Thursday, December 31, 2015
Atmosphere of Hope: Searching for Solutions to the Climate Crisis
Book Review: Atmosphere of Hope: Searching for Solutions to the Climate Crisis – by Tim Flannery (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2015)
This was a very good read. It was informative, timely, and sensible. I would recommend it for anyone wanting to read a book about climate change and the current areas of focus. It was also easy to read. If anyone is looking for a good overview of climate change, this is among the best. Flannery is more matter-of-fact and more open and flexible in his approach than the more radical climate activists. He seems to have a good command of the science, the politics, and the mitigation technologies currently being developed. The title, he says, evokes an optimistic approach to the climate issue. He seems ever mindful of numbers in the effort to reduce emissions: how much is needed, what each technology can currently do to help, and how much our sources emit. Through the book he covers the mechanisms of climate change, possible effects, including biological effects, emissions reduction technologies, and climate politics. Flannery was Australia’s Climate Commissioner from 2001 to 2013 when the commission was disbanded by the new administration.
In contemplating the Paris meeting (COP21) Flannery notes that action is needed before 2030 towards reducing emissions in order to avoid dangerous impacts, so commitments need to be made and kept. His study of emissions reductions technologies gives him confidence that a diverse group of these technologies can each make small but significant contributions. The technologies he refers to are what he calls “third way technologies.” These are basically low impact, relatively safe and generally non-invasive and natural methods of geoengineering as distinguished from the usual large-scale scenarios of more invasive global-scale geoengineering or of merely adapting to a changing climate. Costs for these new technologies will be significant as they would need to be scaled up quite a bit to make impacts. Engineering and economic logistics are considerable. Carbon pricing might be helpful to some. He does point out, however, that many of these third way technologies are still being developed and may not yield significant results for many years – and as such in terms of funds coming to them, should not be regarded as equivalent to emissions reductions, but complementary to them. They can be built up over years and annually drawdown so many gigatonnes of CO2.
He points out that the IPCC and other groups don’t do the research but examine all the scientific literature and interpret the mass of data to suggest policy. He also notes that more climate science is available to the public than in the past. Knowledge has gotten more detailed as more data has been examine. For example, it is now known that climate of the Northern and Southern hemispheres has varied, including the so-called medieval warm period which was largely confined to the Northern hemisphere. He notes that although global warming cannot be shown to be a direct cause of extreme weather events it certainly influences them through changing the properties of the atmosphere and the ocean. He thinks that many people in different parts of the world have had direct experience of a changing climate through extreme weather events and biological changes like changing species ranges and ocean acidification.
He explores the recent heatwaves and the increases in record high temperatures. He notes that polar warming may be weakening the polar vortex resulting in some cold winters in eastern North America. He talks about the deadly Bush fires in Australia aided by severe drought, summer heat, and strong warm winds. Longer and busier fire seasons are becoming more common in North America. He notes that it is estimated that each year 300,000 people globally die from inhaling smoke from forest fires. Particulate matter in the atmosphere is also increased significantly from fires. Pollution and photochemical smog derived from ground level ozone mixed with pollution also leads to premature deaths. Hay fever allergy season has increased by 2-4 weeks due to global warming. Mold growth has increased in some areas as moisture increases. Insect-borne diseases such as lyme disease and dengue fever are increasing their ranges. If CO2 increases to 550 ppm there will be decreases in nutritional value of some food crops as experiments have shown.
A warmer ocean evaporates more readily and a warmer atmosphere can hold and distribute more moisture. Droughts, floods, wildfires, and pollution all have financial costs. Warmer ocean surface temperatures affect weather, making droughts more likely in certain areas. One area where things have improved is hurricanes. It was first thought that global warming would cause more frequent and more intense hurricanes. More data through time suggests that worldwide hurricane frequency has not increased but it has in some areas (North Atlantic) and more intense ones are still more likely in some areas. Hurricane and cyclone frequency is expected to decrease according to some models. Global sea levels are rising and are expected to keep on rising regardless of CO2 emissions reductions as ice keeps melting, particularly in the Arctic. Water also expands as it warms so higher ocean temperatures also raise global sea level. However, it is not easy to predict how much seal level will rise due to melting ice so a wide range is usually given in predictions. Paradoxically, Antarctic sea ice increased in 2014. While there is still uncertainty about ice melt there are several reasons to believe it could lead to the higher end of the range of sea level rise predictions.
A decade ago ocean acidification was thought to be a distant future danger from global warming but it is happening faster than originally predicted and is already having far-reaching effects. As the ocean absorbs CO2 at a higher rate as it has over the last few decades the acidification speeds up. The chemical process is complex but rates of change can be established due to effects already measured. Corals are especially susceptible to increased acidity and in combination with other factors the widespread global bleaching of coral reefs has been the result. CO2 seeps from volcanic vents in the ocean also show the life destroying effects of acidification. While research is ongoing, the effects of acidification look bleak. There is some hope that certain forms of seaweed can help reduce acid levels in coastal areas as it takes up CO2 through photosynthesis. Seaweed far exceeds land crops in productivity and uptake of CO2 and is one of the main CO2 mitigations strategies (third way technologies) explored.
It is indisputable that the species extinction rate is far higher than normal and it may be higher than it has been since the last mass extinction 65 million years ago. There are several reasons for this but climate change is one of the biggest. Predictions are that global temperature increases above 1.5 degrees Celsius may doom the coral reefs to extinction. The Great Barrier Reef off of Australia may already be doomed. Polar bears and penguins are stressed due to ice melt which affects their available food sources. Multitudes of other species are also threatened. Conifer forests in western North America are threatened from infestations of pests (mainly pine beetles) that were able to move beyond their ranges and extend their breeding season due to climate change. Other reasons for the speed up of the extinction rate include habitat loss and invasive species.
In his 2005 book, The Weather Makers, Flannery noted three possible catastrophic events that could accelerate global warming: collapse of the Gulf Stream, destruction of Amazon rainforests, and large-scale methane releases from the Arctic or from ocean floors. The Gulf Stream is part of a larger oceanic circulation system called the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC). Although it may slow down it is quite unlikely that it will collapse. Rainforests are among the best carbon sinks on Earth. Luckily, Amazon deforestation has been stabilized over the last decade but the effects of deforestation combined with fires, nearby droughts, and ecosystem disruption may be worse than previously predicted. The potential for large-scale methane releases is still debatable. In the mid-2000’s there was a pause of methane release as measured by global methane concentrations but newer surveys sent to detect methane have found good-sized releases occurring in the Arctic ocean and off the coast of Siberia. There are also craters formed by exploding methane that were recently found on the Siberian tundra, which is itself disappearing in some places. It has also been shown that the temperature of the permafrost has been rising. Overall, there is still much uncertainty, he notes, about these natural methane emissions. They are just now beginning to be understood.
He gives some examples of climate and pollution skeptics and industries trying to discredit scientists: the now debunked ClimateGate scandal that came out suspiciously just before the 2009 meeting in Copenhagen, the chemical industry giving competing lectures to those of Rachel Carson regarding the dangers of pesticides, and the organized and mainstream climate skepticism of media outlets like Fox News. He notes that two important world leaders, Australia’s Tony Abbot and Canada’s Stephen Harper (both since voted out) are (were) two of the most skeptical of climate change.
Coal burned in power plants is the single biggest emission source of both greenhouse gases and air pollution. Coal is still increasing its market share in China and India but usage is beginning to be addressed in those countries to prepare for the needed eventual peak and drop in consumption. Australia is a huge coal exporter to China but the industry throughout the world has begun to contact under the weight of low prices, cheaper gas, more renewables, better energy efficiency, and carbon pricing. Most of those trends will continue and keep taking demand from coal. He notes that if demand from China and India do not increase then some Australian coal may not need to be produced, at least from a carbon perspective. He notes that the subsidies for coal, health costs of coal pollution, and the social cost of the carbon from coal may well be more than the cost paid for the electricity it produces.
Flannery’s analysis of oil and gas, though generally correct, is a bit lacking. In discussing oil he mentions the recent price collapse due to OPEC flooding the market in order to put pressure on competition from fracked shale plays in the U.S. Such success had the effect of a re-evaluation of where “peak oil” is or will be. The cost of oil (and gasoline) will eventually go back up. His notion that biofuels and electric vehicles will price out oil when it does rise back up are questionable – as they had no effect through the years the oil price was high. He does make a case that oil demand may be decreasing not only due to the contraction of the Chinese economy but also due to innovations in energy efficiency and things like the U.S. CAFE standard for increasing mpg for vehicles. He notes that oil’s share of global energy went from 46% in 1973 to 31% in 2012. He also notes that so-called first-generation biofuels (mostly from algae) have been disappointing in scale, cost, and technical feasibility. Newer types (2nd generation) may be better but are still in R & D stage. Without a carbon price, biofuels are not likely to have much of an impact on oil demand. G20 nations agreed in 2013 to reduce subsidies for fossil fuels. Environmental problems and deadly accidents involving oil (and sometimes natural gas) have been prominent in the media. These affect demand and desirability for oil.
The use of natural gas in the decarbonization of the world’s energy economy has been debatable. He examines Dieter Helm’s book, The Carbon Crunch. Helm argues that gas is an important bridge fuel. Flannery invokes arguments that shale gas depletes quickly and may not be up to the task to keep supply up and cost down. This is certainly not true in the U.S. Since shale gas is a continuous resource it can be tapped quickly and reliably. The supply is there. The accessibility will keep the price down as it has now for several years. His mention of Bill Power’s book, Cold, Hungry, and in the Dark: Exploding the Natural Gas Supply Myth where he argued that U.S gas is heading for a deliverability crisis by 2015 – is perplexing. Just the opposite has occurred. Better wells have made for a glut of gas supply after a year with half or less of the rigs drilling. He does some comparison of wind and gas but that is always complicated (and often misleading) and wind cannot really compete without direct subsidization. However, wind and gas can be complementary on the power grids and increasingly will be. He mentions the traditional volatility of gas prices, but with the accessibility of shale gas that volatility will be much limited. He is correct that China has been slow to access their own significant shale gas resources but they are doing it and will get better at it through time. He notes that gas is not going to solve the climate problem. However, it will help in the short-term. In fact, it is probably the best strategy for reducing carbon in the short-term, until renewables get ramped-up enough to have an effect. Gas will still be needed in the distant future to complement renewables and other sources.
Divestment in fossil fuel investment is the next subject. My own take is that divestment is mostly symbolic. If fossil fuels are paying out, people will invest. If they are not, they won’t. He mentions fossil fuel reserves and that much of them must be left in the ground in order to mitigate carbon. This can be a complicated subject as reserves can be evaluated as resource-in-place, technically recoverable reserves, or economically recoverable reserves. Technically recoverable reserves can change due to advances in technology. Economically recoverable reserves are always changing due to price fluctuations. Proved undeveloped reserves are reserves that are the best evaluated ones. What fossil fuels will come out of the ground depend mostly on cost these days. The term for carbon stranded fossil fuels (those that must be left undeveloped to keep carbon low) is the “carbon bubble.” He says it is 80% but such numbers vary quite a bit and future reserve possibilities are just that possibilities. The market and carbon regulation will determine which and how much of those assets are developed. Bill McKibben and 350.org and his anti-fossil fuel activists are credited with developing the divestment movement which has grown significantly. Colleges, cities, religious institutions, pension funds, and more recently large investment funds such as the Rockefeller Brothers have embraced divestment. The current low profitability of investment in oil, gas, and coal has also contributed to the attraction of divestment. An argument can be made for divestment from high carbon emitting coal and tar sands but less so from gas since switching from gas to coal in power plants has been the single most important factor in the significant U.S. drop in carbon emissions and will continue to be for some time. The question of “stranded assets” is another that favors divestment long-term. At some point when renewables and other sources of carbon reduction are up to speed the need for fossil fuels will decrease and some will likely be left stranded with significant sunk costs. Investors are paying much attention to this, especially regarding long-term major projects by oil and gas majors – such as Arctic exploration – that may take decades to bring on-line. The companies may be over-valued due to the risk of stranded assets. Carbon competence is being demanded of more business executives. Counter-investment strategies toward clean energy have been around for a while too such as the “green bonds” that the World Bank began providing in 2008. About $40 billion was available in 2014, a big jump from previous years. However, fossil fuel developers may argue that a new project with better economics than an existing project is still a good investment and if more reserves can be identified and brought to market cheaper it is better to produce those reserves than others.
Between 2010 and 2013 nuclear energy capacity actually declined for the first time. Although nuclear is carbon-neutral the big issue is cost (much of it due to safety and waste management but also due to de-commissioning). There are still quite a bit of nuclear power plants being built and planned to be built in the coming years but a boom of them is not on the horizon. At some point the cost of renewables will be marginally competitive and even if less so, will not have the safety issues.
