Eliminating sources of greenhouse gas pollution and removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere
The global economy has more than adequate human and technical resources to prevent dangerous climate change. Those resources are being deployed now, to varying degrees, in many parts of the world: renewable energy for the grid, electrification of transportation, land use reform, and direct air capture of CO2. Taken together, they amount to a pollution response and cleanup effort directed at stopping greenhouse gas pollution and removing excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Coordinating and accelerating all such efforts to the fullest is the fundamental objective of all climate policy and action.
To halt and reverse climate change, emission intensive sectors of the world economy will eliminate and clean up greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution by:
Replacing energy conversion devices (ECDs) that burn fossil fuels
Electricity generation: phase out thousands of coal-, gas- and oil-fired electricity generators and replace with renewable energy plants, or safe 4th generation nuclear reactors.
Cement and steel production: phase in electricity-based production processes.
Transportation/industrial: replace a billion+ internal combustion engines used for propulsion and power tools with electric motors. Use carbon-neutral biofuels for conventional aircraft (near term).
Buildings: use electricity, geo exchange and biofuels for processes and systems requiring heat.
Adopting land use practices that preserve and restore the biosphere
Improving organic waste management to reduce CH4 pollution
Human population management.
Controlling fluorine-based chemicals
Restrict or ban:
hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) used in refrigeration,
perfluorocarbons (PFCs) used in the manufacture of semiconductors, in aluminum production and as specialized refrigerants and solvents,
sulphur hexafluoride (SF6) used in semi-conductor manufacturing, and
nitrogen trifluoride (NF3) used as an electronics etching agent.
Removing excess atmospheric CO2
accelerate development and roll out of direct air capture (DAC) technologies,
sequester, stockpile, and use captured CO2, and
restore CO2-absorbing soils and native vegetation on abandoned, unused and cleared land.
Toward universal policy objectives
Framing climate action as, fundamentally, a pollution response and cleanup effort has a grounding effect on policy. It cuts through ideology, makes climate action easy to understand, and gives common purpose to the wide and diverse range of practical climate mitigation measures already underway worldwide: energy transition, sustainable land management, and carbon dioxide removal.
National or sub-national policies and actions guided by these measures would differ according to circumstances. However, the fundamental principles and objectives would be identical, forming the basis of effective, non-partisan policy instruments that would survive election cycles.
To ensure long-term success of climate policies and actions, governments would:
promote full public awareness of, and engagement with, the fundamental principles that guide action to eliminate and clean up GHG pollution, and
illuminate the process of intervention and transition with respect to a zero carbon economy, especially in the energy sector where fossil fuel-based technologies are being rapidly phased out while zero carbon equivalents are phased in.
Policy makers can focus on replacing energy conversion devices and be confident they are on track.
The global roll-out of zero carbon energy technologies now appears unstoppable – even in the eyes of Ben van Beurden, CEO of Royal Dutch Shell. Mr. Beurden has seen the writing on the wall and is determined that Shell move with the times. “We see a lot of wind and solar being added to the world’s energy system. That has to happen. In fact, it must accelerate,” he said recently. “I believe we must be relevant to today’s world, reshape ourselves for the future and play a role in energy transition.”
Indeed, the replacement of fossil fuels with wind, water, solar, geothermal and hydrogen is accelerating, and with negligible disruption. Coal is yielding to wind and solar as the cheapest source of energy for electricity generation. No grids have failed as a result. There are waiting lists for new electric vehicles, which are proving themselves more powerful, cheaper to run, and easier to maintain. They are as safe, reliable and as snazzy as those four wheeled carbon dioxide polluting devices parked in your garage.
However, political and social discourse doesn’t really have a dispassionate way of dealing with these developments. There is little agreement on the process and speed of energy transition and how it relates to the now manifest existential threat of climate change. Instead, we are flooded with multitudinous and often conflicting views on what should happen, should not happen, and why. Complete system change, a scheduled shut down of fossil fuel production, blocking oil pipeline construction, energy democracy, carbon taxes, de-growing the economy, investment, denial – all get equal air time.
