Some reasons for hope about climate change
Okay. Last week I gave you a pretty bleak view about global warming, both how bad effects have become and how those effects will get worse in the not-distant future. I also promised you that this week I would offer some reasons for hope. So let's set about doing that and lift the gloom at least part way.
Start with the fact that there are some relatively recent technological advances that offer some promise in at least slowing the advance of climate change - and for reasons I'll get into a bit later, slowing the advance could be a very important achievement.
I'm going to start, however, by running down a list of some ideas for addressing climate change that actually are very bad ideas but the fact that they are being discussed indicates how serious some researchers and engineers are aware the situation is.
- Shoot sulfur into the air to reflect incoming solar radiation back to space - in other words, fake a volcanic eruption.
- Construct a "sun shade" by creating an artificial ring of small particles or spacecraft that would block some of the sun's rays from hitting the Earth, thereby reducing heating.
- Make airplane flights longer by requiring planes to fly at lower altitudes, which could reduce the formation of heat-trapping contrails - while the planes use even more fuel.
- Make clouds brighter with injections of seawater - which would reflect back more of the sun's heat but for the same reason would reduce evaporation, so when those clouds move to other areas, they will not produce the rain they would otherwise, potentially causing or worsening drought.
- Scrub the air of CO2, which makes sense if you're talking about something like the smoke stack of a coal plant. Otherwise, remember that CO2 makes up about 1/2 of 1% of the air, so scrubbing the air at a level to be effective against global warming would cost an amount equal to a good chunk of the US GDP.
- Dump iron into the ocean to stimulate the growth of algae, in the hopes the blooms will act as a major carbon sink - which won't work because as the phytoplankton sinks, other small ocean organisms consume and excrete them, recirculating the carbon back up to the ocean surface.
An idea related to that last one comes from James Lovelock, creator of the Gaia hypothesis, which views Earth as one huge organism. He suggests artificially ramping up ocean mixing, which would stimulate the growth of carbon-munching algae, thereby sinking more carbon dioxide into the ocean. Unhappily, it runs into the same problems as the idea of dumping iron, not only that the carbon tends to get recycled back into the ocean and then to atmosphere, but adding carbon to the oceans increases their acidification.
And all of these notion share one fundamental flaw: None of them involve reducing our output of carbon, our use of fossil fuels. Rather, they aim at allowing us to continue doing so.
So how about some more serious ideas.
One is what's known as carbon capture and sequestration, or CCS or short. It involves physical and chemical processes to capture CO2 from emissions from industrial operations, separate it out, turn it into a liquid form, and inject it into cavities in the Earth, often depleted oil wells or formations of sandstone that containing briny groundwater. The process is difficult and expensive and there are always worries about the gas escaping from the underground rock where it is supposed to be contained.
But now, researchers working in Iceland say they have discovered a new way to trap the CO2 deep underground: by changing it into rock. Results published this week in the journal "Science" show that injecting CO2 into volcanic rocks triggers a reaction that rapidly forms new carbonate minerals - potentially locking up the carbon forever with no fear of it leaking because there is no longer a gas.
What they did was instead of injecting the CO2 into sandstone, they injected it into basalt. They thought the reactions involved to turn the CO2 into carbonate minerals such as calcite would take a long time, but were startled to discover that by their best estimates about 95% of the CO2 had been mineralized in just a year and a-half.
There are still real problems with making this economically feasible on a scale large enough to impact climate change: First is that the source of the CO2 in this case is a geothermal plant - and coal plants emit 20 times as much carbon as do geothermal plants, which means you'd need 20 times the storage capacity. Second, coal plant emissions are dirtier and no one knows if they will have the same sort of quick conversion to mineral form.
But perhaps the biggest problem is that there aren't many places in the world with basalt formations easily available from the surface: Most of the basalt is at the bottom on the ocean. Iceland is one of the exceptions.
Still, none of that takes away from the fact that scientists say the project, dubbed CarbFix, offers a ray of hope.
Meanwhile, still on the topic of CCS, a new study is showing that a material made from biomass could be 65% more effective in carbon capture, that is, in pulling carbon out of the emissions from industrial operations, than our current methods.
The material, which has been around for 10 years, is called Starbons and it is made from waste biomass including stuff like food peelings and seaweed. It has a mesoporous structure, which means it contains pores between 2 and 50 nanometers across. For comparison, the average pore on your skin is around 50,000 nanometers across, so we are talking truly tiny here. That extremely fine but still porous structure makes it excellent for the purpose of CO2 scrubbing, the first step in CCS.
It's other advantage is that while the process is expensive, it is less expensive than other methods of CCS. On the other hand, this is still CCS, remember, so it is another stop gap - but again, such stop gaps could mean more than we realize, as again, I will get to in a minute.
Because it's important to bear in mind that even without such technological advances we already have the tools to address global warming. The website Skeptical Science, which refutes the arguments used by the nanny-nanny naysayers on global warming, calls the idea that we do not today have the technology to address climate change a "myth."
That can be seen in developments around the world. Here are just a couple:
In May, Portugal did something truly significant: a combination of solar panels, wind turbines, biofuels, geothermal heat, and hydroelectric power came together and for four consecutive days, the entire country's electricity needs were supplied using nothing but renewable energy.
