Sunday, November 29, 2015

Climate Change Playbook Online

Would that there were more signs of life in the upcoming COP 21 climate summit in Paris.

As it is, next week may be the most important week in the future of your children and grandchildren in the decades to come. The nations of the world will gather to decide if we're really to have any realistic chance of averting runaway global warming.

We'll hear a lot of talk about two degrees Celsius, 2 C - the bastard child of politics and science, but what really matters is how extensively and rapidly our community of nations is prepared to decarbonize. We've got to abandon fossil fuels and rather quickly. We're choosing whether our civilization shall survive and nothing less than that.

Make no mistake, all the rhetoric boils down to truly revolutionary change. There's no one who experienced the pre-fossil fuel era. We're all children of fossil energy. By extracting and burning the organic residue of hundreds of millions of years of solar energy we've been able to enjoy seemingly boundless prosperity and we've grown our population more than seven-fold. It's damned hard to give all that up. Kicking heroin might be easier.

The writing is one the wall. It's right there in front of our eyes. There's no point trying to pretend we can maintain a "business as usual" approach to our societies and our economies. The status quo is over. It's already gone. It's not coming back. Finis. The thing is, it doesn't matter whether we act decisively or not. We ditch the status quo or nature will do it for us - the hard way.

It's becoming increasingly difficult to avoid the tell tale signs.  The ice caps are melting, glaciers retreating, sea levels are rising, the tundra is drying out and burning, the permafrost is being exposed, methane is bubbling out of lake and sea beds, the hydrological cycle is genuinely broken visiting heavy floods here and sustained droughts over there, species are migrating ever further from the equator, the impacts are everywhere and we're just getting started.

Those of us of an elegant age remember a gentler environment and, on reflection, have a stronger sense of what once was and now is no more. We grew up in the relatively stable and human-friendly Holocene, the geological epoch that allowed human civilization to take hold and flourish in a very nurturing environment. We, mankind, you and me, brought the Holocene to a very abrupt and truncated end as we created our own geological epoch, aptly named the Anthropocene. It's already not very nice and it's set to get a whole lot less nice in the coming decades. Goodbye Holocene. You will be missed.

Because of the only very recent passing of our previous government, Canadians haven't had much opportunity for a truly national discussion about climate change and what we ought to do about it. We have reason to hope that the new bunch will take it a lot more seriously than the fossil fuelers dispatched less than two months ago. However it's all still very vague and intents are ambiguous.

In lieu of that national discussion you might wish to explore the climate change playbook prepared by the UN for the crowd gathering for next week's summit entitled, "Climate Action Now."  It identifies "good practice policies, initiatives and actions that could be scaled up and replicated by Parties to realize significant mitigation potential in the pre-2020 period."

"Pre-2020" refers to what we can do, should do and must do within the next four years. Four years. Not very long even in politics. Here's a big part of the problem facing us.

The fact is we have to reverse most of this greenhouse gas loading and we don't have a lot of time to make that happen. The nations that are gathering in Paris next week have already submitted their reduction proposals to the UN. They're woefully short of what is needed even to keep within the 2C mark and that's if, a big IF, the parties come through on their promises. The UN figures if those pledges are met, we're still looking at 3.7C of warming, far into runaway global warming territory.

Now, here's the thing. To have any hope of meeting that 2C target we know that upwards of 80% of already known fossil fuel reserves will have to be left in the ground. We can't dig it up. We can't sell it. We can't burn it. It has to stay in the ground, untouched. If you're only going to use 20% you're going to go for the low-cost, low-carbon fuels. Coal is low cost but it's very high carbon. It has to go. Bitumen is high cost and relatively high carbon. It, too, has to go. These ideas will not get a warm reception among petro-states, including at least some provinces of Canada.

They can ink any deal they like in Paris but ink won't fix what ails our planet. The deal has to be approved by all the signatories' legislatures and then it has to be implemented against the will of a lot of powerful individuals and their corporate clout. These people are seasoned professionals at beating back action on climate change and they're expert at sowing doubt and confusion. Expect them to bring their A- game on this one. That could just seal the demise of one side of the other. Let's just hope it's them, not us.


Toby said...

Our addiction to fossil fuels is ironic considering how inefficient they are. The gas you put in your car's tank is less than 15% efficient. That is, less than 15% of the energy in gasoline is converted into power; the rest exhausts out the tail pipe as heat. The only real advantage of fossil fuels is portability.

Electricity is more than 90% efficient. The problem with electricity as a fuel is that it is not portable.

There's a solution in there somewhere.

Anonymous said...

Well Toby, you're obviously not an electricical utility engineer looking after a thermal power plant. 40% of the fuel heat value goes to actual electricity output, the rest is lost heat, then there are losses distributing it, for an overall efficiency of about 35%. Then the electric car motor is about 90% efficient, so we end up with 32% efficiency overall.

Perhaps you are living in 1935 when a car engine ran about 15% efficiency, but most estimates these days are overall 25 to 30%.

This leaves a small margin in the electric car's favour, which is erased by a Prius, whose engine runs at 38% thermal efficiency over a limited band.

If you don't understand the basics, you come up with an incorrect answer.

And no I'm not a ReformaCon just an engineer who wonders at times just what meanders through people's minds on technical matters.

The Mound of Sound said...

@ Anon. What, if you have an efficient alternative energy regime - solar, wind, tidal - to meet your power needs is the point of thermal, fossil fuel energy?

UBS, the largest private bank in the world, had its own team of experts look into alternative energy before issuing this warning to its institutional investors:

Toby said...

Anon, my numbers came from Gwynne Dyer's book Climate Wars. They refer to efficiency of the fuels in the vehicle. Of course, these do not include the inefficiencies of producing and transporting them. Yes, there is terrific loss sending electricity over long distances. There is also loss shoving crude through pipes or transporting it by ships, trains trucks and even planes.

The closer to end use that fuels are produced the better. When electric cars have solar panels on their roofs . . .