Solar and wind power will continue to increase. The recent five-year extension of the solar and wind tax credits will keep it going in the U.S. Costs for solar have continued to drop slowly year by year but still have far to go to be competitive. Wind is quite economic in some places: South Texas, the U.S. Plains. Renewable energy does not have fuel costs or fluctuating fuel costs which makes power production more predictable and operating expenses cheaper. However, there is intermittency, seasonality, availability of wind and sun. Flannery exaggerates the competitiveness of renewables here though. He notes that wind and solar are disruptive technologies lending themselves better to distributed power sources and microgrids which will likely be the trend of the future to the chagrin of the utility companies. Even so, the most economical integration of renewables now for homeowners is the grid-tied rooftop solar systems. Wind farms can work well with natural gas plants as back-up power (base-load capacity). Recent analysis has noted that utilities can prefer other renewable energy as baseload capacity (if available) due to no fuel costs which decreases the capacity factors (% of the plant power utilized) of the natural gas systems. While this is true and can (on paper) make the natural gas system seem less economic it should be remembered that the reason for its very use in this scenario is to back-up renewables so fair analysis needs to be done. Perhaps smaller gas plants can be utilized – sized better for the overall energy systems – so they can run closer to maximum capacity, thus better efficiency. Such is the nature of integrating the disrupting renewables. Batteries are beginning to have an effect as back-up and frequency response (balancing supply and demand on very short-time scales) but the key hurdle there is expense. New paradigms like community solar and the not-so-new public-owned utility models have some potential to bypass the large utilities but anywhere there is distance there needs to be transmission of power so the big grids are still very important. Wind is being linked via transmission upgrades. In Germany, a leading renewable energy country, there are some calls to make public the privatized energy transmission system. One might see all this public ownership of energy as a form of socialism but it should be pointed out that in the U.S. the protected near monopoly of centralized power production can also be seen as a form of state-sponsorship. While Elon Musk’s companies, Solar City and Tesla, have huge plans, Solar City is now in some financial difficulty (as solar profit margins are typically small). However, with guaranteed subsidization, cost reductions, cheaper batteries, and other innovations, they are likely to thrive in the future.
EVs are the next subject. While an EV revolution is inevitable it has definitely been slowed by the current low price of gasoline. Tesla’s Gigafactory being built in Nevada will make batteries more available and the possible use of batteries to feed back into the grid during high demand times can help stabilize the power grids. Vehicle-to-grid (V2G) and vehicle-to-building (V2B) technologies are likely in the near future. Such technologies will require enough available EVs to provide the power. At some point the price of an EV may be able to compete with a comparable gasoline car but not yet. For now gas-battery hybrids are still the most competitive followed by plug-in hybrids. It has been noted by Tesla that “battery energy density has doubled over the last ten years and the curve is not starting to plateau.” Cost has fallen from $1000 per KWh in 2008 to $410 per KWh in 2014. Installation of battery-charging (and distributing) infrastructure is a need of EV development. France has announced a push to the EV age by committing to seven million EV charging stations by 2030 and conversion of 50% of fleet vehicles to electric. They also announced a significant 10K subsidy for trading a diesel vehicle for an EV. However, EVs are still a miniscule part of the world auto market. Plug-in hybrids are more economic and practical than EVS now due faster charging, availability of charging infrastructure, and cost. Utilities hope that an EV revolution will drive up demand for their product – electric power. However, most see EVs as a modest at best demand boost and by helping relieve demand response they would also lower the profitability of utilities during peak demand times. In conclusion, the EV revolution will likely happen but certainly not overnight and may be delayed further by low oil, diesel, and gasoline prices.
Now we come to the part of the book that attracted me most: the third way technologies of benign geoengineering that are being developed. He notes that even if we emit less carbon much sooner than modeled, we might still be faced with having to adapt. Thus mitigation technologies will likely need to be pursued and eventually deployed. The National Climate Assessment report notes that when those technologies perform other desirable goals as well such as “sustainable development, disaster risk reduction, or improvements in quality of life” they are more likely to be deployed sooner. Low lying areas are preparing to adapt to flooding, dry areas to drought, fire-prone areas to fire, etc. He mentions Chewang Norphel, a man from the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, diverted water from melting glaciers into shallow basins where it re-froze so it would be available as irrigation water rather than not available or damaging crops. Timing of availability is most important. Flannery sees this as a small-scale form of geoengineering. The greenhouses of Almeria in southern Spain are another example, in increasing the local albedo (reflectivity), as are the trends toward white roofs in cities. An experiment in Peru of covering a glacier with a layer of sawdust resulted in that part not melting while the ice around it melted – he got the idea from the Peruvian practice of carrying ice down from the mountains wrapped in sawdust. Changing cash crops due to climatic changes is another adaptation.