Three US cities - Aspen, Colorado, Burlington, Vermont, and Greensburg, Kansas - are now powered by 100% renewable energy and 96 cities around the world have pledged to reach the same goal.
The entire nation of Denmark is aiming to have half its energy from wind by 2020 and all of its energy from renewables by 2050.
By 2018, Dutch trains will run on electricity generated by wind power.
More than 200 of the 523 coal-fired power plants in the US, just under 40%, have closed since 2009.
China is now the world's largest producer of greenhouse gases, but even there a change is taking place, and coal usage in China has declined by 21% since 2007.
More recently, as part of its pledge to continue to reduce its carbon emissions, China plans to include carmakers in a national carbon trading scheme to encourage the manufacture of more electric vehicles.
One of the reasons these sorts of changes can be happening is that the cost of clean, renewable energy is dropping and dropping faster than most anyone predicted, largely due, bluntly, to government support for such energy and mandates about energy efficiency. Not just in the US, but in a number of other countries, including China and Germany.
How dramatic has been the drop? In March 2011, computer scientist Ramez Naam looked at the fact that the cost of solar energy had dropped from nearly $10 a watt to about $3 a watt over two decades to predict it could drop to just 50 cents a watt by 2030. Last year, he admitted he was wrong: The cost of solar had already dropped to just over 50 cents a watt. Fifteen years early.
According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, a company that invests in renewable energy, in 2015 solar power per unit of output cost 2/3 of 1% of it cost in 1975. Meanwhile, the number of solar installations is now 115,000 times what it was then.
That company predicts that even as coal and natural gas prices stay low, within 15 years wind and solar will be cheaper than them in many countries and cheaper in most of the world not long after. In some places where solar energy is most easily available, it is already clearly cheaper: Dubai has received a bid to supply 800 megawatts of solar power at a rate equivalent to "US 2.99 cents per kilowatt hour."
It's not just the Middle East, either: Austin, Texas, and Palo Alto, California, have signed contracts for solar-generated power at under four cents/kwh. Even if you take out the federal investment tax credit, it still comes out at seven cents/kwh, which is still well below the national average residential price for electricity, which is 12 cents/kwh.
The bottom line of all this can be found in two recent studies:
Researchers and engineers from Stanford University and U.C. Berkeley have developed a state-by-state plan to convert the entire US to 100% renewable energy by 2050, that is, in 34 years.
Even more significantly, a Greenpeace report from last fall says that it is possible for the entire world to be powered 100% by renewable energy by 2050 - including providing electricity access to the third of the world's population that now lacks it.
The prediction sounds incredible, but in the past equally dramatic Greenpeace predictions have proven accurate. In fact, the US-based Meister Consultants Group said last year that "the world's biggest energy agencies, financial institutions and fossil fuel companies for the most part seriously under-estimated just how fast the clean power sector could and would grow." But Greenpeace hasn't, which is why it's predictions have been much closer to the mark.
The plan would take a considerable investment - about $1 trillion a year - but it would also reduce fuel costs by just over $1 trillion a year, meaning the transition would essentially pay for itself.
A renewable energy future for the whole world is not a pipe dream. It is possible.
Which is why those technological advances I cited at the top about improving carbon capture and sequestration are so important. They in themselves do not reduce our use of fossil fuels or aid a transition to a renewable future - but what they and other advances can do is to help delay the onset of the worst effects of climate change.
Remember that these renewable futures, based on detailed analysis and existing technologies, have target dates of around 2050 - and last week I was telling you about major effects of climate change in the 2030s. That renewable future is, must be, our goal, but it will not arrive soon enough to avoid serious climate impacts around the world. But if new technologies about things like CCS can push those timelines for trouble back, so that, for example, instead of talking about the 2030s we're talking about the 2040s, and if we can find the will to pursue that renewable energy future, then maybe, just maybe, our children and our grandchildren won't wind up hating us for our selfishness and shortsightedness.
One last thing: The US stands nearly alone in the degree to which global climate change is controversial. Other nations might argue about the best way to respond, but I don't know of another major nation where you have significant numbers of people doubting the importance or dismissing the whole idea of global warming out of hand as a "hoax."
Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication says the issue is "more politically polarizing than abortion; more politically polarizing than gay marriage."
But even here there is reason for some hope: surveys by Jon Krosnick of Stanford University show that nearly 90 percent of Democrats, 80 percent of independents and 70 percent of Republicans believe the increase in world's temperature over the past century was mostly or partly caused by humans. What's more, 90 percent of Democrats, 80 percent of independents, and even half - barely half, but half - of Republicans believe global warming will be a serious or very serious problem for the United States.
And according surveys to by Yale and George Mason University, the fastest-growing segment of the population is the one that is alarmed by climate change and wants action now.
So I will end by asking you again the question I asked last week: Even allowing that blocking the worst of global warming will require some moderation in our standard of living, was the way you lived say 20 years ago so bad that you would sacrifice a world to avoid living that way again?
Because that world can be saved. We have the means, we have the technology, we have the money. The only question is if we have the will.
Sources cited in links: