Kant Stop, Won’t Stop: Climate Action and the Categorical Imperative

Immanuel Kant was a German philosopher who is now famous for his concept of the ‘categorical imperative’. Similar to the ‘golden rule’ found in many religions (do unto others as you would have them do unto you), the categorical imperative works as a kind of handbook for determining whether an action is moral or immoral. In this piece, I’ll be looking at some lifestyle decisions which are relevant to climate change through the lens of this rule to find out what Kant might have thought about climate action.

Immanuel Kant was a German philosopher who is now famous for his concept of the ‘categorical imperative’. Similar to the ‘golden rule’ found in many religions (do unto others as you would have them do unto you), the categorical imperative works as a kind of handbook for determining whether an action is moral or immoral. The idea is that you should consider an action moral only if you could sensibly wish that all people in that situation would act in the same way. In other words, before you make a moral decision, you should ask yourself whether it would make sense for everyone to make the same decision.

This is known as the ‘test of universalisation’. If you can wish that a ‘maxim’ (a rule of conduct) be universalised, then that maxim is moral. If the universalisation of the maxim results in a logical inconsistency, however, that maxim should not be followed. This sounds like a complex idea, but once you start to analyse a few examples it becomes very clear. In this piece, I’ll be looking at some lifestyle decisions which are relevant to climate change through the lens of this rule to find out what Kant might have thought about climate action.

Consider the open-and-shut case of the maxim ‘I should kill people who irritate me in order to better society’. So what happens when this maxim is universalised? If everyone who was irritated resorted immediately to murder, society would break down. If irritation were a just cause for murder, I would’ve already killed several people today and I’m sure several people would’ve killed me. This is a society that is in no one’s best interests. More than that, it is the disintegration of society itself. The universalisation of the maxim ‘I should kill people who irritate me in order to better society’, then, is self-defeating, since it results in the breaking-down of the very thing it originally sought to improve; society.

Another example is that of lying. Kant thought that if everyone lied all the time, then truth itself would become meaningless. This generated what he thought of as a logical inconsistency. Usually people lie to gain some sort of advantage over the person they are lying to. If everyone lied all the time, that advantage would disappear and the reason you were lying in the first place would become null and void. A common criticism of Kant is that his rule is too strict and emotionless. People take the categorical imperative to mean that no one can lie at any time for any reason, since lying fails the test of universalisation. I think that this is a misinterpretation of Kant’s views. Consider this example:

Your friend knocks on your door, terrified. They tell you that a murderer is after them and ask for somewhere to hide. You agree. Sure enough, moments later a man wielding an axe shows up at the door and asks if you know where your friend is. People say that according to Kant, it is immoral to lie to the murderer because the categorical imperative forbids it and you must therefore tell the murderer where your friend is. I disagree with this interpretation. For me, the categorical imperative can be more specific than ‘should I lie’ or ‘should I kill’.

Consider the maxim ‘I should lie if it saves my friend’s life from a murderer’. I don’t think Kant would have any problem saying that a sensible person could wish that maxim to be a universal law. If everyone lied all the time, a logical inconsistency would be generated since truth would become meaningless. If everyone lied only to divert murderers from their victims, however, the only result would be a better world. Even if this interpretation misrepresents Kant’s actual views, I see no reason why this simple revision should not silence many of his critics.

Ok, now that we have a basic understanding of Kant’s idea, let’s try to apply it to climate action. Consider the maxim ‘I should drive to work every day’. Let’s universalise that. If everyone drove to work every day, the resulting emissions would have catastrophic consequences for the planet. Climate change would soon reach a tipping point and set off feedback loops that we would be powerless to halt. This would cause the economy to collapse, likely leading to the loss of your job.

As in the case of lying, the universalisation of this maxim defeats the purpose of what the maxim was trying to achieve in the first place. It is not helpful to get to work quickly and hassle-free if your job no longer exists. What’s more, if everyone drove every day then we would soon run out of petrol and then nobody would be able to drive to work at all. Those sound like logical inconsistencies to me.

