Averting Climate Change Catastrophe is the New Fusion Energy
Stop me if you've heard this one before:
Climate change is a gravely important issue, one that could have dire results. But according to a recent report by scientists we can still avoid its worst effects. The only catch is that this is our last chance to rectify things, and we've only got [fill in the blank] years to act. We must start now! Today!
I can't tell you how many times – and in relation to how many studies – I've heard a statement to that effect relayed over the past two decades or so of this early 21st century, to the point that back in 2009 it even graduated to the title of a book by the prominent author, scientist, and former Chief Commissioner to Australia's Climate Commission, Tim Flannery.
I bring this up because just a few weeks ago the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a Special Report put together by 91 scientists from 40 countries that analyzed more than 6,000 scientific papers. Much has been written over the past month about its dire prognostications, although very little has been written about its rather conservative conclusions, an inherent trait of the IPCC due to its requirement of consensus finding and negotiation methodologies between the 195 participating UN signees. In fact, the report was somewhat held up for a few days due to Saudi Arabia (you can guess why), and it is this consensus finding that may be a partial reason for why the report completely ignores amplifying feedback loops and climate tipping points (which involves such things as increased water vapour, loss of albedo effect, thawing permafrost, frozen methane clathrates, etc.), either of which could make the situation much, much worse.
Regardless, the report concluded that the previous goal of maintaining a temperature rise (from pre-industrial times) to 2°C will have effects significantly more drastic than previously thought (worse droughts and storms, more melted polar ice, higher sea levels, smaller global fishery, fewer coral reefs, decreased agricultural yields – the usual), and that restricting the increase to 1.5°C should be the new goal.
That is of course a big ask, not only because previous accords such as the Paris Agreement have been little more than triumphs of PR (the peak of global emissions continues to be nowhere in sight and we're well on our way to pass 2°C), but because while total global CO2 emissions rose in 2017 by 1.4%, and as stated a month ago by Fatih Birol, Executive Director of the IEA,
I'm sorry, I have very bad news for you. Emissions this year will increase once again, and we're going to have the [upcoming] COP meeting [in Poland] when global emissions reach a record high.
While the planet already passed the 1°C threshold back in 2015 and may already even be locked in to a rise of 1.5°C, the IPCC report nonetheless stated that to remain below the 1.5°C threshold the world economy and all aspects of society must transform at a speed and scale that has "no documented historic precedent".
Global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) would need to fall by about 45 per cent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching 'net zero' around 2050.
However, as we all know you can only cry wolf so many times, and having heard for the umpteenth time that we've only got so and so amount of years to take action in such and such a way in order to avoid catastrophic results... well, it long ago began to wear a bit thin if you ask me. So much so that I can't help but now feel that this notion of avoiding climate change catastrophe is starting to sound like an inverted version of the fabled promise of perpetually just-around-the-corner fusion energy.
For those who aren't too familiar with the story behind fusion energy, so much progress has been made over the years that it's only twenty years before we finally have working reactors that the public will be able to derive power from. Problem is, you'd have to have a bit of a selective memory in order to actually take this estimate seriously, because while we've been hearing that it's only twenty years away since the 1950s, not only does it continue to be twenty years away after all this time but until we finally admit to ourselves that it's never going to happen it will always be twenty years away. (See the book Sun in a Bottle: The Strange History of Fusion and the Science of Wishful Thinking by Charles Seife for a lively overview.)
In other words, alongside a working fusion reactor being perpetually twenty years away, we now also perpetually have X amount of years to take action in order to avoid the worst effects of climate change.
This notion of climate-change-catastrophe-aversion as the new fusion energy is by no means mere hyperbole though, and all we have to do is take a look at some of the recent statements made about the IPCC report in order to see a continuing trend. While we can read articles titled "Final Call to Save the World From 'Climate Catastrophe'" and read others stating that "After decades of delay, this is our last chance to get it right", we can also read other articles stating that (emphasis mine) "The U.N. climate report... claim[s] that the 2020s could be one of humanity’s last chances to avert devastating impacts." Which makes me wonder: is this really the "Final Call" and our "last chance", or is it more like "one of humanity's last chances"? Is this in fact – truly and once and for all – our final last chance, or do we just keep getting more and more do-overs while getting increasingly baked?
