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Climate Change 2015: The Latest Science

Repost from TruthOut

Climate Change 2015: The Latest Science

Saturday, 26 December 2015 00:00By Bruce Melton, Truthout | News Analysis

West coast of Greenland. The fastest glacier in the world, Jakobshaven Isbrae, moving at 150 feet per day, dumps ice from the Greenland Ice Sheet into Disko Bay. (Photo: Bruce Melton)West coast of Greenland. The fastest glacier in the world, Jakobshaven Isbrae, moving at 150 feet per day, dumps ice from the Greenland Ice Sheet into Disko Bay. (Photo: Bruce Melton)

Climate science is way out in front of climate policy. Commitments at the United Nations Climate Conference in Paris pale in comparison to those from the Kyoto Protocol with its beginnings in the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. The cheap and unambiguous solution of removing CO2 directly from the sky has been discredited by the perceived debate. Previously assumed stable ice sheets are disintegrating. It is warmer than any time in the last 120,000 years. The Gulf Stream appears to be shutting down. Nearly 100 submarine glacial valleys beneath the Greenland Ice Sheet tunnel warm subtropical Atlantic water 90 miles beneath the ice. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says we need to remove more carbon dioxide from our atmosphere than we emit every year (negative emissions). Most importantly, new knowledge about global cooling smog shows that killing coal will create more warming than doing nothing in the most critical decades-long time frames.

The great delay in climate action has dramatically increased climate change impacts and the amount of carbon dioxide that we must now deal with to prevent even greater impacts. Delay has been caused by the debate casting doubt on climate science in ways that have proven to be effective in similar debates about smoking, acid rain and ozone-depleting chemicals. Because of doubt, fundamentally important new climate science has failed to escape the confines of academia and proceed into the public realm where it can move policy – literally – into the 21st century.

Number One: Direct Air Capture

Not new, very real, but often maligned in advocacy and policy discussions, direct air capture (DAC) of carbon dioxide is an important aspect of the failure of traditional climate science education techniques. DAC costs as little as $20 per ton, and once fully industrialized, can remove 50 ppm CO2 from the atmosphere and allow us to approach a safe level of greenhouses gases for less than the $2.1 trillion Americans spent on health care in 2006. (1, 2)

Global Thermostat's pilot project can remove 100,000 tons of carbon dioxide per year for $10 per ton.Global Thermostat’s pilot project can remove 100,000 tons of carbon dioxide per year for $10 per ton. (Photo:Global Thermostat)Is removing CO2 directly from the atmosphere bad because it will give us incentive to continue burning fossil fuels with all of their other problems? No. Risks from climate change, especially from abrupt change, involve hazards that threaten our civilization. If these risks can be addressed independently from complicated sociological, health and environmental issues associated with fossil fuels, most of the other issues would be moot. We will eventually solve these other problems. But right now, after a generation of delay, we waste even more time attempting to solve all of these other problems when the simple solutions are at hand.

So why is DAC so often discounted? A report by the American Physical Society (APS) in 2011 claimed DAC economically infeasible. Because of the ability of DAC to be exceedingly effective, media coverage of this report was widespread. What was not covered in media reporting: the report only considered WWII era technologies, the prestigious journal Nature published a rebuttal identifying the APS omissions and the co-author of the APS report is “a distinguished adviser within British Petroleum [BP].” (3)

Current Policy Is Less Stringent Than 1992 Kyoto Protocol and Negative Emissions

The US commitment at the UN Climate Conference that concluded this month in Paris was for 80 percent emissions reductions below 2005 levels by 2050. Commitments for developed nations under the Kyoto Protocol were 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. (4) The current US commitment is 27 percent less with a 30 year delayed target.

