Environmentalism

The Size of the Climate Problem

The fourth Dispatch from the Bali U.N. climate conference

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Nusa Dua, Bali – Assume man-made global warming is a big problem. In fact, you are persuaded that unless something is done soon, the world will warm up on average between 2 and 3 degrees Celsius over the next century and that this is a really bad idea. What will it take to address climate change in technical terms?

At a side event on Wednesday, held at the Bali Grand Hyatt, James Connaughton, one of the lead U.S. climate negotiators and the director of President Bush's Council on Environmental Quality, offered some insight on this issue. First, Connaughton assured the audience that the U.S. accepts that the world must slow, stop and then reverse greenhouse gas emissions. He declared that U.S. seeks to establish "a shared long-term global goal in reducing greenhouse gas emissions in absolute terms." Although Connaughton was not specific, such a goal might be an agreement to cut global emissions by 50 percent by 2050. Setting a long-term goal, Connaughton added, would let everyone know the reductions curve they face ahead, enabling them to plan accordingly.

So what is the size of the problem confronting the world? Connaughton pointed out that the largest increases in GHG emissions will come from new coal-fired electric generation plants, more people driving more cars, and land use changes. Therefore, the world must figure out how to capture and sequester CO2 emissions from coal, devise carbon-neutral transport fuels and reverse deforestation.

Connaughton cited estimates that by 2020 there will be as many cars in China as there are today in the United States. One of his fellow panelists, William Hohenstein of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, highlighted that deforestation is responsible to 20 percent of GHG emissions and agriculture adds 15 percent more. This means that 35 percent of GHG emissions are the result of land use changes. In fact, one-third of the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations over pre-industrial levels is the result of deforestation and other land use changes. Interestingly, U.S. forests are now absorbing about 10 percent of the country's annual emissions (of course, a lot of carbon was released when one-third of the original forest area was cut as the country developed economically).

Connaughton offered an interesting thought experiment. The major economies emit 22 gigatons (1 billion tons) of CO2 annually. In one reference case, those emissions would rise to 37 gigatons by 2050. So, Connaughton says, assume that we need to reduce current emissions by half from current emission—by 11 gigatons—to stabilize CO2 atmospheric concentrations. That means that the world would have to find the equivalent energy that producing 25 gigatons of emissions would have produced in 2050.

To get a handle on what this might mean, Connaughton asked, "How big is a gigaton?" One gigaton is equivalent to 273 coal-fired electric generation plants with carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). Of course, there are only a few demonstration plants now, and 273 plants represent 7 percent of the world's current coal-fired generation capacity. Estimates of how much CCS might cost range between $150 to $250 per ton of carbon (or $50 to $80 per ton of CO2). By one estimate CCS would raise the cost of electricity to 25 to 40 percent; others suggest that the increase could be as much as 85 percent.

Connaughton also pointed out that avoiding the emission of a gigaton of CO2 implies building 135 new nuclear power plants. The world has 400 now. In addition, a gigaton is equivalent to 270,000 windmills which is 4-times more than are currently operating. Growing enough biofuels to reduce a gigaton of emissions would take an area twice the size of the United Kingdom. Of course, such projections rely on the deployment of near-term technologies. It's impossible to tell what new technologies a higher price on carbon fuels might call forth from the world's laboratories.

Clearly, as Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono noted when he opened the Bali conference, "We are embarking on the greatest project in the history of human civilization."

Disclosure: I would like to express my deep appreciation to the Atlas Economic Research Foundation for providing a grant to pay for my travel expenses to cover the COP-13 meeting.

Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His most recent book, Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution, is available from Prometheus Books.

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  1. Sounds like we need clean distributed power generation. Most buildings can be designed to produce enough power for their own needs, which some producing excess power.

    http://bet.rmi.org/
    http://www.rmi.org/
    http://www.rmi.org/sitepages/pid249.php

    Amory Lovins: The Oil End Game
    http://www.rmi.org/sitepages/pid276.php

  2. which some = with some

    ack, need coffee.

