Written for The Ecologist - February 2009
available online at http://www.theecologist.org/pages/archive_detail.asp?content_id=2053
Somebody somewhere has to have a cunning plan to fix our environmental problems and save the world – right? Jim Thomas sorts through the big tech ideas you’ll be reading about this year
Almost every day sees new technologies being proposed to fix old problems. 2008 witnessed global technology fights over the rapid development of biofuels, protests against ‘clean coal technology’ and GM crops staging a come-back of sorts. In all three cases, ‘solving climate change’ was presented as the excuse for gambling on high-risk technologies. That theme is likely to continue. Here are a selection of technological controversies on the drawing board. See if you can sort through the silver bullets, technofixes and false solutions that are sure to keep cropping up this year...
‘Solving climate change’ is presented as the excuse for gambling on high-risk technologies.
Three years ago, the idea of re-engineering the Earth’s climate was considered politically unacceptable. In 2009 though, geo-engineering, intentional large-scale manipulation of the climate, is poised to enter mainstream climate policy discussions. High-risk projects are now gaining a shocking respectability as panic rises over climate change. They include polluting the upper atmosphere with sulphur nanoparticles to refl ect sunlight back to space or changing the chemistry of the ocean to absorb more carbon dioxide. Former climate change sceptics such as Newt Gingrich and several right wing think tanks have started to promote geo-engineering as a painless quick-fix which would bypass the need for emission reductions. This summer, the UK Royal Society will publish a report purporting to weed out the good geo-engineering schemes from the bad. Unfortunately, it will be written mainly by geo-engineering enthusiasts. Despite a global moratorium on one ocean geo-engineering technique, fertilising the ocean to grow CO2 gobbling plankton, India may launch a pilot scheme this year and private geo-engineering company Climos threatens to take to the seas in 2009 or early 2010.
2) GM insects
If the thought of GM pollen spreading on the breeze worries you, then watch out – the latest GM products have wings! In 2009, Oxford based Oxitec intends to become the first company to sell genetically modified insects for large scale release. Oxitec has developed a GM pink bollworm (moth larvae) that it claims will mate with natural bollworms (a cotton pest) and render them sterile. However, Oxitec’s plans don’t stop there. This also looks to be the year when it will proceed with a large scale trial release of genetically modified mosquitos also intended to spread sterility in wild populations. Oxitec, which received a $5m grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, claims the technology will help wipe out dengue fever which is on the rise as climate change bites. The ‘terminator mosquitos’ were due to be released on Pulau Ketam island, which lies off the coast of Malaysia, but local Chinese fishermen raised concerns that they are being used as a test bed. Further experiments of this type have been planned for Mexico and India. Biosafety experts warn that the genes may spread, the sterility plan may fail and the product may contravene a global moratorium on terminator (sterility) technology.
3) Synthetic biology
Every few years a technology platform upgrades itself – handguns become machine guns and VHS becomes DVDs. Right now genetic engineering is in the process of reinventing itself as synthetic biology – an extreme form of genetic engineering that allows the genetic code of organisms to be built entirely from scratch. With more than a dozen synthetic biology companies aiming to put products on the market in the next couple of years and major investment by the likes of BP, Du Pont, Chevron and Goodyear, 2009 may be the year the public notices a multibillion artificial life industry is now well established. In particular, expect front page headlines this year if genome tycoon J Craig Venter succeeds in bringing to life the world’s first entirely synthetic bacterial species, dubbed Synthia. He has already applied for patents on a method that he claims will make millions of such synthetic species every day – a prospect that dwarfs the current trickle of GM organisms and may overwhelm our inadequate GMO laws.
If you received new socks or cosmetics this Christmas, there is a good chance you might already be wearing nanoparticles – tiny engineered lumps of matter with unusual industrial properties. Although nanoparticles have been used unlabelled and untested in hundreds of consumer products for several years now, governments and consumer watchdogs are now finally cottoning on to the new toxicity problems that these novel materials may pose. In September, 70 governments, 12 intergovernmental organizations, and 39 nongovernmental organizations participated in the Intergovernmental Forum on Chemical Safety in Dakar, Senegal. They agreed producers should label nanomaterials in consumer products and that countries should have the right to refuse imports of nanoproducts. In November, the UK’s Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution joined the growing chorus of concern about the lack of nanoregulation and the Austrian government called for a moratorium on food uses of nanotechnology. The coming year is likely to see increased efforts by trade unions and consumer groups to get some oversight of nano-risks. In May, the issue will go to the UN’s International Conference on Chemicals Management. The European Commission already accepts new labelling laws may be needed for nanotechnology products.