Well, it turns out that it's the latter, because as The New York Times pointed out,
The report also finds that, in the likelihood that governments fail to avert 2.7 degrees [1.5°C] of warming, another scenario is possible: The world could overshoot that target, heat up by more than 3.6 degrees [2°C], and then through a combination of lowering emissions and deploying carbon capture technology, bring the temperature back down below the 2.7-degree [1.5°C] threshold.
In other words, after nothing is done with this newly-minted last chance we'll have yet another last chance to create the necessity for – another last chance!
If you don't think I'm taking this IPCC report seriously enough then perhaps I should delve a bit into this so-called carbon capture technology (commonly referred to carbon capture and storage, CCS) that The New York Times writes about. Although The Times makes no effort to elaborate on how CCS actually works – or, ahem, doesn't work – it does nonetheless seem to have no problem with lending it an air of "credibility":
In that scenario [a rise to 2°C], some damage would be irreversible, the report found. All coral reefs would die. However, the sea ice that would disappear in the hotter scenario would return once temperatures had cooled off [back down to 1.5°C thanks to CCS].
However, while The New York Times does state earlier that "carbon capture technology... is currently too expensive for commercial use", to leave it at that is gross irresponsibility. Because while The New York Times infers that CCS costs too much (too much money, which I think it's safe to assume is what the in-the-land-of-moola New York Times meant when it said CCS is "too expensive"), it fails to mention the technical fact that since CCS still needs to be scaled up it therefore doesn't actually exist.
To start with the issue of cost, it was similarly stated by the Smithsonian that
Currently, a few experimental methods exist that can snatch carbon dioxide directly out of the air, but at up to $1,000 per ton of carbon dioxide, the price tag of such carbon capture is staggering – and billions of tons await extraction.
$1,000 x billions. That's... that's a lot of money. So much money that it might even be too much for all the Bill Gates-esque philanthropists to come to humanity's rescue. But even if we had all the money in the world (and a bit more), Tim Watkins points out on his blog The Consciousness of Sheep that
[T]he atmosphere is very big – roughly 5.5 quadrillion tons of gas. But the carbon dioxide content is very small – just over 405 parts per million. And humans release around 40 billion tons of the stuff every year. So any machine that is going to attempt the task – even assuming 100 percent efficiency – would need to hoover up 2,470 tons of atmosphere to capture just 1 ton of carbon dioxide; and it would have to do this roughly a thousand times a second to keep up with our ongoing emissions.
That being so, does the absurd monstrosity of the undertaking imply that we're all doomed, for the simple fact that we can't muster the money to save ourselves?
Of course not. Why not?
Because we've got gold!
Although it's not exactly household knowledge, it turns out that the ocean is in fact so diluted with gold that there's an estimated 20 million tons of the stuff amongst all that salty water – $771 trillion's worth of gold according to Forbes, certainly enough to pay for carbon extraction and solve our climate change woes several times over. There is however one little problem. Seeing how the gold exists in such a diluted concentration (we're talking parts per trillion) it therefore costs so much to extract that it isn't actually profitable to do so (it can be done, but the gold you extract won't cover all the bills). In other words, before the process can be made worthwhile so we can pay the bills to solve climate change, the technology needs to be scaled up.
"Scaled up? Didn't we just hear that mentioned in regards to CCS?" you ask.
Exactamundo. Moreover, are you catching my drift?
Because here's the rub: While it can be said that CCS "works", as it stands it costs too much to remove a unit of carbon from the air to make it worthwhile, just like it costs too much to extract gold from the oceans to make it worthwhile.
That's not all though. Because as I've explained earlier here on FF2F, money is a proxy for energy. That being the case, the problem isn't simply that CCS costs too much money, but that it costs too much energy. Translated into plain English, CCS technologies emit more CO2 into the atmosphere than they extract. Slight problem.
