Climate Change: a clear and present future

mop and bucket

As the long-predicted effects of greenhouse gas pollution proliferate, moves are afoot to clean it up.

The modern world is rudely awakening to a situation climate scientists have been forecasting for over four decades. In 1973, British meteorologist John Sawyer predicted atmospheric warming of 0.6C by the year 2000. He wasn’t far off. Observed increases were actually between 0.51C and 0.56°C. In 1981, American researchers led by James Hansen predicted a warming of about 0.65°C by 2017. Warming for that year was actually higher at nearly 0.8°C. In 1989, a special issue of Scientific American ran an article by Stephen H. Schneider entitled The Changing Climate with the subtitle: “Global warming should be unmistakable within a decade or two. Prompt emissions cuts could slow the buildup of heat trapping gases and limit this risky planetwide experiment”.

Thirty years later, the signs are indeed unmistakable: increased frequency and intensity of heat waves, drought and wild fire; regular bouts of extreme weather; glaciers and polar ice caps melting; coastal flooding; rural and suburban homes consumed by forest fires; people dying of heat stroke.

Climate change is bearing down on us because there has been little in the way of the “prompt emissions cuts” recommended by Schneider’s 1989 article. Instead, there has been a massive propagation of our modern, energy-intensive lifestyle turbocharged by a 50 percent increase in world population. Collectively, we are using more land, making more stuff, and burning more coal, oil and gas to fuel the ever-expanding economic machinery. The result is a torrent of anthropogenic greenhouse gases – halocarbons, nitrous oxide, methane, and especially carbon dioxide – pouring into the atmosphere at the rate of over 30 billion tons every year.

If these greenhouse gases were coming from a single source, and were visible (they are insidiously invisible), it would likely be a sight terrible enough to mobilize global action to stop it. But there is no single, awe-inspiring gas fountain to hold the attention of the news media and set the population abuzz. Greenhouse gas pollution is diffuse; it hides in plain sight. Most of it comes from commonplace energy conversion devices around the world that burn fossil fuels: over a billion internal combustion engines in automobiles; tens of thousands of coal, gas and oil-fired steam turbines in electricity generation plants; tens of thousands of turbines and internal combustions engines in aircraft, ships and locomotives; uncounted small internal combustion engines in lawn mowers, chainsaws and hand held tools. We are surrounded by greenhouse gas pollution devices. You likely own one. I do.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of square kilometers of forests are slashed and burned every year to make room for industrial scale cultivation, urban development and resource extraction. Hundreds of millions of cattle and sheep are happily belching methane as they graze. Thousands of landfills worldwide leak methane.

To make matters worse, recent observations and events underline the feedback effects produced by a warming atmosphere. A recent German study indicates that melting permafrost could allow the release of up to 1 billion tons of methane and 37 billion tons of carbon dioxide by the year 2100. Fires raging in northern boreal forests are producing greenhouse gases at the rate of some 170 tons per hectare. In 2017, 1.2 million hectares of forest burned in British Columbia alone, producing upwards of 200 megatons of greenhouse gas, roughly equivalent to the annual emissions of ten large coal-fired electricity plants.

Most people now understand that this unchecked stream of greenhouse gas pollution is warming the atmosphere. But recent climate research tells us that the warming trend is about to overtake us, if it hasn’t already. In a 2016 paper entitled Ice melt, sea level rise and superstorms: evidence from paleoclimate data, climate modeling, and modern observations that 2 C global warming could be dangerous, James Hansen and 18 co-authors predict a catastrophic sea level rise of several meters beginning as early as 2066. The scientific team concluded that “the message our climate science delivers to society, policy makers, and the public alike is this: we have a global emergency. Fossil fuel CO2 emissions should be reduced as rapidly as practical.”

However, with the nasty effects of climate change now manifest, the necessity to do more than just “reduce” emissions is obvious. The world economy is clearly not phasing out the old fossil fuel paradigm fast enough. So while we slowly accelerate the phase-in of zero carbon electricity generation plants, battery powered vehicles, and energy efficient buildings in an economy constrained by competitive, cost-conscious interests, we will have no choice but to remove large amounts of CO2 – the major greenhouse gas pollutant – directly from the atmosphere.

Now, the good news: technologies intended to achieve this are in the works.

In Iceland, Reykjavik Energy is developing a carbon sequestration project in partnership with several international research institutions. Called Carbfix, the project captures CO2 from a geothermal electricity generation plant and injects it into basalt rock formations a kilometre or more underground. Once there, it mineralizes into a stable compound within a couple of years. Basalt rock composes about 10% of the planet’s continental surface area and underlies most of the ocean floor. Globally, the mineral uptake of these formations is estimated at between 100 and 250 trillion tons, in theory enough to easily absorb all the excess CO2 in the earth’s atmosphere. So it looks like there’s a way to store the stuff in permanent, solid form.

