Climate Change: focused analysis, focused action

Carbon dioxide is invisible, odourless 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 be otherwise. 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: climate change. 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 the two root problems into focus.

Firstly, humans populations are growing, and in the process relentlessly degrading the biosphere. We are burning forests and clearing land for agricultural and industrial development, systematically releasing very large amounts of natural carbon stored in vegetation and in soils. Cleared agricultural lands worldwide are fertilized with nitrogen, which releases nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas about 300 times more potent than CO2. Emissions from this kind of environmental exploitation are thought to account for up to one third of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. Among the remedies: checking population growth, planting millions of trees, and restricting the use of artificial fertilizers.

The second part of the 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-based energy conversion devices 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 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.

The process of energy transition

Wind turbines, Goldendale, Washington

Let us all be clear on the steps required to prevent dangerous climate change and understand the process involved in implementing those steps. Let this understanding inform public discourse so that we are all helping to avert a climate catastrophe.

Carbon dioxide pollution is our adversary, and there are two main sources of it:

  1. Destruction of forests and soils which act as natural carbon dioxide sinks, and
  2. fossil fuel combustion in over a billion energy conversion devices (ECDs) used in electricity generation, transportation and heavy industry around the globe.

Four stroke cycle compression
Energy transition means replacing over a billion ECDs hiding in plain sight.
Population control and land use reform will help restore the planet’s carbon sinks. Replacing fossil fuel-burning ECDs will end fossil fuel combustion. Specifically, electric motors are to replace internal combustion engines. Wind, solar, geothermal (and perhaps fourth generation nuclear) are to replace the thousands coal and gas fired boilers used to generate electricity for the grid and heat for industry.

This replacement – already underway – is at the core of what we call energy transition, a global process which will take time to accomplish. The sooner the better, but as in any transition, features of the old fossil fuel based system will fade out while the new zero carbon system fades in. To maintain a modicum of functionality, the economic order will have to maintain the old system even as it is being replaced.

So as government, industry and the general population undertake their respective responsibilities with respect to energy transition, it will be necessary to work with the process and measure our steps carefully. Outlawing fossil fuels, coal mines, pipelines and fossil fuel-based ECDs would weaken the energy space, and impair its ability to achieve rapid change. Pipelines are needed to service the fossil fuel based ECDs still extant, so consider them as temporary. In all sectors of the economy, replacing fossil fuel-based ECDs will cut off demand and make fossil fuel suppliers obsolete. Catastrophe averted.