Global Warming Solutions Archive

To Tree or Not to Tree? How to Reduce Greenhouse Gases

Thursday, March 29th, 2012

This is the fourth in a series of articles outlining my proposed global warming solutions. The firstsecond and third articles discuss other aspects of the proposal.
~PSW 

I’m happy to report that, to my surprise, my recent newspaper columns on global warming have caused some consternation. I’m not surprised that the columns have upset some people who don’t believe in global warming, of course; I expected that.

But I was surprised that some people who take the threat of global warming very seriously were upset as well — because they thought that my proposed solutions were fanciful. In fact, one biophysicist wrote me an extensive email about a perceived flaw in my proposal, and one climate scientist drove from a nearby town to discuss my ideas over coffee.

I was honored that these gentlemen wanted to make sure my proposed global warming solutions are realistic and not misleading the public. However, their concerns were based on a misreading of my proposal, possibly because it was presented in abbreviated, newspaper column formats.

My proposal was that we take a three-step approach to solving global warming: (1) enact serious energy conservation measures, (2) reduce greenhouse gases that are already in the atmosphere by sequestering them in plant biomass (biosequetration) — mostly, initially, by planting millions of trees and, (3) speed up the transition to affordable, earth-friendly technologies (appropriate technology), especially in the energy sector.

Based on my discussion of biosequestration, both scientists thought I was claiming that we can solve global warming simply by planting trees. They both pointed out that trees grow too slowly to keep up with the pace of greenhouse gas emissions (especially CO2), and that all of the world’s trees combined sequester far too little CO2 to adequately “scrub” the atmosphere of the excess gas. We need to stop emitting CO2 (and other greenhouse gases), not clean up with trees after the fact.

I completely agree. But I want to be clear, as I explained to my scientist critics (much to their relief), that I never proposed that biosequestration by itself would adequately reduce greenhouse gases. To understand why, we have to look at some elementary numbers.

Humans are currently adding about 30 billions tons of CO2 to the atmosphere each year. Roughly 80 percent of that comes from burning fossil fuels; most of the rest comes from burning forests and agricultural waste. So to simply stop overloading the atmosphere, we’d have to reduce emissions by 30 billion tons a year.

But we also need to remove some of the CO2 that we’ve already added to the atmosphere to get us closer to pre-industrial levels. (Our current CO2 level of 392 parts per million [ppm] is over 30 percent higher than the pre-industrial level of 280 ppm.)

I’ve recently revised my thinking on this matter, concluding that rather than allowing CO2 to build up to 450 ppm, the maximum safe level suggested by many climate scientists, we need to revert to a level of 350 ppm or less, as environmentalist Bill McKibben and former NASA climatologist Jim Hansen state. (See McKibben’s web site and the book “Storms of My Grandchildren” by Jim Hansen.)

Why should we revert to 350 ppm?

Because we are already seeing damage from global warming. And because the amount of warming we can expect from current CO2 levels is already sufficient to melt enough of Greenland and Antarctica’s ice to cause dangerous sea-level rises that can flood the world’s coastal cities in the near future. Since CO2 doesn’t just “go away,” but persists in the atmosphere for at least several hundred years, we must remove some of the existing CO2 to avoid the catastrophic — and largely irreversible — melting of ice.

That’s where the “trees” (biosequestration) come in. Plants sequester tens of  billion of tons of CO2 annually in their biomass, and, if we plant enough of them and manage our forests and farms correctly, they can gradually reduce greenhouse gases to pre-industrial levels and, with luck, stabilize the climate.

But there’s a catch. Plants release most of their CO2 back into the atmosphere when they decompose after dying, so to remove the gas we need to convert some of the plant biomass into a form that can be permanently sequestered. Fortunately, biomass is readily converted into “biochar” (charcoal) that is useful as a soil amendment and can be sequestered in soil for centuries.

Biochar potentially can sequester about 30 percent of plant biomass, roughly equivalent to five billion tons of atmospheric CO2 annually. What about reducing the other 25 (plus) billion tons of annual CO2 loading? Stay tuned for appropriate energy technology solutions.

~PSW

This post is a modified version of an article that was originally written as syndicated newspaper column, published in various locations around the U.S. in March, 2012. 

Relevant Reading:

Buy books and help Ecotecture! If you liked this article and want to learn more, we invite you to buy books through the links below — we earn a small commission on each purchase you make, without raising your cost one cent. We’ll use that commission to expand our efforts to empower you to solve environmental problems.