Global-scale geoengineering through injecting sulfur into the stratosphere to reflect sunlight has been proposed. Costs were once calculated at $25-50 billion per year but the latest estimates are $2-$8 billion per year. The mechanism was explored and developed by Paul Crutzen. Newer proposed methods of deployment with balloons could reduce the costs even more. One reason we know Crutzen-style aerosol geoengineering would work is that similar particulates released from volcanoes exhibit the desired effects. Effects on global weather, rainfall patterns, monsoons, and agriculture are uncertain and could be significant. There is also a kind of taboo against geoengineering, against tinkering with the global climate. This is also true of GMOs, extreme forms of energy extraction (mining, mountain-top removal, tar sands), and use of chemicals with unknown toxicity. In all of these cases we come up against the question of whether to give in to the Precautionary Principle which favors low-risk development regardless of cost disadvantage. This gets into the more philosophical and subjective area of risk assessment, pragmatism, and comparison of harms.
Since 1993 there have been 10 experimental releases of iron and/or fertilizer in the oceans to induce algae growth which captures CO2 via photosynthesis and dropping of the carbon with the dead algae to the sea floor, with mixed results. However, much of the carbon does not make it to the sea floor but ends up back in the atmosphere. More will sink if the species fed is silica-shelled diatoms. This would require releasing silica as well as iron. Possible negative effects might include effects on biological diversity. Regulations for future releases have yet to be worked out. The most recent case in July 2012 involved the Haida nation on an island off the west coast of Canada. As they rely on salmon fishing they wanted to increase salmon stocks lost to dams, overfishing, and pollution. They were aided by entrepreneur Russ George in the $2.5 million test project that resulted in a spectacular algae bloom but unfortunately no scientific participation. Also it went against a Canadian ban on such releases and now they face charges and fines. Two years after the release the salmon harvest was drastically improved so proponents are excited about the possibilities. The Fraser River salmon catch tripled. The Haida believe their experiment was a success. Flannery notes the conclusions of a 2014 Nature paper about geoengineering – that all methods together at currently feasible scales would only sequester less than 10% of carbon, could have side effects, and could be catastrophic to stop once started. Other assessors of geoengineering such as the Integrated Assessment of Geoengineering Proposals (IAGP) by UK scientists have noted that the effects of geoengineering will be difficult to pinpoint specifically under most circumstances. There are technical, cost, and geopolitical considerations of every method except those considered benign. There are other potential downsides to geoengineering. One is that if we succeed at removing CO2 from the air the more will enter the air from the ocean as the system balances. This will result in slow overall drops in atmospheric CO2 since a significant amount is stored in the ocean.
