Archive for the ‘carbon capture and storage’ Category
I happened to stumble across a BBC TV Horizon special, entitled ‘Tomorrow’s World’ last Thursday. It begins with a fascinating review of humankind’s history of – and propensity for – invention. It also explains some truly fascinating – and inspiring – developments in the spheres of space exploration, nanotechnology, biotechnology, and power generation.
In the introduction, the programme presenter and narrator Liz Bronnin explains how, after 100s of thousands of years of technological stagnation, the fast-moving world of technological innovation is very definitely a modern invention.
She then looks at how, since our governments announced they were not going to do so, private investors are now involved in a race to return to the Moon (and win a $US 20 million prize). Just after 11 minutes in, however, economist Marianna Mazzucato makes the point that private sector development would never happen unless governments first spent money innovating (just look at your Computer, iPhone, or SatNav).
This is followed by an examination of the invention of graphene (i.e. the repeated use of sellotape to produce a film of graphite comprised of only one layer of carbon atoms in a hexagonal matrix). It is truly astonishing what graphene can do – including carry the weight of a cat…
After 23 minutes, a variety of talking heads demonstrate the complexity of modern science and the impossibility of any one person understanding it all. However, Bronnin then presents the example of Professor Robert Langer at MIT. What he is doing – and enabling others to do – is truly amazing; including potentially doing away with the need for chemotherapy to treat cancer.
After about 32 minutes, Bronnin introduces the power of the Internet to promote innovation – crowd-sourcing research funding and the concept of open-source technology – the complete abrogation of intellectual copyright… It is a fundamental challenge to globalised Capitalism; but it may well be the solution to many of our problems…
However, to me, the final third of the programme is by far the most fascinating… It looks at the challenges of finding a replacement for fossil fuels. It provides a very clear message that this is a technological challenge driven by the reality of physics – not by ideology.
It presents the case for synthetic biology, which has now succeeded in genetically modifying cyanobacteria so that they use photosynthesis to produce ethanol. This is brilliant, but, it is still only recycling CO2 (it is not removing it from the biosphere). With this technology, we could stop the CO2 content of the atmosphere from rising (but it will not help get it down again).
In the final 10 minutes of the programme, Bronnin presents the inspiring case of the British inventor, Michael Pritchard, who miniaturised water treatment technology as a result of watching the aftermath of the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004; when people were surrounded by water they could not drink… Indeed, to prove that it works, he even gets Bronnin (at 54 minutes) to drink water extracted from a tank including all kinds of unpleasant things including dog pooh…
For all these reasons, if you have not seen it, I would recommend that you watch the programme:
Re-engineering nature for our benefit will, without doubt, be very very useful. However, I still think the optimism of the comment at the very end of the programme “…I never worry about the future of the human race, because I think we are totally capable of solving problems…” is very unwise. This is because anthropogenic climate disruption is a problem that is getting harder to solve the longer we fail to address it effectively.
Bronnin concludes by saying that, “it is an exciting time to be alive…” However, I remain very nervous. This is because, as Professor Peter Styles of Keele University – a strong supporter of the hydraulic fracturing industry – recently acknowledged, it will be impossible for carbon capture and storage to remove enough CO2 from the atmosphere to prevent very significant changes to our climate. This is because of the collective hypnosis that deludes most people into seeing perpetual economic growth as the solution to all our problems.
In short, I am certain that technology alone cannot save us. In order to avoid the ecological catastrophe that all but the most ideologically-prejudiced and wilfully-blind can see developing all around us… we need to modify our behaviour: This primarily means that we need to acknowledge the injustice of a “use it up and wear it out” mentality and, as individuals, all learn to use an awful lot less energy.
Climate change “sceptics” have picked a fight with history and science – primarily with the concept of Entropy - and they will lose. The only question that remains is this: Are we going to let them put us all in (what xraymike79 recently called) ‘the dustbin of failed evolutionary experiments’.
I must credit recent subscriber xraymike79 with apparently coining this term, in his recent post, entitled ‘Mankind’s Infantilism and the Death of the Planet‘. However, before clicking, please note that this contains adult themes that some might find disturbing. For example, here is just a snippet:
This Earth is all we really have. Start caring for it and respecting it with the same reverence and homage we pay to our electronic toys of mass distraction, i.e. TV, iphones, video games, computers, etc.. Know that this culture of self-worship and materialism is sending our species to the dustbin of failed evolutionary experiments, most certainly by the end of this century if not mid-century. The evidence is all around us if only we care to open our eyes.
Now is probably not a good time to admit that I have been tempted back to Sky with a 75% reduction on my subscription for 9 months. However, the above chimes with an item written by John Hulburt, posted on Learning from Dogs yesterday, entitled ‘E Pluribus Unum’. For example, take this:
We know we’re in trouble when our legislatures have been purchased, when faith in our financial system has been willfully damaged, when political leaders engage in childish tantrums to get their way regardless of anything or anyone else, when awareness of moral reality has become meaningless and when we fail to appreciate the depths of a looming abyss. What do we gain by purposefully destabilizing our economy, reopening settled social issues and blatantly risking our inclusive future as a species for a mess of pottage? Who do we think we are?
Good questions, gentlemen. Who do we think we are; and when are our politicians going to stop lying to themselves and us? Here is a quote from James Hansen in Storms of my Grandchildren:
Ladies and gentlemen, your governments are lying through their teeth. You may wish to use softer language, but the truth is that they know that their planned approach will not come anywhere near achieving the intended global objectives. Moreover they are now taking actions that, if we do not stop them, will lock in guaranteed failure to achieve the targets they have nominally accepted. (p.184)
Hansen then goes on to at least six ways that governments are planning to fail (because they assume carbon capture and storage can be made to work fast enough to prevent catastrophe), by encouraging (1) construction of new coal-fired power plants; (2) construction of new plants to turn coal into oil; (3) development of tar sands (the dirtiest of all unconventional fossil fuels); (4) exploration for fossil fuels in wilderness areas; (5) hydraulic fracturing despite methane release; and (6) opencast coal mining everywhere. For more on this topic see: ‘Hansen says we should FART‘ (i.e. fundamentally alter resource trajectories).
It is little wonder, then, that Thomas L Friedman, writing in the New York Times on Sunday, said this:
Face it: The last four years have been a net setback for the green movement. While President Obama deserves real praise for passing a historic increase in vehicle mileage efficiency and limits on the emissions of new coal-fired power plants, the president also chose to remove the term “climate change” from his public discourse and kept his talented team of environmentalists in a witness-protection program, banning them from the climate debate. This silence coincided with record numbers of extreme weather events — droughts and floods — and with a huge structural change in the energy marketplace.
What was that change? Put simply, all of us who had hoped that scientific research and new technologies would find cheaper ways to provide carbon-free energy at scale — wind, solar, bio, nuclear — to supplant fossil fuels failed to anticipate that new technologies (particularly hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling at much greater distances) would produce new, vastly cheaper ways to tap natural gas trapped in shale as well as crude oil previously thought unreachable, making cleaner energy alternatives much less competitive.
Friedman’s ambivalence to hydraulic fracturing (elsewhere in his piece) may be deeply flawed but, sadly, I think his analysis of recent history and prediction of what Obama will now do are both probably right.
Therefore, it is also little wonder that James Hansen’s Fee and Dividend system is not being taken up: because it is not in the interests of big business to take it up. It is only in the interests of the Environment; and the Environment does not seem to matter. See Hansen’s recent ‘Fork in the Road’ [PDF].
The Earth is being sold to the highest bidder and most of its inhabitants are too busy distracting themselves to even notice. The whole thing is like an episode of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror…
I know I said it was irrelevant but… Our politicians seem to be in danger of gambling the future habitability of this planet on it (climate sensitivity) turning out to be low… Low enough, that is, for us “to have our cake and eat it” before they make carbon capture and storage a reality.
Over on the Skeptical Science website, Dana Nuccitelli has written a good summary of this issue.
(Please accept my apologies for all the mixed metaphors)
With my thanks to the Keep Britain Tidy campaign for inspiring this post.
I believe the time has long since past for us humans to admit that the scale of many of our activities now exceed the capacity of our environment to assimilate and recycle the wastes we produce.
Because it is not just plant food, these wastes include carbon dioxide.
As I have said many times before, a frontier mentality is no longer sustainable: Using a passing river as a source of water, a laundry, and a toilet is OK if you live in a sparsely populated wilderness but; when you live in an overcrowded slum it is likely to lead to premature death.
Many things that we humans now do have become a problem simply because of the scale at which we are now doing them; and that includes the doubling of the CO2 into our atmosphere (which we look likely to achieve within the next few decades).
Is this to be the White Man’s Folly?
Yesterday, in the UK’s Observer newspaper, Andrew Rawnsley highlighted an important delusion currently infecting a large proportion of – the senior partner in the UK’s coalition government – the Conservative Party.
In his article, entitled ‘The fracking dream which is putting Britain’s future at risk’, Rawnsley proposes the name “frack-heads” for people seduced by the idea that hydraulic fracturing will be “a remarkable bonanza of cheap energy” – because “[b]elievers in shale gas have a tendency to rave about it as if they are using a mind-bending substance“.
In recent months, I have posted a number of items about hydraulic fracturing on this blog; many of them prompted by what Grist blogger Dave Robert has written about it; and by the films of Josh Fox (i.e. Gasland and The Sky is Pink). Most recently, of course, Bill McKibben has reminded the World that we have five times more fossil fuels than it would be safe to burn and, burning all of them is therefore gambling the future habitability of this planet on making Carbon Capture and Storage work. I remain convinced that we should be making more effort to decarbonise our power generation systems as soon as possible.
But what of Rawnsley’s article; what has he got against fracking? Well, initially, it is not clear, because parts of his article read like some twisted April Fool’s Day joke; such as when he points out that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has:
“…paved the way for drilling by trailing tax breaks to incentivise the exploration of shale gas and announced a new regulatory outfit, the Office for Unconventional (Shale) Gas, dubbed Ofshag…
So, Rawnsley correctly boils-down the enthusiasm of the frack-heads as being the pursuit of perpetuating the delusion of cheap energy; and a determination to insist that there is such a thing as a free lunch. However, sadly, on his way to explaining why he thinks fracking is risky, Rawnsley gets a bit confused: He rightly observes that climate change deniers “are prominent among the frack-heads” but then spoils it all by asserting that fracking “seems to offer something to greens because shale gas emits half as much carbon dioxide as coal.” However, in all of what remains of Rawnsley’s article, he never once even comes close to pointing out the inherent danger of burning all the Earth’s fossil fuels simply because we can.
So, as I said, what is it that Rawnsley thinks is risky? Well, just in case you can’t be bothered to read his article, he basically re-states the position of the UK government’s advisors – that it probably can be done safely. Despite this pragmatism, however, Rawnsley foresees a great deal of popular opposition to something that will, nevertheless, be far more intrinsically dangerous – and therefore unpopular – than wind turbines. Rawnsley then makes the point that UK geology is very different from that in the USA; which may make shale gas even harder to extract here than it has there. However, all this is just a pre-amble to Rawnsley’s penultimate paragraph, in which he almost pulls together a coherent and comprehensive argument (emphasis mine):
The risks of this “dash for gas” are multiple. It locks Britain into a continued reliance on an expensive, polluting fossil fuel. Money spent on gas diverts investment from renewables, which is especially bonkers when the green energy sector is one of the few parts of the British economy that is currently displaying good growth. It makes it less likely that we will meet our targets for reducing carbon emissions. Should shale gas truly turn out to be viable, there would be dividends. But if, which seems much more likely at the moment, the claims made for it prove to be false, then Britain is going to be even more exposed to future price shocks and blackmail by foreign suppliers. We are already hazardously dependent on imports from Russia and the Middle East. Much of our gas comes through the Straits of Hormuz from Qatari platforms just outside Iran’s territorial waters. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t make me feel terribly secure. Nor do I sleep easier at night when I think about Vladimir Putin’s finger hovering over our national light switch.
I therefore agree with Rawnsley that this is “fracking crazy” – I just think it is a shame he failed to mention Bill McKibben!
I am sorry but, being positive is very hard work; especially when you find out that your government is being incredibly hypocritical. This happened to me last week, when I finally caught up with what the UK Coalition government did to our planning policy guidelines six months ago. First, however, here is a quick re-cap of the relevant issues:
With regard to carbon capture and storage (CCS or “clean coal”) and extracting methane from strata that do not release it naturally (by hydraulic fracturing or “fracking”), I have been on a bit of a personal odyssey in the last 6 months. With a background in geology and hydrogeology – and an MA in Environmental Politics – I would like to think I have a better-than-average appreciation of the issues. Therefore, although I think I have reached a destination, I still feel deeply troubled by both CCS and fracking.
I think humanity has proven itself to be so stupid – and so willing to allow worship of the god of economics to subvert sensible acknowledgement of the reality of science – that we will now have to rely upon making CCS work. This is because, if we don’t make it work, modern civilisation is probably history. Fracking on the other hand, remains – as David Roberts called it – an insane piece of collective hypnosis. Fracking is definitely not the answer. Fossil fuels are like heroin; they are a self-destructive habit we need to get off ASAP.
In the UK, we are now being told we are less than 3 years from blackouts (because sensible EU regulations will force the closure of our worst-polluting coal-fired power stations). That being the case, the solution should not be to do more of the same. The answer should be to move away from fossil fuels. The UK government is now preparing to spend billions of pounds supporting a new generation of fossil fuel based power generation infrastructure – power stations and distribution networks. However, the priority of our politicians should not be to preserve the profitability of fossil fuel business set up in the 19th Century; it should be to preserve the habitability of planet Earth into the 21st Century.
OK, so what of planning policy, etc.? Well, on the eve of the Conservative Party conference this week, here is the email I sent my MP last Friday:
Presuming you are attending, I hope you enjoy it. However, I am hoping you will read this brief email before Monday.
In light of the way in which our“greenest government ever” has removed Feed-in Tariff incentives for people to invest in Solar PV; overturned the presumption against opencast coal mining in planning policy; is forcing opencast developments on communities and county councils that had rejected them; and is ignoring its own scientific advisors to pursue decades of unabated gas-fired power generation… I am inclined to feel that my friendship (as opposed to membership) of the Conservative Party may be under threat.
If this is what happens while in a Coalition with the LibDems, goodness knows what will happen if we ever get a Conservative majority! Don’t get me wrong though; I am not about to vote LibDem or Labour. I cannot do so because I am not a Liberal; and Labour is still not living in the real world: Consequently, Ed Milliband’s speech to his own conference was memorable for only one thing – hypocrisy. Neither am I a fan of protest groups such as UKIP (because they are climate change deniers)… So I am basically very tempted to waste my vote on the ultimate protest group – the Green Party – at least I will have a clear conscience if I do that. However, the Conservative Party has 32 months in which it could yet decide to embrace reality and stop pretending that economics can invalidate science: I think economists are very unwise to pick a fight with either history or science. However… I hope you will watch this 1 minute and 47 second video…
With regard to the claims made in this email, the Coalition Government…
– Has failed to level the playing field with regard to early pioneers who decided to invest in domestic solar PV installations and has removed the incentives for large-scale Solar Farms. It has therefore made life very difficult for firms to predict where the market is heading. Wikipedia has a good summary here.
– Has removed the presumption against opencast coal mining in the National Planning Policy Framework, which now allows economic need to trump any concern over the environmental sustainability of burning coal.
– Is overturning decisions made my County Councils like Northumberland (Halton Lea Gate site) and is forcing opencast coal mining on communities that don’t want them.
– Has ignored the views of its own scientific advisors and is about to commit the UK to at least another 20 years of burning natural gas, which will be obtained predominantly from fracking (in order to limit our dependence on imported gas) using new power stations with no CCS technology (even if and when it becomes available).
Although I have some sympathy with local residents who don’t want opencast coal mining in their neighbourhood, restoration techniques are now much better than they used to be. Therefore, the reason these developments should be opposed is not because of their temporary effects on local communities (as unpleasant as they may be). These developments should be opposed because they are perpetuating the environmentally unsustainable use of the Earth’s resources; and increasing the financial burden that will fall on future generations trying to preserve a reasonably-hospitable environment here on planet Earth.
Therefore, although I am (or have been) a Conservative voter, I find this position hard to justify because David Cameron and George Osborne have proven themselves to be entirely in the pocket of big business and – even when confronted with the folly and/or illegality of what they are doing – they refuse to change course.
In short, I think they are in denial about the nature, scale and urgency of the need for us to decarbonise our energy generation systems as fast as possible and, as a consequence, I think power cuts will be only the beginning…
This week, I was very pleased to discover that some of my recent output has been listed on a Weekly round-up of blogosphere posts related to anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD) on the Science blogs website. However, I was even more grateful when I saw mention, within that round-up, of a very significant event in British politics last week.
Over recent months, I have posted quite a lot of stuff about hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and carbon capture and storage (CCS); culminating in the items I posted last week (discussed below). It is therefore ironic that I did not notice the row that erupted last week as a result of a public letter to the Secretary of State for the Energy and Climate Change (Ed Davey) from the Chairman of the government’s relevant independent advisory body (the Committee on Climate Change [CCC]) – former Conservative Environment Minister John Selwyn Gummer (now Lord Deben) – as publicised in The Guardian last Thursday.
The UK government published a draft Energy Bill in May this year, on which I commented at the time – in ‘A very unsustainable Energy Bill’. At that time, I was concerned about the stated aim of the UK government to become less reliant upon imported gas. More specifically, I was (and am) concerned that it is planning to replace this with oil shale gas (from fracking); rather than encouraging people to get off the grid altogether by investing in micro-generation (such as solar panels).
It seems, therefore, that anticipation had been growing that an announcement would soon be made that the UK is likely to remain reliant upon new gas-fired power generation (without CCS) well beyond 2030. If the UK pursues this strategy it will do so despite the following:
– 1. The widespread international agreement – of organisations such as the International Energy Agency (IEA); numerous scientists such as James Hansen; and even influential (and formerly sceptical) economists such as William Nordhaus – that humanity can no longer afford to delay decarbonising its energy generation systems.
– 2. The agreement reached at the G20 Summit in Pittsburgh in 2009 that – in energy generation a least – fossil fuel subsidies and fossil fuel use both need to be phased out.
– 3. The fact that the Earth has five times more conventional fossil fuel than is now considered safe to burn; and therefore now is not the time to be finding a whole load more unconventional fossil fuels to burn as well.
This all makes me wonder if George Osborne has been paying too much attention to what libertarian ideologues like Richard Lindzen are probably telling him. Wherever this transparently intellectually incoherent policy is coming from, it was clearly this refusal to phase out fossil fuel use (now that we know it is causing ACD) that drove Lord Deben to publish the CCC’s letter last Thursday. In it, he began by stating:
Extensive use of unabated gas-fired capacity (i.e. without [CCS] in 2030 and beyond would be incompatible with meeting legislated carbon budgets. These are, of course, designed to balance the costs and risks of meeting long-term objectives and they require significant investment in low-carbon power generation over the next two decades…
What is even more surprising is that the Chancellor of the Exchequer decided to respond so promptly – quite possibly due to the CCC’s suggestion that pursuing gas (from fracking) instead of equivalent investment in renewable energy could be illegal because (as the CCC letter continues):
Unabated gas-fired generation could therefore not form the basis for Government policy, given the need under the Climate Change Act to set policies to meet carbon budgets and the 2050 [emissions reduction] target.
As I made clear on my blog last week, having benefited from an exchange of emails with Professor Robert Mair (on fracking) and with Dr Bryan Lovell (on CCS), I remain convinced that pursuing fracking as a panacea to all our energy problems is insane; but have reluctantly come to accept that we may have to rely upon CCS if we are to avoid significant ACD. However, this is no excuse for doing as George Osborne has done – effectively telling his own independent advisors that, once again, the non-scientist knows what the best course of action is.
Indeed, apart from putting your hands over your ears and shouting “La la la, I can’t hear you!”, there can only one possible reasons for doing as George Osborne has done – he must believe we can continue to burn fossil fuels with impunity and/or doubt the reality of catastrophic ACD if we do not use CCS to prevent it.
I therefore think it is crunch time for the UK’s Coalition government. Prime Minister David Cameron, whom I support on many issues, famously said he wanted to make it “the greenest government ever”. Sadly, it seems to be failing significantly in many ways: In addition to crippling the green revolution at birth – by removing most of the incentives to get individual households to invest in Solar PV panels on their roofs (etc) – it now seems set to pursue energy independence in the form of fracking. As The Guardian concludes:
The argument over the [decarbonisation] target is now likely to reach the top of the government with pressure mounting on Cameron to face down critics of the government’s green policies and adopt the CCC recommendations in full.
On Monday, under the title ‘More fracking madness’, I published a recent exchange of emails I sent to and received from Professor Robert Mair (who chaired the Royal Society/Royal Academy of Engineering committee that recently investigated the safety of fracking). On Wednesday, under the title ‘Making sense of madness’, I published an exchange of emails I had with Schalk Cloete (oneinbillion blog) on the sustainability issues surrounding carbon capture and storage (CCS).
It was therefore a happy coincidence that I should happen to read in this month’s Geoscientist magazine a book review by the former President of the Geological Society, Dr Bryan Lovell (son of the World-famous astrophysicist Sir Bernard Lovell who died recently). This prompted me to write to the Editor of the magazine and, the rest, as is often said, is now history (or at least it has been published on the Society’s website). Therefore, today, in reproducing this exchange (between me and Dr Lovell), the story comes full circle as I finally come to terms with the essential inevitability of CCS as our most likely means of avoiding climate catastrophe… Hence the title ‘Embracing the madness’…
My email to the Editor:
Sir, I have just read, with great interest, Bryan Lovell’s review of a new book Clean Energy, Climate and Carbon by Peter Cook, in Geoscientist. Having double-checked, it would seem that the esteemed former President of the Society is very much a climate change realist. Nevertheless, Dr Lovell would appear to agree with Cook that Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) must now be an essential part of human strategy for avoiding excessive climate change. This would appear to make my hope that CCS not be relied upon as an excuse for perpetuating “business as usual” look hopelessly optimistic.
However, in view of the email I sent to Professor Mair and his reply (i.e. both published on my blog yesterday), I would be extremely interested to know if and/or how Dr Lovell thinks we can avoid tracking inevitably towards at least 4 Celsius increase in global average temperatures if we make no attempt to phase-out fossil fuel use and or leave some of them in the ground?
Dr Bryan Lovell responded very promptly, as follows:
Sir, Martin Lack reassuringly describes me as a climate change realist. He and I agree that, realistically, it is unwise to continue to burn fossil fuels and to dump the carbon directly into the atmosphere once we’ve had the use of it. We can also agree that, realistically, coal and gas will continue to be burnt in large quantities for many years to come, to provide the electricity so eagerly consumed around the world. The carbon that is produced by burning that coal and gas cannot with impunity be dumped into the atmosphere. So we need to capture and store that carbon, by developing a 21st Century CCS industry on a scale comparable to that of the 20th Century oil industry.
This prospective CCS industry is nothing like ‘business as usual’. Its development will require the adoption of an attitude that the fossil-fuel industry is no more simply the problem then we, the consumers of its products, are simply the problem. Carbon is the problem. Managing the transition we now have to make to a low-carbon economy is going to be even trickier without CCS. CCS is going to be even trickier without the skills of the fossil-fuel industry: new business and new thinking.
Although it has not been published, in addition to thanking Dr Lovell for responding so promptly, I felt it was necessary to clarify my original meaning (as I suspect he misunderstood):
I should apologise for the way in which I use the phrases “status quo” and “business as usual”. I say this because I did not mean to infer that I think CCS will be anything less than the revolution you describe: My concern is that CCS has been used by the fossil fuel lobby to perpetuate the moral and/or social acceptability of fossil fuel use; and to put off the day when fossil fuel subsidies (ten times those given to renewable energy) are eliminated.
This then remains our greatest challenge: To establish a level playing field. However, here we are in severe danger of going around in circles because, unfortunately, this is going to be very hard This is because (can you guess?)…
As promised on Monday, when I published my exchange of emails with the Royal Society’s Professor Mair, I now also publish the thoughts of Schalk Cloete’s (oneinabillion blog) regarding the fossil fuel industry’s apparent determination to proceed to burn all fossil fuels (simply because they are there) and rely on carbon capture and storage (CCS) as an excuse to continue with “business as usual”…
Sure, I definitely agree with your assertion that CCS should be treated as a temporary solution. About the “prolonging the status quo” bit, however, it depends on how exactly you define the status quo. If the status quo is fossil-fuel-based exponential growth, I agree with you, but if the status quo is just the burning of fossil fuels in general, I think we have to be a bit more careful.
Let’s think a bit about this from a societal point of view. Currently, Spaniards are protesting about things like a 3% hike in VAT and a 5% cut in pensions and they will probably oust their newly elected leader as soon as they possibly can. Now let’s just say that, through the wave of a magic wand or something, we manage to convince all the world’s leaders to immediately ban all unconventional fossil fuel exploration. It is very hard to predict what will happen then, but my guess is that market speculators will go crazy and the price of oil and gas will probably double/triple almost instantly and, in doing so, totally crush our highly vulnerable global economy. I really don’t like to be a doomsayer, but this kind of scenario can lead to anything from mass starvation to all out war.
Due to such prospects, I’m afraid that totally banning unconventional oil/gas is completely impossible in a democracy where a 3% of GDP cut in government spending sparks massive social unrest. Frankly, this could only be done in a global dictatorship (which is even more impossible). For guys like you and me, this might be hard to accept, but this is the reality we are dealing with right now. We live in a democracy filled with people stuck in a debilitating mindset of consumerism and entitlement and this type of democracy makes the kind of rapid reforms that you would like to see (a situation where people essentially vote for very harsh austerity) a complete impossibility.
This is where CCS enters into the fray (and why I am working on this topic). The role of CCS is to allow this terribly misguided democracy of ours to transition to a low-carbon economy mostly through natural market forces. In practice, the role of CCS is to minimize carbon emissions in the extended period where renewables become economically competitive, our entire energy infrastructure is totally revamped and, most importantly, the public consciousness is slowly altered from consumerism to sustainability. All of these factors will create a natural market drive towards sustainability and eventually revamp our society as needed, but this will only happen over a number of decades. The role of CCS is therefore to “prolong the status quo” of fossil fuel combustion in order to maintain at least some degree of socio-economic stability through this crucial transitional period.
The only alternatives to this scenario are great shocks to the global societal mindset such as another great economic depression (which will be endlessly worse than the previous one because our global society has become totally interdependent) or another world war (which will be endlessly worse than the previous one because we have lots of nuclear weapons). These kinds of scenarios would greatly accelerate the required loss of faith in our current unsustainable systems (and greatly reduce our numbers), but surely no-one in their right mind could see these things as desirable outcomes. CCS can therefore be seen as the tool we will have to use to preserve the planet for future generations without totally crushing current generations.
This is essentially why I am focusing on the two major areas I am working in now: CCS and personal lifestyle change. CCS is necessary to suppress the symptoms and prevent a true ecological disaster while we work full speed on the fundamental root cause: totally unsustainable lifestyles caused by our debilitating culture of consumerism and entitlement. From my current understanding, this is the only practical way in which we can achieve sustainability without triggering some massive societal disaster along the way.
Well, that’s my two cents at least…
My reaction to all of that, was this:
Have you considered posting this email on your blog? Alternatively, can I post it on mine? It is absolutely brilliant. I mean it. James Hansen has recently pointed out to the World that the longer we wait to tackle the problem, the harder it will be to fix. Then, of course, we have people like Greenpeace disrupting Gazprom’s attempts to drill in the Pechora/Arctic Sea. In contrast to all of that emotionally-loaded discourse, we have your email: Realsitic and blunt. Exactly what people need to read in order to start making calm, well thought-out decisions…
I also asked for Schalk’s permission to send his email to my contacts at Greenpeace (but I have not plucked-up the courage to do so yet). But, if I should ever decide to do so, I would hope to publish their response also.
I have signed-up as part of Bill McKibbin’s 350.org Social Media Team and, as such, have received my first mission objective – to share with you some important facts (numbers) that Bill thinks we should all be aware of… But first some words of introduction from me and the Monty Python team:
The planet Mars is further from the Sun and smaller than the Earth. Its molten core cooled faster and its volcanic activity ceased and then it lost its atmosphere. There is no intelligent life on Mars.
The planet Venus is closer to the Sun and smaller than the Earth. Its volcanic activity did not stop and the de-gassing of its core triggered a runaway greenhouse effect that has left it with surface temperature and pressure 90 times that here. There is no intelligent life on Venus.
The planet Earth is thankfully where it is, its volcanic activity is moderate and it is big enough to retain its atmosphere; containing enough greenhouse gases to keep the temperature above freezing most of the time. Unfortunately, despite realising over 100 years ago that artificially doubling the CO2 content of the atmosphere would raise average temperatures by at least 2 Celsius, humans are not doing anything to stop this happening. Is there no intelligent life on Earth?
Over to Bill McKibbin’s numbers – extracted from his article in Rolling Stone magazine – with some additional comments from me thrown-in:
The number 2 – the degrees Celsius temperature rise target we have already missed.
As McKibbin points out, so far we’ve raised the average temperature of the planet just under 0.8 degrees (causing more damage than expected), which has led many scientists to conclude that 2 Celsius was not a safe limit. Thomas Lovejoy, once the World Bank’s chief biodiversity adviser, puts it like this: “If we’re seeing what we’re seeing today at 0.8 degrees Celsius, two degrees is simply too much.”
As David Roberts said on his Grist blog recently, 2 oC is “too low to be safe and too high to be achievable”.
The number 565 – the gigatons of CO2 that will push the Earth beyond that point.
As McKibbin points out, the idea of a global “carbon budget” emerged about a decade ago, as scientists began to calculate how much oil, coal and gas could still safely be burned. Since we’ve increased the Earth’s temperature by 0.8 degrees so far, we’re currently less than halfway to the target. But, in fact, computer models calculate that even if we stopped increasing CO2 now, the temperature would likely still rise another 0.8 degrees, as previously released carbon continues to overheat the atmosphere. That means we’re already three-quarters of the way to the two-degree target.
As McKibbin acknowledges, this is not news. We have known for some time that cumulative emissions are the problem. That is why emissions reductions alone can never work; we must try and stop them. This will probably take decades; but we must start now. We will never eliminate all emissions (unless we can find alternatives for plastics, etc), but we must systematically substitute fossil fuel use wherever it can be substituted. Aviation is one of the most damaging uses of fossil fuels (because emissions are injected where they can do most damage – a bit like intravenous drug use) and is effectively non-substitutable. However, this just makes it all the more important for us all to change what we can change…
The number 2795 – the gigatons of CO2 we will emit if we burn all the Earth’s fossil fuels.
As McKibbin points out, this number goes right to the heart of the socio-economic and political problem we face: It was highlighted last summer by the Carbon Tracker Initiative, a team of London financial analysts and environmentalists who published a report to educate investors about the possible risks that climate change poses. The number describes the amount of carbon already contained in globally proven coal and oil and gas reserves (including unconventional fossil fuels). In short, it’s the fossil fuel we’re currently planning to burn; and it is five times higher than 565.
This is why I get so upset by exploration for unconventional fossil fuels (tar sands, oil shale gas and deep-sea oil). Here is what I said in an email I sent to Shell UK yesterday:
Assuming the CEO of Shell would accept – as does the CEO of Exxon Mobil – that burning fossil fuels is damaging the environment, then it is simply illogical to continue to look for additional fossil fuels to burn; rather than investing in alternative energy sources. I should also wish to put it on record that I am extremely uncomfortable with the idea of gambling the entire habitability of planet Earth on our ability to make carbon capture and storage (CCS) work. This is because, in addition to being intrinsically dangerous (i.e. unlike radioactive waste, CO2 has no half-life), CCS is treating the symptoms of our addiction to fossil fuels; it is not addressing the problem.
I hope you will accept that I am not some kind of tree-hugging eco-Fascist; and acknowledge that people with all kinds of political views and academic/professional backgrounds now realise that anthropogenic climate disruption is a real problem that can no longer be ignored. Sadly, I suspect that very little will change until the subsidies that you receive from governments are eliminated (and/or that you are prohibited from spending money on low EROEI* fuels). However, I would also like to think that Shell would recognise that the Carbon Age will come to an end sooner or later; that it would be better for planet Earth for it to be sooner; and that investment in renewable energy is therefore in everyone’s best interests (including employees of Shell).
* EROEI = Energy Return On Energy Invested* For Tar Sands = 5 (compared to 20-25 for conventional fossil fuels). This means it costs five times as much to get 1 barrel of oil out of tar sands in Alberta than it does to get it from a normal crude oil well. Is it not time to be investing in non-renewable energy sources instead? Why wait?
I would encourage to all to read the whole of Bill McKibbin’s article in Rolling Stone magazine. There is much more in it about the political obstacles to bringing about the required de-carbonisation of our energy production that is so urgently required; more than I could possibly do justice to here… Therefore, I will just conclude with this:
If we burn all the Earth’s fossil fuels because we can (i.e. because they are there), significant irreversible change to the Earth’s climate is a “dead certainty” (Hansen); and it will not be good news for anybody or anything. Trees cannot migrate; and most life on Earth will not adapt.
If you have not done so already, please join the 350.org campaign to stop this insanity here.