Deforestation and Climate Change, Bosetti and Lubowski

Global Warming: Understanding the Forecast, David Archer

(Note, David Archer, the teacher of a popular course on global warming for non-scientists at the University of Chicago, now offers a version, “Open Climate 101” — online and for free. If you complete the online course, he’ll send you a signed certificate. Read a good review of Online 101 on the NY Times Dot Earth environmental blog.)

Storms of My Grand Children, James C. Hansen
Hell and High Water, Joseph Romm
Forecast, Stephan Faris
Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet, Mark Lynas

Related Links On Ecotecture:

Global Warming Solution? The Framework for a Plan (1st article in this series)

Global Warming Solution? Energy Conservation and Carbon Biostorage (2nd article in this series)

Global Warming Solutions? Artificial Trees versus Real Forests (3rd article in this series)

How Can We Stop Global Warming? Brains, Bodies or Biochar? 

Is It Too Late for Renewable Energy to Slow Global Warming? 

Man-Made Global Warming: It’s Real, Get Over It!

Comments are welcome and generally will be posted if they are on topic and inoffensive. However, Ecotecture does not post comments to the effect that global warming is a hoax. Read our position on global warming here.

Global Warming Solutions? Artificial Trees versus Real Forests

Wednesday, March 7th, 2012

This is the third in a series of articles outlining my proposed global warming solutions. The first and second articles provide background material for the series. ~PSW

How about this for a design principle: Always choose the simplest, cheapest, low-tech solution over a more complicated, more expensive, high-tech solution. That might sound obvious, but you’d be surprised at some of the Rube Goldbergesque proposals I’ve come across while researching global warming solutions.

Artificial trees — the designs for which come with pedigrees from Columbia University and England’s prestigious Institution for Mechanical Engineers (IME) — are one of my favorite overdesigned boondoggles. IME’s design, one of several versions of artificial trees that have been proposed, are tall metal towers topped with large, specialized air filters. They would be “planted” along Britain’s highways and byways where they would suck up auto emissions and store greenhouse gases in the filters.

Maintenance crews would stop by periodically and replace the filters, then sequester the used, gas-saturated filters in abandoned coal mines. Naturally a great deal of energy will be needed to manufacture, install and operate the trees and handle and transport the filters, negating some of the positive effects of the atmospheric scrubbing.

But at least this should provide quite a few jobs since we have to sequester about seven billion tons of CO2 annually just to keep the atmosphere at its current saturation level. Why, in just a few years we’ll need to employ thousands of miners to dig new coal mines, so we can abandon them to provide more storage for the filters!

To be fair, IMI’s designers claim that each tree can capture up to 10 tons of COper day — thousands of times more than the capacity of a real tree. They assert that with an investment of around five billion dollars (not counting operating costs), Britain could build a “forest” of 100,000 trees that could remove 60 percent of its CO2 emissions. Ostensibly, investing in 5 to 10 million trees could absorb all the world’s CO2 from all sources other than power plants.

Are Real Forests Better Global Warming Solutions?

But what if those same billions of dollars were spent on programs to preserve and expand existing forests which already sequester carbon and perform many other ecosystem services? Rather than investing in unproven high-tech systems (what are the artificial tree filters made from? will that material become scarce? what happens when the trees break down? who will pay for the ongoing expense of maintaining the “forest?”), why not invest in the proven “technology” of highly evolved, sustainable living systems?

Largely self-regulating and self-maintaining, and “running” on free solar energy, established forests sequester vast quantities of CO2, nourish biodiversity, retain and condition soil, help regulate the water cycle and, if sustainably harvested, can yield quality building materials and other valuable products for generations to come.

But rapid worldwide deforestation, mostly in developing nations, is responsible for 20 to 25 percent of all greenhouse gas releases (mostly CO2 and methane, an even more potent greenhouse gas). So, globally, humanity is making the problem worse while desperately trying to build machinery to fix it. It’s like pouring water into a bucket while drilling bigger and bigger holes in the bottom.

Granted, the politics of developed nations investing in forest conservation in developing nations is tricky and demanding. But no more so than the politics of trying to get, say, massive polluters like India and China to install artificial trees in their cities. Why not begin by preserving and expanding existing forests, rather than reinventing nature’s wheel and building fake forests from scratch?

