Tuesday, 20 February 2007

How Much Is a Billion Tonnes?

(First published on the Carbon Clear website 12 February 2007)

Richard Branson is in the news - again.

Last week he announced a $25 million (£13 million) prize to the person or organisation who could come up with a commercially viable way to remove a billion tonnes of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere each year and keep it locked away for at least ten years.

So is that a lot or a little? How much polluting activity does a billion tonnes of CO2 represent?

More importantly, can it be done, and will Richard's $25 million make a difference?

Worldwide greenhouse gas emissions totaled just over 25 billion tonnnes in 2003, and are projected to grow to 30 billion by 2010. The UK's share of this was just over half a billion tonnes.

So Richard's billion tonnes of greenhouse gases is twice the UK's annual emissions. That's a lot, but at 4% of total emissons, not enough to solve the problem completely.

Can it be done? Yes, at a cost. Replacing half the cars in the United States with electric vehicles charged by renewables would save a billion tonnes of CO2. So would planting a few billion trees in the world's rapidly shrinking rainforests. In fact, there's no shortage of practical, real-world solutions that we already know about.

Will $25 million (£13 million) make a difference? I'm not so certain about that. That's enough money to buy a handful of large wind turbines, not the thousands that would be needed. A billion tonnes of carbon reductions on the European carbon exchange is worth more than UK £3 billion. That's already a strong incentive for people to find effective approaches.

On the other hand, Branson has a reputation for out-of-the-box thinking. If his announcement spurs people to come up with new and cost-effective solutions, then that's a good thing. The danger with such a grand gesture is if it lulls people into thinking the problem will be solved by a handful of billionaires.

The truth is that it is all of our individual daily decisions that have caused the global warming problem. And the only way we will solve it is if all of us, rich and not-so-rich, work together to reduce our emissions.