Carbon emissions, past and future

28 August 2018

Interview with

Professor Herbert Huppert, University of Cambridge, Max Thompson, Rutherford's

Air pollution

Industry and air pollution


Ten years ago Chris Smith interviewed Professor Herbert Huppert about the growing levels of carbon emissions. A decade later, have we got any closer to solving the crisis or is it looking worse than ever? First, Rutherford's tour guide Max Thompson gives us the low down on King's College.

Max - We’re now arriving at King’s College founded back in 1441 by King Henry VI. Also known as the mad young King. He was often thought to be the inspiration for King Joffrey in Game of Thrones. Ironically the College itself was first set up as a finishing school for Eton graduates, but these days it actually has the highest population of state school students in Cambridge.

We also see the King’s College Chapel just here looking rather splendid and glorious. It’s actually the second largest chapel in Europe only being beaten by the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican because everything's bigger at the Vatican, of course. It was meant to take only ten years to build but thanks to said War of the Roses it took 90, which isn’t as bad as Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, but still nothing to brag about either I suppose.

Chris - Anything else notable about King’s?

Max - Well, the most notable alumni from King’s is, of course, Alan Turing known as the father of artificial intelligence and modern day computers, and basically helped us win World War II.

Georgia - And we have some people waiting for us on the lovely lawn in front of King’s College next to the giant sign saying no mooring. We have two more special guests so let’s find out who they are.

Herbert - I’m Herbert Huppert. I’m a theoretical geophysicist here in Cambridge and I’m interested in the environment, and how volcanoes erupt, and how we’re putting in far to much carbon into the atmosphere and will live to regret it, or I hope we’ll live.

Chris - Funnily enough, when we were announcing our arrival we phoned you up and we said we were going to be a little while. And you said I’m a geologist, that could mean millions of years.

Herbert - Yeah. Well you know, the Earth has been around for quite some time. You and I are very recent, even humanities are very recent introduction and timescales differ from the Earth to what you and I are used to thinking about.

Chris - And who’s our other passenger?

Jules - Jules Griffin from the Department of Biochemistry here at Cambridge. I work on aspects of type 2 diabetes, in particular the interactions between our diet and relative risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Georgia - So we’ll be toasting our alcohol and talking about our health later?

Jules - Yes indeed.

Chris - So Herbert, let’s talk about the health of the planet first before we talk about the health of the people on this punt and the wider society. Amazingly, ten years ago you and I did almost the same thing as we’re doing today because we did a punt trip down the Cam and we chatted about the subject of carbon in the atmosphere, carbon sequestration and so on. How has your view today, ten years later, compare with your views ten year ago? Has it sort of  played out the way you expected?

Herbert - I remember the punt trip but not what I said ten years ago.

Chris - I was going to say it’s age.

Herbert - I’m only 21! But things have got much much worse. I don’t remember the exact figures 25 years ago, but something like 27 billion tons of carbon dioxide were put into the atmosphere by mankind. Now it’s 37 billion tons and increasing all the time.

Chris - Every year?

Herbert - Every year. The mean global surface temperature is increasing all the time and we’re seeing great problems. There’s not a great problem but we see how dry and hot it was this summer and the King’s lawn, which is just on my right, was absolutely parched. Well do we want to be parched? Do we want to have a parched Earth?

Chris - Many people argue that the Earth goes through cycles; that it’s been doing it for millions of years; this is just one of it’s cycles that the tiny contribution of humankind is not driving that process?

Herbert - Well those people that argue that, I’m afraid, are not correct. It’s true it goes through cycles but this is a manmade cycle. This is putting a huge amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Much more than volcanoes do or natural events and it’s putting it in very quickly. There’s a dramatic rise over the last 100 years, which is a timescale…. As I said, I’m a geologist, before the timescale was a million years and now it’s a hundred years, getting much worse over the last ten years.

Chris - If we keep going like this and releasing carbon dioxide, what will be the consequence?

Herbert - First there'll be larger variations in weather going from hot to cold. The general temperature will increase by a few degrees. Also what’s a problem is that the sea level will rise and it will make life very difficult. And now we’re in Cambridge, this used to be pretty close to underwater in the 1400s. We could end up in the 2100s being underwater. A bigger problem of course, I’m just talking about Cambridge, places like Bangladesh that could be totally flooded. Immigration’s not liked, how would it be when thousands, millions maybe even if people lose their homes and their countries, who’s going to take them in.

Chris - Now one of the things that we know has had a profound effect on the climate over long term geological timescales on Earth is things like tectonic plate movements which make mountains and this displays to the atmosphere minerals that can pull down carbon dioxide, and that changes the CO2 level in the atmosphere. Is there a way that we could mimic that process to wind the clock back and undo some of the damage we’re doing and is it practical?

Herbert - Well, that’s a brilliant question if I may say. Over the last 40 years or so people have talked a little bit about taking carbon and storing it in the earth - sequestration. But just very recently it’s been suggested, and I want to do some research on this, whether mineralisation could be speeded up. We know that rocks take in carbon dioxide, just as you say, but that’s on a geological timescale. Millions of years for which we had to wait for this punt. But the question is whether we can influence things so that mineralisation can happen much more rapidly. And that’s an interesting question - please invite me in ten years time and I’ll give you a very positive reply I hope. But I don’t yet know, other than I have a very capable geological colleague at Columbia with whom, just over the last few weeks we’ve been talking about whether we could do something together in just that area.

Chris - Also the question of whether we can draw the CO2 out, and rather than turn it into minerals, put it underground in places like where the oil and gas came from which, obviously, is geologically very stable; it lasts for millions of years and would be able to hold it and hold it safely?

Herbert - Well, that had been the idea for some time of carbon storage. There’ve been a number of experiments; they’ve all been pretty successful when they’re field experiments. We’ve done lots of laboratory experiments and by and large they’ve been successful. But laboratory experiments are not meant to be successful all the time. We often learn from what isn’t successful, but the field experiments have been successful. The total amount at the moment of carbon dioxide that’s taken out of the atmosphere and stored in reservoirs around the world is ten million tons a year.

Chris - Ten million?

Herbert - Ten million.

Chris - So we’re releasing on the scale of billions but we’re drawing down only on the scale of millions?

Herbert - That’s right. 10 million verses 37 billion, and one of those figures is rather smaller than the other.

Chris - Three thousand times smaller, give or take, isn’t it?

Herbert - Yes.

Chris - So it’s not practical?

Herbert - No, no. Well that’s an interesting question. Could it be done? Yes. Could countries get together and companies get together and store carbon dioxide successfully at a rate of say 20 billion tons a year, yes, I think it could be done. There’s easily enough space, reservoir space in the Earth. Nobody seems very enthused. Ask Mr Trump and he’d say under no circumstance. Ask Mrs May and Boris Johnson, they wouldn’t be in favour.

Chris - On that gloomy note…

Herbert - Oh, let me tell you some good things.

Chris - Well good things, these strawberries look rather good. Do you want want one?

Herbert - Oh yes, I’d love one.


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