This originally appeared at the Energy Collective a few months ago, hence “last week” is not last week. But the arguments still stand.
Later this week, the world’s leaders, or at least some of them, will meet in New York to discuss what is to be done to limit future temperature rises on the only planet we have. Once again we will be greeted by opinion pieces telling us that an upcoming climate conference, in Paris this time, is the last chance to save the climate, and we will be inundated with “major new studies” telling us exactly what “major new studies” have been telling us for the last decade. Optimists will confidently inform us that cheap low-carbon technology is just around the corner, while others will implore us to overthrow capitalism to fix the climate. Nothing changes.
If the Copenhagen conference in 2009 was the last chance to save the climate, as we were then told, then the climate has clearly not been saved. The burning of fossil fuels goes on more or less unabated. Last year we dumped more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than ever before. Yet, efforts to save the climate also continue unabated.
Have we not failed already?
Failure, of course, is one of degree. However, the discontinuous mind will not stand for such subtlety. Arbitrary lines of success and failure must be drawn, and we must stick to them. The physical difference between 450 and 460 ppm may be small, the psychological difference is immense.
Yet, who now believes that we can successfully keep atmospheric carbon dioxide levels below 450 parts per million? Do you? It used to be said that two pints of beer would be enough to get a climate scientist to admit this was longer possible. Now I suspect you would just need a Diet Coke.
The prospect of keeping atmospheric carbon dioxide levels below 450 ppm is now essentially zero, an obvious reality that few will publicly acknowledge. This can be shown in various ways. However, I will do so here by considering the implications of the important, and under discussed work, led by Steve Davis of the University of Stanford on “committed emissions.”
The term “committed emissions” is easily understood by analogy. Consider someone who wishes to lower her coffee intake. If she recently went to a supermarket and bought 50 bags of the stuff she is more or less committing herself to drinking that amount of coffee in future. On the other hand, a person who has no coffee lying around the house can much more easily avoid coffee. Clearly if you want to get off something, you want to make it as easy as possible to do so.
The same goes with fossil fuels. In the last decade Germany has developed a much lauded renewable energy programme. However, in the same period they have built a huge number of new coal power plants. In total 10.7 GW will be opened in the first half of this decade. If history is a reliable guide, we can assume that these plants will last for at least 40 years and will have load factors above 50%. Therefore, by building these plants Germany has probably committed itself to emitting over two billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere over the plants’ lifetimes. If they had built nuclear power plants instead they would have committed themselves to just over 0 tonnes of carbon dioxide. However, past mistakes cannot be easily undone.
Not everything lasts as a long as a coal power plant. Your car or gas furnace lasts perhaps a decade. However, once bought you aren’t likely to replace something until it’s useful life is over. So, let’s run a simple thought experiment. What if we immediately stopped building any new fossil fuel infrastructure? All new infrastructure will be something green and will emit no carbon dioxide, and we will simply use the existing fossil fuel infrastructures for as long as we would have. Your Honda Civic will be replaced by an electric car once you feel the need to buy a new car. The gas furnace heating your home will be replaced by a heat pump when it its useful life is over. Once a coal power plant is not economical to run, it will be replaced by a low-carbon plant. This is, to put it mildly, a wildly optimistic scenario. But a revealing one.
Fortunately, numbers have been estimated for such a scenario in a paper published in Science four years ago by Steve Davis and others. Their median estimate is that existing fossil fuel infrastructure will result in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels increasing by 20 ppm above today’s level of just under 400 ppm.
This, of course, is a completely implausible scenario. Despite the incessant hype surrounding Tesla, we are not moving to electric cars tomorrow, and the same goes for almost everything else. Instead, let’s try a slightly more credible scenario: emissions peak in a decade and we stop building any new fossil fuel infrastructure. This is, again, rather optimistic. Nuclear energy is not likely to see significant growth in the next decade. Currently, wind and solar energy barely represent one tenth of the annual growth in global primary energy consumption, while coal coal consumption is making up its highest proportion of energy consumption growth in decades.
Wildly optimistic, yes, but where does this take us? Very close to 450 ppm. Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have increased by an average of 2.2 ppm each year over the last four years. So, a decade from now we will almost certainly be at or above 420 ppm. And our committed emissions will push us beyond 440 ppm.
This hopeful scenario of not building any fossil fuel infrastructure a decade from now, however, is simply not credible. Some scientists tell us that 100% renewable energy is achievable in short order. However, they should consider the airport they sit in before a Boeing 747 whisks them off to tell the world about the inevitable green future. How do you fly a plane without kerosene? The building they sit in is nothing but a mass of reinforced concrete. How do you make the steel without coal? How do you make the concrete without emitting carbon dioxide during the production of cement? Easy answers to these questions are not forthcoming.
A decade from now Pratt and Whitney will not stop making jet engines. MAN diesel will not stop making engines for container ships to transport electronic gadgets from Asia to western consumers. China will not stop making blast furnaces for producing steel. A large section of the fossil fuel economy is likely to remain largely unchanged over the years and decades to come.
Our committed emissions, and the fact that we have no viable substitutes for many of the uses of fossil fuels, now make it clear that keeping atmospheric carbon dioxide levels below 450 ppm is implausible. This can be concluded by doing a simple back of the envelope analysis of the underlying realities, as I have done.
More worryingly, our politicians are incapable of delivering anything other than the sub-optimal. Europeans are now burning more and more coal in power plants, while burning less and less natural gas. Americans could easily reduce their personal energy consumption with no impact on quality of life, yet this appears to be a politically incorrect proposition. Meanwhile, Germany has shut nuclear power plants while building new coal power plants, and got applauded for doing so by the very people who supposedly care the most about protecting the climate. Easy and cheap cuts in carbon emissions are simply left on the table, untouched. What possibility is there of politicians agreeing to emissions cuts that might inflict some pain, or even just the perception of pain?
One day we may look at a sports utility vehicle in a densely populated city as many now look at a burning cigarette in a crowded bar. That day remains a long way off. It is time to lower our expectations.