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Sober up: world running out of time to keep planet from over-heating

Posted on 7 November 2011 by John Hartz

The following article, written by Jeremy Hance, was originally posted on Mongabay.com (Oct 24, 2011). It is reprinted here with permission. 


If governments are to keep the pledge they made in Copenhagen to limit global warming within the 'safe range' of two degrees Celsius, they are running out of time, according to two sobering papers from Nature. One of the studies finds that if the world is to have a 66 percent chance of staying below a rise of two degrees Celsius, greenhouse gas emissions would need to peak in less than a decade and fall quickly thereafter. The other study predicts that parts of Europe, Asia, North Africa and Canada could see a rise beyond two degrees Celsius within just twenty years.

Running out of time

How do we stay below a global rise of two degrees Celsius? According to a new study involving researchers various climate institutes, greenhouse gas emissions would need to peak during the decade and fall to 44 gigatons by 2020. Emissions this year are expected to hit 48 gigatons. Dropping 4 gigatons may appear easier than it is as experts consider many future emissions to already be 'locked in' due to fossil fuel power plants that are already running or currently under construction. In this case, some power plants would have to be abandoned altogether to keep the world under two degrees Celsius. However, even this scenario provides only a 'likely' avoidance of keeping warming below two degrees Celsius. For a much more certain effort (90 percent chance) emissions would need to peak during the decade but fall even more quickly. In addition, negative emissions, i.e. sequestering carbon from the atmosphere, would be required.

Castle Gate coal-fired power plant in Utah. Nearly half of the US's electricity is from coal, the most carbon intensive energy. Photo by: David Jolley.

Castle Gate coal-fired power plant in Utah. Nearly half of the US's electricity is from coal, the most carbon intensive energy. Photo by: David Jolley.

Given these findings international agreements and national pledges made to date will not keep the world below two degrees Celsius warming.

"There are significant risks that the [two degrees Celsius] target, endorsed by so many nations, is already slipping out of reach," write the authors.

Still, a number of poorer and climate-vulnerable nations are pushing for halting global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius, a target viewed as safer for many parts of the world. The recent study found that none of the 139 models they surveyed, no matter how aggressive at cutting emissions, limited warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

"However," write the authors, "some scenarios in our set bring warming back below 1.5 Celsius by 2100: a first scenario does so with a probability of about 50 percent, and a second scenario with a 'likely' chance (better than 66 percent)."

In our lifetimes

Contrary to the perception that climate impacts are far in the future, new research and evidence shows that climate change is at our doorstep—if not already inside the house. The other study from Nature finds evidence that if greenhouse gas emissions remain high, the Earth will cross the two degree Celsius threshold by 2060. Even then many regions are set to pass the target much sooner as warming is not uniform throughout the world; in general the northern hemisphere warms quicker than the south.

"Large parts of Eurasia, North Africa and Canada could potentially experience individual five-year average temperatures that exceed the 2 degree Celsius threshold by 2030—a timescale that is not so 'distant'," the authors write.

Such a rise is expected to have impacts on agricultural production, sea levels, biodiversity, extreme weather, public health, food security, and even warfare. 

Political mire

Avoiding rising above two degrees Celsius is entirely possible: a recent study in Energy Policy found that fossil fuels could be wholly abandoned by 2050 with the world's energy needs met by electricity produced 90 percent from wind and solar sources alone. The final 10 percent could be generated by geothermal, hydro, wave, and tidal power. Ground transportation would be run by electricity or hydrogen fuel cells, and planes would be powered by liquid hydrogen.

Kentish Flats wind power in the UK. Photo by: Phil Hollman.

Kentish Flats wind power in the UK. Photo by: Phil Hollman.

However, the effort to push toward such an energy revolution has been stymied for decades by a lack of political will and finger pointing. The US, the world's historically largest emitter of climate change, blames rising powers like China and India for not doing enough as their emissions are rising the fastest. For their part, China and India blame the US and other wealthy nations for not accepting deeper cuts, since they share the brunt of historic responsibility.

Even after decades of increasingly dire warnings, the US has still not passed comprehensive federal legislation to combat global warming; Canada has abandoned past pledges in order to exploit its emissions-heavy tar sands; China continues to depend on coal for its energy production; Indonesia's effort to stem widespread deforestation is facing stiff resistance from industry; Europe is mulling pulling back on its more ambitious cuts if other nations do not join it; northern nations are scrambling to exploit the melting Arctic for untapped oil and gas reserves; and fossil fuels continue to be subsidized worldwide to the tune of $400 billion. Meanwhile global population continues to soar (set to hit seven billion at the end of this month) and greenhouse gas emissions remain on the rise. The only nation that appears to take climate change truly to heart is the small Pacific island nation of the Maldives, which has pledged to be carbon neutral—eliminating or off-setting all emissions—by 2020. The Maldives is imperiled by rising sea levels that could put parts of the islands underwater for good.

Not everything is gloom-and-doom. Australia is close to enacting its first tax on carbon emissions. California, the world's eighth-largest economy, has approved rules for its cap-and-trade program set to begin in 2013. Investment in clean energy has jumped 670 percent in less than a decade with China well out front and Germany moving aggressively to a renewable-energy society.

The next chance for the international community to come together to address climate arrives in little more than a month at the UN climate talks in Durban, South Africa. However, international chatter ahead of the climate talks have expressed low expectations for any binding agreement.

EIA data on possible emission levels to 2030. Click to enlarge.

EIA data on possible emission levels to 2030. Click to enlarge.

Citations:

Joeri Rogelj, William Hare, Jason Lowe, Detlef P. van Vuuren, Keywan Riahi, Ben Matthews, Tatsuya Hanaoka, Kejun Jiang and Malte Meinshausen. Emission pathways consistent with a 2 C global temperature limit. Nature Climate Change. DOI: 10.1038/NCLIMATE1258. 2011.

Manoj Joshi, Ed Hawkins, Rowan Sutton, Jason Lowe and David Frame. Projections of when temperature change will exceed 2 °C above pre-industrial levels. Nature Climate Change. DOI: 10.1038/NCLIMATE1261. 2011.

Mark Z. Jacobson, Mark A. Delucchi. Providing all global energy with wind, water, and solar power, Part I: Technologies, energy resources, quantities and areas of infrastructure, and materials. Energy Policy, 2010; DOI: 10.1016/j.enpol.2010.11.040

Mark A. Delucchi, Mark Z. Jacobson. Providing all global energy with wind, water, and solar power, Part II: Reliability, system and transmission costs, and policies. Energy Policy, 2010; DOI: 10.1016/j.enpol.2010.11.045

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Comments 101 to 120 out of 120:

  1. 100 - adelady "(I expect there were other groups on other islands who probably turned them into some kind of worship-worthy tribal symbol and maintained their populations.)" not this particular case, but for those interested in that kind of thing may I recommend the fabulous Roy Rappaport and his "Pigs for the Ancestors: Ritual in the Ecology of a New Guinea People"
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  2. Re @80 (& @68, @74, & @76) above. It's good to definitively sort out what these gigatons are and what the year was. Then it is sad that the answer brings a concept of increased complexity down from the sky into 'emissions' and with it the latitude for more unwanted argument & dissembling. And that in an issue already complicated enough. It's also bad because reducing emissions significantly below 2010 levels will require more emission cutting than 'peaking before 2020' which was my previous understanding of the required global emissions goal. That said, is it possible to be more exact about GtCO2e? I'm hoping the conversion from GtCO2e emissions to atmospheric ppmCO2e is the simpler one (ie the same calculation used to convert GtCO2 to ppmCO2 or x40%/2.13). The 2010 emissions 48 GtCO2e being 25% higher than 2010 emissions 38 GtCO2 looks about right for such an assumption. Then my assumptions have failed me on this already. And the paper linked @74 above gives 2005 emissions 45 GtCO2e which is 50% higher than the 30.7 GtCO2 2005 emissions. (The 45 GtCO2e is referenced to this UNEP paper but I do not see the number there! I do see its Note 12 suggesting my assumption of a simple GtCO2e is wrong! Although Fig 1 strongly suggests less that careful authorship.) With methane concentrations flat in 2005, 50% is surely impossibly high if the conversion is the simple one I assume. Then the 2005 50% multiplier could have been borrowed from the 1990s.
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    Response:

    [DB] Fixed links.

  3. 102 MAR: Have you looked here for conversion factors? 1 g C = 0.083 mole CO2 = 3.664 g CO2 1 ppm by volume of atmosphere CO2 = 2.13 Gt C
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  4. KR @ 87 "All that aside - it appears quite possible to produce dependable baseload power with renewables." Where is this happening? Or, better yet, when is it going to happen? When the wind doesn't blow enough, or blows to hard; or the sun isn't shining - from what source are we going to draw power?
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  5. 104, Sasquatch, Never and nowhere if the "it can't be done and it's not necessary" obstructionists keep pushing it aside.
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  6. Sasquatch wrote: "When the wind doesn't blow enough, or blows to hard; or the sun isn't shining - from what source are we going to draw power?" The sun is always shining and the wind always blowing somewhere. Ergo, as was already explained to you, a large enough grid solves this problem. Likewise, excess energy from peak production times can simply be stored for later use. The Gemasolar concentrated solar plant in Spain uses molten salt storage... enough to provide 15 hours of baseload power with no sunlight at all. The technology to get around temporary and localized lack of wind or solar energy already exists and is already being implemented.
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  7. Sasquatch - Please, see post @ 93, and my reply to you on the linked (on topic) thread. And then comment there. You do not appear to be following the links folks have provided to you in this discussion.
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  8. Suggested reading: “Solar energy covers earth’s needs thousands of times over,” Lars J. Nilsson, Lund University, Nov 1, 2011 To access this informative article, click here.
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  9. Sasquatch"When the wind doesn't blow enough, or blows to hard; or the sun isn't shining - from what source are we going to draw power?" Actually the problems that renewables create are similar to the problems encountered when electricity was first developed on a grid wide scale. The issue is not individual sources of generation, the main issue is management of the whole grid system. Back then they were faced with the issue of load balancing (this is actually the ONLY issue when you take a system approach to the problem). When you generate to much or to little, or if you look at it from the load side and you find that demand is to high or to low, then you find the frequency across the grid goes up or down. The engineering solutions are to have standby generation sources that range from hydroelectric gas turbines. So to suggest that renewables cause a problem, misses the point that we have always had a problem with variability in the system! The reason we think we have some stable system is because engineers in the past have spent years developing systems to deal with variability in load, and we now take for granted. Today we are faced with new engineering problems and the difference today is that we also have science and technology that can also vary load intelligently to better match a more variable generation side.
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  10. Here NZ - close to 80% renewables and should cruise to target of 90% by 2020. Add hydro and geothermal into the mix. However, the answer to reducing CO2 emissions is not just renewables. They are just part of the solution. What bothers my is the logic that goes from "I cant see how to live without coal, ergo AGW is false".
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  11. Just stumbled upon this; summarizes the state of things quite well.
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  12. Build it, and they will come.
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    Response:

    [DB] Flippancy is not becoming nor called for when people are trying to engage you sincerely, apiratelooksat50/Sasquatch.  FYI, sock-puppetry is "frowned upon" in this establishment.

  13. I really must question the basis on which the article looks at the prospect of average global temperatures exceeding 2°C this century unless we curb human greenhouse gas emissions. The article appears to ignore the effect of rising average global temperature on slow feedbacks. Is it meaningful to do so? Over the past 50 years AGW has initiated on-going reduction of land based snow and ice causing loss of albedo, ocean warming to increasing depth and the unseen, un-monitored release of methane. The problem with slow feedbacks is that once initiated, they are uncontrollable, will accelerate and are almost certain to result in average global temperature rising by at least 4°C this century. The likely effects on polar amplification, loss of ice sheet mass, sea level and the incidence of severe climate events should concentrate the mind on the dangers which await our descendants because of our inertia. Commentary on our ability to meet our energy needs from renewable sources which do not emit CO2 is akin to debating the ability of man to land on the moon – an irrelevancy. Technology is already available to rapidly phase out use of fossil fuels, rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and produce base load energy. Improvements on that technology will be made. Would it not be more realistic and to the point for commentary to debate the consequences of accelerating human emissions, their effect on slow feedbacks and average global temperature and our ability, as a species, to survive it?
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  14. Typo: "r. The other study predicts that pats of Europe,"
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    Moderator Response: [John Hartz]Typo fixed. Thanks.
  15. John Hartz, (author of this topic): in the intro: "a recent study in Energy Policy found that fossil fuels could be wholly abandoned by 2050 with the world's energy needs met by electricity produced 90 percent from wind and solar sources alone" That would be wonderful if true, but is very hard to believe. Firstly. Do you have a link to that study? Secondly, even if theoretically possible globally, in a country such as the UK it is not likely to be possible locally. The often quoted limit for renewables is about 30%. So it would seem that the other 70% will have to still have to come from fossil or nuclear. This must surely apply to many other countries. Thirdly, some calculation should be done of the amount of carbon likely to be produced in the transition period, for building such a massive energy infrastructure, using energy which comes from current sources. I am not saying that the quoted target is not desirable, just questioning the practical side.
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    Moderator Response: [John Hartz] The article was written by Jeremy Hance and was originally posted on Mongabay.com. See Jeremy Hance #73 for links to the Energy Policy paper.
  16. I should add: the other 70% will still have to come from fossil or nuclear, or be imported, as it is done already from France. However, strategic and political considerations will constrain the reliance on imported electricity. That is just a fact of life.
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  17. Will strategic and political considerations constrain the relaiance on imported electricity more than they constrain reliance on imported oil and coal? I don't see that the situation will be much different. The truth is that, as long as tepid attitudes and reluctance to change like that displayed here by lancelot are widespread, no change can happen. There is also the option of waiting until FF are so scarce that change, and its modalities, is no longer a matter of choice.
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  18. @ Lancelot #115 The journal references that you asked for are: Mark Z. Jacobson, Mark A. Delucchi. Providing all global energy with wind, water, and solar power, Part I: Technologies, energy resources, quantities and areas of infrastructure, and materials. Energy Policy, 2010; DOI: 10.1016/j.enpol.2010.11.040 To access a PDF of Part I, click here. Mark A. Delucchi, Mark Z. Jacobson. Providing all global energy with wind, water, and solar power, Part II: Reliability, system and transmission costs, and policies. Energy Policy, 2010; DOI: 10.1016/j.enpol.2010.11.045 To access a PDF of Part II, click here.
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  19. Re philippe 117 . Electrical energy import into the UK is via a single route : across the channel from France. Oil imports are from many diverse routes and suppliers. Governments will rightly consider such facts, that is the reality. I cannot personally see the UK relying on 70% import of energy from a single supply route. Maybe 20% max. That leaves at least 50% fossil fuels or local nuclear. (Unless you can suggest another answer). You might want to check out Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air by David McKay, for a good survey of UK energy needs and scenarios, it is also downloadable online.
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  20. John Hartz, thank you, will look it up.
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