~PSW

This post is a modified version of an article that was originally written as syndicated newspaper column, published in various locations around the U.S. in March, 2012. 

Relevant Reading:

Buy books and help Ecotecture! If you liked this article and want to learn more, we invite you to buy books through the links below — we earn a small commission on each purchase you make, without raising your cost one cent. We’ll use that commission to expand our efforts to empower you to solve environmental problems.

Deforestation and Climate Change, Bosetti and Lubowski

Global Warming: Understanding the Forecast, David Archer

(Note, David Archer, the teacher of a popular course on global warming for non-scientists at the University of Chicago, now offers a version, “Open Climate 101” — online and for free. If you complete the online course, he’ll send you a signed certificate. Read a good review of Online 101 on the NY Times Dot Earth environmental blog.)

Storms of My Grand Children, James C. Hansen
Hell and High Water, Joseph Romm
Forecast, Stephan Faris
Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet, Mark Lynas

Related Links On Ecotecture:

Global Warming Solution? The Framework for a Plan (1st article in this series)

Global Warming Solution? Energy Conservation and Carbon Biostorage (2nd article in this series)

How Can We Stop Global Warming? Brains, Bodies or Biochar? 

Is It Too Late for Renewable Energy to Slow Global Warming? 

Man-Made Global Warming: It’s Real, Get Over It!

Comments are welcome and generally will be posted if they are on topic and inoffensive. However, Ecotecture does not post comments to the effect that global warming is a hoax. Read our position on global warming here.


Global Warming Solution? Energy Conservation and Carbon Biostorage

Friday, February 17th, 2012

This is the second in a series of articles outlining proposed solutions to the problem of global warming. Read the first article here

Good design gives us the most for the least — the biggest bang for our buck. For example, a properly engineered steel beam is no larger than it has to be to carry its anticipated load and provide a little extra margin of safety. A bigger beam would be uneconomical, while a smaller beam would be unsafe.

The same principle applies to tackling complex problems. Any proposed global warming solution should try to mitigate and adapt to global warming’s negative effects by the least costly and disruptive means, while recognizing that costs and changes to “business as usual” are inevitable. Our strategy should be to try to turn the costs into benefits, and the changes into long-term economic stability and positive cultural evolution.

In the first article in this series I discussed design parameters and called for a three-part global warming solution of conserving energy, lowering existing greenhouse gas levels (not just curbing future emissions), and transitioning to appropriate energy technologies. All three strategies can and should be implemented simultaneously and immediately.

Energy conservation is fundamental to the sustainability of any dynamic system, because it takes energy to get energy. Fortunately, energy conservation is the cheapest, most effective and most easily implemented measure we can take to reduce global warming — while simultaneously addressing a host of other environmental problems.

The 2009 McKinsey Report on energy efficiency  establishes that investments of $520 billion in efficiency measures — not counting energy used for transportation — can save $1.2 trillion in energy expenditures by 2020-2025, with most of the investments delivering savings for the decades to come. (Other studies predict similar results.)

The investment could come from all sectors, public and private, and in small and large amounts. For example, houses represent 35 percent of the possible gains in efficiency, so there is a large role for homeowners to play.

The Biostorage Global Warming Solution

Removing greenhouse gases, mostly CO2, from the atmosphere must begin immediately. We are already close to the safe limit (450 parts per million) of CO2 loading, and we’re seeing the early effects of global warming. The carbon emissions of both developed and developing countries, particularly China and India, will push us past the safe limit in about 20 years, and CO2 persists in the atmosphere for hundreds of years, locking in warming trends.

While many schemes for capturing and sequestering “carbon” have been proposed, most involve developing new machines, some of which are energy intensive and all of which are expensive. But nature has been sequestering carbon for millions of years — look at all that coal and oil! — through a mechanism known as “biostorage.” Plants, with their combined millions of square miles of leaf and algal-cell surfaces, use free solar energy to capture atmospheric CO2 and convert it into billions of tons of botanical biomass (tissue).

In nature, this process is mostly reversible: when plants die and decompose, most of their carbon is released back into the atmosphere. However, as coal and oil illustrate, a portion of that carbon can remain buried in the earth.

By mimicking nature’s processes, humans can convert up to 30 percent of farm and forest waste biomass into a form of charcoal called “biochar,” a soil amendment, and bury it in the soil, where it will remain for hundreds or even thousands of years.

