“Ten years ago I could never have imagined I’d be doing this,” says Greg Pal, 33, a former software executive, as he squints into the late afternoon Californian sun. “I mean, this is essentially agriculture, right? But the people I talk to – especially the ones coming out of business school – this is the one hot area everyone wants to get into.”
He means bugs. To be more precise: the genetic alteration of bugs – very, very small ones – so that when they feed on agricultural waste such as woodchips or wheat straw, they do something extraordinary. They excrete crude oil.
Unbelievably, this is not science fiction. Mr Pal holds up a small beaker of bug excretion that could, theoretically, be poured into the tank of the giant Lexus SUV next to us. Not that Mr Pal is willing to risk it just yet. He gives it a month before the first vehicle is filled up on what he calls “renewable petroleum”. After that, he grins, “it’s a brave new world”.
Mr Pal is a senior director of LS9, one of several companies in or near Silicon Valley that have spurned traditional high-tech activities such as software and networking and embarked instead on an extraordinary race to make $140-a-barrel oil (£70) from Saudi Arabia obsolete. “All of us here – everyone in this company and in this industry, are aware of the urgency,” Mr Pal says.
What is most remarkable about what they are doing is that instead of trying to reengineer the global economy – as is required, for example, for the use of hydrogen fuel – they are trying to make a product that is interchangeable with oil. The company claims that this “Oil 2.0” will not only be renewable but also carbon negative – meaning that the carbon it emits will be less than that sucked from the atmosphere by the raw materials from which it is made.
Fascinating stuff. I would imagine there are also some folks out there working hard at super-efficient CO2 converting micro-organisms, to be used as "scrubbers" in power plants and perhaps even internal combustion engines.
I know that some fellow science enthusiasts find me overly blasé about the prospect of global warming, peak oil, etc., but given humanity's track record over the last few hundred years, it strikes me as fairly likely we'll manage to engineer our way out of any scenarios in which earth becomes uninhabitable for us. This struck me particularly when I found myself flipping through the environmentally alarmist tome Six Degrees the other day. It discusses what would happen if the earth's average temperature increased six degrees Centigrade (about 11 degrees F), as the most extreme global warming models currently suggest could be possible in the next hundred years or more. Needless to say, it's pretty dire. Author Mark Lynas predicts that a full 6C rise could result in the collapse of civilization, the extinction of most plant and animal species, and a return to the stone age, if humans didn't die out completely.
Now here's the thing I find unconvincing about these kind of scenarios: They're invariably based on global warming skyrocketing while humanity sits down and suffers the consequences, with billions dying, civilisation vanishing, etc. Maybe I've got too much of a Heinlein mentality, but I don't see humanity going quietly into the night (or desert, as the case may be.) If we started to see really massive, destructive effects that were clearly the result of global warming, expect someone (if not in the West, in the developing nations like China and India) to take matters into their own hands and do something massive. For instance, if you created a massive underground explosion along the lines of Krakatoa (think underground nuclear test that makes the USSR's "Tsara Bomba" look small) you could win yourself a couple years of unusually cool world temperatures as a result of suspended dust in the atmosphere. Heck, perhaps there's even an easier way to get that many particulates into the upper atmosphere. Similarly, genetically modified plants and micro-organisms might be used to try to drastically reduce CO2 fast.
Now obviously, we don't think about trying these things right now because they're easy things to get wrong, with the possibility of a run-away GMO wiping out hundreds of existing plant species, or your attempt to get particulates into the atmosphere causing world-wide nuclear fallout. But if countries like China are in danger of collapse, or tens of millions of people world-wide are starving, expect the caution to go to the winds.
This isn't to say that the earth might not end up trashed, but my guess it that it would be trashed by massive (and sometimes poorly thought out) attempt to stem off disaster, rather than by the warming itself. I'm pretty sure we could keep the climate from cooking us out of existence. The question is, can we do that without trashing the environment, or will we do it by large and clumsy means. Either way, I don't see world temperatures going up 6C. There may be environmental disasters in our future, but I don't see that one being it.
(Note: It's also entirely possible that the natural systems of our planet have the ability to adjust to process much more CO2 than we imagine, without going into serious global warming. I consider that fairly possible, but I'm ignoring it for the purposes of this discussion.)