That The New York Times failed to explain this properly is of little surprise, seeing how The Times isn't so much a "failing" bastion of "fake news" so much as it's a successful bastion of deplorable news. Moreover, supposing that CCS were even able to extract more CO2 out of the air than it emits out its tailpipe, a recent study in Nature Communications has pointed out that supposing CCS were even possible, it "would very unlikely be implementable prior to the second half of the century" (which is after we're supposed to be at "net zero", and long after all the other lofty goals are to be achieved). As if that weren't bad enough, it might be a bit disturbing to find out that every scenario in the IPCC report that seeks to maintain temperatures below the 1.5°C target is dependent on this yet-to-be-invented technology.
But even if we were to dodge a bullet and come up with a technology that sucks more than it spews, we'd then have to dodge the follow-up drone strike. Because the kind of CCS that the IPCC report relies upon is what is referred to as bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), this non-existent variant of non-existent CCS promising to not only suck up CO2 but to also spit out electricity in order to... you know... power economic growth.
The idea behind BECCS is that massive plantations of ideal crops (such as trees and tall grasses) are grown and which in the process absorb CO2 via photosynthesis. The crops get harvested (which presumably would be grown with monocultural methods, thus requiring pesticides, petrochemical fertilizers, diesel-using tractors, etc.), are shipped across the planet, and are then combusted in thermal powerstations. The CO2 is stripped from the waste gases and is then compressed (to the point that it's nearly a liquid) and piped over potentially very long distances. Following all that the immense amount of material then gets stored deep underground in all sorts of geological formations for around a thousand years or so. As Foreign Policy so brilliantly summed it all up, "Voila: negative emissions."
Or maybe not. Because as described by Kevin Bullis, senior editor for MIT Technology Review,
Even if costs are made far lower than they are today, the impact of carbon capture will be limited by the sheer scale of infrastructure needed to store carbon dioxide... Vaclav Smil, a professor at University of Manitoba and master of sobering energy-related numbers, calculates that if we were to bury just one-fifth of the global carbon dioxide emissions, we would need to build an industry capable of handling twice the volume of stuff as the entire oil industry, an industry that took 100 years to develop, driven by a large and mostly expanding market.
However, putting all that aside as well as the abysmally low EROEI that biofuels have had over the years (the biofuels having done little more than enrich a select few that have benefited from copious government subsidies), there's also the problem that if the IPCC's non-existent BECCS were to actually come to fruition that it could very well push millions of people into starvation. Because while BECCS-at-scale would require land between one and three times the size of India, it would also imply a 10% loss in global forest cover, a 7% loss in biodiversity, and contribute to water scarcity and soil depletion – all of which would nonetheless allow the poor, starving masses to have a warm fuzzy feeling inside thanks to the knowledge that their sacrifices were being used to avert climate change catastrophe as well as to ensure that the mobile phones, tablets, air conditioners and vibrational devices of New York Times readers could remain fully charged and operational.
Furthermore, while the promise of BECCS will work to lull us away even further from taking any substantial action (politicians and all their hangers on love the idea of CCS since it allows the economic status quo to remain unchanged), even those such as the leading climate scientists Kevin Anderson and Glen Peters have stated that
Negative-emission technologies are not an insurance policy, but rather an unjust and high-stakes gamble. There is a real risk they will be unable to deliver on the scale of their promise.
So while creating a moral hazard that will further contribute to climate complacency, dependence on CCS/BECCS could very well lock climate change into a runaway "Hothouse Earth" scenario that will lead us zooming past 1.5°C and 2°C and probably beyond the 3°C - 4°C expected by the end of the century. (Following the oh so triumphant Paris Agreement it was revealed that Shell and BP have been planning for a rise as high as 5°C by mid-century, whatever that means.)
But wouldn't you know it, this is when yet another not-quite-final last chance comes into play.