In chapter 16 he finally goes into the third way technologies, beginning with Sir Richard Branson’s Gigatonne Challenge, or Virgin Earth Challenge. Flannery is a judge for the climate prize joining notaries Jim Hansen, Al Gore, Sir Crispin Tickell, and James Lovelock. The idea is to present a technology for removing a gigatonne of carbon from the atmosphere. It would take removing 18 gigatonnes annually to drop CO2 by 1 ppm at current emissions rates. The entries were pared down into 11 approaches in two categories: biological and chemical. Biological methods utilize photosynthesis, forests, and sequestering carbon in buried charcoal. Chemical methods include enhanced rock weathering and chemical reactions to trap the carbon to be sequestered. Each category and methods has its challenges and downsides. Some have useful by-products. Biological methods are limited in scale and efficiency (as photosynthesis is only 1% efficient). Chemical methods typically require power to drive them. The simplest method of biological carbon capture is to grow more trees – trees are 50% carbon captured from the atmosphere, by dry weight. Of course, it takes time to grow a tree so such afforestation is a more long-term help. Flannery goes through all the initial estimated costs of these technologies, including planting trees. Costs are given in US$ per tonne of CO2 removed and/or stored. Livestock cell grazing as occurred in ancient moving herds of ruminants, tends to sequester significantly more carbon in soils than current livestock management strategies but more research is required. Carbon capture from burning biomass for fuel, or Bio-CCS is another possibility, although many disagree. Such waste-to-energy projects also can produce dangerous air pollution and other toxins but they reduce landfill usage as well. As they are small scale compared to the potential of capturing CO2 from coal or gas power plants the contribution from Bio-CCS would be miniscule. Another method is chemically extracting carbon products from wood and biomass. Such wood chemistry produced products like potash, lye, and saltpeter before fossil fuels replaced them. Methanol with second-generation biofuel technologies extracting it from cellulose has the potential to become a transport fuel with more carbon benefit. The production of biochar (ie. charcoal) is the main focus of wood chemistry. This is done through pyrolysis, or burning at variable temperature and low oxygen conditions. Biochar can be stored in soils and is indeed added to soils for its other benefits such as boosting both nutrient and moisture content of soils. Due to these advantages there are biochar companies selling the product to farmers and research is expanding. Its overall effect on CO2 mitigation will be small due to the daunting scale it would need to be applied and the availability of biomass. Biofuel can be a by-product of biochar and a product is apparently available that can be safely added to gasoline. The by-products help make biochar one of the cheapest mitigation technologies but it is limited by the availability of biomass. Biochar in soil does degrade over time and the carbon can leak back into the air at variable rates depending on the soil conditions.
Water-based technologies such as the growing of seaweed offer other side benefits such as the local reduction of ocean acidity. Restoration of wetlands is another potential method of carbon storage but there are significant uncertainties such as how long the carbon can be stored. Flannery seems most excited with seaweed farming: it can be used to produce methane (presumably in anaerobic digesters), it can mitigate large amounts of CO2, and recycling of nutrients in the seaweed. It would require a massive effort to make these massive “macro-algae forests” though so scale is a big issue.
Enhancing geochemical weathering of certain kinds of rock, mainly olivine and to a lesser extent basalt, is another interesting and benign method of capturing and storing carbon. The process does require some energy but seems to be do-able. Scale is a big issue. A few experimental projects have claimed success but cost (although estimates vary considerably), energy input, and shear amount of processing units needed (scale) probably confine the process to being far less than a gigatonne per year. No commercial demo plants yet exist. A similar process involves merely breaking the olivine into smaller pieces with more surface area to accelerate weathering rates. The process involves crushing olivine into a green sand and basically making beaches out of it. An agricultural product/soil additive known as greensand has long been available (I have used it). One company has developed a roofing product with olivine that captures and stores carbon. Apparently, there are many proposals for using olivine to capture and store carbon with varying degrees of plausibility.
There are also processes for creating oil and other hydrocarbons from CO2 and water, a kind of reverse combustion. Other proposed processes use electricity to make hydrocarbons from CO2 and water.
Flannery notes that costs of these third way technologies can be paid for by carbon pricing or by government tax revenue. Annual costs of each process would be in the billions. He suggests that costs per tonne of CO2 mitigated could provide a guide to a carbon price and that costs should come down as the technologies mature. Eventually such technologies could be used to generate feedstock for fuels, plastics, and building materials. He thinks it is reasonable to predict that all of the processes combined (excluding seaweed farming due to its difficulty in implementing) could mitigate 15 gigatonnes annually by 2050, or about one quarter of global emissions. As such he notes that it has the ability in combination with emissions cuts to hold back warming to some extent and when cuts are enough to continue to bring the carbon cycle back into balance.
Geo-sequestration of CO2, or direct injection of CO2 into deep saline aquifers or for enhanced oil and coalbed methane recovery is now being done in a few semi-commercial projects around the world. The 12 commercial projects running around the world currently sequester about 0.4% of a gigatonnes so about 250 times what is now functional (or about 3000 comparable projects) would be needed to sequester a gigatonne. The Global CCS Institute in Australia predicts that by 2020 there will be 21 CCS projects active capturing about 30 million tonnes of CO2, or 3% of a gigatonne. One issue is that with power plants about 20-25% of the plant’s energy would be needed to run the CCS system. Another is that costs have been higher than initially anticipated. However, newer ideas and processes for CCS are being developed. Due to pressure CO2 stored in ocean waters over 3000 meters deep would stay in liquid form and over time oceanic chemical processes would convert the CO2 to a stable solid in the form of hydrates in the sediments below the ocean floor. The CO2 storage capacity of oceans is thus enormous (thousands of years of current emissions). Another possibility is storage as dry ice in Antarctica, basically as buried CO2 snow near the South Pole. There are issues with that proposal as well – getting the CO2 there, if Antarctica would warm it would be catastrophic, etc.