The Kyoto Protocol originated with the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, also known as the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit, in 1992 and their current greenhouse gas commitments were adopted in 1997. The U.S. was the only party to the never ratify Kyoto that did not sign the original UN treaty. The Kyoto Protocol originated with the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, also known as the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit, in 1992 and their current greenhouse gas commitments were adopted in 1997. The US was the only party to the never ratify Kyoto that did not sign the original UN treaty. (Photo: CC)Research this fall tells us that if the EU, US and Chinese commitments from the UN Climate Conference in Paris in 2015 are honored, all other countries would have to a commit to climate pollution mitigation seven to 14 times more aggressive than the EU, US and China, to avoid 2 degrees Celsius of warming by 2030. (5)

To get there from here, the 2013 IPCC has made a rare policy statement that plainly states the obvious in that we must create “strong negative emissions.” (6) Put another way, we must remove “strongly” more CO2 from our atmosphere than we emit every year. But when the IPCC closed for new papers, research was not robust enough to talk about the amount of negative emissions.

New work from the France, Japan and Great Britain institutes of sciences and meteorology have new modeling that reveals the true challenge of keeping warming below 2 degrees Celsius. Under the best case scenario, negative emissions of 135 percent of annual emissions are required. For the worst-case scenario that we are currently tracking, negative emissions of 210 percent of annual emissions are required. (7, 8)

It’s only logical that delay means that climate policy should be more stringent, not less stringent.

New Science Turns 20 Years of Policy on Its Head: Net Warming

It only makes sense that policy would include all factors contributing to climate change – both warming and cooling – but until recently we have not had the knowledge to understand global cooling pollutants. Because of the risks from small amounts of warming, scientists suggested warming pollutant emissions reductions action a generation ago. Now we have the knowledge to understand the other half of the story.

Beijing, China smog comparison 2005. Global cooling sulfates emitted from burning fossil fuels are a primary component of smog. (Photo: Bobak, CC)Beijing, China smog comparison 2005. Global cooling sulfates emitted from burning fossil fuels are a primary component of smog. (Photo: Bobak, CC)The IPCC says that 57 percent of warming that should have already occurred has been masked by global cooling sulfates (smog) emitted mostly from burning coal. (9) Because so much sulfate pollution is created from coal, in the decades-long time frames where sulfates remain active in the atmosphere, stopping coal burning actually creates more net warming than doing nothing. (10)

This does not necessarily mean we must reverse a generation of efforts to control global warming, as coal is still the king of warming in the long-term. It simply means we must thoroughly evaluate current decades-old strategies in light of new knowledge or risk more warming than doing nothing.

Abrupt Change and the Decades-Long Time Frame: Greenland and the Gulf Stream

The Gulf Stream is one segment of a major global ocean current system. Water from the South Atlantic, Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico join near Miami and flow north along the east coast of North America, then across the Atlantic to somewhere between Greenland and Finland before sinking to the bottom of the ocean to flow back south, around the Horn of Africa and east to the Pacific where it surfaces and flows back towards the Atlantic. Because of the Gulf Stream, Europe and northeastern North America have a much milder climate than other land areas at similar latitude.

For a decade or more now, the Gulf Stream has been considered stable enough that abrupt change caused by its shutdown was not a priority. Long-standing science implicated melting or disintegrating ice sheets as a significant trigger of abrupt change in the North Atlantic past but for now, the Gulf Stream was stable.

An iceberg armada disembarks from the mouth of the Ilulissat Icefjord in western Greenland. The Ilulissat Glacier (Jakobshavn Isbrae) drains seven percent of the Greenland Ice Sheet. (Photo: Bruce Melton)An iceberg armada disembarks from the mouth of the Ilulissat Icefjord in western Greenland. The Ilulissat Glacier (Jakobshavn Isbrae) drains 7 percent of the Greenland Ice Sheet. (Photo: Bruce Melton)

About 23 times in the last 100,000 years, Earth has experienced abrupt changes that originated with a shutdown/startup of the Gulf Stream due to iceberg discharge and melt in Atlantic sector of the Northern Hemisphere. This evidence is robust in bubbles of air in ancient ice from two mile deep Greenland ice cores and similar evidence from around the globe in numerous other lines of research dating back to the early 1990s. Changes of 9 to 15 degrees Fahrenheit across the globe and 25 to 35 degrees in Greenland happened in a century, or decades-long periods, or as little as several years. (11)

The theory is that freshwater melt from ice floats on salty sea water and creates a blockage in the warm northward flowing waters of the Gulf Stream. When the Gulf Stream shuts down, winter cold freezes the north Atlantic allowing cold air to penetrate much farther south, which has a reverberating cooling effect around the globe.

