The world right now is facing some very serious challenges.
The first is that the globe will probably rocket well past peak CO2 levels of 405 parts per million by April and May of this year. This jump has been pushed along by a baseline massive human CO2 emission and assisted by a record ocean warming event (El Nino) in the Equatorial Pacific. Overall, this new yearly record will be more than 55 parts per million higher than peak ‘safe’ levels of 350 parts per million recommended by some of the world’s top climate scientists.
(Global CO2 levels will cross well above the dangerous 405 parts per million threshold during April and May of 2016. During recent years, record or near record carbon emissions have exaggerated rates of atmospheric greenhouse gas accumulation. But did the world see emissions reductions during 2014 and 2015 and will those reductions be sustained? Image source: The Keeling Curve.)
Such high atmospheric CO2 concentrations likely haven’t been seen in 15 million years. If CO2 levels (and the levels of related heat trapping gasses) remain so high for extended periods or continue to rise, then more and more dangerous and disruptive changes to the geophysical system of the Earth are in store. Global temperatures, the driving force of many of these changes, are already hitting +1.1 C above 1880s averages during 2015 (and +1.57 C during one month of 2016!) and will continue to ramp higher for decades and centuries unless those excessive greenhouse gas concentrations start to fall.
In 2016, we see massive losses in Arctic sea ice, rapid warming in the northern polar regions of the globe, increasing instances of extreme weather, increasing rates of glacial destabilization, increasing rates of sea level rise, increasing instances of mass casualty producing heatwaves, increasingly rapid rates of ocean health decline (ocean anoxia and acidification), increasing stress on ecosystems around the globe, and a number of dangerous tropical viruses spreading up from the lower Latitudes.
This is the world that economic dependence on fossil fuel based energy sources has given us. It’s a more difficult and dangerous one to live in than that represented by the milder 20th Century climates. And, over time, that difficulty and danger grows worse so long as the fossil fuel burning continues and concentrations of atmospheric greenhouse gasses do not fall.
Lifting More Than Half the World Out of Poverty With Fossil Fuels Is a Climate Nightmare in the Making
Related to this increasingly difficult challenge of climate change is the fact that much of the world today still lives in poverty — unable to access many of the benefits of modern life. But nations around the world support policies that will lift billions out of this impoverished state. Providing billions with access to the services so many of us in the developed world take for granted. How this transition happens will have a dramatic impact on the health of the climate of our world and the health and safety of so many of the individuals living here. In other words — will the undeveloped and developing world choose to access new, renewable energy sources and deny the use of dangerous fossil fuels even as the developed world makes a responsible energy switch? Or will everyone basically double down on the climate-wrecking fossil fuels and risk wrecking all of human civilization in the process?
It’s a critical choice for our near future. Just how critical was recently highlighted in a new paper published by researchers at the Universities of Griffon and Queensland in Australia. This paper shows that if fossil fuels are used to meet projected energy demand growth over even the next 15 years, then 2 C worth of global warming will be locked in by as early as 2030.
(Climate risks threat analysis provided by the IPCC shows greatly ramping impacts as human forced warming crosses the 2 C above the late 19th Century threshold. Note that warming above 1 C — a range we are now starting to explore — pushes most risks into moderate and some risks toward high. Image source: IPCC.)
For reference, a 2 C level of warming above 1880s values would place severe and increasing stress on many Earth Systems vital to maintaining a climate state conducive for the functioning and survival of human civilizations. To many scientists, it’s considered a tipping point beyond which catastrophic consequences become much more likely to unfold. To be clear, any warming beyond 1 C this Century is probably unsafe if you want to maintain stable coastlines and prevent serious climate shifts around the world. But we’ve already crossed that threshold and what we’re engaged in now is trying to prevent a growing number of the worst effects of human-forced warming from being realized.
To this point, the new study focused on predicted energy demand growth curves and related global economic growth projections and extrapolated projected emissions based on how growth was achieved — either through renewable energy use, or fossil fuel based energy use. Using these metrics, the study found that industrial CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions would hit a very steep curve unless projected energy demand was filled by renewable sources.
Study co-author Hankamer recently noted to The Guardian:
“When you think about statements like ‘coal is good for humanity’ because we’re pulling people out of poverty, it’s just not true. You would have to burn so much coal in order to get the energy to provide people with a living to get them off $2.50 a day that [temperature rises] would just go through the roof very quickly.”
Study researchers supported a kind of creative destruction that involved a rapid switch away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy sources. This kind of switch would be precipitated by a removal of the 500 billion dollars in annual global subsidies to the fossil fuel industry and a related transition of those subsidies to renewable energy sources. The authors noted that such a shift in global policy and capital support from fossil fuels to renewables would generate significant and revolutionary change in the energy markets as well as provide real hope of meeting projected demand growth with non fossil fuel energy sources.
