by futurists Richard Worzel & Kit Arrow
This is the third of a three-part blog post on climate change and what it means to us. The first part dealt with the evidence that climate change is really happening – although with the bizarre weather we’ve been experiencing, anyone who still doubts it clearly has problems with handling reality. Here’s the link to part one:
The second part dealt with the issue of climate change & risk management, and you can read that part here.
This third part deals with what we believe humanity will eventually and reluctantly choose to do about climate change:
For almost two centuries, we have been dumping waste in the form of greenhouse gases into our own backyard: the air that surrounds us. It is now dawning on us that the consequences of our actions are so shocking that we must – finally – do something about it. And the first step is to make sustainability desirable rather than an onerous burden.
How do we make sustainability itself sustainable?
“In 1898 the first international urban-planning conference convened in New York City. It was abandoned after three days, instead of the scheduled ten, because none of the delegates could see any solution to the growing crisis posed by urban horses and their output.”
The projected problems of horse poop on city streets seemed to be leading inexorably towards a crisis for which no one had a solution. Horses were absolutely essential to commerce and everyday life. It was inconceivable that society and, more importantly, the economy could function without them. Yet, that very dependence seemed to be leading to a crisis of unimaginable proportions.
We face a similar problem today: fossil fuels are an inescapable necessity to our way of life. Relative to other sources of energy, they are cheap and have a very high energy density, which means you can pack a lot of energy into a gas tank, for instance. We cannot do without them: our economy and our way of life is bound up in their use. Yet, the consequences of continuing to use them seem to be leading us to disaster.
But as it was with horses and the central place they occupied in the lives of our economy in the 19th century, it is possible to imagine a world that is not dependent on fossil fuels. The bigger issue is going to be making the leap to a new economy, much as moving from horses to cars provided that leap in the 20th century, relieving us (so to speak) of the problems of horse poop in the streets.
And a big part of that change is going to depend on the alternatives to fossil fuels being better, more economical, and producing better results. That is the central issue that we, as a race, need to address. In short: how do we make sustainability itself sustainable?
This will not be simple, easy, or achieved without cost or effort. But it will happen. Partly it will happen because the solutions will be cheaper and better than what we’re using now, and partly it will happen because we – all of us, even the most skeptical – will eventually accept that we have no choice but to find alternatives. We may try to duck out on our responsibilities, and try to get someone else cleans up our mess, but everyone will eventually accept the necessity of an atmospheric clean-up, just as everyone now accepts that smoking cigarettes will probably kill you.
It won’t be one thing, one silver bullet that solves the problem of greenhouse gas emissions. But then, it wasn’t one thing that replaced horses, either. We also needed better roads on which to drive them, first because cars were more delicate than horses, and then because we saw the advantages of going faster that better roads could bring. Then we needed somewhere to gas up our cars, which meant we had to build an entire infrastructure of gas stations to provide that fuel wherever we went. Then we needed people to provide (sell) them to us, and people to support (service) them for us, and people to repair the roads and enforce the laws surrounding their use, and so on. We didn’t just swap a car for a horse; we swapped one massive infrastructure for another. We can and will do the same again.
However, this time the switch-over will be more complicated because our current infrastructure doesn’t just involve transportation. It involves heating and manufacturing and generating light, plus just about everything else we do in our economy. Therefore replacement solutions will be many and varied.
The three stages of GHG reduction
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, humanity is responsible for emitting about 6 billion metric tonnes of CO2 a year into the atmosphere per year. (Other sources set this figure much higher.) And that amount continues to rise, compounding the already threatening issue of climate change.
Accordingly, we foresee three stages of greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions. The first stage is to stop increasing the amount of GHGs we emit. At present, our emissions are not only growing, but the pace at which we emit GHGs is actually accelerating, compounding the problems we are creating for ourselves by hastening the rate of climate change.
To stop increasing the amount of GHGs we emit, we can substitute natural gas for coal for heat and electricity, increase the efficiency of internal combustion engines, gasoline hybrids, or electric cars, and tinker with all the ways in which we use energy with the intention of improving results. If that’s done on a large enough scale, that will probably allow us to reach the point where our GHG emissions level off.