But the focus of the debate – energy transition – is not that complicated. Energy systems may be complex, and switching them out on the fly a challenge both technically and financially, but the concepts driving change are not. Here are four to remember.
1) Energy transition is part of an overarching global pollution response and clean up effort
The international community has responded to greenhouse gas pollution through the Paris Accord, a diplomatic commitment to end or limit emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and several industrial chemicals based on fluorine. Carbon dioxide accounts for up to 75 percent of these gases and is produced almost entirely by the world’s inventory of coal-fired electricity plants, automobiles, cement plants, and steel mills.
The roll-out of zero carbon energy technologies is regarded as the most important (and practical) pathway toward meeting the Paris commitments. Zero carbon technologies don’t pollute. They are mature, proven, and rapidly becoming cost competitive. As it stands, however, the roll-out is for the most part constrained by conventional politics and economics. It is therefore occurring at different speeds, slow and fast, in different jurisdictions around the world.
While energy transition aims to stop carbon dioxide pollution, the cleanup part is a step or two behind. Shell has a carbon capture and storage system installed on its upgrader plant in Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta. About a third of the plant’s CO2 emissions are captured, liquefied and buried in rock formations 2 kilometers under the prairie. A number of technologies are in the works for far more ambitious “negative emissions” – that is, ways and means to remove accumulated CO2 directly from the air. One of them is at the demonstration stage. Another, the STEP process is in development in a lab at George Washington University, and may be capable of capturing and disposing of carbon dioxide at the volume and speed necessary to prevent catastrophic warming of the atmosphere.
Addressing climate change may require system change, stopping oil pipelines, carbon taxes, massive re-direction of capital, or all of the above. Regardless, the final outcome of all strategies is the switch to zero carbon energy systems.
It’s early in the game, but zero carbon outcomes are being pursued now in four energy-intensive sectors of the global economy: electricity generation, transportation, heavy industries (such as cement and steel manufacturing), and building/home operations. To stop carbon dioxide pollution, each sector is taking steps to replace the specific technologies that produce said pollution. For example, the automotive industry is beginning to replace internal combustion engines with electric motors in the aggregate fleet of about a billion motor vehicles worldwide. One innovative company is offering retrofit electric drive systems for existing vehicles. Grid operators around the world will eventually retire several thousand coal, oil or natural gas-fired steam turbines, along with the facilities that house them. They are to be replaced with wind turbines, solar arrays, geothermal plants, or fourth generation nuclear reactors.
The guiding principle is to replace energy conversion devices (ECDs) that emit carbon dioxide pollution with ECDs that do not. Complex infrastructure, transmission systems, and processes built around all such devices are added, replaced or modified accordingly.
3) Industrial initiative is at least as important as political will
The real action in energy transition happens in board rooms and factories as much as in the chambers of government. Automobile manufacturers build electric propulsion systems. Electric utilities install solar panels and wind turbines designed and built by multinational corporations. The role of bureaucrats and elected officials is to work with the private sector and do everything possible to foster industrial innovation and initiative.
4) Energy transition is a phase out / phase in process
Energy transitions have happened before. In the last century, internal combustion engines replaced horses, and diesel-electric locomotives replaced coal-fired steam engines. Such transitions were spontaneous and occurred at their own pace, with little or no social disruption, and were usually confined to one economic sector.
The 21st Century rendition of energy transition is different to the extent that it reaches into all energy-intensive sectors in all industrial economies. At the same time, it is sharply delineated, aiming specifically to replace the deeply rooted, fossil fuel-based devices that power the modern world.
There is a time element involved, a phase-out/phase-in process taking place. This requires careful management of energy systems so they there is energy available to effectively carry out transition. Energy supplies must be maintained for the outgoing system as well as the incoming system. For a while, pipelines will coexist with EV charging stations. It looks bad, but it’s not.
There is a climate emergency afoot. It is a symptom of CO2 pollution mostly from fossil fuel combustion. We stop the pollution – without delay – by replacing the energy technologies that produce the pollution, and we do this by navigating energy transition pathways. These pathways follow what is commonly called the “innovation chain” whereby technologies are financed, developed, tested, prototyped, and rolled out. Governments can accelerate the process through public-private partnerships, regulations and direct control.