  3. Why should we assume that future growth will be as energy-intensive as previous growth, when energy efficiency is one of the most promising fields of GHG-emission technologies?

  4. joe: I agree. Also why assume that we’re going to be stuck with same old energy techs for the whole of the 21st century? Still Connaughton offered an interesting heuristic.

  5. As a model for understanding the situation, I agree, it does provide for a useful measure, like those “if current trends continue” deficit forcasts.

    Of course current trends won’t continue, but that’s not the point.

  6. Until there’s actual prrof that we are causing climate change, I don’t want my tax money paying for anything.
    Mars is warming. Is that our fault?
    And this

    http://news.yahoo.com/s/livescience/20071213/sc_livescience/magmamaybemeltinggreenlandice

  7. Very interesting papers being published on how warming may actually decrease the severity of Atlantic hurricanes. Isn’t that, like, the opposite of what the previous guess–I mean consensus–was? Seems to me like we’re taking an FDR approach to the science: throw out a bunch of theories and hope one sticks. Hold tight, boys and girls. It’s going to be a bumpy–and expensive–ride.

  8. I heard we are only about 15 to 20 years away from fission. This is like neuclear power but when used with an element that is found in abondance on the moon, produces no waste of any kind. The article said we would only need about 4 tons a year for the united states and there are millions of tons on the moon.

  9. Sounds like we need clean distributed power generation.

    I could get behind that. Wind power is a bigger and bigger deal here in Texas all the time, and I am in the noodling stage of thinking about what I want in my next (and hopefully final) house. I’d love to be off the (electrical) grid entirely, just for the sheer cantankerous contrariness of it.

  10. If you’re off the grid, you can’t sell power back to it.

  11. I’ve gotten my eye on a few thousand square miles of Antarctic real estate. My great-great-great grandkids will be “wealthy beyond the dreams of avarice”. (in memory of DeForest Kelly).

  12. But, Tbone, it’ll take years to figure out this matrix.

    NOT NOW MADELINE!

  13. Besides, I thought the coming singularity renders AGW a moot discussion.

    “All hail our nanobot overlords.”

  14. I will admit that a distributed, clean electrical grid is beautiful idea. The elephant in the living room:

    China – 1.32 billion
    India – 1.13 billion
    Indonesia – .23 billion
    Brazil – .19 billion
    Pakistan – .16 billion
    Nigeria – .15 billion
    And that’s not everybody.

    Lets face it. These countries are all going to want, and deserve, to increase their electrical usage to first world levels. Where is it all going to come from? Wind and solar? I don’t think so. If somebody reading this thread could point this sketic to a credible, comprehensive and peer reviewed study on “Green”, non-nuclear power generation that takes these folks into account, please let this skeptic know. I still say that fission (primary), supplemented by other clean economically competitive sources is the only viable plan.

    I drean of fusion and large scale geothermal, but don’t think we want to rely on technologies that don’t exixt and may never be practical.

  15. It isn’t going to come from having each of those country’s bidding against each other for a pool of oil that is either not growing, or shrinking.

    Iceland is going to have an entirely alternative-energy economy in the next decade. They are going to use geothermal to make hydrogen, and replace all of their gas stations with hydrogen stations.

    Does anybody know if you can fill a tanker with hydrogen, like they do with LNG, and float it across the ocean?

  16. Does anybody know if you can fill a tanker with hydrogen, like they do with LNG, and float it across the ocean?

    oh! oh! oh!

    joe! pick me! i know! pick me! oh! oh! oh! joe! joe!joe!

    ooooh! oooooooooh! oh! oh! oh! pick me! pick me! i know! i know! i know! ooh! I know!!!

    pick me! ooh! joe! joe! pick me! i know! ooh! I know the answer to this. ooh! pick me. i got it! oh! oh! Oh!

    joe! joe! joe! joe! joe! joe! joe! joe! joe! joe! joe! joe! joe! joe! joe! joe! pick me! call on me! call on me! oh! joe! oh! joe!

    i know! i know! oh joe! call on me! oh! oh! oh!

