this
week in fact. But what has not been done is to build full-scale power stations with the technology,
and what needs to happen as urgently as possible is for the wealthy countries collectively to make
about 20 of these demonstration plants, each costing maybe a billion dollars, which will test the
various options for the technology, both for the capture and for the storage. The sum involved
would have to come partly from the public purse because it's too long-term for private industry to
invest in it. But in the perspective of a world that's spending $7 trillion a year on energy and
infrastructure and the scale of the problem, then this R&D expenditure seems very modest.

Robyn Williams: The Royal Society has just had a meeting about dealing with it in terms of sky, you
know, climate control, by putting things up there, sulphates and so forth. You operate in the sky
so you would probably have a certain sensitivity about the sky being used in this way. Apart from
your personal opinion, what was the general feeling in the Royal Society about the feasibility of
some of that operation?

Martin Rees: Just a bit of background of course, we need to explore all possible options to see
which work and to dismiss those that don't work. But there is discussion around the world of what's
called geo-engineering, in a sense a sort of fallback position that accepts that CO2 is going to
rise and that would otherwise lead to a rise in global temperatures and changing global weather
patterns, but could we do something about this in a more direct way by, say, cutting out 2% of the
sunlight by putting sulphur in the upper atmosphere, even putting mirrors in space, or could we do
things to the oceans that would cause algae to bloom with great concentration et cetera.

Robyn Williams: Like putting iron in, yes.

Martin Rees: That's right, there are lot of ideas of this kind, and I think it's good to study
them. But I think technical problems on the scale that's needed are rather daunting. Even if it
could be done then of course the political problems are very severe. So I think it's important to
study them. The Royal Society recently published a special edition of one of its journals
containing some articles on these subjects. But I think we're going to go one step further in that
the Royal Society, which collaborates a great deal with other academies, is probably going to carry
out a study with its American counterpart, the National Academy of Sciences, in order to assess the
feasibility of these various geo-engineering schemes. I suspect that we will end up putting a
damper on the enthusiasm because it's clear that there would be a whole lot of problems of all
kinds in implementing these, but it's very important to make sure that any future decisions are
based on the optimum scientific input. But it's well worthwhile studying all these possibilities,
in my opinion, because the challenge is so great.

Robyn Williams: You mentioned a doubling of the CO2 just now, some critics suggest that there is no
proven link between CO2 increase and temperature rise, and Freeman Dyson is one of them, he's
written quite recently in The New York Review of Books a beautifully written article which, among
other things, criticised that link. Do you think the connection is effectively proven?

Martin Rees: I'm not an expert, any more than Freeman Dyson is, but I think first we do have the
very detailed studies encapsulated in the IPCC reports which try to quantify the temperature rise
associated with the given rise in the concentration of CO2. The uncertainties are substantial, of
course, a factor of two or three uncertainty in how much temperature rise. But it seems to me that
it would be astonishing if there were not a major temperature rise as a consequence of this CO2
concentration change because the basic theory goes back to Tyndall, a British scientist in the mid
19th century.

We know that CO2 is a greenhouse gas and if we had no more than that basic idea coupled with the
completely uncontroversial evidence of the so-called Keeling curve that the carbon dioxide
concentration is rising and that it's now at a level that's higher than ever in the last
half-million years, then those two facts themselves would in my opinion be sufficient to justify
precautionary action. And of course, as I say, we do have the IPCC reports which give more detailed
estimates of what will happen. So I think it would be perverse to dismiss potential risk, even
though to quantify it is still rather hard.

Robyn Williams: Lord Martin Rees, the professor of astrophysics at Cambridge, talking about the
next 50 years. He's the author of Our Final Century.