Governments can craft policy designed specifically to replace ECDs and be confident they are on track. Governments in China and the UK have have set dates for phasing out internal combustion engines in automobiles. The state of Oregon changed public utility regulations to allow the sale of electricity at roadside EV charging stations. Governments can accelerate the replacement of ECDs through direct control of the industrial sector as they did during mobilization at the outset of two world wars. All of this requires sustained clear-headed cooperation among government, the people, and the private sector.
Carbon dioxide is invisible, odorless and non-toxic. It is an essential component of the atmosphere – a greenhouse gas that keeps the surface of the planet much warmer than it would otherwise be. As such, it is in no way a threat to human well-being. Yet now, carbon dioxide is effectively a dangerous pollutant because the fossil fuel-based energy conversion devices (ECDs) that power the world economy burn fossilized hydrocarbons, and in the process discharge some 30 billion tonnes of this otherwise benign gas into to the atmosphere every year. This steady build-up of CO2 is altering the proportions of atmospheric gases, the result of which is now common knowledge. The prognosis is not good. If an effective response strategy is not implemented as soon as possible, as early as 2065 the world’s coastal cities may be under water and many settled parts of the world too hot to support human habitation.
Public awareness of the situation is increasing, but timely and effective action lags as the world struggles to bring two root problems into focus.
The second problem involves a technical miscalculation. Since the industrial revolution, various types of energy conversion devices have transformed the chemical energy of fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas) into mechanical and heat energy. The energy produced has been used to generate electricity, propel all manner of vehicles, make steel and concrete, prepare countless meals, and mow a lot of lawns. Fortunes were made bringing these energy conversion devices to market and constructing the complex domestic and industrial systems for which they provide power. More fortunes were made supplying the fossil fuel for those devices. While all of these economic benefits were occurring, only a few scientists – John Tyndall, Svante Arrhenius, Guy Callender among them – had the presence of mind to calculate how the exhaust from fossil fuel combustion would impact the thermodynamics of the atmosphere.
Although the miscalculation multiplied by orders of magnitude and eventually became part of the wallpaper of modern life, it is important to recall the initial, fundamental, and rather simple error: that is, energy conversion devices that burn fossil fuels increase the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Period. That being the root problem, the solution is correspondingly simple: replace all energy conversion devices that add fossil-source carbon dioxide to the atmosphere with energy conversion devices that do not. Essentially this is a pollution response and cleanup operation, the core task, the hinge on which all manner of system changes take place – including removing carbon dioxide pollution from the atmosphere.
From an engineering perspective, the world already has the necessary hardware at hand. However, deployment of said hardware is not as speedy as some might hope. Deployment remains subject to the constraints of conventional economics. Its not like World War II, when government war policy saw automobile assembly lines become tank assembly lines in a matter of weeks. But that could change.
From a policy perspective, the miscalculation will be remedied when the global community classifies climate change as a symptom of carbon dioxide pollution, and focuses on rapid phase out of the mechanical devices – in the electricity, transportation, heavy industrial, and building sectors – which are the source of that pollution. The ensuing pollution response and cleanup operation will of course transform the energy space.
If your house catches fire, you call the fire department. The guys (mostly) at the fire station say they’ll be right on over. Sirens and clatter and ladders and hoses. Usually, they save the day.
Now, with carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases polluting the earth’s atmosphere at a dangerous, accelerating pace, causing unprecedented extreme weather, record floods, and wildfires worldwide, who do you call? Politicians? Not the right skill set, apparently. Businessmen? Getting warm.
So your house is on fire. You call the fire department. There’s a crew there. Each has a different opinion about what’s happening. One guy says, “Cynthia’s house is on fire! Let’s go! Another guy says, “What fire? There’s no fire. I don’t see no fire.” Over by the fire truck, another guy says, “Let’s go turn the fire down. Then we set targets and deadlines, and monitor the situation.”
OK, so who do you call? Really.
You talk to practical and pragmatic leaders of the world community, roughly categorized in two groups:
1) The biosphere brigade
This includes religious leaders who persuade their congregations to see the benefits of an emergency one-child policy. (Seriously. You do that. But don’t do it alone.) You talk to farmers, landowners, mining companies, forest industries.