  17. Anyone?

    Does anyone have an answer?

    Anyone?

    Sigh. Yes, Moose?

  18. [triumphantly]
    What kind of tanker? Then maybe. um. [quietly]yes

    ?

    um.. but if it’s a submarine. then you’d have to, um…

    can I go get a drink of water?

  19. I say we put a box on our butt. We, collectively, are sitting on the Persian Gulf of methane. We’re sitting on it!

    Think of the jobs that could be created. Just having to make new pairs of pants that need to accomodate the box on our butt. The possibilities are endless.

  20. Joe,

    Yes, however, google the hydrogen hoax. Zubrin is a bit zealous, but is correct that there are major environmental and technological problems with mass hydrogen use, before one even starts discussing costs.

  21. ZEPPELIN!

    ooh! THAT’S WHAT I MEANT. ZEPPELIN!

  22. So you ship the H2 via Zeppelin all over the world and drain out the H2 at the destination. What happens when Iceland runs out of Zeppelins? When is Peak Zeppelin?

  23. I heard we are only about 15 to 20 years away from fission.

    Oh, I hope not. Edison will be pissed when they learn that San Onofre isn’t generating a watt… I think you meant fusion

    There was recently a study showing the large-scale climate models don’t actually model the climate so well:

    http://tinyurl.com/yo5ysz

    This is, I think, an important point: the people telling us that X or Y is about to happen have been very tight with their data, models, and methods, and peer review has mostly been a circle jerk. But all that said, there are very compelling reasons to get off fossil carbon fuels regardless:

    1) Pollution. Coal throws a ton of radioactive elements into the air, especially uranium.
    2) Availability. There are very good reasons to believe that oil production is peaking, either now or very soon (i.e. by 2012).

    There are some promising but still sketchy plans for fusion research that aren’t ITER, most of which are based on modified versions of the Farnsworth-Hirsch fusor. Expanding nuclear fission power generation will be expensive but necessary from a baseload perspective (and we’ll have to come up with a commercially viable breeder reactor to extend the life of the fuel, too).

  24. Iceland is going to have an entirely alternative-energy economy in the next decade. They are going to use geothermal to make hydrogen, and replace all of their gas stations with hydrogen stations.

    joe, Iceland is similar to Yellowstone, that is, low hanging geothermal fruit. Should we develop geothermal electrical there? It’s likely the only place in the U.S. where it’s economically feasible. (Hawaii?) I’m not yanking your chain, in the name of global warming, shoud we develop Yellowstone as an energy source?

  25. Neu,

    I found the ‘motorwavegroup’ page you posted interesting. I think other readers should take a look. I’ll repost the link in html here.

  26. Woulnd’t hydrogen be the kind of thing that would be produced on site, on demand, and not shipped in bulk?

  27. J sub D,

    I’ve been wondering that myself. We’re going to have to make some serious choices.

  28. I’ve been wondering that myself. We’re going to have to make some serious choices

    Yep. World energy consumption is going to go up. Indians are not gonna live like 16th century serfs forever.

  29. …and if they, J sub, they would likely do MORE envirnmental damage in their poverty. In Africa, they’re burning 300-year-old trees for charcoal.

    This observation – that environmental improvement requires economic growth – is the central insight of the Sustainable Development concept that came out of the Rio Conference in the early 90s.

  30. That is, if they do continue to live like 16th century serfs.

  31. joe, Iceland is similar to Yellowstone, that is, low hanging geothermal fruit. Should we develop geothermal electrical there? It’s likely the only place in the U.S. where it’s economically feasible. (Hawaii?)

    My gut feel is that the big island would be unsuitable to geothermal because it all comes out on the surface, and hence no gradient (like trying to get hydro power from the Great lakes)

    Plus, the worker’s comp claims from young evil jedi would probably put the power company out of business.