The U.S. reduced carbon emissions by 11% in 2013 compared to 2007, at the peak pollution rate. The UK emitted 30 million tonnes less carbon dioxide in 2012 than they did in 2008. Part of this is due to the Great Recession, but some of it is due to improved efficiencies and the substitution of natural gas for coal, especially in the U.S., so it can be done.
On a corporate level, there are a number of companies who have not only started going green, but have been reaping significant profits from doing so. Marks and Spencer’s in the U.K., through their Plan A environmental agenda, increased profits by $73 million in the first three years. An American company, Interface, started going green in the mid-1990’s. By 2005, they were saving $400 million a year by reducing waste, GHG emissions and water use, and had doubled their profits. There are a rising number of corporate results that show that going green doesn’t just make environmental sense, it makes bottom-line profits as well. That’s how to make sustainability sustainable: by recognizing that being less wasteful and more efficient increases profits.
Stage two: Reducing GHG emissions to zero
The second stage is to reduce annual global GHG emissions to zero. This is like saying, “We won’t dump any more garbage in our backyard, but neither will we clean up what we’ve already dumped.” It just means we’ve stopped making things worse.
And, by the way, this won’t stop climate change. Although we are in unknown territory here, some climatologists believe that if GHG emissions dropped to zero tomorrow morning, the changes we have already wrought on the atmosphere might continue to drive climate changes for another thousand years. As we said at the end of Part II, humanity has given climate change an almighty shove. If we just stop pushing now, it will continue to roll with the momentum we’ve already given it.
Dropping GHG emissions to zero would probably be impossible if it meant ceasing to use all fossil fuels for any purpose. They are too integral to the way we live, and too valuable in too many different applications for that to be likely. Therefore, merely increasing efficiency won’t be enough, no matter how efficient we become. Even an all-electric car usually produces GHG emissions where the electricity is generated or when it’s manufactured. Therefore, the only way to reduce GHG emissions to zero is through a two-part process. First, we need to encourage increased efficiency and energy substitution as much as possible. But then we need to start taking GHGs directly out of the atmosphere.
This leads to the issue of carbon sequestration. (There are other greenhouse gases, but let’s talk about carbon as if it were the only one for simplicity’s sake.) Carbon sequestration means grabbing gaseous carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, converting it to another form, whether liquefied, or bound in a chemical reaction to a mineral, such as basalt or serpentine, and then storing it somewhere, probably underground – a reverse mining operation, if you will.
To date, carbon sequestration has not been done successfully on an industrial scale, or in a commercially feasible manner. To do so will require a lot of research, a lot of investment, and a lot of money. The only good part about the whole process is that it can be done anywhere: if you have a good way to extract CO2 from the atmosphere, you can do it wherever convenient, because the atmosphere is everywhere. And many different groups are actively working on this now.
One estimate we’ve heard is that it will cost between $10-20 to take one ton of CO2 out of the atmosphere. If true, then a back-of-the-envelope calculation would indicate that a carbon tax would add about 10-20¢ to a gallon of gasoline. People would scream about paying an additional (split the difference) 15¢ more for a gallon for gas, but it wouldn’t be the end of the world. And you know that as this process becomes better researched, this price would come down. We will eventually find a commercially successful way of carbon sequestration to offset our continued use of some fossil fuels – but that still won’t be enough.
Stage 3: Reducing the absolute amount of GHGs in the atmosphere
Global levels of carbon dioxide have skyrocketed from 280 ppm (parts per million) in 1850 to 400 ppm today. The last time we had 400 ppm in the atmosphere was the Pliocene era, which ended 2.6 million years ago. The global temperature then was 2-3o C higher, Arctic temperatures were 10-20o C higher, and sea level was 15-25 meters higher. This would be a disaster for humanity.
Consequently, once we’ve dropped our annual net emissions to zero, we foresee that humanity will choose to start reducing the absolute amount of GHGs in the atmosphere in order to slow or even stop the rate of climate change. In principle this will be simple: we’ll merely need to do more of what we’re already doing.
