Conversion to Renewable Energy is Going Too Slow to Avoid Catastrophe – Part 2

by on December 12, 2014 · 2 comments

in Culture, Energy, Environment, History, World News

earthonfireBy Frank Thomas and John Lawrence

Part 1 can be found here

We are lucky to have advanced to a stage that scientists can determine the relationship between the rate of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions into the atmosphere, the absolute value in tons of CO2 already in and projected to be in the atmosphere, the rate of increase of CO2 emissions and the relationship between amount of CO2 in the atmosphere and the Earth’s surface temperatures.

If we didn’t have this science, we might go right ahead destroying the earth’s environment to the point of extinction of human life without even understanding what was happening to us.

As it is, even though scientists have spelled it out for us, many people are not convinced the threat from global warming is even real or, if it is, that moderate methods that don’t disrupt current economic relationships will be sufficient to keep the problem at bay.

Table 1 shows total yearly global CO2 emissions in billions of tons going into the atmosphere starting in 1850 and up to the present day with forecasts up to 2050. In 1850, the amount of CO2 was 198 thousand tons while 37 billion tons are estimated to enter the atmosphere in 2014.

Table 1As the years have gone by and the world has become more industrialized since 1950, the average annual rate of increase of CO2 tonnage shot up to 3.2% between 1970 and 1990. Since then the rate of increase of CO2 in the atmosphere has moderated to 2-2.5% yearly, but the important point is that it is still going up.

What is needed is for it to go down and to become negative, so a far lower amount of CO2 is added to the atmosphere in later years. But this is not happening and isn’t projected to happen. It would require a vastly accelerated replacement of fossil fuels with renewable energy than is now occurring and projected by U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), BP, Exxon, Shell, etc.

By 2040, the increase in CO2 tonnage per year will reach 47 billion metric tons, increasing to almost 53 billion tons by 2050. Even though more and more renewable forms of non-polluting energy are being consumed, CO2, and, therefore, surface and air temperatures, are still going up.

The primary reason is that China and India are deriving a huge amount (68% and 55%, respectively) of their energy from coal. As their populations increase and they become more industrialized, CO2 emissions will continue to outpace the replacement of fossil fuel energy by renewables and hydropower. That is why most projections show hydropower and renewables going from less than a 10% share of total energy consumption today to a miniscule 15% share by 2040 – while coal continues to have the dominant share of total energy consumption.

The Big Picture

Table 1 encapsulates the “big picture” of how modern-world anthropogenic (human-caused) global warming (AGW), which results in heat-trapping CO2 being poured into the atmosphere, causes radical long-term climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has set a goal of not increasing global surface air temperatures by more than 2°C.

To meet this goal, as Table 1 shows, there can be no more than 2.9 trillion tons total of CO2 in the atmosphere by 2050. However, there are already 1.9 trillion tons there now. At current rates of fossil fuel burning and a very conservative 1% annual projected increase in CO2 emissions, there will be 3.5 trillion tons by 2050. This means global warming will not be kept within the 2°C limit. This will lead to catastrophic consequences for life on earth – inundation of coastal cities, wars over food supplies and extreme weather including fire, drought and flooding.

But doesn’t CO2 dissipate with time so that the total amount would tend to decrease if only we stopped adding as much as we are currently doing?

Not so, say the scientists. The stuff stays in the atmosphere with all the attendant warming effects for hundreds of years. University of Chicago oceanographer David Archer says “The lifetime of fossil fuel CO2 in the atmosphere is a few centuries, plus 25 percent that lasts essentially forever. The next time you fill your tank, reflect upon this.” Immediate and drastic cuts in such record CO2 rates of increase won’t lower the total amount of CO2 in the atmosphere for decades. Meanwhile, the total amount keeps going up which assures at some point grave consequences for normal, everyday human life.