Sediment cores across the North Atlantic show layers that are full of sand and gravel that are far too heavy to have floated there from land. These layers are called ice rafted debris, have been delivered by iceberg armadas from purging of the North American and Greenland Ice Sheets, and coincide with most of the abrupt changes found in Greenland ice cores. (12)

In the recent past when science could not identify any changes in strength in the Gulf Stream and modeling could not reliably recreate abrupt changes, these events were not as worrisome as today. After all, the North American Ice Sheet was gone.

The Gulf Stream: without it Europe and northwestern North America would be in the deep freeze, or at least colder than present.The Gulf Stream: without it Europe and northwestern North America would be in the deep freeze, or at least colder than present.This new research looks at eight years of Gulf Stream measurement from a new system of buoys, whereas previous work came from ships. Since the buoys went into operation there has been a large but varying 7 percent per year decreases in flow; well over a 50 percent total reduction. (13) It is still not clear if this is from climate change but other evidence is compelling.

Growth rings in deep sea corals off of Nova Scotia show a decisive shift in nitrogen source from cold to warm since the 1970s that is unique in 1,800 years. Nitrogen is a primary nutrient for coral growth and warm water nitrogen is distinctly different from cold water nitrogen. (14) Another compelling piece of evidence supporting a Gulf Stream shutdown caused by pooling melt water comes from the 2013 IPCC report that ice melt and discharge from Greenland has increased over 500 percent in the period between 2000 to 2009, with melt increasing since. (15)

The final and very unambiguous piece of evidence is the “global warming hole” over the North Atlantic. This research comes from Germany’s national science institute and actually shows the cold water melt from Greenland floating like a log jam in a river over the western North Atlantic, just south of Greenland. (16)

Greenland's global warming hole shown in the average global temperature change from 1901 to 2013 (top). In the bottom image, the dark line and small circles are the modeled temperature response from an excess of fresh water from Greenland melt.Greenland’s global warming hole shown in the average global temperature change from 1901 to 2013 (top). In the bottom image, the dark line and small circles are the modeled temperature response from an excess of fresh water from Greenland melt.

Abrupt change from Greenland melt now appears to be a real threat, not something to consider in the long-term future. Researchers have also finally been able to model a shutdown of the Gulf Stream for the first time in a hindcast from 30,000 to 50,000 years ago. This is a great coup for modeling and foretells a time in the hopefully near-term where we can predict these events and dramatically decrease uncertainty. (17)

The bottom line is that any more warming than we have already seen increases the risk that abrupt change will occur and the risk likely increases nonlinearly. Because current policy also allows what is called temperature overshoot, where emission reductions kick in gradually over time while warming continues, the only way to minimize overshoot is to do as the IPCC suggests and implement strong negative emissions.

Antarctic Collapse

Scientists have been warning us that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet disintegration has begun for 10 years. (18) Some of the latest Antarctic research says that only the best case scenario (RCP2.6), where CO2 is limited to 390 ppm (we are 400 ppm today), would keep Antarctica’s contribution to sea level rise less than three feet. In their press release, the principal investigator says the last time CO2 levels were similar to today’s was 3 million years ago and sea level was 66-feet higher. Their work showed, because CO2 is already higher than the best-case scenario, warming in the next 20 years will determine how much of this 66 feet we will experience. (19)

New Antarctic sediment cores show the same ice rafted sand and gravel layers associated with abrupt change as were delivered by iceberg armadas to sediments in the North Atlantic. (20) This research says that about 6,000 to 7,000 years ago Earth reached its peak post-ice age temperature, known as the Thermal Maximum.

Back then, warm ocean waters melted the bottom of the floating part of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS). This exposed a high ridge (grounding line) around much of Antarctica that acts like an ice brake – slowing the flow of ice to the sea – and allowed warm water to penetrate much farther beneath the ice sheet. (21) Since the Thermal Maximum, earth has cooled a degree or 2 Celsius and the ice sheet reconnected with the grounding line, up until recently.

Recent ocean warming is melting the bottom of the perimeter of the exposed parts of the ice sheet and producing conditions similar to those during the last Antarctic iceberg pulse during the Thermal Maximum. Warm water can now flow in under the ice sheet and create what has been observed in Greenland as 100 times more melt below than above. (22)

Crosson Glacier, Amundson Sea Embayment, West Antarctic Ice Sheet. The glacier emptying into the Amundson Sea Embayment drain a third of the Mexico sized West Antarctic Ice Sheet. Rifting shown in these satellite images is the likely precursor to collapse of this area. (From MacGregor 2012)Crosson Glacier, Amundson Sea Embayment, West Antarctic Ice Sheet. The glacier emptying into the Amundson Sea Embayment drain a third of the Mexico sized West Antarctic Ice Sheet. Rifting shown in these satellite images is the likely precursor to collapse of this area. (From MacGregor 2012)

Complicating Antarctic’s situation, fresh water from already increased iceberg discharge has formed a freshwater cap around Antarctica that floats on the denser salt water allowing more sea ice to form as freshwater freezes at about 3 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than salt water. More sea ice decreases ocean turbulence, meaning that mid-level waters are warmer, enhancing underice melt. Rifting, a predecessor to collapse, is significantly increasing in the Amundsen Sea Embayment and is visible in satellite imagery. The Amundsen Sea Embayment drains 30 percent of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, has increased in flow 33 percent in the last 40 years, and is currently responsible for 10 percent of annual sea level rise. (23)

The quickest ice sheet collapse projection today is in the multi-century range, but it is very important to understand that ice sheet collapse modeling is still in its infancy and likely underestimates the speed of collapse once protective ice shelves, discharge glacier tongues have collapsed and the bottom of the ice has melted up off of grounding lines. Evidence for a previous collapse about 120,000 years ago at a reef called Excaret on the Yucatan Peninsula, when our CO2 concentration was 25 percent less than today, found a six- to 10-foot rise in sea level that happened in 100 years or less. (24)

Other new research from Antarctica that demonstrates the possible underestimation of the speed of collapse shows that in 2002, the Rhode Island sized Larsen B ice shelf disintegrated over a two-month period. The Larsen C, the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined, appears like it to is about to undergo major changes or disintegration. In 2015, two separate lines of research from the British Antarctic Survey and German Institute for Polar Research found that this was likely and imminent. (25)

Submarine Glacial Valleys in Greenland

Researchers at the University of California and California Institute of Technology have discovered that land beneath Greenland is not at all what we had previously believed. The center of Greenland is still depressed below sea level like we have known before, but higher powered radar has allowed us to see finer resolution around the edges. This research found submarine bed channels beneath the ice that are 10 times more widespread than previous work shows, and that extend 50 percent farther inland (90 miles) than previous work in 2013 and 300 percent farther than 2001 work.

An underice river emerges near the west cost of Greenland ice sheet at Point 660, near the Arctic Circle. (Photo: Bruce Melton)An underice river emerges near the west cost of Greenland ice sheet at Point 660, near the Arctic Circle. (Photo: Bruce Melton)

Sixty of the glaciers overlying these submarine valleys drain 88 percent of the ice sheet and are more than 1,000 feet deeper than their glaciers: “meaning they are deep enough to interact with subsurface warm Atlantic waters and undergo massive rates of [underice] melting.” This research concludes: “These results will have a profound and transforming impact… reveal[ing] a more pervasive influence of [underice melting] on these glaciers, which is more consistent with the past two decades of satellite observations.” (26)

The Thermal Maximum: As Warm as 120,000 Years Ago

Tiny ice caps on Baffin Island just west of Greenland have been melting on average over 30 vertical feet per year since; what climate scientists are calling “The Big Melt” began about 2,000 years ago. Scientists have been dating rooted plant remains from the dripping edges of the melting mini ice caps and found that the earliest that ice covered the oldest of them was at least 51,000 years ago when Earth was receiving 9 percent more incoming heat from the sun than today.

But the plants are a lot older than that, because 51,000 years ago was in the middle of the last ice age. The principal investigator, Giff Miller from the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, University of Colorado, Boulder, says that the youngest time interval from which summer temperatures in the Arctic were plausibly as warm as today is about 120,000 years ago. Miller is quoted in the American Geophysical Union Journal: “Although the Arctic has been warming since about 1900, the most significant warming in the Baffin Island region didn’t really start until the 1970s, and it is really in the past 20 years that the warming signal from that region has been just stunning. All of Baffin Island is melting, and we expect all of the ice caps to eventually disappear, even if there is no additional warming.” (27)

Baffin Island is the fifth largest island in the world after Greenland. It is located west of southern Greenland in Ninuvit, Canada. The most rapidly melting fringes of northern ice here have been receding by as much as 100 feet every three years since about the turn of the century.

The most astounding part of this research, though, is that some of the plants reemerging from the ice have begun to grow again.

Final Thought

The ancient plants that have begun to grow again on Baffin Island are emblematic of the promise of new direct air capture technologies. There is no known way, as the IPCC says, to make a “large net removal of CO2 from the atmosphere” without using direct air capture. These technologies offer a promise, but we must continue doing everything we know how to do to mitigate for the impacts of climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions because right now, everything helps.

Note: For detailed references, click here.

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    Obama vetoes GOP push to kill climate rules

    Repost from The Hill

    Obama vetoes GOP push to kill climate rules

    By Timothy Cama – 12/19/15 08:35 AM EST 
    Getty Images

    President Obama has vetoed a pair of measures by congressional Republicans that would have overturned the main pillars of his landmark climate change rules for power plants.

    The decision was widely expected, and Obama and his staff had repeatedly threatened the action as a way to protect a top priority and major part of his legacy.

    The White House announced early Saturday morning, as Obama was flying to Hawaii for Christmas vacation, that he is formally not taking action on the congressional measures, which counts as a “pocket veto” under the law. “Climate change poses a profound threat to our future and future generations,” the president said in a statement about Republicans’ attempt to kill the carbon dioxide limits for existing power plants.

    “The Clean Power Plan is a tremendously important step in the fight against global climate change,” Obama wrote, adding that “because the resolution would overturn the Clean Power Plan, which is critical to protecting against climate change and ensuring the health and well-being of our nation, I cannot support it.”

    That rule from the Environmental Protection Agency mandates a 32 percent cut in the power sector’s carbon output by 2030.

    He had a similar argument in support of his regulation setting carbon limits for newly-built fossil fuel power plants, saying the legislation against it “would delay our transition to cleaner electricity generating technologies by enabling continued build-out of outdated, high-polluting infrastructure.”

    Congress passed the resolutions in November and December under the Congressional Review Act, a little-used law that gives lawmakers a streamlined way to quickly challenge regulations from the executive branch.

    Obama had made clear his intent to veto the measures early on, so the passage by both GOP-led chambers of Congress was only symbolic.

    The votes came before and during the United Nations’ major climate change conference in Paris, as an attempt to undermine Obama’s negotiating position toward an international climate pact.

    Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee and a vocal climate change doubter, said it’s important to send a message about congressional disapproval, even with Obama’s veto.

    “While I fully expect these CRA resolutions to be vetoed, without the backing of the American people and the Congress, there will be no possibility of legislative resurrection once the courts render the final judgments on the president’s carbon mandates,” he said on the Senate floor shortly before the Senate’s action on the resolutions.

    Twenty-seven states and various energy and business interests are suing the Obama administration to stop the existing plant rule, saying it violates the Clean Air Act and states’ constitutional rights.

    They are seeking an immediate halt to the rule while it is litigated, something the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit could decide on later this month.

    All Republican candidates for the 2016 presidential election want to overturn the rules.

    In addition to the veto, Obama is formally sending the resolutions back to the Senate to make clear his intent to disapprove of them.

    Obama has now vetoed seven pieces of legislation, including five this year, the first year of his presidency with the GOP controlling both chambers of Congress.

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      Top 3 Myths on Oil Export Ban; Meet the Lobbyists; Paris Agreement Should Spook; Climate Denial Scandal; 5 Stocks to Watch

      From an E-ALERT by DeSmogBlog
      Five excellent reports distributed by email on Dec 17, 2015

      Top Three Myths Used to Sell the Lifting of the Crude Oil Export Ban, A Climate and Security Disaster In The Making

      It can be difficult to win an argument when you have no viable position. However, when you are the oil industry, you can just buy the win. Which is what the oil industry is poised to do regarding the lifting of the crude oil export ban.

