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Is it attainable with technological innovations only? Or do we really have to diminish consumption as well.
In this paper I will look briefly at the different ways humanity is emitting greenhouse gasses (CO2, methane, nitrious oxide and other greenhouse gasses). For each of these sectors, I will try to anwer the following questions:
1: Is it technically possible to make the production in this sector free from greenhouse emissions with technical means only?
2: Is is economically viable to achieve this? What are the main hurdles for achieving this in time?
3: Are we on the way to achieving fast enough to reduce greenhouse emissions in time?
4: Given the answer above, how much do we need to cut consumption in order to reduce greenhouse emissions fast enough?
First of all, we will have a close look at the different greenhouse gasses, their relative contribution to climate change, and the emission-reduction levels which need to be achieved by 2050 to prevent catastrophic climate change.
Different greenhouse gasses
The chart below breaks down the total human-produced greenhouse emissions by gas
The overall majority of emissions (77%) comes from carbon dioxide (CO2). In this chart I have already broken this down into three parts because I want to emphasize that burning of fossil fuels (for electricity generation, transportation and heating purposes) constitutes only 65% of our total greenhouse emissions, although the greenhouse discussion is mainly focused on this area.
A significant source of CO2 emissions (9% of total greenhouse emissions) comes from what scientists call Change of Land Use (CLU) which means primarily deforestation, in particular in tropical regions. Besides, various industrial processes also cause CO2 emissions unrelated to fossil fuel burning. For example, the ores from which we produce our metals also contain a lot of carbon. During the process of metal extraction this is often emitted in the atmosphere as CO2 (3% of total greenhouse emissions).
The other two significant greenhouse gasses are methane (14%) and nitrous oxide (8%) These originate to a significant degree from various aspects of our agriculture, although a significant part is also released in the process of extracting and processing fossil fuels, due to waste treatment and (again) due to deforestation.
With regard to CO2 emissions, according to the International Panel n Climate Change (IPCC), industrialized countries should reduce their emissions by 80% in 2050 in order to give developing countries the reduce their emissions later on. In this way, we would have 50% chance to limit the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere to 450 ppm, which would likely limit global temperature increase to 2 degrees in this century.
For decades conventional wisdom has been, that the most catastrophic effects of climate can be avoided if we limit the temperature at this level. All official targets for CO2 reduction aim at limiting temperature rise to this level. Right now the world is not on target to reach this goal. Rather, CO2 emissions are still increasing. That’s why our responsible politicians organize climate conferences, making feeble attempts to reduce global warming to the 2-degrees level. It is widely acceptable that stabilizing the climate at lower temperatures would be very desirable. Even if you only look at it in terms of costs. However, in the course of a negotiating process, even the minimal targets easily start to be perceived as something you can compromise on. After all, a watered down agreement is better then no agreement at all.. After all, we need to sell this agreement at home..
However there are a few essential bits of information which shed an entirely different light on this
1: even according to the conventional projections, even if we can stabilize CO2 emissions at 400 ppm (current levels are 398 ppm) we would still have a 20% chance on more then 2 degrees temperature rise.
2: Right now, temperatures have already risen with 0,8 % since 1750. A rise to 1,4% by 2050 is already unavoidable because of our emissions until this moment. This is due to the fact that the effects of current CO2 levels on global temperature have a delay of 30-35 years. So right now, we are experiencing only the result of our emissions until 1980! Limiting emissions to a level which would theoretically limit temperature rise to 1 degree rise (which would actually give a 20% chance on a plus 2 degrees rise) is already not possible anymore!
3: A big problem with CO2 is that it stays in the atmosphere for a long time. According to the IPCC , 50 to hundreds of years. According to other scientists much of it remains in the atmosphere many hundreds of years. This means even if we stop increasing CO2 levels, temperatures will continue to rise several decades and after that they will essentially stay the same. Therefore we should aim at 100% CO2 reduction rather then 80%. We should define how much of our fossil fuels have to remain in the ground and take this as a hard limit.
4: More and more scientists are coming to the conclusion that the reports of the IPCC do not take into account certain ‘positive feedback mechanism’. The word ‘positive’ here does not mean desirable. It means that as soon as temperatures rise, this set in motion mechanisms which will produce even more greenhouse emissions. One example of this are methane emissions from the arctic. If the frozen soils in Siberia and Northern Canada start to melt, methane captures in these ground will be released into the atmosphere. Another concern is that if ocean temperatures rise, this diminishes the ability to store CO2. Scientists like Kevin Anderson from Tyndall Centre for Climate Research are therefore convinced that we need to stabilize CO2 levels at much lower levels than 450ppm to remain at the ‘safe’ side of (50% chance of!) ‘only’2 degrees temperature rise. The climate website 350.org derives its name from this – the number refers to the amount of ppm at which we should eventually stabilize CO2 levels.
5: It is also important to point out that temperature rise is not necessarily gradual. As soon as certain ‘tipping points’ are reached, climate change itself will produce more climate change. This is called the ‘runaway greenhouse effect’. If you have the stomach, you can read about what this means by clicking here.
6: Even if we can avoid the worst catastrophes, climate change will already have very serious adverse effects. This is already happening now. Hurricanes and floodings are increasing. More and more people are suffering from heat disease. According to one report, due to climate change annual yearly mortality has already increased with 400.000 persons a year. While for most of these people, global warming is not the only cause for their death (many of them would have died from other causes soon after) the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that since 1980, 160.000 people have died whose death can directly be attributed to climate change. This is still a lot more then…. (everyone can fill this in for themselves….)
7: The limited climate change we experience now is already causing problems to our agriculture. This is to some extent caused by temperature increase itself, but is mainly due to change in rain patterns caused by climate change. Many fertile agricultural areas are becoming dryer, while in other areas there can be problems due to excessive rain, storms and floodings. All of these problems can multiply when climate change becomes more severe. In moderate temperature regions, there can initially be some minor advantages to agriculture, but these will be nullified when temperatures increase further.
8: This is happening in a time agricultural production needs to increase due to rising population, as well as increased meat consumption. On top of that, unsustainable agricultural practices are already causing a lot of problems: poisening, damage to the quality of our soils, diminish groundwater supplies and loss of biodiversity (for example, bees!).
9: In relation to this, there is another set of ‘positive feedback mechanisms’ and strengthening effects. If climate change causes food shortages, humanity might try to boost agricultural production in unsustainable ways, using more fossil fuels and cutting down more rainforests – which of course heats up the planet even further. If the melting of glaciers causes rivers to dry up, farmers will use up groundwater supplies even faster. Or desalinate seawater with the help of fossil fuels, also worsening the climate change.
In order to avoid into complete despair and apathy when reading this, it is important to realize that there could also be ‘negative feedback mechanism’ which are desirable – they might mitigate the destructive processes. However, in my opinion, all the above information together makes it very foolish to expect that are safe with the official target of 80% reduction in 2050 (in the developed countries). There are much safer routes to a climate friendly ecomony which aim at stabilization of CO2 levels at 350 ppm. The most radical of these is presented by the earlier mentioned Tyndall Centre for Climate Research. It would require CO2 emissions to drop by 8-10% a year in developed countries. According to economists, 3-4% reduction a year is compatible with economic growth. In the Netherlands, climate organization Urgenda published a plan to reduce CO2 levels with 100% by 2030 – 6-7% a year over a period of time of 15 years. They calculated this would be more cost effective even from a narrow economic perspective then a business as usual scenario (which is going to cost us a lot more later on, anyway!!!).
In the rest of this article we will investigate the possibilities for emission reductions for all of its various sources. Before we proceed to that, let’s first look at the two other main greenhouse gasses: methane (14% of total emissions) and nitrious oxide (8%)
Methane causes 21-23 times more heating effect per emitted ton then CO2. The reason it constitutes only 14% of total emissions is of course due to the fact that CO2 emissions are so enormous: our entire economy depends on it. One advantage of methane is further that is stays in the atmosphere for a much shorter period of time: about 12 years,
At this moment, the effects of methane an and nitrious oxide emissions are mostly compensated by the cooling effect of another type of air pollution called Atmospheric Brown Clouds (ABC’s) This black smog causes a lot of people health problems, while at the same time mitigating the climate change!
When CO2 emissions decline, ABC pollutions are set to decline equally. This would make more methane and nitrious oxide emissions necessary as well. One third of methane emissions (5% of total greenhouse emissions) is a by-product of the extraction, processing and burning of fossil fuels. These would also decline simultaneously with the decline of CO2 emissions (however they can be reduced much faster against relatively low costs – the Obama administration is now planning to reduce these emissions by 40-45% in 2025.
Until now I have not yet found any information about necessary emission targets for methane and Nitrious Oxide with current levels of the cooling effect of ABC clouds, and without this cooling effect. By the time the cooling effect of ABC clouds has disappeared, much of the current methane in the atmosphere will already have been removed, due to its longer lifetime in the atmosphere. (Nitrious Oxide stays very long in the atmosphere).
However given the fact that any mitigation of temperature is now very welcome, in the rest of the article I will assume that reductions of methane are just as necessary as CO2 reductions.
Greenhouse activity by economic activity
The graph above is a breakdown of all greenhouse emissions by economic activity. Economic activities which produce only CO2 are: electricity generation (25%), transport (13%), heating of buildings (9|%), industrial heating (18%) and industrial processes (18%). Deforestation (good for 13% of global warming) causes primarily (75%) CO2 emissions, for the remaining part methane and Nitrious oxide. All the other sectors are primarily causing emissions of other greenhouse gasses.
The largest single cause of CO2 emissions is electricity. It causes 38% of all fossil fuel burnings. However in this chart we show the percentage of all greenhouse emissions, which significantly decreases the amount to only 25%. This leaves open the question why the discussion on renewable energy focuses so much on electricity from sun and wind. There is a justification for this: while we are increasing the amount of renewables in our electricity mix, we can electrify other greenhouse emitters as well: especially in the sphere of transport (electric cars) en heating of buildings this is possible. Nevertheless, I believe it is time to pay more attention to other causes of greenhouse emissions as well.
Roughly half of electricity is consumed by industry, another quarter by households, and most of the remainder in the commercial sector (like our offices and shops). So if somebody tells you that a new windmill park produces enough electricity for half a million households, this looks more then it really is!
No less then two-thirds of all electricity in the world is produced by fossil fuels This can be subdivided in two-thirds produced by coal, and one third by natural gas. Oil plays only an insignificant part in electricity production.
Coal produces a much higher percentage of greenhouse emissions compared to the percentage of electricity production (80%). This is due to the fact that natural gas causes 45% percent less CO2 emissions per ton burned then coal (and 30% less then oil). It has therefore been suggested that gas is uses as a transition fuel for as long as we cannot produce all our electricity with renewable sources yet. (this poses an immediate threat to the coal industry, especially since 75% of all coal is used to generate electricity).
This argument has also been used to promote shale gas. During the last 10 years, the United States have boosted their gas production with 50%, mainly due to shale gas. A part of the shalegas has been used to produce oil, another part has caused the share of coal in the American electricity production with 19%. However, the production of shale gas also causes a lot more methane emissions then normal natural gas. Some investigations say that this difference is negligible, others that this makes shale gas just as dirty as oil (in between gas and coal with regard to emissions). Fracking for shale gas also causes non-climate related ecological problems.
If we turn to the other sources of energy, the percentage of nuclear energy has declined from 17% n 1996 to about 11% now. Since the Fukushima disaster, outside China very few nuclear power stations are under construction, and many are closing down. The majority of present day capacity is expected to close down in the 2030s.
The percentage of hydro-electricity remains stable at 16%. Every year the production capacity grows with a few percent, but the same is true for the worlds total electricity consumption. Creating a new hydro-electricity plant is an enormous project, which limits the amount of growth significantly. Moreover, hydro-electricity also causes a lot of environmental problems.
Other forms of renewable electricity, like ocean and geothermal, only produce a fraction of a percent of electricity supply. Even though technological breakthroughs cannot be excluded, it is projected that it will probably remain small. This leaves us with wind and solar energy as the only alternatives to beat fossil fuels in the electricity sector. Or is it? The other option is consuming less electricity altogether.
Contrary to what one would think, governments all over the world are not just trying to install more renewable energy, they are trying to improve energy efficiency. This is producing the same with less energy, as opposed to reducing production altogether. The last option is considerably less popular. Nevertheless, the targets are quite impressive: the EU is planning to save 27% energy by 2030, the United States 50% (they still produce twice as much energy per capita as the EU). China has achieved 70% energy efficiency in the period from 1980 to 2010, and is adding some 3-4% a year. (as a sidenote, we are talking here not only about electricity but also about the industrial heating).
In part the effects of energy efficiency are of course cancelled by economic growth. This is called the rebound effect. In the EU and the USA, this effect is quite small. Electricity, as well as general energy use, has hardly been growing over the last decade. This is to a large extent because the multinationals of this world decided to move most of the industrial production to developing countries, in particular China. In China however, the rebound effect more then cancelled the effects of the energy efficiency. Economic growth has been around 10% a year for over two decades, completely outpacing the monumental effort to attain energy efficiency and more recently, increase alternative energy. Growth levels are now declining to a modest 7-8% a year.
So taking the global picture, the effects of energy efficiency efforts are smaller then the effects of economic growth. Limiting ourselves for now to electricity, consumption is growing a few percent a year. This would create an argument for other ways to reduce electricity use: increasing the life-span of products, more repair, producing things locally, and diminishing the availability of consumer end-products altogether. These options are of course not popular in an economic system which has economic growth as its very basis. It is very questionable if this would happen, even if it were completely obvious to everyone that this is the only option to prevent catastrophic climate change. Fortunately for us, we still have the option of wind and solar electricity.
The total amount of wind and solar capacity installed in this world has seen a stormy and unceasing growth of around 30% a year since the year 2000. The result of this mind-boggling growth has been that wind and solar energy are now producing…. 5 (five) percent of global electricity production (4% wind, 1 % solar PV). Needless to say, if you have 30% growth a year with almost nothing as a basis, it can last very long before you even reach the five percent. As said before, the amount of nuclear energy has decreased with 6 percent. Therefore, the growth of solar and wind has not even diminished the percentage of electricity produced by fossil fuels (which in absolute numbers has still been growing because the total amount of electricity consumed increases every year).
Nevertheless, there is no reason for despair. For assuming the growth percentage will remain the same, it is easy to calculate that we will have 100% solar and wind energy before 2030. According to my own back of envelope calculation, solar and wind need to grow with 23% a year annually in order to attain total coverage by 2030, even taking into account a growth of 36% of total electricity consumption in the same period.
So if nothing gets in the way of this growth, this is very good news for the planet. It is also good news for people who hold on to the belief that a carbon free and sustainable world goes together with everlasting economic growth. After all, is solar and wind causes zero percent emissions, then even if you double or triple the amount, you still got zero percent emissions! Is that true or is that true?
You can see hard-headed ecologist, who belief in a local, human scaled economy without economic growth, desperately searching for argument – together with the agents of the fossil fuel industry. Solar and wind are not really carbon-free, after all CO2 is emitted during their production and transport. However, these amounts turn out to be relatively slow. Looking at the entire life cycle of one solar panel, the amount of CO2 emission per unit of energy is only 10% of the emission caused by burning fossil fuels. This amount is expected to decline. In the case of wind energy, the percentage is only 1%. Also, if all energy would be produced by sun and wind, obviously these emissions would disappear entirely.
Apart from that, some solar panels are producing rare greenhouse gasses which are not always captured and get into the atmosphere. This is only true for certain types of solar panels, and the effects on the climate are rather small – (which is not to say it should not be prevented, the culprit panels are called amorphous silicon thin film solar cells).
So all of this produces no argument against wind and solar energy as such (because every alternative would produce even more CO2 emissions, with the possible exception of nuclear energy!). Because emissions are so low, it produces only an unconvincing argument for combining wind and solar with reducing electricity use altogether (although if people were better, they would argue that in a state of planetary emergency, every gram of avoided CO2 emission counts!) Even with a very strong reduction of consumption, we would still produce too much CO2 emissions as these emissions have to stop entirely. Consequently, the entire human race now prays for the fast development of wind and solar electricity. And a few ecologists pray also for a reduction of consumption.
This leaves us with the question: how likely is it that a 30% growth will not be interrupted? In general, I can see three possible obstacles:
1: the price
2: rare metal scarcity
3: the intermittent nature of sunshine and wind
To start with the price – for both solar and wind this has been falling for many years. This is the main cause of the fast growth over the last years. Wherever you search on the internet, everywhere it is predicted that prices will continue to fall. Prices are either approaching, or have already reached grid-parity – which means it costs as much as regular electricity. Many technological improvements are being made and implemented in production at a very fast rate. Installation costs and prices of auxiliary equipment are also going down. It is truly amazing. The more one researches this, the more optimistic one becomes.
Yet even a firm like Google (heavily involved in efforts to speed up technological progress in this field) does not expect that technology and market forces alone will be able to scale up wind and solar to 100% electricity coverage in 2030. Even if prices are low, there are still many obstacles to a full breakthrough. Many of these have something to do with our economical and political systems. Here are just a few points. Many of them, apply not only to electricity, but to energy in general
- – creating an infrastructure for alternative energy (that is, integrating it in the existing electricity networks) requires a lot of investments. Investments on this scale can only be made by governments. This is not yet happening in most of the world. The EU is thinking about it
- – Even if renewable electricity is theoretically cheaper then conventional energy, it is still a problem that the largest part of the costs are investments in advance. Whereas most of the costs of fossil fuels consist of buying new fuels, a solar panel costs almost nothing once it is installed. You have the costs right in the beginning. Not everyone has so much money to invest, and borrowing costs interest. Financial constructions have to be invented to make investments easier
- – Especially for large companies, it can be risky to make investments that will pay off much later. For their stakeholders demand high returns every year. They could sell their assets with a few clicks on the mouse.
- – In particular in developing countries, many actors simply don’t have the money to make new investments
- – The fossil fuel industry has still a lot of influence over governments. Even though there are subsidies for green electricity, subsidies for fossil fuels are still much higher. Politicians would also risk angry voters if these subsidies were stopped. Rather then this, we should have taxes on fossil fuels to compensate the environmental damage they cause.
- – Actors who have already invested in a source of energy (for example house-owners who have just bought a new gas-boiler) are not interested in making new investments right away. First the earlier investment has to pay back itself. Especially if we would like to achieve 100% solar and wind electricity in 2030, this is a very big problem
- – Many bureaucratic and legal obstacles can be created to slowdown the advance of alternative energy. And this happens because of the power of the fossil fuel industry. For example, a project for subsidizing alternative energy was sued by the World Trade Organization, because the project gave advantages to locally produced solar panels – on the pretext this was against international free trade agreements
- – The fossil fuel industry spents millions of dollars on spreading misinformation and manipulating the public opinion. Many people simply don’t know the potential benefits of alternative energy.
- – Sometimes governments introduce subsidies for alternative energy one year, and cancel them the other year. This causes uncertainty for investors. Even if a potential investment looks promising now, will it still be profitable in the future?
- – In a capitalistic economy, every type of business continues to invest in its own core business, for as long as there is the slightest chance it is profitable. Fossil fuel companies will therefore continue to invest in fossil fuels. For companies like BP, transferring investments to renewables turned out to be too complicated. In order to have a really fast transition to wind and solar energy, the money now used for investment in dirty energy should be used for investments in clean energy. Theoretically this could be done by draconic taxations on fossil fuel investments. This would virtually kill the fossil fuel industry, and this is exactly what should happen. Governments hesitate doing this, because of the influence of the fossil fuel industry
Recent projections for the growth of alternative energy indicate that even in a business as usual scenario, wind and solar will continue to grow. But not nearly to 100% coverage in 2030. Much more likely figures are 25-40%. Therefore long-term and consistent government intervention is needed to speed up the transition. Stop subsidizing fossil fuels Tax the dirty energy and subsidize the clean energy. Enshrine in law that clean energy should always be cheaper. Make large inverstments in a smart-grid. Make new investments in fossil fuel extraction virtually impossible. Create financial constructions making investments in clean energy easier.
All of this goes against the dogma’s of neo-liberalism, according to which every sector in the economy should be allowed to grow and compete. Because of the power of the fossil fuel industry, governments are unlikely to take these steps unless there is a high degree of public pressure. Yet if all of this happens, a complete transition to wind and solar energy in 2030 seems to be very possible.