by Frank Thomas
PART II: Awful Odds Global WarmingWill Exceed 2 Degrees Celsius
University of Utah Professor of Physics, Timothy J. Garrett is a climate scientist I admire for his original, remarkable research on climate warming. It’s only disappointing that this bright scientist seems to have thrown in the towel on the possibilities for effective, creative solutions to sharply mitigate climate warming (e.g., finding a way to remove CO2 from the atmosphere; developing advanced technology for storing excess CO2, using sun’s heat to increase energy content of natural gas and lower GHGs emitted and gas used). In Prof. Garrett’s mind, “Global warming is a long-term natural disaster … because the economic well-being or wealth of civilization is tightly linked to how much energy we consume… wealth is directly proportional to power consumption.”
He does not believe we can avert a CO2 and CH4 environmental ruination – UNLESS decarbonization by switching to modern renewables occurs RAPIDLY to stabilize CO2 atmospheric concentrations at 450 ppm by 2050, or 160% of pre-industrial levels of 280 ppm. The CO2 concentration is now 400ppm, or 143% of pre-industrial levels. Most of that has come from the last 50 year CO2 expansion of 130% of the1960 concentration of 310 ppm. Accelerating CO2 emissions are melting Arctic permafrost and sea ice fast with the probability of highly toxic methane entering the atmosphere. For any interim emergency geo-engineering solution, Prof. Garrett sees only negative feedbacks – where environmental changes lead to a compensating process which reduces or nullifies the change itself.
To illustrate, he believes a negative feedback might erase the brightening effect from aerosols going into the clouds. The suggested geo-engineering solution of spraying sun reflecting sulfate aerosols into Arctic clouds to make clouds brighter and longer-lived tends to shut off the precipitation of clouds. This in turn creates less heat and moisture to form clouds. Clouds could dissipate. So the aerosols might end up making the clouds actually less bright and shorter-lived.
Of course, the fear propelling climate scientists is the evident human inertia of tragically doing too little NOW to mitigate GHG emissions and thawing of Arctic permafrost and sea ice, containing at least 2 trillion tons of CH4 and a huge amount of CO2. Continued earth warming and melting of Arctic ice will only intensify the release of CO2 and CH4 into the atmosphere with globally devastating ecological and human damage. Right now Arctic sea ice reflects up to 90% of the sunlight, whether or not clouds are present. But salvation by that vital environmental protection is in a phase of long-term meltdown … opening pathways for runaway GHG emissions into the atmosphere that can bring an average earth temperature to 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) range in not too distant future.
This is why scientists are urging immediate geo-engineering applications and disciplined speeding-up of all efforts to go green, reduce energy consumption, and increase forestation. The oceans and trees are carbon sinks that eat up almost half of all CO2 emissions. But heat waves, inflamed forests and fields, floods, droughts, tornadoes, desert storms, thawing oceans, volcanic activity, solar output, albedo, change in earth’s orbit are “natural forcing” factors contributing to the reduction and imbalance of CO2 absorption.
The anthropogenic or “human forcing” factors expanding CO2 emissions include the enormous number of new energy users and GHG emitters from a 2 billion population increase by 2050; 1.4 billion people now without electricity; 3 billion people now cooking with primitive burning materials such as wood, charcoal, coal or fertilizer as fuel; burning of fossil fuels; shale oil/gas fracking; oversized fuel-guzzling vehicles, ocean acidification, deforestation, depletion of planet’s biomass; life stock; waste dumps, urbanization. These anthropogenic activities are producing GHGs at a much faster rate than the planet’s biosphere and oceans can absorb them. Oceans are losing their capacity to absorb as they turn more acidic from increased CO2 absorption. The same negative feedback happens with deforestation and depletion of planet’s biomass. In these cases, the natural carbon cycle ability to absorb excess CO2 produced by human activities is being seriously reduced.
