Defusing the Carbon Bomb
by Danielle Fong
This article first appeared in issue n.16 of Oxygen, sponsored by the Italian energy giant Enel
The powerplants we are building now will define the biosphere of our planet for the next 5000 years.
The math is straightforward, and stark. Carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for a long, long time. It takes nearly 5000 years for limestone and rain to scrub the atmosphere of carbon down to plausibly manageable concentrations. It takes half a million years for igneous rock to scrub the atmosphere down to more temperate concentrations.
A coal plant, built today, has an expected lifetime of 50 years or more. Every year, a 1 GW coal plant throws 8 million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere — more than the mass of the Great Pyramid of Giza.
It gets worse. There are roughly the equivalent of a thousand 1 GW coal plants in service today. Collectively, in a decade, they blast 80 billion tons (10 ppm) of CO2 into the atmosphere — approximately the weight of every single living thing on earth. Business as usual for coal plants would make more of a carbon impact that a firestorm burning every living thing on the planet.
We cannot assume that nature will just take care of this mess.
In the past 20 years, electricity generation worldwide doubled. In the next 20 years, it will double again. If we build those plants the way we have been building them, and run them for the 50 years we expect them to last, we will nearly double the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from when, at 275 ppm, civilization emerged, to 500 ppm, and beyond.
Some policy makers say that reaching 450 ppm would be stable for the Earth. Some scientists (350.org) fear that 350 ppm — much less than the current 396 ppm, is necessary. But as our climate models are making clearer and clearer, blasting to 500 ppm and beyond is not safe territory.
Where that leaves us?
We need more than a faith-based strategy. We need to ask ourselves, what does this mean for us?
For the past many hundreds of millions of years, there have been three major earth climates.
There’s hot earth — greenhouse earth. Ice thaws, and organic matter rots, releasing methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and CO2. Oceans stratify, building hot, nutrient poor layers of water atop the oceans, preventing oxygen from reaching the layers below. Ocean life dies off rapidly, and the focus of life escapes to land. Temperate regions become vast, arid landscapes, and fires and megastorms spread throughout the landmass.
There’s cold earth — icehouse earth. Glaciers blanket and mould the landscape, reflect the sun, and cool the land. Life, crowded out of the land, find its greatest vitality on the sea shelf. Oceans recede — land bridges emerge. Megafauna dot the continents. In the colder periods, the imposing glaciers grow and dominate; in the warmer periods, environmental niches for life open up, for upward new species, like mankind.
We humans emerged in a warmer period of an icehouse earth. We spilled out and filled the alluvial plains of every corner of this planet, built towns, and roads, and cities, covering 3% of the planet surface, and engineered the biosphere, consuming a quarter of its output, disrupting three quarter of the fertile land, and 90% of the biosphere, growing and replicating until we, and our livestock, and our pets, collectively outweigh wild nature, land and air animals, by 50 to 1.
Which brings us to now.
This third era, the anthropocene — the manmade epoch, is without precedent. We would have had another ice age, had humans not intervened. The atmospheric record and the climate tracks the technological and social development of civilization for more than a thousand years. We consume more energy than the tides and waves could ever supply — co-opt more water than our aquifers can sustain, consume more of the food chain directly than any other thing species. We are a force of nature; rivaled, perhaps, only by the powers of the sun, wind, earth, ocean and time.
Scientists fear that our climate is moving away from its zone of temperate stability; the nice, comfortable climate to which we have been adapted. Fish swim in the ocean. Tropical diseases are contained. Tropical agriculture is possible — megadroughts and ultrafloods and superfires are avoided.
Business as usual is now heading towards greenhouse earth. Unless we do something, and do something quickly, unless we face these problems, invent solutions, and scale them up faster, in an absolute sense, than any industry has ever scaled up before, then we will live in that greenhouse earth. What will it really feel like? Maybe we’ll adapt. Life will survive; much of the planet’s history is of a greenhouse earth. But one thing is for certain. We won’t find comfort easily. Greenhouse earth is for crocodiles.
Human beings must realize that we are now in the driver’s seat. We need to know where were going, and we need to talk about where we want to go, and we ask ourselves if we have the courage to turn the wheel.
What are your thoughts on nuclear?
Proliferation is a serious concern, but might be outweighed by the risk of environmental damage. I favor low cost renewables plus energy storage, however.
China is ramping up coal. Other “developing” nations want to use more energy to produce more stuff, the way we do. We need a dialogue about options. The fossil fuel economy is so entrenched and subsidized and supports a powerful elite. Change can happen quickly, however, for good or ill. What about hydrogen as fuel? Reading a great book on that, c. 2006.
Danielle a very good piece of writing albiet a bit scary. Are we really doomed ? I hope not, humans are an interesting lot, with lots of creative ideas. I think the scariest part of your essay is the momentum of our climate flux. If we have created a new ‘anthropocene’ and we are mearly crocodile bait, yikes. You have a lot of great insights and understand we don’t want to rely on ‘faith based strategies. I’m glad your company, Lightsail continues to sail along. You along with the other 33 are a facinating lot. To quote a good Vulcan ‘Live long and prosper’ :)
I don’t believe we are doomed but we have to move fast and decisively. We may have just enough time. It’s not clear.
The 50 to 1 ratio of biomass for humans/livestock/pets is the 1 only mammels and birds and reptiles? I think if you include insects your figures are incorrect?
It is technically land and air vertebrates. Insects are important but best estimates of ant biomass are about 1:1 with human biomass (the weight of all humans together).
Does the estimation of the 500 ppm of carbon dioxide in the astmosphere assume that any new electricity generation is provided by coal? Does the number also include countries switching to renewables or other forms of energy besides coal?
In “Carbon Free, Nuclear Free” by Arjun Makhijani he mentions that the U.S. economy was able to grow without increasing energy demand. Assuming this would happen on a world wide scale, could the global demand for energy reach a limit? Do you think that could happen within 20 years?
Really enjoyed the article
No, it only assumes that the current installed base, plus the increases already planned, which approximately double the capacity.
We are hitting many capacity limits as a civilization. But I don’t think energy demand is one of them. Either we reduce our appetite or we stop growing economically or we find a better source.
Just imagine the energy demand if everyone flew where they wanted to go.
Apparently I mis-interpreted my source. It said that the energy demand remained a constant percentage of the GDP, not that energy demand did not increase. And yes, you are correct, energy demand won’t have a limit. Must have forgotten to think yesterday…
Here’s a study done for the state of MN for an electricity sector that is completely renewable.
Click to access renewableminnesota.pdf
I appreciate your work and this fierce post echoes my heart. Thank you.
How did we change the climate a thousand years ago? Desertification or deforestation?
I think nuclear could be safe if we ditch water reactors and switch to molten salts.
Nuclear material should be in a fluid that’s much closer to its freezing point than to its boiling explosively point. I think that’s fairly obvious.
What do you think of the atmospheric vortex engine?
Virtual pipe dream or realistic? one thing i didn’t understand is if alot of energy is available in our atmosphere in many places, why can the winds can be weak one day and hurricane force the next with the same temperatures?
I don’t know enough about it to comment.
The problem with the atmosphere is that nobody owns it. It’s really a tragedy of the commons.
As an aside, have you read: http://www.withouthotair.com
The author attempts to add up all renewable energy sources available to the UK. He goes to the theoretical maximum of what each source could provide. Solar cells on every rooftop. Solar hot water heating as well. Offshore wind farms all around the country. Tidal energy harvesting. Even after all these measures, each one being very optimistic, the total energy produced is less than the amount currently consumed.
But organically managed soil can sequester carbon and turn it into soil in one season. Only 2-4% of soil is managed organically. If even 20% were managed organically this would sequester billions of tonnes over time. If 100% of our soil was managed organically and we produced energy as you and others are not in visioning the problem of GHG emissions would be solved. What do you eat?
Typo…are now invisioning
Organic, vegetarian when possible.
I just can’t foresee how human nature can get off this lemming-like rush for the cliff. Too much fear pushing from the back. I wish someone would describe a realistic scenario where some catalyst or some idea could change our course. I think you and other creative scientists can provide the tools, but what would we do with them? Its going to take some extra exceptional leadership, and in governments around the world I haven’t seen it yet.
Just finished reading more essays and some of my pessimism has dissolved. I’m inspired.
Superstorm Sandy probably changed the dynamics of the debate. It is more urgent and real when Mayor Bloomberg decided to support Obama last Fall largely because of climate change policies. New York is getting 100-year storms every two years.
Here in Hawaii, the State is trying to go to 70% alternative energy by 2030. The economics is compelling. $7B is spent on carbon import, mostly in the form of diesel for power plants. At 33-35 cents per kWh, electricity is the most expensive in the country.
SolarCity installed 41 PVs at our house last spring and reduced our monthly electricity bill from $488 to $17/month. We are getting an EV this Spring and given the excess energy we are producing, we will further reduce our gasoline bill from $350 to $0/month. Our carbon footprint will be close to zero by April 2013!
I am hopeful. It can be done.
This is very well put and concise. On these massive levels of science, putting things into context the way you have makes the picture very clear.
I agree with you, renewables with storage (specially solar) + next gen nuclear (thorium/fusion) will be the foreseeable future.
What do you think of natural gas as the fuel to displace coal in the next 20 years? Its supply is expanding rather quickly and its a fast way to cut emissions by up to 50% while renewables come into place. Of course theres still many questions on the extraction methods…
Also, how to get the emerging giants (China and India) into the fold as they seem to be building cheap coal plants faster than we can replace the US/European ones…? I have seen studies that say as long as we don’t convince our upcoming neighbors, we will not be able to stem the tide…
I guess its time to lead by example?
Disclaimer: I work in R&D engineering at a major OEM for energy renewable & nat gas. The discussion is for my personal enrichment :)
I hope natural gas will replace as much coal as possible. The capital cost is lower, and so even if the long term price is higher, it may be a better short term investment for expanding economies. Combined cycle gas plants are like 3x better than coal in my estimate. That would buy us time.
We are the only species with egos! As Einstein said, the physics I understand, the politics I do not. There is sufficient technology to conquer energy, but insufficient vision, comitment. There are numerous coteries, cabals, “clubs”, legacy, vested interests, glass ceilings. we have energy solutions for those interested parties. email@example.com
As the permafrost melts in the artic methane will be released accelerating the greenhouse effect. The rate of change will be exponential, not linear. The loss of reflective ice and snow will further accelerate the change.
Humans will not be able to reverse this process. It doesn’t look good.
There is an exponential phase, but at the moment it is not self-igniting. In other words it will accelerate greenhouse gases but it will take a while before it will harm much in the absence of human emissions. Fairly good news.
I don’t mean to be flippant, but I believe we will find a way to cheaply sink nearly arbitrary amounts of carbon in the next 50 years. I don’t know whether it will be similar to Freeman Dyson’s idea of a genetically engineered tree which will absorb 500x the carbon of a conventional tree, or something else, but if there’s money to be made sinking carbon (and there will be, governments will pay handsomely), the human race will find a way.
(Then we might have a new problem. Having a lever by which to adjust our atmospheric carbon concentration, we’ll find out how good our models really are. If they’re not comprehensive and adequately predictive by then, we could put ourselves in a world of hurt.)
I learned of you through kottke.org. You are genuinely on to something here. You may be the Gates of Energy if your plan can make it past our corrupt government. If its okay. id like to share this with friends of mine.
Here is an article about the need for storage in Concentrated Solar Power Projects. This is the magnitude of scale that your technology would need.