      The GOP is currently holding up Congressional action needed to avoid a government shutdown by demanding inclusion of the lifting of the crude oil export ban in the government spending package.

      Here are some of the disingenuous arguments the oil industry has paid to have members of Congress make over the past two years. Read more.

      Meet the Lobbyists and Big Money Interests Pushing to End the Oil Exports Ban

      The ongoing push to lift the ban on exports of U.S.-produced crude oil appears to be coming to a close, with Congress agreeing to a budget deal with a provision to end the decades-old embargo.

      Just as the turn from 2014 to 2015 saw the Obama Administration allow oil condensate exports, it appears that history may repeat itself this year for crude oil. Industry lobbyists, a review of lobbying disclosure records by DeSmog reveals, have worked overtime to pressure Washington to end the 40-year export ban — which will create a global warming pollution spree. Read more.

      Historic Paris Climate Agreement Should Spook Fossil Fuel Markets and Escalate Clean Tech Investment

      World leaders reached an historic agreement in Paris moments ago, capping off the COP21 climate talks with a unanimous deal among 195 countries to curb global warming pollution and hasten the clean energy transition. The gavel just fell on the Paris Agreement, and it’s time to celebrate.

      Is it enough to please everyone? No. Will people continue to suffer from climate-charged extreme weather events? Yes. But it is a welcome change from previous summit failures. Read more.

      In Midst of ExxonMobil Climate Denial Scandal, Company Hiring Climate Change Researcher

      Caught in the crosshairs of an ongoing New York Attorney General investigation exploring its role in studying the damage climate change could cause since the 1970’s and then proceeding to fund climate science denial campaigns, ExxonMobil has announced an interesting job opening.

      No, not the new lawyer who will soon send the “private empire” billable hours for his defense work in the New York AG probe, though that’s a story for another day. Exxon is hiring for a climate change researcher to work in its Annandale, New Jersey research park facility. Read more.

      Five Energy Stocks to Watch After Paris Climate Agreement

      With a new global agreement on climate change gaveled into the history books in Paris tonight, many people including me believe we have just witnessed the end of the fossil fuel era.

      So-called “pure play” fossil fuel companies that have not significantly diversified into other areas of energy production will be huddled in boardrooms this week trying to figure out what the Paris Agreement means to their bottom line. Read more.

       

       

       

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        Renewable Energy After COP21: Nine issues for climate leaders to think about on the journey home

        Repost from PostCarbon Institute
        [Editor:  A lengthy article, well-worth your time.  This is by Richard Heinberg, Senior Fellow-in-Residence of the Post Carbon Institute and widely regarded as one of the world’s foremost Peak Oil educators.  – RS]

        Renewable Energy After COP21: Nine issues for climate leaders to think about on the journey home

        Richard Heinberg, December 14, 2015

        COP21 in Paris is over. Now it’s back to the hard work of fighting for, and implementing, the energy transition.
        We all know that the transition away from fossil fuels is key to maintaining a livable planet. Several organizations have formulated proposals for transitioning to 100 percent renewable energy; some of those proposals focus on the national level, some the state level, while a few look at the global challenge. David Fridley (staff scientist of the energy analysis program at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory) and I have been working for the past few months to analyze and assess many of those proposals, and to dig deeper into energy transition issues—particularly how our use of energy will need to adapt in a ~100 percent renewable future. We have a book in the works, titled Our Renewable Future, that examines the adjustments society will have to make in the transition to new energy sources. We started this project with some general understanding of the likely constraints and opportunities in this transition; nevertheless, researching and writing Our Renewable Future has been a journey of discovery. Along the way, we identified not only technical issues requiring more attention, but also important implications for advocacy and policy. What follows is a short summary—tailored mostly to the United States—of what we’ve learned, along with some recommendations.

