December 10, 2019

Climate change

By John Dunkelgrün

That the global climate is changing is indisputable. It appears that most scientists agree that human actions are the main cause. The consequences depending on the army of forecasters range from serious to catastrophic. Bad or scary news sells newspapers and doomsday forecasts make the front pages. All this has scared the population and has driven politicians in many countries to sometimes drastic and sometimes questionable action. The Netherlands for example, a country that for half a century has depended on gas for heating, cooking, and part of electricity production, has vowed to stop gas use completely within a decade. It is time to take a step back and look around.

Even if you don’t believe human activity is the (main) culprit, the probability or even the possibility that it is, makes taking action now the prudent thing to do. It is like taking out insurance. You don’t expect your house to burn down, but you buy your fire policy.

However, it is important to realize that climate forecasting is exceptionally difficult. It requires the world’s most powerful computers, highly intricate algorithms and staggering amounts of data. Past forecasts have been wildly inaccurate and there are great variations in the predictions. By mid-century, the sea levels are to rise anywhere from half a meter to six meters or more. That dents the believability, but note: all forecasts talk about levels of rising. Not one talks about lowering or staying the same. Anyway, in this Zeitgeist such results are unlikely to get published.

The Paris agreement set goals for diminishing the quantity of CO2 that is released. However, if current levels are already causing climate change, merely diminishing output won’t help. It will merely slow down the speed of this change. To be on the safe side we need to take the greenhouse gases, especially CO2, out of the air. The easiest way to do that is to plant trees, enormous forests of trees. The problem with this is that woods are an excellent carbon sink, but only temporarily. In a mature wood, dying trees and fallen leaves rot and this process uses oxygen and produces CO2. Mature wood is more or less CO2 neutral. There is some research underway to use the CO2 in the air and bind it into other products, but that is still far from industrially viable and it is not at all sure it will bind enough CO2 to move the needle in the foreseeable future. Producing carbon-free exhaust of using fossil fuels is a possible solution as is cattle feed that causes less methane production.

Looking at energy production, every option has its cost.

The worst of all is coal and wood. every year tens of thousands of people, perhaps millions, die because of air pollution caused by burning coal. The number of people who die from this every single year is larger than all deaths due to accidents in nuclear power plants together and that includes Chernobyl and Fukushima! In closing its nuclear plants Germany did the planet no service at all. 

By not counting the environmental cost coal is by far the cheapest form of energy and stopping its use is costly, kills jobs and will be a very hard sell in countries like Poland.

Oil and gas are easy. The world has developed a highly sophisticated system of producing, transporting, storing and distributing them. The technologies involved are well known and highly refined. Of the two, gas is the most eco -friendly. Scrapping their use too quickly is an enormous destruction of capital and cause major disruptions in the world economy. It would be better to capture the exhaust and pump it underground, but unfortunately, the public has been scared off CO2 so much, that planning this causes major protests.

Nuclear is by far the most eco-friendly source of energy, but in many countries, it is a politically hot potato. But even for the über nuclear skeptics, there is a solution on the horizon, thorium reactors. They are so far only working in laboratory settings, but if they fulfill their promise we could see within a decade dozens of small, safe efficient thorium reactors that use a plentiful raw material.

Wind and sun are free but not always available. And has anyone seen studies of the harm to the environment in producing and maintaining the huge wind parks and solar panels?

Electricity is great but has one major drawback, storage. So far there are no really good systems of storing major quantities of electricity.  At the moment batteries are expensive, inefficient, heavy and very eco-unfriendly. Driving an electric car is fine, but don’t for a moment think that it is good for the environment as long as most electricity is generated by using fossil fuels and stored in ion-lithium batteries. If you want to drive in an eco-friendly way so far hydrogen should be your fuel of choice.

If you are worried about human-caused climate change you should, first of all, promote the planting of as much forest as the world can accommodate, if necessary by irrigating arid lands using solar or wind energy to pump necessary water to its destination or even to desalinate it. The recent developments in producing hydrogen using solar power is very promising. The second major effort should be to subsidize countries that are heavily coal-dependent to change their extractive industries and retrain their workers. A third short term solution would be forcing trucks to become electric, perhaps with a dense network of interchangeable battery packs. Where possible geo-thermic heat could be used to power turbines and heat homes.

I believe the holy grail is the development of cheap hydrogen and efficient high capacity batteries, both for bulk storage and for use in cars. That way shipping, trucking and people moving can be CO2 free.

Many years ago the senior editor of The Economist magazine, Norman McRae, noted that every major shortage, once recognized, changed within ten years into a glut due to political pressure and technical advances. I for one am confident that the human disruption to our planet’s climate problems will be solved well before the halfway mark to this century.

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