Because when it becomes painfully obvious enough that BECCS and/or any other kind of CCS won't be coming to our rescue, in will come the next last chance – geoengineering. Although there are several proposed methods of geoengineering that the IPCC report mentions – ocean fertilization, marine cloud brightening, cirrus cloud thinning, and ground-based albedo modification – the method the report focuses on is stratospheric aerosol injection, a process whose goal is to mimic the cooling effect of volcanic eruptions (while of course suffering none of the unfavourable effects of volcanoes). As the report states, "If mitigation efforts do not keep global mean temperature below 1.5C, solar radiation modification can potentially reduce the climate impacts of a temporary temperature overshoot".
This is good, right?
Well, the report also makes note that injections of sulphur dioxide would adversely affect rainfall patterns and weather circulation as well as disrupt stratospheric chemistry and ice formation. And although you might think there's no way that scientists and politicians would be willing to jettison the precautionary principle and pull the trigger on such a hair-brained scheme, think again. Because although researchers from the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and Cornell University recently found via modelling that injecting sulphide aerosols into the stratosphere could reduce global rainfall, increase ocean water salinity, increase ocean temperatures, induce more polar melting, and thus speed up rising sea levels, in a few weeks' time scientists at Harvard University (they're the smart ones) will be embarking upon a $20m test project that will see aerosol injections sent 20km up into the earth's stratosphere. And wouldn't you know it, it's all just in case – as The Guardian puts it – "a last ditch bid to halt climate change is one day needed."
I suppose you may now be thinking that I not only don't take the IPCC report all that seriously but that I'm also rather "pessimistic" when it comes to averting climate change catastrophe. Bear in mind though that along with all these pie-in-the-sky solutions for climate change, the report actually also believes that economic growth will and must continue – implying that we're supposed to be at zero emissions by 2050, a year in which the global economy will be roughly three times as large as it is today. Moreover, while the BBC fawns at the fact that "The report also talks about the benefits as there is higher economic growth at 1.5 degrees than there is at 2C", one can't be blamed for scratching their head in wonder of whether or not the higher economic growth at 1.5°C would mean more fossil fuels burned and thus more CO2 emitted, all of which would then mean the transformation of the planet's temperature from 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels to 2°C above pre-industrial levels.
And that has nothing to say about how in the world we're supposed to be emitting less CO2 in the future when it's recently been estimated by OPEC that by 2040 the world will be using 112 million barrels of oil per day (about 20 million barrels higher that today's rate), the same year that there will be a projected 1.7 billion more people on the planet than today to go along with an increase in affluence due to demand from Asia. (Never mind that there isn't enough spare oil capacity in the world to get anywhere near the production levels for all that, because that's another story.)
With all this in mind you might now be wondering who exactly it is then that we can start throwing into volcanoes instead of virgins. Well, it's been said by some that "personal virtue only matters if it scales up", and by others that "neoliberalism has conned us into fighting climate change as individuals". Problem with these statements though is that the already-described technology-to-save-us doesn't scale up any more than personal virtue does, and neoliberalism was never needed to convince people to incessantly consume (the truth being closer to biologist Peter Watts' recent statement that "Sure, the Neolibs conned you. Because you wanted to be conned").
If you want to take a closer look at what I mean then have a gander at Naomi Klein's recent article, "Capitalism Killed Our Climate Momentum, Not 'Human Nature'". In it, she compares the way in which fossil fuel companies sat in on every major relevant policy meeting to the way in which tobacco executives were invited by US government officials to assist in crafting policies to ban smoking. As Klein asks,
When those meetings [with tobacco executives] failed to yield anything substantive, would we conclude that the reason is that humans just want to die? Might we perhaps determine instead that the political system is corrupt and busted?
I'm no fan of neoliberalism in the slightest, but to compare cigarette-industry corruption to fossil fuel-industry corruption not only borders on the ridiculous but quite possibly outs Klein as one who thinks little different from the conventional economist that sees energy as simply another commodity in the market (like cigarettes), rather than the very lifeblood of industrial civilization. Because besides a few narcissistic artistes, everybody and everything in our modern society runs on the energy of fossil fuels, not simply cigarettes (and coffee). While not everybody smokes, not everybody vies to be a smoker, not every smoker wants to smoke more, and smoking isn't the very basis of industrial civilization, pretty much everybody does use fossil fuels, wants access to them if they don't already have it, wouldn't mind being able to use more than they currently do (a higher pay cheque), and while the immediate and complete ban of cigarettes would at most result in a few highly irritated people and a few defunct industries, the immediate cessation of fossil fuel usage would mean the end of our civilization as we know it. The comparison of the two and the conclusions drawn are simply disingenuous.