What about ‘I should eat meat every day’? This falls into the same problem. If everyone ate meat every day, the resources and land required to supply all this meat would most likely exceed the resources and land available on planet earth. Already, one third of all ice-free land is used to raise livestock and we are nowhere near everyone eating meat every day. More than that, the methane emissions from the livestock would greatly accelerate climate change, leading to desertification of land and rising sea-levels, further reducing the land available to raise livestock. The ultimate effect of everyone eating meat every day is that it would quickly become impossible to eat meat every day, thus defeating the original purpose of the maxim.

I think you probably get the point but I’ll do another one anyway. What about the maxim ‘I should leave my lights on when I’m not in the room’? The net result of universalising this maxim is that the resources required to generate the electricity to keep that light on would quickly run out. In addition, the increase in the severity and frequency of natural disasters that would occur would greatly increase the chance that your home would be destroyed by a hurricane or flood, thus rendering your lightbulbs kaput. The effect of everyone leaving their lights on is that pretty soon no one will be able to turn their lights on at all.

You may be thinking at this point that universalising any maxim at all will lead to logical inconsistencies. Not true. If you go back and try to universalise the opposite maxim to the examples above, you will find that none result in such an inconsistency. I can wish that no one drives to work every day, since this would only result in cleaner air, less global warming and ultimately a better world.

Universalising the maxim ‘I should not drive to work every day’ is logically consistent, since the maxim can still be followed in the world brought about by the universalisation. In other words, in a world in which no one drives to work every day, it still makes perfect sense to say ‘I should not drive to work every day’. This does not mean that there can’t be exceptions made for people with disabilities or no other means of transport. As in the case of the murderer at the door, we can simply alter the maxim to be more specific. For example; ‘I should not drive to work every day if a viable alternative is available to me’.

What about the maxim ‘I should not eat meat every day’? If no one ate meat, the planet would be far better for it. We would increase the food available to us, since crop agriculture is far more efficient than animal agriculture when it comes to land and resource use. If you give 100 grams of protein to a cow, the meat that you get back will contain only 10 grams of protein, since the cow will use up the rest by walking, breathing and maintaining its body temperature. In a world in which no one eats meat, it still makes perfect sense to say ‘I should not eat meat’. There is no logical inconsistency there, since the universalisation of the maxim does not cause it to fall apart.

I won’t bother re-analysing the last example, since I’m sure you have the gist by now. I will, however, take this time to head-off an objection that I’m sure people will have. You may argue that it is not the actions of normal people which are causing global warming, but rather the actions of a select few who are producing emissions on an industrial scale. It is true that 70% of all emissions since the industrial revolution have been produced by just 100 companies, but this line of reasoning only gets you so far. Who do you think corporations are producing the emissions for?

Corporations only stand to profit from polluting the earth because we continue to pay them for it. To go back to Kant for a second, if everyone made a conscious effort to reduce their energy usage, then the companies who generate that electricity from fossil fuels would have no reason to continue ramping up their operation. It’s really very simple; supply and demand. So long as the demand for things like electricity and beef remains high, it is still profitable to burn as much fuel and raise as many cattle as you possibly can.

If the demand were to drop by, say, 50%, then the only way to keep the operation profitable is to reduce the supply by 50% too. This is because it is expensive to produce electricity and beef, and there is no financial incentive to make that initial investment if no one is willing to pay for the finished product. So while corporations carry the responsibility for producing the emissions, every individual in the western world has facilitated these crimes against humanity by providing a financial motivation for their continuation. It is for this reason that we cannot simply dismiss the impact of individual actions.

Anyway, my point here is that according to one of the greatest moral philosophers who ever lived, every action which contributes to or accelerates climate change should be considered immoral. To be clear, I am not saying that everyone who drives to work every day, eats meat or leaves their lights on is a terrible person. Necessity, cultural norms and misinformation have created a world in which climate-damaging actions are seen as morally-neutral standard practice. What I am saying is that given some reflection, those people should come to the conclusion that taking the bus, eating plants and turning the lights off would be better moral choices. No one is inherently good or bad. Our moral value is determined not by who we are, but rather by the thousands of tiny choices we make day to day.