So biostorage is a two-step process of growing plants, which quickly but temporarily store carbon in their biomass, and storing some of that carbon permanently as biochar or in other forms.

Trees dwarf other plants in their carbon storage capacity and planting millions of them is an obvious carbon sequestering strategy. But other forms of plant cultivation are also promising.

For example, pioneering agronomist Wes Jackson has developed “perennial grains” — hybrids of native prairie grasses and food crops such as wheat and sorghum — at The Land Institute in Kansas. Prairie grasses have huge root systems that live for years beneath the soil. If perennials overtake annuals as a primary food source, and if millions of acres are planted, billions of tons of carbon can be sequestered in the living roots, and recycled into new plants as the old ones die and are broken down to make new “plant food.”

In upcoming articles in this series, I’ll discuss other biostorage ideas and the technological, cultural and economic transition needed to shepherd humanity through the global warming era.

~PSW

This post is a modified version of an article that was originally written as syndicated newspaper column, published in various locations around the U.S. in February, 2012. 

Relevant Reading:

Buy books and help Ecotecture! If you liked this article and want to learn more, we invite you to buy books through the links below — we earn a small commission on each purchase you make, without raising your cost one cent. We’ll use that commission to expand our efforts to empower you to solve environmental problems.

Global Warming: Understanding the Forecast, David Archer

(Note, David Archer, the teacher of a popular course on global warming for non-scientists at the University of Chicago, now offers a version, “Open Climate 101” — online and for free. If you complete the online course, he’ll send you a signed certificate. Read a good review of Online 101 on the NY Times Dot Earth environmental blog.)

Storms of My Grand Children, James C. Hansen
Hell and High Water, Joseph Romm
Forecast, Stephan Faris
Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet, Mark Lynas

Related Links On Ecotecture:

Global Warming Solution? The Framework for a Plan (1st article in this series)

How Can We Stop Global Warming? Brains, Bodies or Biochar? 

Is It Too Late for Renewable Energy to Slow Global Warming? 

Man-Made Global Warming: It’s Real, Get Over It!

Comments are welcome and generally will be posted if they are on topic and inoffensive. However, Ecotecture does not post comments to the effect that global warming is a hoax. Read our position on global warming here.

 

Global Warming Solution? The Framework for a Plan

Sunday, February 5th, 2012

So many solutions to global warming have been proposed that we can’t see the forest for the trees. Confusion over how to approach the growing threat abounds in all quarters, from those of government policy makers to the scientific establishment to the thousands of environmentalists confronting the problem.

This is to be expected, because the scope and complexity of the challenge is unprecedented. Left unabated, global warming — which is ubiquitous and without borders — threatens to disrupt the global economy and even the stability of the ecosphere (see “Relevant Reading,” below).

It’s no wonder then, that there is confusion about the appropriate responses to the developing crisis. Global warming will affect everyone; therefore almost everyone has an idea about what should be done.

But few coherent, systemic solutions have been proposed. Instead, there is a hodgepodge of disconnected ideas, often half-formulated, often contradicting each other, either because of a lack of understanding of the dimensions of the problem or the failure to take an overview of its myriad aspects. Or, because of conflicting agendas between, say, developed and developing nations or vested interests and the public good.

The numerous partial global warming solutions include proposals for abandoning fossil fuels and adopting new energy sources ranging from solar, wind, geothermal and wave energy to nuclear energy; assorted plans for limiting greenhouse gas emissions including taxing “carbon” and burning “clean coal”; dubious schemes for atmospheric geoengineering; manufacturing more electric cars; increasing rail service; deploying artificial trees; burying biochar; and on and on.

Given enough time, humanity might have the luxury of allowing these proposals to develop, compete, evolve and coalesce into (pardon the phrase) a new world order that addresses global warming and its underlying socioeconomic causes in a pervasive, beneficial fashion. But we don’t have the luxury of allowing such “creative destruction” to act out for the century or more that would be needed to yield tangible results.

A Comprehensive Global Warming Solution

We need to formulate a comprehensive global warming solution now that will address the problem within the next 20 years, while we still have a chance of curbing its worst effects or, ideally, reversing warming to some extent. We should start by laying out the parameters for a realistic plan that could ultimately meet with success.

