We have a moral imperative of leaving our children the same healthy climate that our parents gave us. With 2016 global temperatures averaging 1.2°C warmer than pre-industrial averages, common knowledge is that we have missed the window of opportunity–that we have already morally failed. Common knowledge is wrong here.
If you are hopeful that a miracle might happen and our planet at least won’t pass the 2°C tipping point that scientists warn us about, you are ignoring the science. Even if we stopped all emissions next year we would exceed the 2°C threshold. It’s counter-intuitive, but there is nevertheless a pathway to zero degrees warming. However it requires thinking outside the box. Reducing emissions, even as an emergency will not do it.
First the bad news: Global temperatures rose about 0.25°C in 2016, and such increases are likely to continue because of the “Pacific decadal oscillation”, increased GHG levels, and the melting of the Arctic ice cap. Temperatures in the arctic this winter are 20°C (36°F) above the old normal, so new winter ice is not forming, and the bright white ice will not be reflecting the sun and keeping it cool next summer.
No amount of emission reductions will save our climate at this point. IPCC reports say this, but it is seldom discussed in the press. The IPCC makes it clear that achieving the Paris goals of keeping warming below 2°C will require some amount of carbon dioxide removal (CDR) from the atmosphere. How much should we target? Can we in good faith target any less than that required to give our children a healthy climate?
We know that getting CO2 levels back to pre-industrial levels of less than 300 ppm will get us back to 0°C warming, eventually. Most people respond to that fact and say, “We can’t do that–it’s too hard. It’s hard enough just to stop burning fossil fuels.” It is also well known that large volcanoes cool the planet for a couple years after they erupt. After the Krakatoa eruption in 1883, the following year there was ice skating on the Thames River in London. To that most people say, “We can’t do that cooling–it’s too dangerous.”
It’s time to think outside the box. The first step for getting outside the box is to notice that you’re thinking inside a box. “We can’t do it” is in the box, as is “zero emissions”, and “we’re up against fossil fuel companies”. Set that box aside, and simply ask, “If we did give our children a healthy climate, how would we have done it?” The answer to that question is surprisingly simple.
Getting our planet back to 0°C warming requires carbon dioxide removal–getting CO2 levels back down to about 300 ppm, and probably cooling the planet while we’re doing that. Cooling may be needed to prevent our environment and civilization from collapsing before we finish the CDR. It’s just those two things, both of which we know how to do.
Emission reductions relate to the CDR action, but it’s shocking to realize that while we will need to remove about 150 ppm of CO2 from the atmosphere to get back to 300 ppm, creating a “wartime mobilization to reduce emissions” would produce only about 15 ppm reduction compared to our current path–1/10 of what is needed. That same investment in CDR could get us back to 300 ppm by 2050. Saving the climate is no longer all about energy, it’s about CDR.
Dr. James Hansen reported in 2008 that doing the needed CDR with industrial methods over a period of 30 years would cost about 1% of global GDP. So we know that part is possible, especially with advances over the last 10 years.
Cooling the planet is possible too. Researchers such as Harvard’s David Keith report that “aerosol cooling”, duplicating the cooling of the Krakatoa eruption (which would now allow Thames ice skating in the winter), would require redirecting the sulfate pollution from just a handful of large coal plants to the upper atmosphere, where those sulfates reflect enough sunlight to cool the planet, restore the ice caps, restore normal weather patterns, and even halt most sea-level rise. Schemes for doing that globally estimate the cost at about $1 billion per year–the cost of one large power plant per year.
Doing industrial CDR as Hansen suggested and aerosol cooling have not been seriously considered until now because they were not required to achieve our goal of 2°C. So suggestions of using industrial CDR or aerosol cooling have been interpreted and scorned as attempts to justify prolonging our use of fossil fuels. This has been horribly frustrating for the scientists involved, who just want to leave a healthy planet for their children.
When we get out of the 2°C box, and set a goal of 0° warming, new perspectives on old facts are possible. Massive CDR has been dismissed by experts saying, “When you’re in a hole, the first thing is to stop digging.” A new analogy suitable for zero warming is, “If the whole boat is leaking, build and run big pumps while you’re fixing all the leaks.”
If the whole boat is leaking, build and run big pumps while you’re fixing all the leaks.
Getting all 7 billion of us crew on spaceship earth to stop using fossil fuels and stop burning our forests is hard. We’re making progress, but programming the whole human race is just not easy. The fact that the IPCC has been meeting for 22 years, and emissions are just now flattening illustrates that.
On the other hand, organizing a few hundred or thousand people to build “big pumps” is something that can be done quickly. The Manhattan project that developed nuclear weapons in six years in WWII, and the Apollo program, sending men to the moon in eight years are good examples of organizing smaller teams to achieve outcomes that large ones can’t.
What might it look like to get our planet back to zero degrees warming?
The following is speculative–it is based on good science, but today’s good science will look quaint in another decade. There are several important technical concepts to have this make sense.
- The “moral hazard” of CDR taking the pressure off society to reduce emissions is now solved: Switching rapidly to renewables is now simply good business. The energy transition is underway, and has its own momentum now. Reaching 80% emission reduction by 2050, as planned by the Paris agreement now appears likely. It will require continuing invention, creativity, and courage, but its story is pretty much written. Bloomberg now reports that the cost of wind and solar energy are falling to half the cost of generating electricity from coal and natural gas–around the world. Electric car prices are falling rapidly, and are already competing with combustion engines. By 2025 electric cars will be far cheaper, more reliable, and more fun than conventional cars. The construction of fossil fuel infrastructure is grinding to a halt as conservative businessmen gradually realize that the future will not look like the past. In our boat analogy, we’re fixing the leaks. It will take 20-30 years, but it’s cheaper to fix them (switch to renewables) than tolerate them, so they’re getting fixed.
- We have known how to do CDR since early submarines 100 years ago. The method is called Direct Air Capture (DAC). Current DAC methods cost about $50 / ton of CO2 in total capital and operating costs, and the experts expect those costs to fall to $20 /ton in mass production. There were reports in 2011 that DAC costs, using mature (WWII) technology were $1000 / ton. Then media reports left out the “mature technology” limitation, causing confusion and despair.
- Recent reports show that sequestering CO2 by injecting into basalt fields results in permanent sequestration as the CO2 gets converted to carbonates, like limestone, in 2-20 months, in the presence of groundwater. Interviews with the scientists indicate that these CO2 injection wells are designed to operate for 40 or more years before getting “full”, and only about 5000 wells are required to sequester all the excess CO2 in the atmosphere over that 40 years. The construction cost of these wells is $2-$10 million each, so $50 billion will build the needed wells, and their operating costs are minimal, 5-10% of the CDR costs.
- There is about 1 trillion tons of CO2 that need to be removed, to get back to 300 ppm CO2. If emissions continue to increase, as oil company shareholders hope, then we may have 2 trillion, but I use one, because it’s a rounder number. At a DAC cost of $20 / ton CO2, removing the CO2 will cost about $20 trillion dollars. If we do this over 40 years, that is $500 billion per year, globally. This is a fraction of the US military budget, and 1/10 of what we spend buying fossil fuels now, globally.
- We might build 10 CDR-Sequestration plants on top of basalt fields, with energy available locally from solar, wind, geothermal, or even next-generation nuclear. These CDR “farms”, might be 10 km (7 miles) square, in windy areas so that there is a constant flow of fresh CO2.
- Paying for these plants would be achieved with a government “price support” for CO2, guaranteeing the some competitive price for producing the CO2. The price will decrease as technology and competition between farms reduces the prices.
- The sequestration must be done, or closely monitored by governments, who represent the people. Fortunately sequestration appears to be inexpensive, so the added cost of government bureaucracy is not burdensome. Experience has taught us that large companies will be obligated to cut costs rather than insure that the planet is protected. Imagine Koch Industries or BP contracting CO2 sequestration for us.
- Aerosol cooling will probably be needed. As temperatures increase, damage to our planet and society is rapidly becoming severe, with major governments becoming unstable (e.g. US, EU, China). Sea-level rise is already causing a drop in coastal real-estate values. If we don’t do aerosol cooling, the likelihood of society having the resources to do the required CDR over the next 30-50 years is in serious doubt. This of course cannot be proven. Collapses are nonlinear, and mostly unpredictable. It is important for climate leadership to guide society beyond our instinctive fear of “turning down the planet’s thermostat”.
The barrier to zero warming is commitment, not technical
The serious work on Kennedy’s moonshot started after Kennedy declared that we were going to send a man to the moon. Funding and serious research was set up after, and in response to that declaration.
People bemoan the lack of legislation and action for dealing with the climate. Why is it that we can spend hundreds of billions of dollars to fight wars halfway across the world, but not a few billion for critical clean-energy infrastructure? It’s commitment. We call ourselves the land of the free–so defending our freedom is a commitment that we engage in with hardly a thought. We have not committed to restoring a healthy climate for our children, so it’s no wonder that taking actions for our children’s world is fraught with arguments. If we want to give our children a healthy climate, thinking it is not enough. We need to declare it publicly, and the former presidents of the United States have the moral authority to do so.
Writers and citizens should call on President Obama, the Clintons, Bushes, and Jimmy Carter to declare our commitment to restoring a healthy climate for our children. Declare our commitment to restore zero warming by 2050 on Earth Day, April 22, 2017.