Nonetheless, and as should be familiar to anyone paying even the slightest amount of attention to all this stuff, the refrain by those such as Klein is that "the people" want change but that the political will just isn't there, and that we must therefore demand more from our politicians and/or vote in the correct politicians.
But as stated by Tom Lewis over on his blog The Daily Impact,
[T]he people who hold the power to act, the politicians, have never had, and do not now have, any intention of requiring sacrifice of themselves or their constituents. It’s seen as a poor career move.
As Lewis then bluntly states,
To [reduce carbon emissions to zero] would require immediate imposition of universal, Draconian restraints on energy consumption, requiring much smaller homes, little or no travel, changed diets, reduced air conditioning in summer and heating in winter, and so on. Either that, or we could all volunteer to transform our lives, tomorrow, to a state of monk-like austerity. Yeah, that could work.
Because while there's no doubt that neoliberalism, a handful of elites, and Madison Avenue have continuously instilled in people the notion to buy more, no matter how much Naomi Klein would like to let us all off the hook it's hard to deny the parallel facts that the decadent masses have hardly needed any coercing when it's come to increasing their incessant consumption, and that progress hasn't needed any encouragement to emit more CO2 into the air.
Because to give just one example of the latter point, late last month a study was published in Nature Climate Change in which the following was stated:
Reducing emissions to keep warming below 2°C is already regarded as a very difficult challenge given the increasing human population and consumption as well as a lack of political will. Then came Bitcoin.
Ah yes, Bitshit. As the story goes, it turns out that due to each Bitshit transaction being compiled into a computationally demanding "block", Bitshit can burn through quite a bit of energy. How much energy? Well, not including other bitshits like Ethereum, in 2017 Bitshit usage emitted a whopping 69 million metric tons of CO2, equal to slightly more than 1% of 2017's entire global emissions. On top of that, of the roughly 314.2 billion cashless transactions made in 2017, a mere 0.033% of those were made up of Bitshit transactions. With all that in mind, the researchers stated that
projected Bitcoin usage, should it follow the rate of adoption of other broadly adopted technologies [specifically credit cards and dishwashers], could alone produce enough CO2 emissions to push warming above 2°C within less than three decades.
And in a completely different study in Nature Sustainability, researchers recently revealed that the energy required to "mine" a dollar's worth of Bitshit is more than what is required to mine a dollar's worth of copper, gold or platinum.
Now who, may I ask, is responsible for all this bitshittyness? Neoliberalism? The rich? Corporations? The alt-right? The control-left? Or, could it possibly be just plain old progress, out to improve our standard of living (because the future's going to be a wonderful place!) while unfortunately forgetting that the road to
hell climate change catastrophe is paved with good intentions? Because as the latest deluded piece over at Salon had to say,
While we'd jump out if the water was boiling as soon as we entered, we are allowing ourselves to be cooked alive because the forces raising the heat are doing so slowly.
But with an increasing amount of oil being burned every year (so long as supplies are able to keep up), levels of CO2 in the atmosphere increasing every year, and Paradise now officially burned to the ground, the roughly 250,000 new babies entering our already overcrowded planet every day are most certainly entering the proverbial water at a simmer – if not a boil – and don't seem to have the slightest aversion to jumping in in the slightest.
Don't confuse all this with cynicism though, because although concern about climate change (and not wanting to be a complete hypocrite) was one of the three reasons that made me decide to throw away my career and give up the chance at the rather lucrative life of a successful fossil fuel-gorging filmmaker (the two other reasons for quitting film being the rampant narcissism and the abhorrent concentration of power that film and television contribute to), I've long since stopped taking climate change activism seriously and couldn't agree more with another of Lewis' statements:
So it’s time – actually, long past time – for the scientists and the agencies such as the IPCC to drop the fake optimism, to quit saying these things are going to happen unless somebody does something. Nobody’s going to do anything. All these things are going to happen. Use the time you have left, you scientists and agencies, to define what’s going to happen as best you can, so those who have a chance to survive can make the best of it.