The objective is straightforward enough: to reduce the causes and curb the effects of global warming by means that can be implemented with affordable, existing, appropriate technology; are scalable and therefore “democratic”; can work with or without government support; are environmentally nurturing and regenerative; and will advance a relatively smooth transition to sustainable economic and cultural institutions worldwide.

That’s a mouthful, but it’s not necessarily an impossibly tall order. If you look at some of the key concepts — affordable, appropriate, scalable, regenerative, smooth —  you’ll see that it’s a minimalist approach to the problem, seeking to do the most with the least.

For example, Ecotecture’s three part proposal for curbing global warming, to be elaborated upon in subsequent articles, involves: 1) energy conservation, 2) biostorage of greenhouse gases (growing trees and conserving forests, revitalizing prairies, transforming agriculture and cultivating algae for fuel and sequestration) and, 3) adopting regionally appropriate, minimal-investment energy technologies to displace our current unsustainable energy regime.

Note that there is no call for “developing new energy sources to meet our growing needs” in developed countries. That’s because numerous studies have shown that energy conservation and efficiency measures can reduce U.S. energy consumption by 20 percent or more, without even counting the transportation sector. The reductions can save us over a trillion dollars, generate hundreds of thousands of jobs and obviate the need for new energy development in the near future. Since it takes energy to get energy, we need to conserve the energy we have as our first priority, while simultaneously converting to renewable energy sources.

The “scalable and therefore ‘democratic’” parameter means that the measures can be undertaken by individuals or communities or scaled upward to national or multi-national efforts. A homeowner can choose to insulate her house, a state can mandate stringent “green” building codes; the world’s nations can agree to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Working with or without government means that individuals, NGOs or companies can initiate projects — massive tree plantings, for example — when government help is restricted by funding or the inability to formulate policy.

Everyone can join the fight against global warming.

~PSW

A modified version of this article was originally written as syndicated newspaper column, published in various locations around the U.S. in February, 2012. 

Relevant Reading:

Buy books and help Ecotecture! If you liked this article and want to learn more, we invite you to buy books through the links below — we earn a small commission on each purchase you make. We’ll use that commission to expand our efforts to empower you to solve environmental problems.

Global Warming: Understanding the Forecast, David Archer

(Note, David Archer, the teacher of a popular course on global warming for non-scientists at the University of Chicago, now offers a version, “Open Climate 101” — online and for free. If you complete the online course, he’ll send you a signed certificate. Read a good review of Online 101 on the NY Times Dot Earth environmental blog.)

Storms of My Grand Children, James C. Hansen
Hell and High Water, Joseph Romm
Forecast, Stephan Faris
Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planett, Mark Lynas

Related Links On Ecotecture:

How Can We Stop Global Warming? Brains, Bodies or Biochar? 

Is It Too Late for Renewable Energy to Slow Global Warming? 

Man-Made Global Warming: It’s Real, Get Over It!

Comments are welcome and generally will be posted if they are on topic and inoffensive. However, Ecotecture does not post comments to the effect that global warming is a hoax. Read our position on global warming here.

 

How Can We Stop Global Warming? Brains, Bodies or Biochar?

Sunday, November 20th, 2011

In a subtext of his Dot Earth blog on the sale of Australian coal to China, Andrew C. Revkin of the NY Times outlined his overall assessment of the global climate crisis and his strategy for stopping it:

“To me, choosing a number — 350, 450 or 550 parts per million [of atmospheric CO2],[or a] 2 or 3 degrees (F. or C.!) [rise in global temperature] — is essentially meaningless for our generation, especially given the trajectories for [CO2] emissions in China and India.

The task on emissions is twofold — to bend the curve of [greenhouse] gas releases using regulations, incentives, education and standards, but (more importantly, to me) also to build the intellectual infrastructure and innovative, globally-collaborative culture that will be required for the next generation to take that curve down toward zero even as humanity’s energy needs continue to rise. …”

The night before reading Revkin’s blog, I had the privilege of attending a lecture by Bill McKibben at Oregon State University. McKibben is the author of numerous books on global warming and the founder of an international movement to reduce the ratio of atmospheric CO2 to 350 parts per million (ppm) (The current ratio is 394 ppm and rising about 2ppm per year).

