We know what to do about Global Warming, but we do not all know that we know what to do, much less that we are doing it. Nobody in the media, Right or Left or neutral, reports on what is really going on. Mostly we hear about the politics, and only occasionally get fragmentary reports about technology and installations. Right Wing media denies everything, including itself: Global Warming is a hoax; There is no problem; Global Warming, excuse me, Climate Change is good for you!; We can't afford to solve the problem; Switching to renewables will crash the economy; Impeach Obama!
But we can do it, and we are doing it.
Let us look at where the remaining problems lie, what we do about each, and something about the economics, technologies, and possible time scale. The most important fact about the time scale is called exponential growth, most easily understood in terms of the doubling time for any development. By definition, in sustained exponential growth, half of the required advances occur in the very last doubling period, no matter how slow the process was in the beginning.
The other big problem is how to get the word out. We can do something about that right here, and inspire more.
When I wrote about Global Warming only a year and a half ago in Global Warming: What Can I Do?, the task at hand was information and organization, and relatively small individual actions such as more efficient lighting, rooftop solar panels, insulation, and hybrid cars. We had not reached the tipping point that we call Grid Parity—renewables cheaper than fossil carbon—and the politics, the technology, and the markets were still looking rather unfavorable.
But today all of the gloom and doom naysaying and handwringing, of the Left and Right both, on Global Warming turn out not to be the case. The people actually working in the technology and markets are doing every part of it, from R&D to installing wind and solar while retiring coal-fired power plants, at accelerating rates. Politics, denialism, and ignorance can no longer prevent the solutions, only delay them, because we are at Grid Parity in most of the world. The markets have spoken, as they often do when real money is at stake. So have financial advisers such as Goldman Sachs and Bloomberg, and almost the entire financial press except the Wall Street Journal editorial pages. It is primarily the owners of fossil carbon resources, who stand to lose most of the value of their stranded investments, who are in raging denial.
The political climate is still terrible because of such people and their allies in greed and entitlement. That will change, but on this one point it hardly matters any more. The technology and markets make the march to carbon neutrality almost a done deal. We have a plan for the next several decades, and we have but to execute it. Much of our part, if we are not in the industry ourselves, is to encourage utilities to save money and increase profits by buying from wind farms and helping us put solar panels on our roofs, which they should be doing anyway. None of this ALEC nonsense about charging us money to sell them electricity, claiming that people who paid for their solar panels are "free riders". Anyway, I have written about the path to a better political climate here frequently, and will continue to do so.
We can mostly ignore the Cognitive Dissonance of the deniers, and the entitled privilege of the Koch brothers and others like them, topics that I have been Diarying in my Grokking Republicans book series for the Readers and Book Lovers group.
"Climate Change" is Denialism
Before we get to the work to be done, I want to ask everybody to call the problem Global Warming, and not use the Frank Luntz Newspeak phrase "Climate Change" no matter who might have been intimidated into using it, even in the scientific community or the EPA. I am not the only Kossack making this plea.
Here is the counter to one of the silliest but most troublesome Denialist talking points.
More snow in winter is Global Warming. More water evaporates from warmer oceans worldwide, year-round. The tropics are warmer throughout the year. Whichever hemisphere has summer is warmer than ever, and whichever has winter is less cold than ever, on average. The water vapor has to fall somewhere as rain in warm weather, hail in thunderstorms, or sleet and snow in winter.
Colder winter somewhere means much warmer winter somewhere else. When the Polar Vortex hit the US, the North Pole warmed up, and the polar ice didn't form as it should, resulting in even less Arctic ice in the next summer.
Further Threats from Warming
There is an important caveat here. We do not know whether we will reach a tipping point into a positive environmental feedback loop, such as releasing too much undersea methane, or methane in permafrost, to the point where all of the rest gets released. At that point I would refer you to US DoD analyses of environmental damage leading to famine, disease, major wars, and so on.
On the other hand, there are radical geoengineering proposals that might allow us to deal with that, probably with other environmental effects. It could get to be like chemotherapy for cancer, where the drugs are supposed to poison the cancer faster than you, and you have to make an informed choice. More on that below.
For right now, let us suppose we don't have to do that, or that we can figure it out in time.
Slicing Up the Problem
One way to divide up the problem is to look at the technologies for reducing carbon emissions, and how much of a reduction each might bring. This was proposed in 2007 by Princeton researchers Stephen Pacala and Robert Socolow. They proposed to divide the graph of greenhouse gas growth into wedges, and attack them one at a time with some selection of perhaps seven out of 15 available technologies. It remains a very valuable perspective.
But here we are going to look at the problem the other way around, by percentages of emissions and the technologies that apply to each.
Marvin Minsky (born 1927)Here is the division of CO2 emissions by use.
You don't understand anything until you learn it more than one way.
In Rebecca Herold, Managing an Information Security and Privacy Awareness and Training Program (2005)
|Commercial & Residential||10%|
Within the 28% using for transportation, it breaks out as follows:
|Medium & Heavy-Duty Trucks||22%|
|Ships & Boats||3%|
|All Other Transportation Sources||6%|
We face several interconnected problems. We have to look at the different uses of fossil carbon that produce CO2, and find a replacement for each. We have to keep working on lowering costs for wind, solar, and whatever else works. We have to deal with the varying supply of wind and solar power with weather and time of day. And of course we eventually have to deal with politics, and especially Global Warming Denialism.
- Remove all subsidies from fossil carbon, and impose appropriate taxes and regulation. Rebate some of the taxes to the poor and less well-off, and apply the rest to research and mitigation measures. The EPA has announced new rules for coal-fired power plants. This is the only step that requires political will, although others would benefit from it.
- There is some evidence, hotly denied in the industry, that leakage from natural gas wells more than offsets the lower carbon content of methane. We will figure it out. In any case, natural gas is only a stopgap measure. Phase it out when it, too, becomes entirely uneconomic.
- Now that renewable energy, especially utility scale wind and rooftop solar, costs less than electricity from coal or oil, and is competitive with natural gas, build it out as fast as we can. Solar thermal is also becoming competitive.
- Build the interconnected smart grid, secured from terrestrial and solar storm threats, so that we can levelize wind and solar across the nation, and minimize the need for anything else. Statistically, as you increase the size of a collection of random variables, the relative variation in the total goes down with the square root of the sample size. Four times more interconnected wind installations in different parts of the country create half the variation in supply, and so on up. We need about 16 times as much renewable power as we have installed in order to reach carbon neutrality, which will reduce variability to about a fourth of what it is now.
- Work on storage systems to levelize solar from daytime across nighttime. It has been noticed that when we convert to all-electric cars with a decent range, that would be enough battery capacity for the whole country. Obviously, you have to keep enough charge in each car to drive to work in the morning or to take a weekend trip, and you want some reserve, but we can design a system that takes account of these requirements and only shares the spare capacity with the grid. Solar thermal inherently includes some storage, heating a working fluid that can be used after sunset. More could be designed in. Pumped water storage works in conjunction with hydro in some places. Molten salt in insulated tanks is another possibility, and there are many more.
- Go all-electric on cars and trains, and on trucks and buses of increasing size and range. Tesla is reportedly working on electrifying a pickup truck.
- Figure out carbon-neutral biofuels (NOT corn ethanol, but perhaps from algae or switchgrass or hemp or something) or some other alternative for 18-wheeler trucks and aircraft. We have to use renewable energy to process such plants into fuel, of course. We do not know the specific solutions that will appear, but we have many research options, and significant funding.
- There are, remarkably, prototype hybrid electric aircraft, which can be commercialized if battery technology advances to a certain energy-to-weight ratio that is well beyond anything in the labs today. They add battery power for takeoff and climbing, and burn fuel in the familiar way when cruising.
- Figure out if hydrogen is economically viable as a fuel created using renewable electricity sources. Certainly hydrogen-powered vehicles, even hydrogen-powered aircraft prototypes can be built, but can they be operated more cost-efficiently than the alternatives given hydrogen's low energy density by volume? Also, liquid hydrogen has special safety issues that have to be addressed.
- Reduce emissions from making steel and from petrochemicals and other industrial manufacturing processes even more than we have done. Such emissions are waste when you actually want all of the carbon used in the process to end up in the product.
- Stop using methane as the source of hydrogen in making ammonia, and go back to hydrogen from electrolysis of water using renewable power. Or else capture the carbon from the methane and sequester it.
- Maximize conservation and efficiency. Not using electricity is very often much cheaper than generating and transmitting it, and should be pursued wherever it is cheaper at all.
- When we get all of the above done, and we are carbon-neutral, work out how to go carbon-negative at the scale needed to reverse CO2 buildup in the atmosphere in less than a century. There are some known ways to do that, but they require more work, both in engineering and in considering other environmental consequences. Renewables are somewhat variable in output, so we could apply any excess that would otherwise be spilled to these processes at essentially zero energy cost.
How to Go Carbon-Negative
We haven't tried this, and we don't know the side effects. Here are only two of the more plausible of current proposals. Again, we need much more research and development.
Seed the oceans: A lack of iron in ocean water is the critical nutrient shortage preventing vastly greater growth of photosynthetic plankton. We know that we could scatter iron dust and create plankton blooms, and increase the amount of every local species in the food chain above the plankton, while some of the plankton would sink to the sea floor. How long would the carbon be sequestered? What would artificial plankton blooms do to ocean ecology? Would it change ocean chemistry for the better or the worse? Would it endanger other species? We don't know, and we aren't prepared to risk it even at a significant research level today.
Mine olivine: The green mineral olivine occurs in the Earth's crust in vast quantities in igneous rocks of volcanic origin and metamorphic rocks produced from sedimentary rocks with high magnesium content. It and its high-pressure crystal variants make up more than half of the upper mantle. Some of it, of gem quality, is called peridot or chrysalite. When brought to the surface it weathers in the presence of water by combining with CO2 to form the mixture of common minerals called iddingsite over about three years. Industrial processing has the potential to reduce that to a matter of days or hours. Some of the components of the products have economic value.
When olivine is crushed, it weathers completely within a few years, depending on the grain size. All the CO2 that is produced by burning 1 liter of oil can be sequestered by less than 1 liter of olivine.We would have to mine olivine in some multiple of the quantity we presently mine coal, something like 8 billion tons annually, crush it, store it on thousands of square kilometers of land around the world while it weathers for a few years, and dispose of the end products, possibly down the mines we took it from, or in disused coal mines, or conceivably by scattering in the oceans to provide nutrients. We have to be careful about where the water would come from to help the weathering along. If it all works out, it would restore the atmosphere and the acidity of the oceans in some decades, certainly less than a century at the scale I am talking about.
An easy calculation shows that
A single 500 MW power plant, generating approximately 10,000 tons/day of CO2, would require just over 30,000 tons/day of magnesium silicate ore.or a total of 30 million tons of ore cycled through every three years with natural weathering, or else building a substantial industrial processing plant to speed things up. That's about ten times the mass of the coal burned in the plant. So we could require every new coal-fired plant to allocate space and install equipment enough to accommodate that. Or we could just mandate disposal of CO2 and allow plant operators to choose that as one compliance option if it can be made to work for them.
Olivine, it turns out, is only one mineral suitable for sequestering carbon. There are other natural minerals, such as serpentine, that have been found to be promising, and also a variety of industrial wastes such as steel-making slag have appropriate compositions. There is also research into injecting CO2 into hot, high-pressure formations of appropriate composition to react. This is quite different from previous proposals simply to store high-pressure CO2 in pores in rock, because there is no risk of carbonates decomposing.
These mineralization processes only make sense outside of power plant facilities if we tax fossil carbon enough to pay for the initial stages of the project, and later on as carbon goes away use renewable energy that would otherwise be spilled, or build out extra renewable energy resources to meet the need. We might have to produce considerably more renewable energy than we consume, and put some of it into processing olivine or other minerals or wastes. Mining olivine, serpentine, and so on could conceivably reduce the opposition to renewables from coal miners if they could be offered first crack at the new, safer mining jobs with no coal dust to breathe, or gas or dust explosions and fires.
Ask me about any part of any of the above.
This Diary began as a comment in a previous Global Warming Diary that received a remarkably heartening response, and several usefully critical questions and additional information. I have incorporated answers and information received into this version, and I welcome more questions.