        1. We really need a plan; no, lots of them

        Germany has arguably accomplished more toward the transition than any other nation largely because it has a plan—the Energiewende. This plan targets a 60 percent reduction in all fossil fuel use (not just in the electricity sector) by 2050, achieving a 50 percent cut in overall energy use through efficiency in power generation (fossil fueled power plants entail huge losses), buildings, and transport. It’s not a perfect plan, in that it really should aim higher than 60 percent. But it’s better than nothing, and the effort is off to a good start. Although the United States has a stated goal of generating 20 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030, it does not have an equivalent official plan. Without it, we are at a significant disadvantage.

        What would a plan do? It would identify the low-hanging fruit, show how resources need to be allocated, and identify needed policies. We would of course need to revise the plan frequently as we gained practical experience (as Germany is doing).

        What follows are some components of a possible plan, based on work already done by many researchers in the United States and elsewhere; far more detail (with timelines, cost schedules, and policies) would be required for a fleshed-out version. It groups tasks into levels of difficulty; work would need to commence right away on tasks at all levels of difficulty, but for planning purposes it’s useful to know what can be achieved relatively quickly and cheaply, and what will take long, expensive, sustained effort.

        Level One: The “easy” stuff

        Nearly everyone agrees that the easiest way to kick-start the transition would be to replace coal with solar and wind power for electricity generation. That would require building lots of panels and turbines while regulating coal out of existence. Distributed generation and storage (rooftop solar panels with home- or business-scale battery packs) will help. Replacing natural gas will be harder, because gas-fired “peaking” plants are often used to buffer the intermittency of industrial-scale wind and solar inputs to the grid (see Level Two).

        us-final-energy-consumption-2012

        Electricity accounts for less than a quarter of all final energy used in the U.S. What about the rest of the energy we depend on? Since solar, wind, hydro, and geothermal produce electricity, it makes sense to electrify as much of our energy usage as we can. For example, we could heat and cool most buildings with electric air-source heat pumps (replacing natural gas- or oil-fueled furnaces). We could also begin switching out all our gas cooking stoves with electric stoves.

        Transportation represents a large swath of energy consumption, and personal automobiles account for most of that. We could reduce oil consumption substantially if we all drove electric cars (replacing 250 million gasoline-fueled automobiles will take time and money, but will eventually result in energy and financial savings). But promoting walking, bicycling, and public transit will take much less time and investment, and be far more sustainable in the long-term.

        Buildings will require substantial retrofitting for energy efficiency (this will again take time and investment, but will offer still more opportunities for savings). Building codes should be strengthened to require net-zero energy or near-net-zero-energy performance for new construction. More energy-efficient appliances will also help.

        The food system is a big energy consumer, with fossil fuels used in the manufacturing of fertilizers, in food processing, and transportation. We could reduce a lot of that fuel consumption by increasing the market share of organic, local foods. While we’re at it, we could begin sequestering enormous amounts of atmospheric carbon in topsoil by promoting farming practices that build soil rather than deplete it.

        If we got a good start in all these areas, we could achieve at least a 40 percent reduction in carbon emissions in ten to twenty years.

        Level Two: The harder stuff

        Solar and wind technologies have a drawback: they provide energy intermittently. When they become dominant within our overall energy mix, we will have to accommodate that intermittency in various ways. We’ll need substantial amounts of grid-level energy storage as well as a major grid overhaul to get the electricity sector to 80 percent renewables (thereby replacing natural gas in electricity generation). We’ll also need to start timing our energy usage to better coincide with the availability of sunlight and wind energy. That in itself will present both technological and behavioral hurdles.

        Electric cars aside, the transport sector will require longer-term and sometimes more expensive substitutions. We could reduce our need for cars (which require a lot of energy for their manufacture and de-commissioning) by densifying our cities and suburbs and reorienting them to public transit, bicycling, and walking. We could electrify all motorized human transport by building more electrified public transit and intercity passenger rail links. Heavy trucks could run on fuel cells, but it would be better to minimize trucking by expanding freight rail. Transport by ship could employ modern fsails to increase fuel efficiency (this is already being done on a tiny scale), but re-localization or de-globalization of manufacturing would be a necessary co-strategy to reduce the need for shipping.