Most recently, he has lead the successful fight to stop or at least delay the construction of Keystone xl pipeline that was to carry tar sands oil from the Canadian border to American refineries along Gulf of Mexico (which would sell the refined oil on the international market). McKibben’s strategy was one of non-violent civil disobedience consisting of a month-long sit in at the White House, where he was joined by thousands of others. “We’ll never have as much money as the fossil fuel industry,” he told the Oregon State audience, “but we do have our bodies.”

Here’s a somewhat altered version of a comment I posted on Revkin’s blog:

How can we stop global warming? Tough call.

I went to a Bill McKibben lecture last night, and he’s certainly picked a number (350 ppm). Based in part on your [Revkin’s] writeup of last week’s International Energy Agency (IEA) report, which, for all practical purposes says we’ll be locked into a 450 ppm scenario in five years (unless the powers that be “drive investment in clean energy” — Ha!), I asked McKibben the following question(s):

“Do you think it’s too late for renewable energy development to slow global warming, and shouldn’t we be focusing on a massive program of biogenic carbon sequestration? Along with a crash program of energy conservation to buy us some time?”

McKibben’s response is that energy conservation and biogenic sequestration would help, but the only real way to stop global warming was to engage in non-violent resistance to force governments to put a very high tax on carbon pollution.

The Future is Now 

I, and apparently you [Revkin] think it’s too late to hold the line to a specific number — certainly to revert to 350 ppm.

But the quandary of your approach is that building intellectual infrastructure and globally-collaborative culture for the next generation assumes that there will be a next generation capable of using those gifts. Look at the havoc already raised by a 350+ ppm-induced 1ºC temperature rise.

Then consider the fact that the historic CO2 emissions curve is going almost straight up — and that 2010 was the worst year on record for carbon pollution.  And the five-year sword of Damocles described the IEA report.

The droughts, famines, floods and general economic chaos induced by the climate crisis threatens to be so disruptive to global civilization that it could be hard for people stay connected, nonetheless collaborate. Scarcity and chaos can lead to wars, which can lead to nuclear discharges, which will put a serious damper on the proliferation of knowledge.

So although I have little hope for McKibben’s overall strategy —  I don’I think civil disobedience can stop global warming in a timely fashion, if at all — I do agree with him that future is NOW.

 We Must Sequester Existing Atmospheric CO2 — ASAP 

There is already too much CO2 in the atmosphere, we’re rapidly adding more, and there is a very real danger that we could trigger a methane release that would cause runaway global warming.

How can we stop global warming? Embark on a crash energy-conservation program to buy ourselves time, and initiate a massive biogenic carbon sequestration program.

What’s biogenic carbon sequestration? Essentially growing terrestrial plants — mostly trees, billions of trees  — to store carbon. As those trees die  — in two to 10 human generations — their stored carbon can be turned into “biochar” (charcoal) and buried in the earth, enhancing soil productivity.

All other approaches to “geoengineering” are fraught with the possibility of dangerous unintended consequences, but nature’s carbon storage machines — plants — can save us from global warming and restore our earthly garden.

And while Revkin and McKIbben’s approaches, along with the accelerated development of renewable energy are all part of the solution, only energy conservation can be implemented cheaply, quickly and reliably, and only biogenic carbon sequestration can restore the earth.

We’ll explore these solutions in upcoming posts on Ecotecture.

~PSW

Relevant Reading:

Buy books and help Ecotecture! If you liked this article and want to learn more, we invite you to buy books through the links below — we earn a small commission on each purchase you make. We’ll use that commission to expand our efforts to empower you to solve environmental problems.

The Rough Guide to Climate Change, Robert Henson (2011 ed.)
The Atlas of Climate Change, Kirstin Dow and Thomas Downing (Nov. 2011 ed.)
The Great Disruption, Paul Gilding
Eaarth: Making Life on a Tough New Planet, Bill McKibben
The Biochar Solution, Albert Bates 

Related Posts on Ecotecture:

Is It Too Late For Renewable Energy to Slow Global Warming?
Man-Made Global Warming: It’s Real, Get Over It!

Comments are welcome and generally will be posted if they are on topic and inoffensive. However, Ecotecture does not post comments to the effect that global warming is a hoax. Read our position on global warming here.

Is It Too Late for Renewable Energy to Slow Global Warming?