  32. I stand corrected. hier appears to be a geothermal plant that supplies a significant quanity of power to the island of Hawaii. (keep in mind though, that it’s largely rural and only has about 150,000 people total)

  33. If I’m not mistaken nearly 4% of California’s power is from geothermal.

    I remember talk of developing geothermal in Utah in the late 60s. Don’t know if it went anyhere though.

    You don’t actully need a caldera like Yelowstone for geothermal though obviously it’s better.

    Speaking of calderas I’m mystified why everyone’s getting all uptight about this GW stuff.

    If the Yellowstone Caldera doesn’t blow then the New Madrid Fault will get us for sure. 🙂

    Of course, when one of those does cut loose some clown will blame it on global warming.

  34. Hmm, a lot of these comments seem to indicate that a good many readers of this magazine actually take the Great Global Warming Scam seriously.

    Now that’s really disturbing.

  35. joe-

    Iceland is going to have an entirely alternative-energy economy in the next decade.

    Not quite…

    Their “goal” is to accomplish this by 2050.

  36. Does anybody know if you can fill a tanker with hydrogen, like they do with LNG, and float it across the ocean?

    I’m sure it could be done, but hydrogen is not an energy source. It is a way of transporting energy.

    You have to make hydrogen, and in doing so will consume more energy that you can get out of the hydrogen.

  37. I’m sure it could be done, but hydrogen is not an energy source.

    Well there are thermonuclear devices, but that probably is not a real practical energy source. But wouldn’t those wind tubines spin something fierce?

  38. It looks tentative, but there is an international project dedicated to fusion research:

    http://www.iter.org

    They have already designed and started building the prototype device, but it’s not expected to be done until at least 2017.

  39. Thanks, asdf.

    RC,

    Of course it’s a transport medium. The Icelanders are using geothermal to create it.

  40. joe,

    If you’re off the grid, you can’t sell power back to it.

    Of course, the equipment to sell back to the grid costs more than you would ever recoup by selling to the grid. It is better to just get off the grid for good.

    See
    http://www.motorwavegroup.com/new/motorwind/product.html

  41. Does anybody know if there’s a way, short of turning it off, to make a computer consume less energy? It occurred to me that it’s kind of ridiculous that I do things like buy recycled tissues, given that my computer’s on all the time and I make several plane trips a year.

  42. Gotta laugh. Given that deforestation significantly contributes to purported GW, it’s kind of a push me/pull you regarding the millions of acres that need to be plowed under and leached by corn (a notoriously soil depleting crop) for ethanol, which may be the new MTBE since petroleum based substances are vital to growing the stuff.

    I’m eternally baffled that people think mankind can make a whit of difference regarding climate change. What arrogance. At some point we’ll surely realize that we’re itty bitty critters who aren’t really important in the galactic scheme of things.

  43. Does anybody know if there’s a way, short of turning it off, to make a computer consume less energy?

    Paying attention to the wattage of your power supply and your processor is really the only way you’re going to reduce energy use. It’s a constant battle for me too when running all the gear I need work in music production. 3 computers, multiple monitors, keyboards, mixers… etc. It definitely adds up.

    I think the real key here is not to figure out ways that we can live like gorillas on the side of some mountain in the Congo, but to go the other direction! Living well takes energy – lots of it. We need to be focused on ways to generate more of it, instead of constantly working to subvert progress.

    And to Joe & Neu Mejican: In case you were wondering, my position on AGW isn’t remotely changed… Fossil Fuels are inefficient and finite however, and there are more than enough reasons to want better energy sources without telling everyone they’re going to die in some mythic catastrophe unless they give up large swaths of freedom.

  44. My hope is that we stop screwing around and make a concerted dash for the hydrogen economy. The means for producing copious amounts of hydrogen are within our grasp. Either biologically produced using genetically modified bacteria or as a byproduct from fourth generation nuclear power stations, or a combination of both. Science has the answer, all we need is the committment.

  45. Sean — thanks, I’ll look into that. I definitely agree on “living well takes energy.”

  46. This is exactly why technology transfer to developing nations is so important…they need to still develoop but not with the same old technologies we used when we went through the industrial revolution.