Little wonder progress in meeting world GHG reduction targets is, in a word, NOT GOOD! Atmospheric CO2 is accelerating from decade to decade, made ever worse by feedbacks. The rate of increase the past decade is more than DOUBLE that of the 1960s. In 2011, CO2 emissions increased 3% overall with huge increases of 9% for China and 6% for India. Between 2000 and 2011, 420 billion tons of CO2 was emitted of which China and India contributed about 100 billion tons. The 420 billion tons is 25% of the targeted maximum of 1,700 billion tons of cumulative emissions between 2000 and 2050. This target must NOT be exceeded if we are to stabilize the CO2 concentration at 450 ppm and keep the earth's temperature from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius by 2050. The 1,700 target unrealistically assumes NO unusual methane emissions from melting Arctic permafrost and sea ice formations. This is why experts expect this target will likely be met as early as 2035, and possibly well exceeded thereafter.
Table 1 gives a startling ‘OVERVIEW’ of the continuing rise in CO2 emissions per capita and in total, particularly in China, India, and U.S.
Tons Per Capita Billions of Tons % + or -
1990 2011 2011 2011 vs. 2010
United States 19.7 17.3 5.4 - 2%
China 2.2 7.2 9.7 + 9%
India 0.8 1.6 2.0 + 6%
EU 27 9.2 7.5 3.8 - 3%
SUB-TOTAL 20.9 +3.5%
Other Countries 13.1 +0.9%
GRAND TOTAL 34.0 + 3%
In 2011, global CO2 emissions rose to an all time high of 34 billion tons (+6% 2009 and 2010, +3% 2011 and 3% 2012). China and India contributed 34% of global emissions … with China alone contributing 28.5% in 2011 vs. a 2013 estimate of 27%, 7% for India (14% for U.S.). This is alarming knowing that 97% of the people of China and India’s populations earn less than $2,000 a year. Yet already, both countries have a combined CO2 per capita emission rate one-half that of the inordinately high U.S. CO2 per capita rate of 17.3 tons. China’s CO2 emissions per capita increased 2 times 2000-2011, culminating in a stunning 9% rise in 2011.
Assuming a much lower 4.5% average annual growth in China’s CO2 emissions for 2012 to 2050 and a 6% annual growth for India over same period, total CO2 emissions for both countries will be 72 billion tons by 2050 – TWICE world emissions in 2011! This is a China/India average of 33.3 billion tons per year based on cumulative 1,300 billion tons emitted from 2011-2050. Including the 100 billion tons emitted 2000-2011 gives a total of 1400 billion tons. Truly a shocking figure! It says a global environmental calamity is in the making.
A 2000-2050 GHG emission of 1,400 billion tons by China and India comes from their growing industrialization which is at an infant stage. Other large nations will follow suit. This will significantly increase the risk of human activities generating more energy into the system than leaving it. World CO2 atmospheric concentrations could reach a 600 ppm by 2050. Such a level correlates to a temperature increase of 4-5 degrees Celsius – more than TWICE the 2 degrees maximum target.
China and India’s 1,400 billion tons is 83% of cumulative 1,700 billion tons CO2 emission target for 2000-2050. When one adds in the 420 billion tons of CO2 already emitted 2000-2011, it’s obvious the 1,700 target will be met well before 2050 as noted earlier. To counter this not unlikely scenario, other nations must achieve almost ZERO CO2 emissions 2011-2050!
Unfortunately, that does not seem likely in the face of rapid emissions growth from developing nations. In 2013, global emissions are forecast to exceed 36 billion tons, with most of that coming from China (27%), India (7%), U.S. (15%), Canada (2 %), EU27 (10%) and all other nations (39 %). Signed by 145 nations representing 85% of global CO2 emissions, the Copenhagen Accord’s GHG control and reduction targets are already weak and weakly implemented.
To avert an unconscionable eventual environmental disaster, the U.S., Canada, and EU 27 must cut GHG emissions 80% by 2050, compared to 1990 levels. EU nations, with the exception of UK, are reasonably on track with this promise but all other world nations are far, far behind. China and India’s GHG figures reveal just how incredibly dangerously OFF TARGET global CO2 emission control is headed. It appears inevitable that atmospheric CO2 concentrations will greatly exceed a stabilized 450 ppm by 2050 – making it impossible to limit the earth’s warming up to no more than 2 degrees Celsius. In fact, both China and India have announced plans to build 1,000 coal plants in the coming years – the dirtiest of all energy sources.