The biggest potential factor in reducing emissions near-term is shutting down old inefficient coal plants, mostly from China and other developing countries. Obama’s Clean Power Plan and his commitment deal with China as well as the commitments agreed to at the Paris COP 21 summit are cause for hope that the less than 2 deg Celcius target can be met. China committed to an emissions peak by 2030. The EU has committed to deep cuts and may be able to do it with their clean energy programs and their basis for carbon pricing through the EU Emissions Trading System. China is slated to have a national carbon trading system in place by mid-2016. South Korea launched theirs at the beginning of 2015. Thailand, Indonesia, and Vietnam are in the planning stages. Currently about 10% of carbon is priced with about three quarters of that falling under the European system. Regional pricing exists in the US (RGGI in the east and WCI in the west) and is being readied in western Canada. Australia had a system for a short time before being sacked by Tony Abbot but he is now out. Flannery notes that transport in China, whether it will be EVs or not, will be a factor in emissions. India is another unknown. 300 million people lack electricity there and 59% of the electricity comes from coal. It also has notoriously poor infrastructure with much wastage. India is among the top 5 wind energy producers in the world along with China, the U.S., Germany, and Spain. Solar PV is also growing in India and has the potential to help rural Indians. Solar cookers can reduce toxic dung-fired cooking. India did double its coal tax and commit to increasing its solar target fivefold, so the Modi government (with financial help from the U.S.) is working toward reducing emissions. Enough solar power to run two light bulbs, a solar cooker, and a television for every Indian is one goal of the government. Renewables, especially solar, are also quite suitable for Africa where 600 million people do not have electricity. Increased use of hydro power is possible there as well. The world’s biggest solar farm has been proposed for Morocco. Geothermal energy is also taking off where it is applicable. Indonesia is one place and the world’s largest geothermal plant is currently being built there. One important observation was the International Energy Agency’s announcement in spring 2015 that global growth of CO2 emissions from fossil fuels did not grow in 2014 but remained at 2013 levels. It was suggested that greenhouse gas emissions were beginning to ‘decouple’ from economic growth but that is debatable and whether we have hit “peak emissions” remains to be seen. In discussing more long-term commitments – to 2050 – he points out that in order to stay below 2 deg Celsius overall reductions in emissions need to be quite large – up to 90% or more. However, 35 years is a long time for innovations, clean energy tech build-out, mitigation tech build-out, and global cooperation framework build-out. Various decarbonization plans exist but there are uncertainties with politics, logistics, and costs. Flannery, though cautiously optimistic, seems a bit extreme in his predictions, and maybe a bit too certain. I think the IPPC method of giving a range is perhaps a better method.
Flannery tells his personal story of the shutting down of the Australian Climate Commission, which he headed, by the incoming Abbot government. Through crowdfunding the Australian Climate Council was formed to continue the work without government involvement.
He talks about public and community owned utilities and transmission lines which has been trending in Germany. Apparently, community-owned wind energy started the wind energy revolution in Denmark in the 1970’s. The move toward micro-grids will involve distributed local power grids and generation sources in forms like community solar. He mentions activism in the form of litigation, like trying to make emissions a sort of criminal offence or a civil one, suing them for their emissions. It seems another instance of climate justice taken too far. Environmental Law does seem to be at the heart of the matter as it does in pollution assessments. Since carbon emissions can be tied through thorough modeling to possible catastrophic effects of several kinds then it needs to be determined with some accuracy what are the risks. Thus, risk assessment is also at the heart of climate change.
Flannery seems cautiously optimistic about our climate future. He mentions the technological optimism of his generation and that young people now are more pessimistic. Overall, even in his optimism, Flannery seems pessimistic to me. He seems to downplay the uncertainty and ranges of possibility in climate science. Slight changes in modeling assumptions can lead to drastically different trajectories. I do prefer his focus and approach as a former government official and scientist to those of both climate activists and climate skeptic activists. This is one of the best books for understanding many climate issues with some detail. I would say it is moderately biased toward the alarmist side but not overly so.