Sunday, November 13th, 2011

The IEA’s Stark Warning

In its annual World Energy Outlook report released last week, the International Energy Agency (IEA), one of the world’s premier sources of predictive energy analysis, issued a stark warning: we have only until 2017 to avoid being on an irreversible course that will push us past the 450 parts per million (ppm) atmospheric CO2 level that the majority of the world’s climate scientist believe will lead to catastrophic and irreversible global warming.

“As each year passes without clear signals to drive investment in clean energy,” said IEA Chief Economist Fatih Birol at a press conference observing the release of the report, “the ‘lock-in’ of high-carbon infrastructure is making it harder and more expensive to meet our energy security and climate goals.”

In his Dot Earth environmental blog, Andrew C. Revkin of the New York Times thus interprets Birol’s remarks and the report: “The [World Energy Outlook] presents a 450 Scenario, which traces an energy path consistent with meeting the globally agreed goal of limiting the temperature rise to 2°C [by limiting carbon pollution to 450ppm]. Four-fifths of the total energy-related CO2 emissions permitted to 2035 in the 450 Scenario are already locked-in by existing capital stock, including power stations, buildings and factories. Without further action [to develop renewable energy] by 2017, the energy-related infrastructure then in place would generate all the CO2 emissions allowed in the 450 Scenario up to 2035.”

Revkin goes on to say, “Delaying action is a false economy: for every $1 of investment in cleaner technology that is avoided in the power sector before 2020, an additional $4.30 would need to be spent after 2020 to compensate for the increased emissions.”

Is It Too Late?

Ecotecture’s position is that the needed renewable energy investment is simply not going to be made. There is far too little economic incentive, and thus political will to reverse the trends of dirty energy development in the world’s developing or developed countries within the next five years.

But even if the investments were made, it is probably too late for renewable energy to keep us from going beyond the 450ppm or 2ºC point. Because of the persistence of atmospheric CO2 — it stays in the atmosphere for at least several centuries — and the fact that our existing energy, manufacturing, agriculture and transportation sectors are already producing 80% of the allowable CO2 “budget” — even a perfect renewable investment scenario would only delay the “locked in” condition for a few years beyond 2035 because there will be ongoing investment in polluting industries as well.

Eventually, the polluting industries will “use up” the remaining 20% of the below-450ppm carbon budget. (Unless we abandon and dismantle the polluting industries — unlikely on a planet with an exploding population.)  (See Fiona Harvey’s excellent analysis of the 450ppm threat in the Guardian.)

Additionally, we are currently seeing the early results of disruptive climate change due to the relatively modest, approximate 1ºC  rise in global temperature that has already occurred. We clearly need to move beyond believing renewable energy can slow climate change and start thinking about removing the existing excess CO2 from the atmosphere. Meanwhile, we can buy ourselves a little time by enacting a crash energy conservation program.

Ironically, climate change might slow itself by disrupting the global economy in ways that will delegate the Great Recession to the status of a minor and mostly forgotten inconvenience. But that’s NOT how we want to reverse climate change.

Here is an shortened version of the comment I posted on the NY Times article about the World Energy Outlook report, which bases its energy-use projections on population and economic growth scenarios:

 Few of these reports discuss the very real environmental and economic consequences of global warming. How will China continue to grow, for example, when the Himalayan glaciers that supply much of its water melt away in the next 10-15 years? How will [the] American [agricultural sector remain viable] when the drought afflicting Texas and the South spreads throughout the midwest, parching farmlands?

 How many more Katrina’s can we afford, and where, in our “austerity economy,” will governments find the money to protect New York and London from rising tides that flood their respective subways and sewer systems?

 The [NY Times] article ends by saying that delaying investment in green energy beyond 2020 will be costly. One could also argue that it will simply be too late. The money won’t be there then, any more than it is here now. We’re already beyond the tipping point of global warming and carbon pollution — and we’re becoming more, rather than less locked into polluting energy sources. It’s likely to be “game over” by 2025 at the latest.

 Our only  hope is instituting emergency programs of both energy conservation and biogenic carbon sequestration. These can be implemented relatively cheaply and quickly, and don’t require rebuilding our electric grid, chiding a recalcitrant Congress into funding green energy R&D or enacting any other policies that can’t be implemented before the end of this decade.

~PSW

Relevant Reading:

Buy books and help Ecotecture! If you liked this article and want to learn more, we invite you to buy books through the links below — we earn a small commission on each purchase you make. We’ll use that commission to expand our efforts to empower you to solve environmental problems.