Table 1aAs noted, 1.9 trillion tons of CO2 emissions already in the atmosphere from fossils fuels, cement, land use (Tables 1, 1a) and rising 2-2.5% each year to ±36 billion tons in 2013 and expected to conservatively reach 3.5 trillion tons by 2050 will be there for hundreds of years – supplying further warming ‘in the pipeline.’ Present, past and future atmospheric CO2 emissions will affect global warmingpermanently if a tipping point is passed over next 4 decades nullifying any chance of restoring system to its original stability … and guaranteeing a temperature rise well above IPCC’s 2°C maximum target.

To achieve that target, current annual CO2 emissions rates of 36 billion tons expected by the EIA and others to reach 53 billion tons in 2050 must be reduced 50% to below 20 billion tons annually. The GAP between where we are heading and where we must go is GIGANTIC!

2014 Will Be Hottest Year on Record

The Earth’s climate has been warming up in sync with CO2 emissions pouring into the atmosphere, land and oceans. Despite slower rates of surface warming in past years, nine of the ten warmest years have occurred since 2000 – with 2014 set to be the hottest year in recorded human history.

The year 2013 tied 2003 as the warmest year since 1880. And neither 2013 nor 2003 were El Nino years when most annual temperature records are set.

Earth’s historical temperatures have been warmer, but never has the rate of change developed so FAST and in such a TINY 60 years of mankind’s 12,000 year history. At the end of past ice ages, it generally took 5,000 years for an 80 parts per million (ppm) increase in atmospheric C02 concentration to occur. We’ve sees an 85 ppm increase since 1960 – 100 times faster than historical experience.

Although climatic response to CO2 is not instantaneous, Arctic sea ice and polar temperatures are already responding to persistent rise in CO2 concentration. Some scientists say the first time a 400 ppm level occurred was 800,000 years ago. Many like Brian Hoskins say the most recent period was the Pliocene 3-5 million years ago – a time when Greenland was ice-free, sea levels were 30-90 feet higher, and global average temperatures were 3- 4°C higher than today.

Increases in CO2 otherwise entering the atmosphere and heating it up further are cushioned as excess CO2 enters the oceans. Scientific research (Kevin Trenberth’s study in Geophysical Research Letters) shows a much faster rate of heat penetration in deep oceans below 700 meters. This helps explain the slowdown in surface and atmosphere warming, but doesn’t in and of itself change the long-term warming that will take place from a given amount of CO2. Heat absorption by oceans comes with an enormous environmental cost and positive feedback risks, e.g., significant release of toxic methane. Also ocean acidity from CO2 is occurring at a rate unseen in millions of years (World Meteorological Organization Report), faster than the Permian mass extinction event 250 million years ago.

hottest-year-2014Surface temperature ups and downs and current slowdown since 1990 are due to natural events: (1) a series of cold La Ninas where westerly winds spread cool water across the top of the tropical Pacific, causing it to soak up so much heat the planet’s surface is cooled; (2) quiet solar activity; (3) reflective sulfur aerosols in the atmosphere from volcanic eruptions; (4) sulfur emissions from coal burning.

But, all this doesn’t mean Earth’s atmosphere, oceans and land aren’t warming up in terms of total heat content. With 2014 being the hottest year on record, global warming is continuing – oceans are taking up more heat at depths, sea ice is still melting, sea level hasn’t stopped rising.

The excess heat energy gained by the planet and largely absorbed by oceans is causing rapid warming-up of Arctic and West Antarctic regions. Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets are melting down at rates and speeds unheard of. Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are also warming Atlantic and Pacific ocean currents, adding to ice melt-down – thus we have a vicious circle causing less sea ice growth in winters and more sea ice meltdown in summers.

Persistent Arctic warming from less ice reflection of sun’s rays, faster winds and currents pushing more heat down into ocean depths can trigger clathrate decomposition and the resultant deadly release of sub-sea methane (CH4) – with its extremely high warming potential. Arctic seas harbor over 1.5 trillion tons of CH4 and the permafrost another 1 trillion tons.