“If we swapped those subsidies globally, of course we could have rapid improvement and deployment of renewables to cover our shift from fossil fuels. You’re pushing a huge amount of capital into a different sector that requires an enormous amount of growth, so you would actually see a great deal more growth from putting it into renewables than providing it for fossil fuels.”
Hankamer also highlighted the need for serious work on batteries and a related full transition to electrified transportation. He noted that tough challenges still existed for aviation, heavy machinery, and shipping. Energy demand sources that may require biofuels, hydrogen or a combination of these with hybrid high efficiency and low weight battery technology to continue functioning and eliminate their portion of emissions. But as a fraction of the global greenhouse gas contribution, these three represent a smaller portion than electricity generation and internal combustion engine based land vehicle transportation.
The key, according to the researchers, was getting the incentives right and that involved a wholesale shift of capital and subsidy support away from fossil fuels. The point being that even if a fraction of increased global energy demand is met by fossil fuels, then the climate situation rapidly worsens. We just have to get off fossil fuels wholesale. But the new study researchers clearly point out — the renewable option is there and we should take it.
Is Global Coal Use Declining? If So, It’s a Trend That Needs To Be Rapidly Reinforced.
To this point, there already appears to be a number of early signs of a structural shift in many of the global markets away from coal — which is one of the highest emitting fossil fuels — as an energy source for base electricity generation.
As such, a current center of gravity for global carbon emissions increases and potentials for reduction is China. Overall, China alone now produces almost 30 percent of the world’s CO2 emissions. And a lion’s share of these greenhouse gas emissions come from China’s more than 2,500 coal fired power plants. But lately, recent reports coming out of China seem to indicate not only a slow down in the rate of emissions growth — but a reduction in the amount of total emissions overall.
(A new study by Glen Peters estimates that China’s greenhouse gas emissions may have fallen by 1.9 percent during 2015. This potential reduction is thought to have been precipitated by a shift away from coal use and toward a larger adoption of renewable energy. Image source: Glen Peters via Climate Crocks.)
In part, this reduction in coal use is due to a wholesale shift in China’s growth policies. A shift that focuses more on services and less on heavy industry. Clean air policies have also been put in place aimed at scrubbing up a terrible air quality situation for the country. Policies established to constrain the burning of coal at currently active coal fired plants. As a result, coal-fired facilities are increasingly under-utilized in China. A situation that has resulted in some sources stating that any new coal-fired facility build-out represents a ‘coal bubble’ for China.
But perhaps the most important trend is the fact that rates of renewable energy build-out are faster in China than anywhere in else in the world. In total, more than 17 percent of China’s massive energy infrastructure is now taken up by renewables. And each year these energy sources represent a larger portion of the new added generating capacity. By the end of this year, China is expected to have 120 gigawatts of wind energy installed, 43 gigawatts of solar, and 320 gigawatts of hydro. This total of nearly half a terawatt of installed renewable capacity is expected after a 21 percent or 35 gigawatt addition to China’s already large wind and solar generation fleets.
Finally, China appears to be a leading indicator of a larger global shift away from coal. A recent report out from Carbon Brief found that more coal fired power plants around the world were being cancelled than built. A trend that, if it continues and is coupled with a rapid rate of renewable energy adoption, provides a glimmer of hope that global greenhouse gas emissions will start falling off sooner rather than later.
Emissions Reductions Findings Remain Uncertain. Cutting Coal Use Alone is Not Enough to Prevent Catastrophic Climate Change.
To be very clear — these are very preliminary findings. And there is some recent reason to doubt that current emissions reporting from China is entirely truthful. Any fudging of numbers by China would somewhat alter current greenhouse gas emissions assessments. And any related shift in global policy back toward coal, while continuing to build out oil and gas production and consumption based infrastructure would rapidly re-assert the dangerous rates of atmospheric greenhouse gas emissions growth the world has seen over the past few decades. In addition, all current indicators show use of natural gas and oil continuing to expand. And without coordinate reductions in these other two big carbon emitters, a floor will be set on how far greenhouse gas emissions can fall through the, admittedly positive, apparent shift away from coal alone.
As the Australian scientists note above — you can’t really have much hope of a milder impact from climate change unless you rapidly replace all new growth-based infrastructure with renewables (and related non-carbon emitters). Any new fossil fuel based infrastructure is basically making an already bad problem worse. And continued wholesale reliance on fossil fuels locks in catastrophic climate change over very short time horizons.