People have a tendency to become defensive when it comes to their morality. They are not willing to accept that what they have been doing their whole lives was immoral, since the implication would be that they themselves are an immoral person. Consider the person who does and says blatantly racist things, but recoils in anger and disgust when they are accused of racism. The truth is that there is something wrong with the way we have been living our lives in recent decades, as evidenced by the fact that if we continue on our current path, life will become a daily struggle for survival before you can say ‘drive-thru cheeseburger’. What is needed now is for us to put our pride aside and accept that we fucked up, rather than retreating into a tortoise-shell of denial. Why? Because by the time we finally come out of our shells, it may be too late to change course.

Gas in the Tank: How Methane could be the Future of Fuel

New research has shown that it may be possible for us to convert methane into fuel cheaply, quickly and on a large scale. The key to this energy revolution will be exploiting a type of bacteria known as methanotrophs. Methanotrophs are incredibly abundant in nature. They account for 8% of all heterotrophs on earth (organisms like us that have to ‘eat’ rather than photosynthesising their food). These incredible bacteria are capable of converting methane into methanol very easily, a process that has been referred to as the holy grail of modern chemistry. If we could perform this conversion as easily as methanotrophs, we could seriously cut down our GHG emissions.

Almost all the talk of climate change in the media focuses on CO2, as it is the most abundant greenhouse gas (GHG) on earth. It is not, however, the most potent. Not by a long shot. Over a 20-year period, methane is around 86 times more effective at trapping heat than CO2. This is worrying since humans have caused, in just 300 years, an increase in global methane from 715 parts per billion to 1774 parts per billion, the highest level in 650,000 years. That works out to about a fifth of all global warming, making methane the second most significant GHG on earth. Roughly 60% of all atmospheric methane is the result of human practices like large-scale animal agriculture and poorly-managed landfills.

Before I get going, I would like to acknowledge the paper “Biotechnological conversion of methane to methanol: evaluation of progress and potential” as it proved to be an extremely useful research source on this topic.

New research has shown that it may be possible for us to convert methane into fuel cheaply, quickly and on a large scale. The key to this energy revolution will be exploiting a type of bacteria known as methanotrophs. Methanotrophs are incredibly abundant in nature. They account for 8% of all heterotrophs on earth (organisms like us that have to ‘eat’ rather than photosynthesising their food). Methanotrophs were first identified way back in 1906 but in the 1970s, 100 types were isolated, characterised and compared in a landmark study. These incredible bacteria are capable of converting methane into methanol very easily, a process that has been referred to as the holy grail of modern chemistry. If we could perform this conversion as easily as methanotrophs, we could seriously cut down our GHG emissions.

In May of 2019, researchers at Northwestern University identified the cofactor involved in catalysing the conversion of methane to methanol, providing a huge step forward in our understanding of how methanotrophs carry out this incredible process. Methanotrophs are known to carry out the conversion using an enzyme called methane monooxygenase (MMO), but the researchers have now identified the copper ion which accelerates this process and the site at which that copper ion is bound.

Methanol is an energy-rich fuel that can be used for everything from automobiles to electricity generation. In fact, methanol can be put straight into a standard internal combustion engine, meaning that we would not need to design new types of engines in order to make the switch. Burning methanol in an engine produces 20-25% less GHGs than burning petrol, but even these emissions are cancelled out by the fact that methane is removed from the atmosphere to produce the fuel. In other words, it’s already better than burning petrol, and the fact that it removes methane makes it better still. Remember, methane is far more potent than CO2 as a GHG. By converting methane to methanol then using the methanol as fuel, you are essentially converting methane to CO2, which causes much less global warming. The conversion happens at a ratio of 1:1, meaning that simply converting methane to CO2 would result in a serious decline in GHGs in the short term. In addition, the energy you get from burning the methanol means that you don’t have to burn as many fossil fuels, further lowering the carbon footprint of the process.