Not to be forgotten are the interconnected direct and indirect environmental costs from climate warming – the real danger of massive releases of methane in the Arctic, toxic chemicals leaking into water systems, ash from forest fires, public health care costs, etc. Drilling and pumping oil is becoming more and more costly, difficult and environmentally dangerous in ultra-deep, treacherous offshore waters and rocky shale/fracking conditions. Rising cost pressures and probable peaking of the oil supply over the next 10 years spell extreme volatility and higher and higher liquid fuel prices.
Thus, producing a barrel of oil is consuming more and more barrels of energy to extract the oil and gas. This in turn is accelerating the consumption of oil. Not surprisingly, the number of barrels required to extract and produce offshore and shale oil/gas is increasing at a faster rate than the number of barrels gained. In sharp contrast, for solar and wind the number of equivalent barrels gained is increasing at a faster rate than the number of equivalent barrels required to extract and produce the final green energy.
Solar, wind and ocean energy potential and economies of scale are at an adolescent development stage. To put sun energy supply in perspective, a recent Global Energy Assessment study shows there are 62,000 to 280,000 “Ej/j” (1 Ej/j = one quintillion joules of energy) coming to earth from the sun each year. This is 500 times more energy than the 500 Ej/j annually that the earth needs for energy purposes.
So this couldn’t be a better time to scale up the transition to sustainable energy production for cost economies and innovation, accessible and affordable for all, in combination with effective conservation and efficiency efforts aimed at reducing overall energy consumption.
Germany, Denmark , Sweden, and, to a promising extent, California are on this course towards 80% sustainable renewable energy by 2050. The strategy is simply all about replacing fossil fuels with green energy, reducing energy consumption, and using fossil fuels only as a ‘support filler’ during the 2014-2050 transition process to an appropriate renewable energy mix.
Prof. Timothy Garrett may be on to something with his pessimistic view of societal lethargy in both recognizing and changing very bad habits. His warning is a valid one that the drive for economic growth, wealth, and pressures of population growth may lead to fossil fuel consumption NOT going down. Alternative green solutions may simply add to total quantity of energy we consume. He’s in good company with one of the world’s most respected climate scientists, Prof. Kevin Anderson, Deputy Director of the Tyndall Centre in Britain. Prof. Anderson is also convinced we are hurtling toward catastrophic climate change – doomed by a GHG emissions reality that is completely out of control. He, like Prof. Garrett, sees little chance the increase in global warming can be contained to the 2 degrees Celsius by 2050. He sees surface warming increasing 4 degrees and probably much higher by 2050 – beyond a point where agriculture, ecosystem and civilization can survive (see his presentation to the Cabot Institute in Bristol, UK, 2012 and his Stormant presentation, “Rhetoric and Reality Facing the Challenges of Climate Change,” Feb.,2013 ).
More hopeful is the 1,900 page recent General Energy Assessment study. It concludes it’s quite possible to have an energy system that keeps CO2 emissions well within bounds so that earth temperatures rise no more than 2 degrees Celsius by 2050. Furthermore, such a system is possible at an acceptable price. According to the GEA, worldwide about $1.3 trillion is spent on the current energy system. That’s about 2% of worldwide GDP. GEA has calculated that a sustainable, clean energy system will cost between $1.7 and $2.2 trillion annually. Those costs can be lowered by ending all subsidies for traditional fossil fuels which amount to about $0.5 trillion each year. But of course such a new system will still require accelerated social changes in behavior, improved technology, and reduction in energy demand.
But what will happen in America? We are now the world’s worst per capita CO2 emitter. Where is the leadership, solidarity, and courage to go in a different direction of total independence from dirty and finite fossil fuels?
Can we produce more energy with much less carbon at an affordable price?
Can we consume less energy through changes in consumer (and business) behavior without undermining quality-of-life values?
Can we transition to a worldwide energy system that does not overheat the earth more than 2 degrees Celsius by 2050?
Why is it that President Obama’s, YES WE CAN answer seems so hollow and helpless given the scale and immediacy of the environmental threat to life on planet earth?
Part 1 can be found here.