5) Cellulosic biofuels
After last year’s food price crisis you would be hard pressed to find anyone still arguing the case for turning food crops into ethanol. Instead the new orthodoxy among biofuel advocates is that a ‘second generation’ of biobased fuels (see this month’s cover story) will soon power our cars without affecting food. Using modified microbes or heat, companies such as Mascoma and Koskata are this year commercialising ‘cellulosic biofuels’, turning cellulose sugars (found in the woody part of plants and trees) into vehicle fuel. By switching from food crops towards wood and ‘agricultural waste’ (such as corn stalks) they hope to sidestep the ‘food vs fuel’ debate. If it works, expect to see a massive corporate grab on plant matter and a new debate over biomass. Forest communities will oppose the increased forest destruction associated with cellulose production for fuels. Sustainable agriculture advocates will argue that removing corn stalks from fields will deplete soils and increase fertiliser use and GM campaigners will express alarm at the threat of powerful modified microbes escaping.
Take wood, turn it into charcoal and then bury it in the soil – that’s the basic technique behind biochar, sometimes referred to as agrichar. Its promoters claim this technology can deliver a triple whammy of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, improving soil fertility and increasing crop yields. In the last three years, a rash of biochar start-up companies has emerged – led by eco businessmen such as organic pioneer Craig Sams of Green & Blacks or carbon offsetting pioneer Dan Morrell of Future Forests. Advocates talk of planting a billion hectares of fast growing plantations to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and bury it in soils, speeding up the carbon cycle and maybe earning carbon credits in the process. Look for opposition from forest activists. They wonder where the research is that shows biochar does actually improve all the different kinds of soils there are, as opposed to the most arid ones, and see the biochar associated rapid expansion of monoculture plantations as a threat to stressed forest ecosystems and to communities.
Expect to hear a lot about spacecraft in 2009 – not from the boffins at NASA but from the brand new space tourism industry. In early 2010, Virgin Galactic hopes to start the first regular commercial flights to outer space and will be running tests of its Spaceship Two rocket throughout 2009 with celebrity passengers on board. Billionaire Virgin boss Richard Branson is locked in competition with at least two other commercial companies – SpaceX and Rocketplane Global which hope to kick off a multi-billion pound commercial space industry. As publicity ramps up, Virgin Galactic is preparing itself for criticism from the same climate campaigners opposing regular air travel. Virgin Galactic public relations folks claim that a trip to the edge of space is less carbon intensive than a London-New York air flight and they are offering to run atmospheric experiments from their spacecraft to help understand climate change better. An early passenger will be controversial ecologist James Lovelock who sees no problem in blessing the new spaceflight industry just as he has given his approval to the nuclear industry and to geo-engineering. The first flights will run out of the Mojave desert and later Spaceport America in New Mexico but Virgin Galactic is also considering building a Spaceport Scotland at RAF Lossiemouth for flights from 2013. After recent UK campaigns against airport expansion, maybe we’ll soon see spaceport campaigners locked on to launchpads too?
8) Data centres
If you think reaching outer space increases carbon emissions, consider the climate costs of accessing virtual space. According to one set of calculations, every search query carried out on the internet uses 11 watt hours of energy – the equivalent of releasing seven grams of carbon. Behind the seemingly weightless world of websites and social networking, huge data processing warehouses suck up energy to run rows of computer servers and whirring cooling fans. Such datacentres are proliferating fast. Management consultancy McKinsey estimates that by 2050, data centres will be responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than the airline industry, as the digitalisation of medical records, libraries and genomic databases swells the global need for switched on servers. Some data centre users are stepping up to the energy challenge. Google aims to be powering their so-called ‘googlefarms’ with renewable energy and is investing accordingly but there may be other problems to tackle. Like e-waste. As the global data centre boom gets underway, the need for cheap, upgradable server equipment – chips, boards and plastic casings – will become a major new source of electronic waste, releasing toxic chemicals in both assembly and disposal. In the past three years, environmental groups such as Greenpeace and Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition have had major successes forcing home PC makers to green their products. In 2009 it may be time to take on Google, Amazon, Ebay, Yahoo and Facebook too.
9) Obama’s chief technology officer
With the advent of a new commander in chief, the United States is also being promised a new czar for all matters technological – a ‘chief technology officer’. Who the geek-in-chief might be has set the technology press alight with speculation. Will it be Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google? (Apparently not.) Might it be Bill Gates recently retired from Microsoft? (We certainly hope not.) How about software hero Bill Joy, famous for raising concerns about nanotech, genetic engineering and robotics? (That would be interesting). Why this matters is that it signals that Obama intends to put the interests of the technology sector at the heart of his new administration complete with a corporate inspired job title. For those hoping this administration might bring back the much missed Office of Technology Assessment or bring some participatory democracy to technology policy, there is likely to be disappointment. The new chief geek may carry out some socially useful tasks such as fending off the monopolisation of the internet and reforming patent law to make room for open source systems. On the fundamentals of who controls and assesses new technologies however, all signs are that corporations and the military will hand over none of that power. Expect howls of protest when whoever it is cashes in their personal technology stock options tax-free under a little-known loophole and further howls when the fearless new geek leader turns out to hold patents, maintains corporate ties or other conflicts of interest.