Right now, we are able to convert methane to methanol. In fact, we have been doing this on a relatively large scale for quite some time now. In 2015, the global demand for methanol was 70 megatons. The difference between current methods of converting methane to methanol and using methanotrophs instead is the temperature and pressure under which the reaction can be carried out. Current methods require temperatures of 900 degrees Celsius and pressures of 3 megapascals. In other words, that is roughly the same temperature as lava and roughly the same pressure that is exerted on a submarine 1,000 feet below the sea. Methanotrophs can perform the same conversion at room temperature and atmospheric pressure (the normal pressure at sea-level). This is known as ‘ambient conditions’ and describes the temperature and pressure wherever you are reading this article (provided you are not reading this in a volcano or a submarine).

The problem with needing extremely high temperature and pressure to perform the reaction is that it requires a lot of energy, cancelling out many of the gains made with respect to GHG emissions. That energy needs to come from somewhere and 9 times out of 10 that somewhere is fossil fuels. In addition to this, the process is currently too expensive to be economically viable, a factor that hugely influences whether or not a technology enters the mainstream. If we can harness methanotrophs’ ability to convert methane to methanol at ambient temperature and pressure, the process will become far cheaper, far quicker and far more environmentally friendly.

There is an important distinction to be made between low affinity and high affinity methanotrophs. Low affinity methanotrophs are found only where there are high concentrations of methane (more than 40 parts per million). So far, every strain of methanotroph we have isolated has been low affinity. High affinity methanotrophs, on the other hand, can perform the conversion at ambient levels of methane (less than 2 parts per million). Isolating and exploiting high affinity methanotrophs is the real holy grail, since this would allow us to convert the methane in the air all around us into fuel rather than just being able to perform the conversion in places where concentrations of methane are high.

Another way this process might reduce GHGs is by creating an incentive for oil companies to stop ‘flaring’ natural gas when exploring for oil. As you bring the oil to the surface, natural gas comes with it. To prevent pressure building up in the pipes, the gas is burned (which is why you sometimes see oil wells with flames shooting out the top). 4% of all natural gas which is extracted worldwide is flared. Using 2017 figures, that works out to 139 billion cubic meters of gas wasted every year (nearly 1 and a half trillion Kwh). That is slightly more energy than is used each year in India, a country with nearly one and a half billion people. Since natural gas is around 85% methane, development of cheap methane-methanol conversion techniques would provide an incentive to capture and store the gas rather than burning it unnecessarily and releasing huge amounts of GHGs into the atmosphere in the process. This is an example of how we can use our current knowledge of low-affinity methanotrophs to begin cutting down on emissions.

Transporting methane is currently very difficult, since it is a gas under ambient conditions. Liquids take up far less space than gases and are also far more energy-dense. By converting methane to methanol, we seriously boost how much potential energy can be carried by a single truck. By cutting down on how many trips are required to transport the same amount of energy, we also cut down on the fuel required for transportation. Efficiency gains such as this will be vital in our transition to a sustainable society if we wish to retain our current levels of comfort.

Burning methanol is also far cleaner than burning petrol, releasing half the carbon monoxide and just 1 eighth of the nitrous oxide. Over a 100-year period, nitrous oxide has a global warming potential 265-298 times greater than CO2. The reason you don’t hear as much about it in the media is that we release far less nitrous oxide into the atmosphere than we do CO2 or methane. The problem of climate change is so huge and so urgent, however, that we need to look at ways to reduce every GHG all at once by whatever means possible. An eightfold reduction in nitrous oxide from transport would go a long way.

One possible issue with this technology is that methane is only more potent than CO2 in the short term (a century or two). It could be argued that since CO2 stays in the atmosphere for thousands of years, we are simply pushing the problem back without solving it. To this I would reply that we are dangerously close right now to setting off feedback loops which would take climate change out of our hands and make the problem unsolvable. By procrastinating on this massive issue, we give ourselves time to develop technologies that can capture CO2 on a large scale as well as technologies that can provide us with clean energy. In other words, we are in desperate need of a band-aid.

Another objection might be that the process provides a financial incentive to keep fracking for natural gas when really we need to be leaving it in the ground. This objection, I think, holds more water. While burning methanol is more environmentally friendly than simply burning the natural gas, it is less environmentally friendly than not burning it at all. One way to respond to this is by arguing that it is naïve to think that we will stop extracting natural gas and oil any time soon. Global energy demand is huge and rising and these needs must be met somehow. It is better to meet them using efficient new technologies than to continue the practices that got us into this mess in the first place. In addition, if we can develop this technology to the point where we can remove atmospheric methane rather than just converting natural gas to liquid, it could actually result in negative emissions, meaning that we would be simultaneously meeting our energy needs and reducing our impact on the environment. The potential for this technology is massive.

