My expectations are never disappointed when I read the news each day and find out that the solutions to the problems created by our modern technology are to be found in more technology. We do not need to restructure our society, reduce our consumption, moderate our desires or change our habits. Technology will solve our problems without us having to make any substantial change in our way of life.
The breathless coverage of a university-based startup company that will draw carbon dioxide out of the ocean—thereby making room for more carbon dioxide from the air to be absorbed—may convince you that we can all sit back and let our tech overlords solve climate change. But if you read to the very bottom of the article, you will find out that there is one important sticking point. It's an energy-intensive process and the energy must come from somewhere.
The company says its process will produce hydrogen as a by-product which will cover about half of the energy needs. What about the other half? Well, I suppose they could just use renewable sources. But that would seriously limit the scale of this technology because of the lack of available renewable energy in many locales and its low market penetration to date. According to the "Our World in Energy" site (using data from the BP's Statistical Review of World Energy), less than 3 percent of the world’s energy comes from wind. Only 1.65 percent is solar. Only seven-tenths of one percent is biofuels. Even if you add nuclear which is nonrenewable, nuclear makes up only 4.3 percent of world energy. And, this is not to mention other demands on these sources of energy.
There are more difficulties. It turns out that hydrogen when released in its gaseous form into the atmosphere makes climate change worse. And, hydrogen is notorious for leaking from just about anything you can put it in, partly because it's a gas and mostly because it is the smallest molecule in the universe (which makes it easier for hydrogen to get around other molecules trying to block it).
Here's the explanation for why hydrogen aggravates global warming:
[Hydrogen] has an indirect global warming effect by extending the lifetime of other GHGs [greenhouse gases]. Certain GHGs such as methane, ozone, and water vapor are gradually neutralized by reacting with hydroxide radicals (OH) in the atmosphere. When H2 reaches the atmosphere, however, the H2 molecule reacts with OH instead, depleting atmospheric OH levels and delaying the neutralization of the GHGs, which effectively increases the lifetime of these GHGs.
How potent is hydrogen in its indirect warming effects? The report cited above says 100 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Another source says 11 times. So, the transition to a hydrogen economy would also have to be coupled with serious measures to prevent hydrogen leaks which are hard to prevent. In fact, in most applications involving liquid hydrogen—which is the form in which it is normally stored and transported—it is expected that about 1 percent of it will boil off and escape each day. Proponents say even with leaks, burning hydrogen will be far better than burning carbon fuels. But that's assuming that you make hydrogen fuel without burning carbon fuels.
Remember: There are no hydrogen reservoirs. If we want to separate it from water molecules through hydrolysis, it takes a considerable amount of energy, more than we get back by burning the hydrogen. That means that under currrent technology, hydrogen is not an energy source, only an energy carrier. (Another common way to obtain hydrogen is to strip it from natural gas—which, of course, is not a sustainable or climate friendly way to make it.)
I do not doubt the sincerity of the people behind extracting carbon dioxide from seawater. The oceans are believed to have absorbed about one-third of all human-made carbon dioxide emitted to date. Theoretically, it seems to make sense to extract that carbon dioxide in order to make room for more atmospheric carbon dioxide to dissolve in the oceans. But, of course, what makes even more sense is to stop emitting carbon dioxide into the air. But, human society continues to increase carbon emissions to the atmosphere.
Our tech overlords, whether cynical or sincere, do not want anything to interrupt their ability to profit from the introduction of more and more technology. I have previously defined this group as follows:
The tech overlords are a grab bag technology companies, technology scientists and inventors, and technology investors and journalists who have bewitched the modern world through inventions that speed up our daily lives without necessarily making them better.
The tech overlords purport to know how to feed the world, end poverty, empower the individual, solve climate change and colonize other planets. And the key to these feats is, of course, more and newer technology.
But as I said in the same piece:
[G]rand techno-uptopian visions of the future are just tricks to make us think that humans know more than they do and that there are "experts" who know so much more than the rest of us that we should just leave everything to them.
I do not think we can wait for our tech overlords to solve our problems. In fact, I believe their kind of thinking only perpetuates them.
Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Resilience, Common Dreams, Naked Capitalism, Le Monde Diplomatique, Oilprice.com, OilVoice, TalkMarkets, Investing.com, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.