Along a similar mineralization pathway, a team of researchers based at Trent University, in Ontario, recently devised an experimental process to rapidly and inexpensively capture CO2 by combining it with magnesium to form the mineral magnesite (magnesium carbonate). In nature, magnesite takes hundreds of thousands of years to form. In the lab, it takes 72 days at room temperature, suggesting an uncomplicated route to industrial scale carbon capture. One ton of magnesium carbonate sequesters about a half ton of CO2.

Meanwhile, in Squamish, British Columbia, a Canadian company, Carbon Engineering, is running a pilot project to capture CO2 directly from the air using a chemical solution. The project has been testing a full-scale direct air capture (DAC) unit since 2015, and has shown that CO2 can be removed from the atmosphere for less than $100US per ton. In December 2017, it began combining captured CO2 with electrolysis-derived hydrogen to produce roughly a barrel of carbon neutral fuel per day. Full scale capture plants would each remove up to one million tons of CO2 from the atmosphere annually, and be located according to their purpose. Plants intended for fuel production could be built anywhere; those intended for CO2 sequestration would be built near suitable geological formations. The pilot project in Squamish is funded by private investors including Bill Gates, and by government agencies including Sustainable Development Technologies Canada and the US Department of Energy.

A similar direct air capture facility has been built on a modest commercial scale near Zurich by Climeworks, a Swiss firm. The plant has 18 capture turbines and currently harvests CO2 at a cost of about 600 swiss francs per ton. The venture is heavily subsidized making it possible to sell the CO2 at competitive rates to a nearby greenhouse where it enhances plant growth by 20 percent. Local fizzy drink and bakery companies are interested. The owners expect capture costs to come down as the technology scales up.

In another approach, CO2 can be removed from the atmosphere by breaking it down into its two basic elements. At George Washington University in Ashburn, Virginia, Stuart Licht has been leading a team of researchers on a project called C2CNT, intent on capturing CO2 on a large scale using solar energy. The process uses sunlight to power a molten carbonate electrolyzer that breaks CO2 down into nothing but oxygen and solid carbon nanotubes. Carbon nanotubes are a hi-tech industrial material used to make, among other things, lightweight aircraft bodies and tennis rackets. They are currently produced in an elaborate process and worth up to $300 per gram. The small lab version of C2CNT’s device makes nanofibres directly and relatively inexpensively. Commercial scale versions would be self-powered and constructed en masse in any sunny region on the planet. According to the team’s calculations, the electrolytic process is so efficient that full deployment worldwide could reduce atmospheric CO2 to preindustrial levels in 10 years. Recently, organizers of the NRG COSIA Carbon XPrize awarded Dr. Licht and his team funding to build a full-scale demonstration unit to capture CO2 from industrial flue gas. Direct air capture – and sequestration – would of course be its most useful application.

Not only useful but imperative. A recent report from the Joint Research Centre of the European Union concluded that even with very strong international efforts to curb greenhouse gas pollution, the build-up of atmospheric CO2 will go considerably beyond the limits needed to meet the agreements made in Paris. The report’s authors said that carbon dioxide removal is no longer a choice, but a necessity for limiting warming to 1.5°C.

It would seem that the stage is being set for a global CO2 pollution cleanup effort.

Energy transition – it’s not that complicated

no fossil fuel combustion

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.

What we see here is one of an estimated two billion carbon dioxide spills occurring around the globe. The visible plume is water vapor, while the carbon dioxide component is non-toxic, invisible and odorless. Nevertheless, it is dangerous pollution because it is produced by fossil fuel combustion.

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.

internal combustion engine
The world’s most popular fossil fuel-burning energy conversion device.

2) All energy transition strategies have a common goal: replace fossil fuel-based energy conversion devices

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.

Small modular reactor
Assuming impeccable safety standards, small modular reactors could replace the guts of a coal fired electricity plant, leaving the rest of the facility intact. Image: Terra Power

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.

wind turbines and smoke stacks
During energy transition, the incoming and outgoing systems co-exist.

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.

Policy implications

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.

The impacts of hydro electric power

The diablo hydro electric dam

To create safe and comfortable living quarters, beavers bring down trees, fashion them into sticks and logs, and build dams. In the process, they flood the surrounding terrain, drown local vegetation, and force burrowing critters to higher ground. Humans occasionally do the same for similar reasons, but of course on an industrial scale. The bigger the dam, the greater the impacts. Obviously.

A comprehensive report published in 2000 by the The World Commission on Dams details these impacts – as well as the costs, benefits and misconceptions associated with the construction of large dams. The report looks at large dams intended for irrigation, flood control and electricity generation worldwide. Its findings should be familiar to anyone who has been directly affected by a hydro electric development.

With respect to construction, the report found that large dams “have a marked tendency towards schedule delays and significant cost overruns.”

With respect to social impacts, planners and decision-makers “have often neither adequately assessed nor accounted for the adverse social impacts of large dams. As a result, the construction and operation of large dams has had serious and lasting effects on the lives, livelihoods and health of affected communities, and led to the loss of cultural resources and heritage”.

The report noted that “sedimentation and the consequent long-term loss of storage is a serious concern globally”.  With respect to safety, “of dams built before 1950, 2.2% failed, while the failure rate of dams built since 1951 is less than 0.5%”.

The report summarized environmental impacts thus:

  • the loss of forests and wildlife habitat, the loss of species populations and the degradation of upstream catchment areas due to inundation of the reservoir area;
  • emissions of greenhouse gases from reservoirs due to the rotting of vegetation and carbon inflows from the basin;
  • the loss of aquatic biodiversity, upstream and downstream fisheries and the services of downstream floodplains, wetlands and riverine estuarine and adjacent marine ecosystems;
  • the creation of productive fringing wetland ecosystems with fish and waterfowl habitat opportunities in some reservoirs; and
  • cumulative impacts on water quality, natural flooding, and species composition where a number of dams are sited on the same rivers.

In conclusion, the report presented seven strategic priorities for future dam development that could “achieve equitable and sustainable outcomes, free of the divisive conflicts of the past”.

Meanwhile, dams continue to be built to satisfy the ever-rising demand for electricity, especially in countries experiencing rapid modernization. In China, the Three Gorges hydroelectric dam, the world’s largest, flooded about 632 square kilometres of the Yangtze River valley and forced the resettlement of over a million people living in hundreds of towns and villages. The dam now impedes the normal flow of silt down the Yangtze, leaving it to settle in the Three Gorges dam reservoir and changing riverbed and flood plane dynamics downstream.

The earth has more or less been able to absorb the impacts of such industriousness, but the human beneficiaries have had to deal with ethical and economic conflicts. On one hand, they get low-cost, reliable, and relatively pollution-free electricity for their homes and factories. On the other, they can lose significant geographical, economic, cultural, and even personal assets.

So it goes without saying that all electricity produced this way comes with a loss. The same can be said about the development of the human built environment in general. Plant and animal life of every size and species is pushed aside by human enterprise – whether it plays out in your vegetable garden or in hundreds of square kilometres of countryside. The landscape is changed.

beaver
Unlike humans, beavers have no ethical conflicts and are not overrunning the planet.

Needless to say, human impacts on the environment are a political headache. Politicians must, as best they can, referee economic maneuvers instigated by industrial interests who, in turn, cater as best they can to the growing appetites of exploding populations. In doing so, they are squeezed by the seemingly intractable, conflicting ethics that underpin industrial exploitation of the earth. So justifiably some of us will always be deeply disturbed by our economic achievements.

It would appear that the impulse to mould the earthly environment to our liking is part of human nature. The problem may simply be that there are far too many of us involved in the venture. We are bursting our terrestrial seams – which is to say that the international community probably needs to give some serious thought to population control.

 

Featured image: The Diablo Dam on the Skagit River, Washington State.

Climate Change – focused analysis, focused action

binoculars and turbines

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.

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 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.

The White House and the real change agents

the White House in decline

Anyone with an inkling of social literacy can see Donald Trump has been handed a job that is well beyond his reach. As a result, the once reputable White House is sinking into a political swamp that Mr. Trump expected he would drain. Is this because the White House was not built on solid ground in the first place? Or did the political earthquake of the last US election turn the ground at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave into quicksand?

Whatever the case, Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris Accord has been a major, albeit predictable, disappointment. But the international community will carry on regardless. The world will continue to transition away from fossil fuel-based energy systems, building on recent momentum.

For electricity generation, renewable energy is now a cheaper source of primary energy than coal in many parts of the world. Automobiles powered by electric motors are proving themselves to be mechanically superior to those powered by internal combustion engines, and may achieve price parity sooner than expected.

The Paris Accord may only become marginally less effective without the participation of the US federal government. And the US exit may lead to scrutiny regarding what the Paris Accord can and cannot do, on its own, to protect the international community from the time bomb created a century and a half ago when we seized on the economic possibilities of coal, oil and natural gas.

The change agents driving the growing international movement to end anthropogenic carbon emissions are not harried politicians and hair-brained presidents. The real change agents are the world’s car makers, electric grid operators, builders, heavy industries, and landowners. And what they must do collectively – as responsible participants in the world economy – is two-fold: Firstly, transform the energy sector, and secondly, restore the biosphere.

It’s not that complicated. Car makers, electric grid operators, builders, and heavy industries will be replacing energy conversion devices that burn fossil fuels. Electric motors will replace internal combustion engines in the world’s billion-plus motor vehicles. Renewables (and perhaps 4th generation nuclear) will replace coal fired boilers in electricity generation plants. Landowners, will end or even reverse a deeply entrenched tradition of biosphere abuse by farmers, foresters, and developers. It’s also pretty obvious that hundreds of billions of tons of carbon pollution will have to be removed from the atmosphere. All of this is doable with available methods and technologies.

The international community is beginning to make a concerted effort to deal with climate change – even if a former reality TV star and his willfully ignorant followers can neither comprehend the problem nor imagine the solutions.