Conversion of methane to methanol under ambient conditions and on a large scale would be a huge step forward in developing the green energy infrastructure that is required if we are to transition to a low-carbon world. I’ve said it so many times before, but it bears repeating that if we don’t make this transition very soon, the consequences will be extremely severe for humans and other animals around the globe. We are talking about a worldwide shortage of food and water, an increase in the frequency and severity of natural disasters, rising sea-levels and much more.

Climate change is happening right now all around us, from the wildfires of California to the hurricanes of Puerto Rico. How we respond in the coming years determines whether this will be a difficult century on one hand, or a complete transformation of the Earth that could last for hundreds of thousands of years on the other. So long as we can limit warming to below the levels required to trigger feedback loops, I have faith that humans can ride out the storm relatively unscathed. It is worth remembering, however, that this is the greatest challenge our species has ever undertaken. This is why the development of technologies like methane to methanol conversion is so critical and so time-sensitive. This tech will not solve the problem all by itself, but it will give us some time and breathing room to overcome the larger issue.

Getting High on Grass – Can Plants Really Fuel a Plane?

Humans have been using biofuels for as long as we’ve been using wood to fuel our fires. In the last hundred or so years, however, we’ve begun to understand how plant matter can be converted into liquid fuels that could soon power a plane. In this piece, I’ll be looking at where biofuels are now and where they need to be if they are to significantly reduce CO2 emissions.

Updated 11/09/2019

In the wake of recent studies showing how dangerously close to the brink we are when it comes to climate change, it is more important now than ever to seriously consider every possible alternative to environmentally damaging fossil fuels. One such alternative comes in the form of biofuels. Humans have been using biofuels for as long as we’ve been using wood to fuel our fires. In the last hundred or so years, however, we’ve begun to understand how plant matter can be converted into liquid fuels that could soon power a plane. In this piece, I’ll be looking at where biofuels are now and where they need to be if they are to significantly reduce CO2 emissions. I’ll be concentrating my efforts on recent attempts by the scientific community to make grass a viable fuel for transportation.

Grass is the most abundant plant on the planet. In my home country of Ireland, more than two thirds of all land is covered in naturally growing grass. If we could refine and perfect the process of turning grasses into fuel (grassoline), this could be a real contribution towards slowing the march of climate change. The problem right now is that it is expensive and inefficient. Many scientists in the field, however, think that given time and money, we could tap into this huge source of unharnessed power and perhaps help to save the planet in the process.

The reason grass in particular is being considered as a biofuel is not because it is necessarily the most efficient plant to use, but rather because of its abundance and willingness to grow in fields that are inhospitable to food crops, known as marginal lands. Another reason that grass is attractive as a biofuel is that it is not really needed for anything else. Other candidates for biofuels (like wood, sugarcane and soybeans) have the disadvantage of being useful for things like furniture, rum and tofu.

But why aviation fuel? One reason is that while cars are slowly turning electric, it is unlikely that planes will follow suit any time soon. This means that in the near future, cars could be powered by renewable sources whereas planes will continue to require liquid fuel. The other more pressing reason is that travelling by plane is far worse for the environment than any other mode of transport. This is down to two factors; first, planes are less efficient than other modes of transport in terms of emissions per passenger mile. Second, planes allow us to travel a far greater number of miles than we would otherwise be able to travel. The carbon footprint of flying from London to Hong Kong and back again is about a quarter of the average UK person’s annual carbon footprint.

The idea that we could use grass, algae and other plants to produce aviation fuel is not nearly as crazy as it sounds. The fossil fuels which we currently use are themselves made of organic matter that has, over a very long time, undergone a natural process called pyrolysis. Human beings have been using the process of pyrolysis for our own gain for thousands of years in the form of charcoal burning. Pyrolysis involves separating materials into their constituent molecules in the absence of oxygen. This means, very roughly, heating up the material to a specified temperature, covering it, and allowing it to separate into liquid, solid and gas. These products can then be refined into fuels. Recently, it has been found that microwave heating produces a higher pyrolysis yield than traditional methods since it can be done entirely in the absence of oxygen and at a very precise temperature. Another benefit is that the characteristic ‘hot spots’ of microwave heating aid in pyrolysis.