  47. To my mind, whether or not GW is a scam or not is beside the point. Looking toward the future of humanity it is clear that a) (as some have mentioned) the people in the developing world want (deserve) to live like we do and b) the energy sources we currently rely upon are not renewable.

    It seems rather obvious that the moral thing for us to do as a generation of people that are living through a time when fossil fuels are relatively cheap and plentiful is to develop an energy system that is based on clean and renewable sources.

    As far as what that system will eventually entail no one knows but having a clean distributed energy source makes a lot of sense and therefore my bet is on solar.

    Solar prices are coming down approximately 5 to 6 percent per year while electricity prices are rising by 4.6 percent per year over the last 35 years. Continuing these trends the crossover point where solar is cost competitive with fossil fuel based electricity will occur in around 2015. However, with the recent pouring of venture capital into the renewable energy field and with recent big announcements from companies such as AVA, REC, Ausra and Google, I believe that there is a great probability that solar will be cost competitive during the term of our next president.

  48. “Of course, such projections rely on the deployment of near-term technologies. It’s impossible to tell what new technologies a higher price on carbon fuels might call forth from the world’s laboratories.”

    Before going to the incredible expense of coaxing new technologies through carbon taxes, why not take a no-lose chance? Here are excerpts from a U.S. Naval Warfare Weapons System report of 1996:

    Our results provide compelling evidence that the anomalous effects in deuterated systems are real. Nevertheless, we have not been able to solve the reproducibility problem. This research area will remain highly controversial until reproducibility can be demonstrated. The lack of reproducibility stems mainly from unknown and uncontrolled variables in the palladium stock. There is a remarkable correlation of excess power with the source of the palladium. The best reproducibility was obtained using palladium-boron (Pd-B) materials supplied by the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL), Washington, DC. Seven out of eight experiments that used Pd-B cathodes produced excess power. In experiments that used the palladium from Johnson-Matthey, 17 of 28 experiments produced excess heat. In contrast there were several palladium sources that never produced excess power in any experiment.

    Results from our laboratory indicate that helium-4 (4He is used interchangeably with helium-4) is themissing nuclear product. Thirty experiments have shown a correlation between either excess power and helium production or no excess power and no excess helium. Studies using both glass and metal flasks place the 4He production rate at 1011 to 1012 atoms per second per watt (atoms/s * W) of excess power. This is the correct magnitude for typical deuteron fusion reactions that yield helium as a product. It is highly unlikely that our heat and helium correlations
    could be due to random errors. The only valid experiments that showed significant excess power but no excess helium involved a palladium-cerium (Pd-Ce) cathode.

    Our best experiments produced up to 30% excess heat, 0.52 watts of excess power, and
    1400 kilojoules (kJ) of excess enthalpy. This amount of excess enthalpy is difficult to explain by any chemical reaction.

    Are these results a mistake? Who cares?

    Why not simply offer $10 million to the first 10 groups who can demonstrate more than 1 watt of at least 20% excess power for more than 24 hours, continuously?

    And then offer $50 million to the first 5 groups who can demonstrate more than 100 watts of 20% excess power for at least 3 days?

    And then offer $1 billion to the first 3 who can demonstrate more than 5 kilowatts of at least 10% excess for at least 5000 hours in a year.

    All tests would be conducted and certified at a government test facility. Any federal government funding of the parties would be subtracted from the prizes. These prizes could be awarded for any type of fusion (“cold” or hot).

    Total absolute maximum cost = $3.35 billion. And if all prizes are collected, we’ve got something the venture capitalists will be lined up around the block to fund.

  49. Oh…all the “excess power” mentioned above would of course have to be certified by the government to be excess power due to fusion.

  50. My great-great-great grandkids will be ‘wealthy beyond the dreams of avarice’.

    Unless you and your descendants are extraordinarily short-lived, or your children are already adults, even your *grandkids* will be that wealthy.

    Economic growth in the 21st century

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