Large-scale intervention in climate system not a magic wand for global warming

UN special envoy for the Ocean says without beef and car ownership ‘life is perfectly okay’

Much-hyped geoengineering solutions to counter global warming, using technology in a deliberate and large-scale intervention in the Earth's climate system, are "not a magic wand", according to the UN special envoy for the Ocean Peter Thomson,

Speaking in Dublin on Monday, he said, there was no alternative to lowering greenhouse gas emissions, and talk of capturing carbon and storing it in the oceans and old mines, or using solar radiation management to lessen sunlight effects, risked diverting from the main task immediately facing the world.

The technology in both instances was not radical, and it may have to be deployed at some point, he said at an event hosted by the Institute for International and European Affairs and Irish Aid. “But who makes the decision?”

He asked if it might be a multibillionaire trying to save the planet or an individual country. A public conversation on the options and the principles attached to their use was needed, the UN envoy said.


The landmark 1.5 degree report issued by the UN in October, had warned if world temperatures were to be kept to within a 2-degree rise, all possible scenarios set out by scientists under the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change would require “some form of carbon capture”, he accepted.

A 2-degree rise would equate to a one-metre rise in sea levels. “Beyond that is anyone’s guess, though it will affect different parts of the world differently.”

The east coast of the US and islands of the south west Pacific were in red zones, while the current trajectory was 3 degrees, he noted.

In the case of his native Fiji, that would mean elimination of coral reefs along its coastline and obliteration of small island communities living on atolls in the middle of the ocean, including their cultures and languages dating back thousands of years – "through no fault of their own".

The large river deltas of the world were particularly at risk as they were the food basket for millions of people, and their demise would prompt huge migration of populations, he said.

In Ireland’s case, a warming ocean was leading to changes in ocean currents. To read more than 20 years ago that the Gulf Stream might weaken was the stuff of fiction, he said, yet the evidence of it slowing was a reality already.

If an inversion happened or if the stream failed to exist any more, it would have huge implications for Ireland, Scotland and Scandinavia, he said. "Climate change affects all of us. Nobody gets off scot-free."

Controlling greenhouse gases to ensure the world stays within the 1.5 degrees mark “is the bottom line”, he underlined.

The first special envoy for the ocean, appointed by UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, in October 2017, outlined his concerns that oceans across the world had been the victim of relentless exploitation, overfishing, plastic pollution and dumping of untreated industrial effluent and sewage.

Ireland, he said, had committed global efforts to tackle illegal landings of fish, which amounted to a $23 billion racket at present. “All of us have been receivers of stolen goods,” he noted – including many consumers of fish and chips.

The UN’s 2030 Agenda and number 14 of the sustainable development goals, which required the use of the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development, provided the means to solve such man-made problems, he said.

Four actions would have to be fully in place by 2020, Mr Thomson said. These included an end to illegal fishing; the termination of harmful fishing subsidies totalling $20 billion a year, the designation of 10 per cent of the world’s oceans as marine protected areas and better management of coastal eco-systems.

Awareness of plastic pollution had become the “great banner for the rest of ocean actions”, he believed. But a radical change in human behaviour was needed. This meant a change in diet, agricultural practices, transportation habits and embracing renewable energy. “We did it before. We did it at a time of war,” he added.

He said he had stopped eating beef and no longer owned a car, “and life is perfectly okay”.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times