You might be thinking that grass is an important source of food for livestock. The beauty of using grass as a biofuel is that this resource would not be lost. The solid by-product of grass pyrolysis can still be fed to livestock. What’s more, by removing the liquid constituents, the feed can be preserved much longer than fresh grass cuttings. In the UK, biofuels already account for nearly 3% of all road and non-road mobile machinery fuel, but with the predicted change in efficiency given a few years, they could eventually account for a lot more than that.

Right now, scientists can only produce a few drops of biofuel from grass in the laboratory. Tests carried out at Ghent University in Belgium show, however, that there is a potentially very efficient energy source in grass if we can learn to harness it correctly. In April 2017, the researchers at Ghent found that a certain type of bacteria (clostridium) can be used to metabolize certain grasses into decane, a key ingredient in both petrol and aviation fuel. While this breakthrough cannot yet be used effectively, it is key knowledge that will inform future research into better biofuel technologies.

Hang on, you might say, if refining plant matter gives us the same fuel as we are already using, then why is it better for the environment? Surely biofuels release the same amount of CO2 as fossil fuels? This is indeed true. The difference is that the CO2 in living plants has only recently been absorbed from the air by the plant and is simply being released again. As the grass grows, it sequesters CO2 from the air. When it burns, that recently absorbed CO2 returns to the atmosphere to be trapped by the next batch of grassoline. Because of this, biofuels are said to be ‘carbon neutral’. With fossil fuels, the CO2 has been absent from the environment for a very long time, trapped underground. By burning it, we are releasing extra CO2 rather than what was already there.

A major obstacle to biofuel efficiency growth is that governments and companies are not willing to invest heavily in something that may not yield solid results for years to come. This is simply short-sightedness. The science will continue to improve. Lack of investment only slows down the process. The people who invest heavily now will surely see a huge return in a matter of years. Another well-known obstacle in the way of all renewable energies is the huge sums of money tied up in the fossil fuel industry. The industry is worth about 7 trillion USD globally. No wonder, then, that lobby groups are able so easily to sway policy-makers.

Biofuels are controversial among environmentalists, since they come with a number of downsides. Perhaps the most worrying is that every square foot of land which is used to produce the fuel is land that could instead be used to nurture biodiversity. Species are currently being lost so quickly as to constitute the sixth mass extinction in earth’s history. For me, using food crops like corn as feedstock is entirely off the table, since it opens the door to a future in which rich elites use corn-fed biofuel to fly away on their holidays while depriving poor people of food which is vital to their survival.

Another drawback is that biofuels are not very efficient when it comes to land use. According to Mike Berners-Lee, using solar panels instead to generate the power for flying would require 270 times less land than growing wheat for biofuel. The problem, however, is building a good enough battery. Right now, 1 kilo of jet fuel carries about the same energy as 20 kilos of premium lithion-ion batteries. One ray of hope came in March of 2015; ‘Solar Impulse 2’ began its attempt to become the first entirely solar powered plane to fly around the world. The journey was arduous and long for the two pilots. One of the pilots was named Bertrand Picard, a Swiss medical doctor who who was already the first person to fly around the world non-stop in a hot air balloon. Captain Picard of the USS Solar Impulse finally landed the plane in Abu Dhabi on July 26th 2016, from the spot where it had departed 505 days earlier.

Regardless of what figures like the US president may say, climate change is a very real and very serious danger. Biofuels are just one example of the many ways in which we can combat this danger, but they are one which will continue to grow in importance for years to come. The question is whether our money would be better spent developing renewable energies like solar and wind which require far less land and are thus better for wildlife conservation. When it comes to planes, however, grassoline may help to ease the transition to a low-carbon world. Every little helps in the fight against the huge and menacing entity that is climate change.

Some Further Reading and Research Sources