More People Mean More Greenhouse Gas Emissions

table 2The quickly growing level of global GHG emissions and change in planetary climate patterns is driven by GDP and population growth – involving enormous quantities of polluting fuels used in a small time span for a ±5 billion exploding population increase from 2.4 billion in 1950 to 7.3 billion today, rising to 9.5 billion in 2050.

Geological ice-ages never had to deal with the environmental impact of 7.3 billion people, let alone 9.5 billion people – 75% of whom will have populated Earth in one century!

This evidence and the trend is clear: the last three decades were among the warmest ever measured. Between 1990 and 2013 the CO2-induced warming effect on our planet known as ‘direct radiative forcing’ – the difference between sunlight absorbed by Earth and energy radiated back into space – rose to a net new high of 34% (the actual CO2 forcing increase was 46% partially offset by a decline in chlorofluorocarbons).

Also the global average air temperature in first decade of 21st century was nearly 1°C higher than that in first decade of 20th century. Climate change is on pace to occur 10 times faster than any change in past 65 million years (Report by Stanford scientists: Diffenbaugh and Field).

Table 2 shows the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere in terms of ppm and also the rates of increase. This is similar to Table 1 which showed the absolute amounts of CO2 in metric tons for various time periods and also the rates of increase.

The 2011-2014 average annual rate of increase of CO2 peaked at 2.4 ppm with record increases of 2.7 ppm and 2.9 ppm in 2012 and 2013, respectively – the fastest rates in nearly 30 years. Scientists say this comes from less CO2 sequestration by ecosystems such as forests and mounting GHG emissions (e.g., carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide are at 141%, 251% and 121% of pre-industrial levels, respectively).

These gases act like a barrier blocking heat loss from the top of the Earth’s atmosphere into space. The other noxious gases like methane can be converted to CO2 equivalents so that we need only talk about total amounts of CO2 in the atmosphere.

In May 2014, the global CO2 concentration level hit a record 400 ppm (143% of pre-industrial levels of 280 ppm). There is an equivalency between the approximate 1.9 trillion tons of CO2 in the atmosphere now and the concentration level of 400 ppm.

That’s why atmospheric CO2 must be stabilized well below 450 ppm, preferably in the 350 ppm range FAST to prevent severe irreversible ecological and human losses by the century’s end. One scientist put in crystal clear language the critical NOW urgency of reversing the CO2concentration rise to a stabilized level of 350 ppm, where the carbon cycle is in natural equilibrium:

“If emissions stopped in 2015, CO2 levels wouldn’t settle into equilibrium to 350 ppm until 2100. If emissions weren’t stopped until 20 years from now (say by 2035), CO2 levels wouldn’t settle into equilibrium to 350 ppm until 2300.”

Table 3Tables 3 and 4 show how selected regions are doing in reducing CO2emissions. In contrast to the major C02 polluters, a few minor polluters respect the scientific reality and threat of AGW without sinking into a sea of political or personal biases or bowing to vested interests.

Since 2000, the U.S. has been slowly cutting its high absolute CO2emissions. BUT, being the world’s biggest consumer of primary energy at 7.1 tons per capita versus 3.5 tons in the EU-28 and 1.2 tons in China, we are by far still the worst CO2 emitter at 16.4 tons per capita versus 7.4 tons in the EU-28 and 7.1 tons in China. Germany’s 2013 CO2emission level is well below a low 1990 level while U.S. is above a high 1990 level.

U.S. energy efficiency is in an infant stage of development, while clean energy fuels are but a tiny share of U.S. total energy consumption and forecast to remain so at current pace. A goal to reduce GHG emissions 26-28% below a high 2005 level is pretty weak compared to Germany’s 2020 goal to reduce emissions 40% below a low 1990 level and having already achieved a 27% reduction vs. the 1990 level.

table 4Scandinavian countries show NO CO2 increases since 1990 – thanks to a 55% energy consumption from a clean mix of fuels: renewables, 8.6%; hydro, 32.8%; nuclear, 14.3%. These countries (as well as Scotland, Austria, Portugal) are excellent examples of a top-down and bottom-up determination to transition at scale and speed necessary to achieve an 80-100% sustainable energy mix by 2050. The prime focus now is in developing smart connecting grid systems, local storage technologies, and expanding homeowner and business control over efficient energy use.