The Rough Guide to Climate Change, Robert Henson (2011 ed.)
The Atlas of Climate Change, Kirstin Dow and Thomas Downing (Nov. 2011 ed.)
The Great Disruption, Paul Gilding
Eaarth: Making Life on a Tough New Planet, Bill McKibben
The Biochar Solution, Albert Bates 

Comments are welcome and generally will be posted if they are on topic and inoffensive. However, Ecotecture does not post comments to the effect that global warming is a hoax. Read our position on global warming here.

Man-Made Global Warming: It’s Real, Get Over It!

Friday, November 4th, 2011

In the introduction to his excellent book How to Cool the Planet, environmental author Jeff Goodell writes:

“By 2006, the major scientific uncertainties about whether or not the planet was warming — and why it was warming — had been long settled. (I won’t bother rehashing the evidence. If you still think global warming is a myth or unrelated to human activity, you’re reading the wrong book.)”

That was music to my ears, because it’s also true that if you don’t believe in man-made global warming, you’re visiting the wrong web site. You are unlikely to benefit from reading many of our articles because they are based on the premise that the so called “global warming debate” is settled, and move on from that position to exploring solutions to the global-warming crisis.

(If you’re unsure about the reality or causes of global warming, please keep visiting our site. Many of our articles could be of interest to you, our bookstore will carry a number of excellent titles on the subject, and we always welcome those with an open mind.)

I want to be clear that while Ecotecture’s content presupposes the reality of man-made global warming — and considers it a serious threat to global civilization — we do not claim to understand or be able to predict all of its manifestations. This is in keeping with the scientific “debate” on the topic. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), 97 percent of the world’s climate scientists recognize the reality of man-made global warming — there is no debate there. But there is considerable debate about its possible effects, especially when it comes to the exact details.

We know the general scenario — that global warming will cause a dangerous rise in sea levels and massive storms and droughts capable of decimating entire regions and displacing their populations — but we don’t know exactly when or where those events might occur. However, we’ve been getting an inkling of that in the past few years, and it doesn’t look good. Climate-induced problems are occurring much sooner than expected, and we are already paying a heavy price for dumping too much carbon into our atmosphere.

Also, the warming that has already occurred could trigger the rapid release of massive amounts of more potent greenhouse gases such as the billions of tons of methane stored deep in the ocean and the arctic tundra, causing a “sudden,” catastrophic and irreversible spike in global temperatures.

Because of the persistence of atmospheric carbon — it remains airborne for several hundred years and the oceans have already absorbed as much of it as they can — Ecotecture takes the position that we have passed the tipping point and entered a true climate crisis. Even if we could somehow magically stop outgassing carbon dioxide tomorrow morning, there is already enough of it in the atmosphere to cause global temperatures to continue to rise for decades to come.

Therefore, much of our content will be based on reducing carbon loading through energy conservation and alternative energy production; reducing current atmospheric carbon levels though “biogenic carbon sequestration” (capturing and storing atmospheric carbon in living matter and burying some of it in the earth in the form of “biochar;” and adaption and mitigation strategies for local populations.

We consider that facing and addressing global warming — not debating its well-established realities — to be the proper function of our Journal which is devoted to “empowering our readers to solve environmental problems.”

~PSW

Relevant Reading:

Buy books and help Ecotecture! If you liked this article and want to learn more, we invite you to buy books through the links below — we earn a small commission on each purchase you make. We’ll use that commission to expand our efforts to empower you to solve environmental problems.

The Rough Guide to Climate Change, Robert Henson (2011 ed.)
The Atlas of Climate Change, Kirstin Dow and Thomas Downing (Nov. 2011 ed.)
The Great Disruption, Paul Gilding
Eaarth: Making Life on a Tough New Planet, Bill McKibben

Related Posts on Ecotecture:

Is It Too Late For Renewable Energy to Slow Global Warming?

How Can We Stop Global Warming? Brains, Bodies or Biochar?
Global Warming Solution? The Framework of a Plan (1st in series)
Global Warming Solution? Energy Conservation and Carbon Biostorage (2nd)
Comments are welcome and generally will be posted if they are on topic and inoffensive. However, Ecotecture does not post comments to the effect that global warming is a hoax.

Comments are welcome and generally will be posted if they are on topic and inoffensive. However, Ecotecture does not post comments to the effect that global warming is a hoax.