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the dockwalker

Too Late to Stop Climate Change?

This “in a nutshell” video asks: “Is it too late to stop climate change”.

The answer is obliquely admitted in the video: yes.

If you have to rely on the promised magic of future innovation to solve your problem, then the problem is, almost certainly, going to stay a problem. We do not have a reliable replacement for fossil fuels on the scale that is required. Still, the industrial revolution was the undoing of Thomas Malthus’ famous prediction that the geometric growth of population would outstrip the arithmetic growth of food production – so there is hope.

The four factors affecting CO2 emissions described in the video – population size, economic growth, energy intensity, and emissions per energy unit produced – are the product of Profession Yoichi Kaya. This clever abstraction is called the Kaya Indentity. Roughly restated: the amount of co2 we produce is the product of the number of people, GDP per person, energy required to produce that GDP, and the carbon produced per unit of energy.

The current status of those 4 factors is:

  1. The world population is rising and will continue to rise for the foreseeble future.
  2. Rich nations produce a lot and are unlikely to stop. Poor nations pursue becoming rich nations.
  3. Human nature eats up much of the gains produced by improving energy intensity through direct and indirect rebound.
  4. We would like to replace the CO2 emitting energy sources with non-emitting sources but we do not have a realistic replacement for the fossil fuel energy used.

We can’t do much about 1 or 3. We shouldn’t do much about 2 because the moral cost of keeping people in poverty is extreme. Which leave number 4. How do we replace

The notion of a cubic mile of oil is a useful metric for getting a handle on the scope of the task of replacing fossil fuels. How much energy is produced by a barrel of oil vs kilo of coal vs the electricity used by a home? Conversions are difficult and it’s easy to get lost in the huge multipliers – what even is 100 GW? So some enterprising people produced conversions for the various energy type to a unit of 1 cubic mile of oil – a CMO.

In 2006, the world used the equivalent of approximately 3 CMO. Oil (1.06 CMO), coal (0.81 CMO), and natural gas (0.61 CMO) accounted for approximately 2.5 of those 3 CMO. In 2016 the proportions remained unchanged and the total consumption was 3.845 CMO. If current trends continue, we will need 9 CMO by 2050 – perhaps only 6 CMO if aggressive measures which have so far not materialized reduce the current consumption by 100%.

So, how much is required to replace 1 of those 2.5 CMO? What is required to replace the 1 CMO we will use this year that comes from Oil production?

To produce the equivalent of 1 CMO of oil you would need to build:

  • ~ 1 GW nuclear reactor every Monday for the next 50 years to replace 1 CMO
  • ~ 4 Three Gorges Dams every year for 50 years to replace 1 CMO ( notably the sites for theses dams don’t exist and hydropower is likely to expand only by a factor 2 or 4 )
  • ~ 3 Solar parks every week for 50 years to replace 1 CMO
  • ~ 1000 2 MW windmills per week for 50 years
  • ~ 2500 rooftop solar panel installations per day for 50 years ( notably there may not be space for 5 billion rooftop solar panels )

To me, those are some pretty tough targets! In BC, we’ve been trying to build a new 1 GW hydro-electric plant for decades – it was rejected by the regulating commission in 1981, green-lighted in 2010, and may well be canceled in the coming years. Even with all the pressure to build green energy and the relatively receptive climate in BC, it is very tough to build capacity.

Is it too late? Yeah … I rekon.