In practice, there will be massive difficulties. Carbon sequestration on this scale implies an unimaginable amount of material, no matter what form it’s in. A ton of CO2 weighs 2,000 pounds (of course – that’s the definition of a ton). As a gas, it occupies about as much space as approximately 35 Toyota Camrys. And, according to Dr. Gelvin Stevenson, Adjunct Professor of Environmental Economics at Pratt Institute, if you were to drive a car 8,000 miles, getting 20 miles per gallon, you will emit four tons of CO2 by weight, or about as much carbon as an SUV weighs.
Our point is that finding a way of dealing with 6.6 billion tons of CO2 each year, and to do so without bankrupting us, is going to be one of the most difficult things that humanity has ever done. And we have to go farther if we are going to reduce the level of GHGs in the atmosphere.
So what can we do about this? How can we deal with all the carbon in the air?
The big problem is not technical
There is no simple solution, no silver bullet, as we said before. But there are a number of steps we can take to start. First we need to stop putting CO2 into the air, and the best way to do that is to switch our power grids from fossil fuels to renewable energies. Wind, solar and geothermal energies all have their benefits, but also have significant drawbacks. The best bet is to integrate these technologies and mix them for full coverage, as well as increasing their efficiencies. We will also need to find commercially feasible ways of storing large amounts of energy – battery technology, if you will – for when we need it. And we need to steadily increase effectiveness and efficiency.
This is possible. For instance, solar power has become over 100 times more efficient in the last 60 years, and continues to improve rapidly. Moreover, solar electric power may only need to compete with the retail price of electricity, not the central power utility’s wholesale cost of generation because solar power is often generated where it’s used.
And ground source heat pumps can heat and cool buildings anywhere you can bury coolant pipes at least six-to-ten feet underground, where the temperature stays at around 50-54o F all year, using a heat pump to cool in summer, and warm in winter.
So technical solutions are emerging.
Stop subsidizing old energy
Another step is to get the oil companies to become part of the solution instead of seeing them as the problem. Most environmentalists overlook this step, because they see oil companies as the enemy. We see them as capitalists. Show them how they can make big profits in green energy, and they’re in. And if there is a 15¢/gallon carbon tax, all of which is paid to companies to sequester carbon, then there will be a land-rush among private sector corporations who have expertise in drilling and mining underground to find the most efficient, and therefore most profitable, way of sequestering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Of course, many people object to the idea of a carbon tax and to subsidies for renewable energy, completely overlooking the fact that governments routinely and massively subsidize old energy sources. In 2011, the U.S. federal administration suggested removing $4 billion in annual subsidies for oil and gas – and that would only have put a dent in the direct and indirect subsidies oil and gas energy receives. One author, commenting on the extent of tax subsidies, said that the U.S. government could buy all of the country’s gasoline and give it away, free, to American consumers for less than the cost of the tax subsidies given to domestic oil & gas producers. And nuclear power has been similarly, and massively, subsidized.
So if we’re going to encourage energy that doesn’t produce CO2, then a big step would be to stop subsidizing polluting energy sources – or at least put them on an equal footing with renewables and then let the market decide. Isn’t that what capitalism does?
This is not intended to be an exhaustive list of things to do. The point is that although the challenges of eliminating, then reversing, our CO2 emissions are huge, this is a set of technical problems to which we can almost certainly find solutions. I’m not unduly worried about the technical problems.
The biggest problem we face is our attitudes and expectations. We grew up in a world where energy was cheap, and we built our lifestyles around that. Now we are finding that cheap energy has hidden costs, and those bills are coming due. But we are so wedded to the way of life that goes with cheap energy that we fight violently against having to clean up the mess we’ve made.
So the biggest problem we face is finding the will to solve the technical problems ahead of us, and to do so before the damage done overwhelms us.
 Davies, Stephen, “The Great Horse-Manure Crisis of 1894”, The Institute of Economic Affairs, September 2004.
 As an excellent introduction to the subject of switching away from fossil fuels, see Chris Turner’s book The Leap:How to Survive and Thrive in the Sustainable Economy.
 A metric tonne is 1,000 kilograms, or about 2,200 pounds.
 CNN website, April 26th, 2011, http://money.cnn.com/2011/04/26/news/economy/oil_tax_breaks_obama/
 Zepezauer, Mark & Naiman, Arthur, Take the Rich Off Welfare, Odonian Press, 1996.