Since by all appearances nothing short of a Hollywood-esque collapse of the global economy (which isn't going to happen) is going to "save us" and get us off this juggernaut we've embarked upon, it's starting to seem as if we have little other recourse than to take the kind of advice that George Mobus gave over on his blog Question Everything:
I continue to advise people to consider less what they can do as individuals to combat climate change (but do that also) and begin laying plans for how to survive in a totally chaotic world of 2-3 degrees C and no oil.
Because while we certainly can't expect peaking oil and other energy supplies to save us from climate change, we more than likely can expect that once the catastrophic effects of climate change really start to kick in – a time that we'll be in need of copious energy supplies not just to maintain and grow the status quo but to move tens of millions of people (and their cities) from coastal regions to more inland locations – that the previously ready-supplies of energy won't be there, rendering legions of people stranded in increasingly dire conditions.
As Mobus also states,
Only one thing will give us a chance to survive - and then only some of us. We have to stop burning fossil fuels period and that is going to make us extremely poor. We have to abandon capitalism, for profit (and especially profit maximization), growth oriented firms and relocalize, i.e. reform local communities able to collectively meet their basic needs. We have to abandon cars and trucks and airplanes and probably even trains.
As that isn't going to happen anytime soon that doesn't suggest that all is for naught but rather that those able and willing should start to come to terms with not only accepting our fate but with pondering over what in my mind is the very pertinent question recently put by Jacqueline Fletcher:
[The IPCC Report makes] No mention of the statistics for carbon sequestration through regenerative agriculture using biochar, no dig/till and continuous groundcover and/or holistic grazing. There are plenty of statistics out there, even reports from the UN Rapporteurs on the Right to Food, Food Security etc, and the FAO, the IPES-Food, UNCTAD on agroecology as well as statistics that can be gleaned from the growing number of small farmers doing Regen Ag. Why does agriculture never get into the mindset of people, scientists, governments etc dealing with the CO2 crisis?
Why? No doubt it's because, on the one hand, our superstitious culture(s) expect miracles from our ironically fossil fuel-powered machines (venerated with the name "technology"). Meanwhile, on the other hand it's no secret that a general disdain exists towards manual labour, precisely what is predominantly required for ecologically-minded methods of carbon sequestration (which rather than take land away from agriculture would integrate it).
Until the day that there's once again a sizeable percentage of the human population on the land, a population that would be willing and able to put in the time and effort to sequester away carbon in the soil (which as a by-product would enrich and grow a healthy soil microbiome), it's rather hard to imagine how a negligible amount of well-meaning farmers sequestering carbon by their own volition would be able to make the kind of a difference necessary to avoid climate change-induced catastrophe in the near term. (Yes, I have read about such things as large-scale biochar initiatives, but partly in thanks to a generous dose of Wendell Berry I've generally got my doubts about any large-scale solutions.) Nonetheless, and while the seeds are being planted today, perhaps in the coming centuries a new ethic will appear and flourish, one that will allow for the sequestration of carbon in the soil of a scorching planet.
But in the meantime, it's time we get back to creating a gigantic gold-funded machine that will suck CO2 out of the air and nucleonically fuse it all together to release the energy to power a Bitshit economy.
In a somewhat related piece of news, two weeks ago I listened to the latest Radio Ecoshock podcast, this one with a previously unknown-to-me speaker and writer (and much more) on all things collapse, the Frenchman Jean-Marc Jancovici. I'm not going to try and describe Jancovici for the simple fact that I won't be able to do a better job than Rob Mielcarski's description – "there's a new badass in town" – besides saying that this guy speaks better in his second language that I do in my first. You may be familiar with most if not all of what Jancovici has to say, but he's nonetheless definitely worth checking out, even if for no other reason that to sit back and spend an hour of your time listening in awe. Highly recommended.