Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Committed carbon—the REAL threat to climate stability

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the climate change debate is how easily most activists on the subject home in on the fuel suppliers as the bad guys.  And while the oil and coal companies have more than their fair share of bad guys, concentrating on them is to wildly miss the point.

So what is the point?  The point is that the real engines of carbon emission growth are the folks who purchase technology that needs carbon-based fuel to operate.  When someone make the decision to purchase a car, they are also deciding to buy large amounts of 87-octane fuel for as long as they intend to operate that car.  Their decision to pollute is literally baked into the decision to operate a motor vehicle.

There are those who claim that we as a society are "addicted" to fossil fuels.  Anyone who has ever studied the medical aspects of addiction must cringe at the misuse of the word.  Because we are not at all "addicted" to fossil fuels.  Rather we made serious purchases that require us to buy very specific forms of fuels.

The best current example of this misunderstanding of a technological imperative is the celebrity cause of stopping the Keystone XL pipeline being built to transport Alberta Tar Sands.  And while no reasonable being can be anything but horrified by the environmental implications of mining the tar sands, fighting over how it is transported trivializes the problem.  Face it, if they cannot move the tar sands in a pipeline, they will ship it by rail because there has been nothing done to diminish the DEMAND for the fuels those sands contain.

In this essay, Tim Radford explains how this concept works when the subject is a new coal-fired power plant.  Build one of those, and you have increased the demand for coal for at least the next 50 years.  At that point, the coal mine operators are are merely good businessmen supplying a social need.  If you REALLY want to make a dent in the carbon-emission problems, you must somehow get access to the room where the decision is made to build a coal-burner in the first place.  This action will probably not be nearly as sexy as watching Daryl Hannah get handcuffed at a pipeline protest, but it would accomplish a whole lot more.

Committed carbon emissions are rising fast

By Tim Radford

As countries build ever more fossil fuel power plants, they commit the atmosphere to rapidly increasing levels of carbon dioxide – the opposite of what governments say they intend.

LONDON, 28 August 2014 – Challenging news for those climate campaigners who believe that renewable sources of energy are on the increase: they may be, but so are carbon dioxide emissions.

Steven Davis of the University of California, Irvine and Robert Socolow of Princeton University in the US report in the journal Environmental Research Letters that existing power plants will emit 300 billion tons of additional carbon dioxide into the atmosphere during their lifetimes. In this century alone, emissions have grown by 4% per year.

The two scientists have already reported on the increasing costs of delay in phasing out fossil fuel sources of energy. This time they have looked at the steady future accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from power stations.

“We show that, despite international efforts to reduce CO2 emissions, total remaining commitments in the global power sector have not declined in a single year since 1950 and are in fact growing rapidly,” their paper says.

Massive commitment

“We are flying a plane that is missing a crucial dial on the instrument panel,” said Professor Socolow. “The needed dial would report committed emissions.

“Right now, as far as emissions are concerned, the only dial on our panel tells us about current emissions, not the emissions that capital investment will bring about in future years.”

Governments worldwide have in principle accepted that greenhouse gas emissions should be reduced and average global warming limited to a rise of 2°C.

The scientists asked: once a power station is built, how much carbon dioxide will it emit, and for how long? They assumed a functioning lifetime of 40 years for a fossil fuel plant and then did the sums.

The fossil fuel-burning stations built worldwide in 2012 alone will produce 19 bn tons of carbon dioxide over their lifetimes. The entire world production of the greenhouse gas from all the world’s working fossil fuel power stations in 2012 was 14 billion tons.

The US and Europe between them account for 20% of committed emissions, but these commitments have been declining in recent years. Facilities in China and India account for 42% and 8% respectively of all committed future emissions, and these are rapidly growing in number. Two-thirds of emissions are from coal-burning stations. The share from gas-fired stations had risen to 27% by 2012.

“Bringing down carbon emissions means retiring more fossil fuel-burning facilities than we build,” Dr Davis said. “But worldwide we’ve built more coal-burning power plants in the past decade than in any previous decade, and closures of old plants aren’t keeping pace with this expansion.

“Far from solving the problem of climate change, we’re investing heavily in technologies that make the problem worse.” And Professor Socolow said: “We’ve been hiding what’s going on from ourselves. A high-carbon future is being locked in by the world’s capital investments.

“Current conventions for reporting data and presenting scenarios for future action need to give greater prominence to these investments.” – more

1 comment:

  1. “Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the climate change debate,” is that there is no debate.

    Most people have their mind made up: we either believe we should be doing something more (on a large enough scale) about the number of “parts per million” of carbon we allow to be put up into the earth’s atmosphere (or down into the earth’s soil and oceans) or we don’t. Those who “don’t” (believe it matters all that much one way or another how much carbon we allow to be drilled, mined, burned, used and abused, etc) are winning. End of debate.

    Meanwhile, even though “oil and coal companies have more than their fair share of bad guys, concentrating on them [supposedly] is to wildly miss the point.” Whereas, “the point is [of course] that the real engines of carbon emission growth,” are that carbon-based fuels are still too cheap.

    Only if carbon-based fuels cost more (or if alternatives to carbon-based fuels cost a lot less) will there be a disincentive to keep using and burning carbon-based fuels (and an incentive to create more and better alternatives to carbon-based fuels).

    So far it is cheaper for oil and coal companies to buy politicians than it is to switch to a new business model…which it turns out, unfortunately, there is only one new business model for the future of life on earth that makes any sense: a new world-wide economy based on earth’s available and renewable resources not money (a world where corporations and capitalism will finally become outdated and therefore cease to exist) (but mom and pop small businesses, small farms and co-ops, science, technology, art, education, and peace on earth will flourish). Perish the thought. Ouch. Blasphemy! (“Utopia or Oblivion” will finally come to pass and Buckminster Fuller will be proven right.)

    Meanwhile, James Hansen’s “Fee and Dividend” approach to all of this (his proposal to price carbon-based fuels out of existence by charging an “annually rising fee” on carbon at the point it enters the economy “and distributing those fees back to the people 100% in a monthly check” until the market for carbon-based fuels dries up) is what we should be clamoring for.

    We will end our commitment to carbon when we end our commitment to capital as the ruling force and deciding factor of life on earth. For the longest time, planet earth was a natural place where money never even existed (and where even now no amount of money can buy an extra minute when our time is up). And although Wall Street might be working on it, to solve the problems of time and money, we should all know, “the times they are always a changing.”

    Robert Jay Lifton, in the New York Times Sunday Review, Aug 23, says we might be entering a “Climate Swerve,” where “Experience, economics and ethics are coalescing in new and important ways. [Where] Each can be examined as a continuation of [his] work comparing nuclear and climate threats.” Where once a “nuclear freeze” helped mobilize millions of people to clamor for an end to testing, production, and deployment of nuclear weapons… Maybe a “climate freeze” to cut back on carbon emissions could be accomplished? “Climate Freeze,” “Fee and Dividend,” “Committed Carbon,” or whatever…you name it. Let’s hope something captures the “Popular Imagination” soon, and gets us going!