Clean energy sources in China and India are practically non-existent. Both nations get a miniscule 2% of their total energy consumption from renewables and an equally tiny 6-8% from hydro and nuclear. China consumes 50% of world’s coal and emits 28% of global CO2 emissions. About 75% of its electricity and heating comes from coal.

With a combined population of 2.5 billion people earning an average income of $2,400 to $9,000 per rural-urban household, and less than 14% owning a car, the latent energy demand is ENORMOUS and is causing an incredibly high reliance on cheap, dirty coal. This is despite 360 new coal-fired plants in development, 21 nuclear reactors on line, 27 new reactors under construction, 20 likely to be built next few years, and more after that.

China and India’s woeful dependence on coal foreshadows a menacing, CO2 emission that will magnify Earth’s warming and climate chaos for decades. While China’s recent declaration to limit CO2 emissions is great news, both countries must accelerate exponentially their transition to solar and wind for electricity, heating and transport – in concert with advanced storage systems and energy efficiency actions. Otherwise, an unfriendly atmospheric CO2 doomsday lies around the corner.

There’s simply too much world dependence on relatively cheap coal, especially in Asia sectors. And coal reserves are mammoth. The monstrous risk is whether coal will ever be clean enough and/or safely captured and stored in time to avoid compounding life-threatening climate change over next few decades.

Next Time: Renewable Technology is Feasible and Readily Implemented Now

Frank ThomasFrank Thomas’ bio: A graduate of Bowdoin and Dartmouth colleges, I was an independent management consultant and entrepreneur working with Dutch international shipbuilding and offshore oil/gas contracting firms for many years. In recent years, I have been a trainer for such firms as ING, DSM, Siemens, the Dutch Ministries of Foreign and Economic Affairs and the Ministry of Justice in The Hague and have been a teacher/lecturer at The Hague University and NTI University in Leiden. Training and lecture subjects covered have included: finance, legal writing, commercial law, report writing and presentations, advanced English writing and conversation.

I’m an independent-minded Mainer, a liberal-conservative. Over some time, I have come to loath the mindnumbing indoctrination inherent in the “ideological-pure-money-talks” game poisoning our national dialogue and directions on extremely serious structural problems. Such times of striking change call for a fusion of the “brightest and best” ideas/reforms for prudently balancing legitimate public interests, social concern for the common man’s welfare with a thriving market-innovative capitalism.


{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Omar Puhleez December 13, 2014 at 1:15 pm

“The monstrous risk is whether coal will ever be clean enough and/or safely captured and stored in time to avoid compounding life-threatening climate change over next few decades.”

Geosequestration of CO2 is portrayed in some quarters as the great answer to the GHG-AGW problem. (eg ). Trouble is, in the longer term, whatever else happens, the Earth is going to go into a cooling phase of its normal glaciation cycle (ie some time in say, the next 100,000 years.) If there are still people around on the surface at that future time, they will likely need all the carbon they can get hold of just to stop themselves from freezing. (Humanity’s and civilisation’s rise has occurred in a warming phase of the glaciation cycle.)
Thus “burying carbon dioxide forever” and irretrievably will likely be yet another example of fatal human short-sightedness.
A good rule in life I find is this: maximise flexiblity. Don’t cut off future options, or make decisions today that head you permanently down a one-way street.


rebeccafrank December 18, 2014 at 3:43 am

The huge emission of Co2 into the atmosphere is quite alarming!! This is definitely a threat to our environment unless we stop such increase due to the usage and burning of plastics and other products!!


Leave a Comment

Older Article:

Newer Article: