An optimistic view on climate change

Regular readers will be aware that I have a generally optimistic disposition. You may wish to bear this in mind when you read this Inside Story piece arguing that the prospects are good for stabilising global greenhouse gas concentrations at 450 ppm.

On the whole, though, I think excessive pessimism is a bigger problem than over-optimism. As I’ve argued before, I think lots of people have locked themselves into positions (eg advocacy of geoengineering, or belief in the end of industrial civilisation) that are based on the assumption that stabilisation is impossible. Many of these people are not open to evidence that stabilization is feasible, and even likely.

There’s a strong case that we should do better than 450 ppm, with a common ‘safe’ figure being 350 ppm. Since we passed that level some time ago, that requires a long period of negative net emissions, which cannot easily be achieved with current technology. Still, if net emissions are reduced to zero in the second half of this century, and some technological advances are made over the next fifty years (a plausible assumption if we put in some effort), even 350 ppm might be feasible.

Australia is dragging the chain under the Abbott government, but even Abbott seems to be feeling the international pressure judging by recent reports. With luck the last couple of years will turn out to have been a temporary detour in progress towards decarbonization.

65 thoughts on “An optimistic view on climate change

  1. Read it carefully, Peter.

    The punchline is that, in principle, there is sufficient scope for all of the electricity to be generated by domestic and business rooftop solar. That is not how it would play out of course as heavy industry will have to solve their own energy problem. The surplus domestic electricity would provide electricity for transport offsetting CO2 emissions from petrol, extending the performance of rooftop solar beyond the domestic 31%. Rooftop Solar works for small business and commercial (30%) energy very well.

    The details will sort themselves out once there is full commitment to make the transition.

  2. One of the problems we have from a carbon foot print point of view is that our dwellings are abysmally constructed, and many people would blow their 30 tonne of CO2 just on their house, which is unlikely to last longer than themselves. We need to be building dwellings to last 150 to 300 years. I was in a city a few weeks ago where many of the buildings are 900 years old, and built with extremely low carbon emissions. It can be done, we need to be changing our thinking from Knock it Down/Build another to upgrade and improve.

  3. I certainly agree with PrQ that optimism is, polititically, preferable to pessimism, especially if it’s well-founded.

    However, it’s hard to see that stabilisation at 450ppm is close to adequate or safe. Really, we need the planet’s atmosphere to get back to the last point where temperatures were stable as quickly as possible i.e about 280ppm … and perhaps simewhat lower so as to force rapidly declining temperature for a time to take existing heat out of the oceans.

  4. I think people are misunderstanding pessimistic and optimistic assessments. A rational pessimistic assessment occurs when the probabilities of a good outcome are low. It is realistic and indeed a survival trait to make a pessimistic assessment about a risky course of action and an optimistic assessment about a safe course of action.

    Someone who sees and warns of a danger which you don’t see or which you are complacent about is not necessarily a congenital pessimist. He or she might simply be making a rational pessimistic assessment when the probabilities of a good outcome are low.

    The probabilities of a good outcome on the climate change front are now very low. We are heading for something in the range of mediocre to bad to vary bad. We pretty much know to a high degree of certainty that we will hit the level that leads to 2 degrees C warming. That is the best outcome we can hope for now and many worse outcomes are still possible. Scientific opinion is genuinely split on whether even that (+ 2 C) is relatively safe or not.

    The belief that business as usual (allowing corporate-oligarchical capitalism and markets to determine the outcomes) will deal with climate change IN TIME is a belief with a depressingly bad track record. Corporate-oligarchical capitalism has completely failed to deal with this problem to date.

    Most people’s continued unrealistic and dangerous optimism on this issue really stems (IMO) from their inability to question the fundamentals of capitalism. They are so wedded to belief in this system that they cannot conceive that it might fail on a question of this magnitude.

    Of course, we are past the time now when we could change the political economic system IN TIME, just as we are past the time when we could prevent some initial dangerous global warming. The question now is really how much of the very worst outcomes can we prevent? Under capitalism, going on its performance to date in dealing with negative externalities, I would say our chances are slim.

  5. Industry is very powerful when it is suitably mobilised, Ikonoclast. Industry leaders are quick to point out that all they need is guidance. There needs to be an agreed upon solution that eliminates the anti science misinformation uncertainty fostered via destructive forces such as Murdoch, Monkton, Abbott, at the social media end the likes of Jo Nova and Cattalaxy, and at the industry specific end (nuclear) Brave New Climate.

    Once a product profile that fills a substantial need has been established the market goes to work filling that need. The best recent example is the smart phone. 2.2 billion smart phones manufactured and sold in 2 years.

    From a world energy perspective looks like becomes: a once off 922 million rooftop systems that I have described at 46 applied to rooves in the sunbelt would provide all of the worlds annual electricity needs (more or less) of 20,280 billion Kwhours (write that figure down).

    What I am saying is that once you get your head around what the task looks like it becomes a deliverable solution. ie 922 million rooftop systems over 20 years is 46 million rooftop systems per year. The Japanese, the Chinese, the Koreans, the Indians and the Brazillians would love to supply that need for the world. supplied from 10 different countries that becomes 4.6 million systems per year per country for 20 years, and the coal industry is retired. The market can easily achieve this, it already does this to supply cars to every one.

    It is easy to be pessimistic when there are no clearly defined solutions visible.

  6. I know this goes over everyone’s head (pun intended, rooftop, whatever) as most people cannot visualise from concepts, on the one hand and they seem to be just too lazy to use their calculators on the other, so they resort to off hand dismissive comments to avoid having to engage and think.

    But we have a burning need to resolve the energy supply issue very soon.

  7. @BilB

    Yes, we could achieve this with dirigist direction of industry. The capitalist “free market” (should read “rigged and skewed market suited only for enriching a few and ignoring the needs of many and the environment”) has already shown its complete inability to achieve this on its own in time to save the climate.

  8. @BilB
    Your link proposes biomethane not the thermochemical methane being trialled in Germany e.g. Audi e-gas. I made an 80 litre digester filled with celllulosic material like grass and inoculated it with cow poo. It produced methane with low heating value due no doubt to high CO2 content which should have been scrubbed. The digester smelled bad and was onerous to refill. In short not worth the bother.

    Both the UK and California have come to similar conclusions about biomethane. By all means capture it at sewage farms and dairies but don’t build isolated facilities. Both governments opine (links available) that biomethane will struggle to replace more than 10% of natural gas consumption. Schemes that involve biomethane backup for intermittent power sources are fanciful in my opinion.

  9. While we are being optimists, the vexed issue of thresholds being crossed is growing more urgent. Recent research articles indicate that at least two major regions of West Antarctica, and possibly one major glacier in East Antarctica, have crossed thresholds into irreversible decline/collapse, guaranteeing at least 5m of eventual sea level rise. Now the game is on determining how rapidly or slowly that 5m takes to eventuate. The full effect could take a couple of hundred years to a thousand years, in which case it isn’t that important to us in the here and now; on the other hand, if some of that rise is rapid enough to affect us this century, it could have very significant economic impacts. [“Five metres and counting”, Michael Le Page, pp 8–10, New Scientist No. 3025, (13 June 2015)]

  10. Hermit your comprehension is suffering badly. The ECN item is about GASSIFIERS, not digesters. There is absolutely no similarity whatsoever. These systems take cellulose material, heat it to a high temperature to produce a gas mixture which recombines in a catalytic chamber to form methane suitable for mains gas supply. I can see why you have the ideas you do, you just don’t understand what you are reading.

    The figures are there to show that from refuse alone there is sufficient energy to fully back up rooftop solar for all of those extended low solar periods that trouble the nuclear fanatics so much. BNC have banned me because I put this information forward in their discussion, they don’t want anyone to know that this is possible.

    That is the energy from household waste. Industrial cellulosic material waste is a considerable amount of renewable energy more.

    Taking coal out of the economy will not be difficult, and it will lift living standards significantly. That leaves oil to contend with.

    I you actually read the solar rooftop item you would have seen that the proposal will supply energy for 2 hybride cars each day of the year (2 × 8.5 kwhrs) giving 100 klms travel per day 365 days. This means a possible 36,500 klms per year per household or 438 billion kilometers nationally from 12 million rooftop systems. Considering that is nearly twice the total vehicle klms travelled in Australia each year, rooftop solar will make a useful dent in oil CO2 emissions.

  11. @BilB

    Getting gas from refuse will have to be a declining business in the future (after its initial ramp-up in this wasteful era of course). The reason is that we will have to move to a low refuse, non-throwaway economy. Making throwaway refuse using lots of energy to make it and then recovering some energy from it, is not as efficient as not making the throwaway refuse in the first place. You heard it here first. 🙂

  12. And I am certain, Ikonoclast that by that time there will be other solutions to the low solar energy periods. Or specially grown timber will be used to make up the short fall in refuse, if that infact becomes the case, for the methane production.

    I don’t know whether you followed the figures, Ikonoclast, but in rough terms it seems that 6000 kwhrs from 12 million rooves is sufficient to offset all fossil fuelled vehicle CO2 emissions.

    This is how that shaped up. The Audi eTron A3 vehicle uses 8.5 kilowatt hours for 50 klms of moderate speed driving. So 8.5 times 2 times 365 delivers 6205 kwhrs for 50 times 2 times 365 or 36,500 klms travelled. Which for 12 million rooftops and 24 million hybrid cars this is 74.46 billion kilowatt hours to power 438 billion kilometers of moderate driving. The Australian car fleet travels 236 billion kilometers per year at a CO2 emission
    cost of

    Cars 46869 gig grams CO2
    All other road vehicles 32320
    Air 7517
    Rail 2739
    Marine 2377
    Other 97

    So where cars emit half of all transport CO2 according to a 2010 working paper 73 from Department infrastructure and Transport for 236 billion kilometers travelled, half of the capacity from our rooftop solar, and if all transport could be powered electrically at moderate speed then our rooftops would provide all of transport energy avoiding all emissions from transport.

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