This first group is responsible for seeing to it that humans stop overrunning the planet and having their way with it. Steadfastly polite, you talk to religious leaders and say your bit. You get farmers to be as friendly as possible to natural systems, and you get forestry companies to plant trees and conserve vegetation. The main point here is biosphere restoration. This takes care of about 25 – 35 % of greenhouse gas emissions.
2) The engineering brigade
You find these professionals managing the world’s energy sector. They are running electric grids, manufacturing automobiles and aeroplanes, making steel and cement, designing buildings, and building homes.
With their help, you mobilize all designers, trades people and laborers in those industries; then you do what it takes to swap out the energy conversion devises (ECDs) in those industries that run on fossil fuels. You replace them with ECDs that run on electricity, or biofuel. You ask them to drop what they’re doing and … PUT OUT THE FIRE.
It’s a real fire! And with fire, you deal with combustion. You stop combustion. Obviously, you don’t burn down trees, for example. So that’s what you do in the energy sector. And what that means is the machines we use to power the equipment of modern civilization stop burning fossil fuel.
But you can’t just switch them off. You have to replace them. That is the mission.
It is possible we humans will not get it together to put out the fire. In that case, we will have to live, at best, in a seriously compromised earthly environment. Parts of the globe will be uninhabitable. Major cities will be have to build dykes against the sea. Some won’t be able to. But the earth will be OK. It has been in a similar condition before. Things will be very different for us, for sure, but the earth will be OK.
Are we headed to Dystopia? Hope not. Ideas and plans welcome.
The international community has identified seven anthropogenic greenhouse gases (GHGs) that are harmful to the Earth’s atmosphere and, as a consequence, harmful to the planet’s finely tuned climate system. The gases are:
carbon dioxide (CO2)
nitrous oxide (N2O)
sulphur hexafluoride (SF6), and
nitrogen trifluoride (NF3)
Over 30 billion tonnes of these pollutants are discharged around the globe annually. The human activities responsible for these emissions include: the burning of fossil fuels to produce energy; the alteration and destruction of the Earth’s natural habitat for economic development; and the production and use of fluorinated gases for various industrial applications.
Burning fossil fuels
Fossil fuel combustion produces carbon dioxide (CO2) in exhaust gases. The heat of combustion oxidizes some nitrogen in the air to form nitrous oxide (N2O). The methods and processes involved in mining, refining, and transporting fossil fuels discharge methane (CH4). Additional CO2 is produced where fuel combustion is required for heat and mechanical energy in the fossil fuel supply chain.
Devices that burn fossil fuels are ubiquitous fixtures of the world economy. Over a billion internal combustion engines power automobiles, motor cycles, locomotives, airplanes, ships, electric generators, mowers, and hand-held tools. Tens of thousands of industrial boilers and gas turbines generate electricity for the grid and for use in factories.
An uncounted number of stoves, furnaces, kilns, refinery distillers and smelters provide heat for homes and industrial processes such as steel making, refining crude oil, and cement production. Cement production produces an extra measure of GHG because, in addition to burning fossil fuels to heat kilns, it emits CO2 when transforming limestone, a fossil mineral, into calcium oxide (clinker).
Fossil fuel production and combustion accounts for about 75 percent of global greenhouse gas pollution.
Altering and destroying natural habitat
Deforestation Burning trees and other plants, or leaving them to rot, releases CO2 that had been removed from the atmosphere during the life of those plants. Normally, this is a net-zero emissions equation, but when more plants are destroyed than grow, there is a net increase in atmospheric CO2.
Most deforestation now occurs in tropical regions where industrial-scale agriculture, such as cattle farming and palm oil production, is eliminating jungle habitat.
Agriculture Cultivation of soil through tillage releases CO2 stored by organic matter in the soil, and fertilizer enhances emissions of N2O from normal bacterial activity.
Industrial-scale farming of cattle, goats, sheep, poultry, pigs, and other animals produces CH4, both from manure and from the digestive tracts of domesticated ruminants.
Rice paddies produce CH4 and CO2 in a way similar to reservoirs (see below).