        Much of the manufacturing sector already runs on electricity, but there are exceptions—and some of these will offer significant challenges.

        materials-prius

        Many raw materials for manufacturing processes either are fossil fuels (feedstocks for plastics and other petrochemical-based materials including lubricants, paints, dyes, pharmaceuticals, etc.) or currently require fossil fuels for mining and/or transformation (e.g., most metals). Considerable effort will be needed to replace fossil fuel-based materials and to recycle non-renewable materials more completely, significantly reducing the need for mining.

        If we did all these things, while also building far, far more solar panels and wind turbines, we could achieve roughly an 80 percent reduction in emissions compared to our current level.

        Level Three: The really hard stuff

        Doing away with the last 20 percent of our current fossil fuel consumption is going to take still more time, research, and investment—as well as much more behavioral adaptation. Just one example: we currently use enormous amounts of cement for all kinds of construction activities. Cement making requires high heat, which could theoretically be supplied by sunlight, electricity, or hydrogen—but that will entail a nearly complete redesign of the process.

        While with Level One we began a shift in food systems by promoting local organic food, driving carbon emissions down further will require finishing that job by making all food production organic, and requiring all agriculture to sequester carbon through building topsoil. Eliminating all fossil fuels in food systems will also entail a substantial re-design of those systems to minimize processing, packaging, and transport.

        The communications sector—which uses mining and high heat processes for the production of phones, computers, servers, wires, photo-optic cables, cell towers, and more—presents some really knotty problems. The only good long-term solution in this sector is to make devices that are built to last a very long time and then to repair them and fully recycle and re-manufacture them when absolutely needed. The Internet could be maintained via the kinds of low-tech, asynchronous networks now being pioneered in poor nations, using relatively little power.

        Back in the transport sector: we’ve already made shipping more efficient with sails in Level Two, but doing away with petroleum altogether will require costly substitutes (fuel cells or biofuels). One way or another, global trade will have to shrink. There is no good drop-in substitute for aviation fuels; we may have to write off aviation as anything but a specialty transport mode. Planes running on hydrogen or biofuels are an expensive possibility, as are dirigibles filled with (non-renewable) helium, any of which could help us maintain vestiges of air travel. Paving and repairing roads without oil-based asphalt is possible, but will require an almost complete redesign of processes and equipment.

        The good news is that if we do all these things, we can get to beyond zero carbon emissions; that is, with sequestration of carbon in soils and forests, we could actually reduce atmospheric carbon with each passing year.

        Plans will look different in each country, so each country (and each state) needs one.

        2. It’s not all about solar and wind

        These two energy resources have been the subjects of most of the discussion surrounding the renewable energy transition. Prices are falling, rates of installation are high, and there is a large potential for further growth. But, with a small number of exceptions, hydropower continues to serve as the largest source of renewable electricity.

        renewable-electricity-mix-2014

        The inherent intermittency of wind and solar power will pose increasing challenges as percentage levels of penetration into overall energy markets increase. Other renewable energy sources—hydropower, geothermal, and biomass—can more readily supply controllable baseload power, but they have much less opportunity for growth.

        Hopes for high levels of wind and solar are therefore largely driven by the assumption that industrial societies can and should maintain very high levels of energy use. If energy usage in the United States could be scaled back significantly (70 to 90 percent) then a reliable all-renewable energy regime becomes much easier to envision and cheaper to engineer—but the system would need to look very different. Solar and wind would serve as significant sources of electricity and with usage timed to its availability, but hydro, geothermal, and some biomass (when environmentally appropriate) would serve as baseload power.

        3. We must begin pre-adapting to less energy

        It is unclear how much energy will be available to society at the end of the transition: there are many variables (including rates of investment and the capabilities of renewable energy technology without fossil fuels to back them up and to power their manufacture, at least in the early stages). Nevertheless, given all the challenges involved, it would be prudent to assume that people in wealthy industrialized countries will have less energy (even taking into account efficiencies in power generation and energy usage) than they would otherwise have, assuming a continuation of historic growth trends.

        This conclusion is hard to avoid when considering the speed and scale of reduction in emissions actually required to avert climate catastrophe. As climate scientist Kevin Anderson points out in a recent Nature Geoscience paper:

        According to the IPCC’s Synthesis Report, no more than 1,000 billion tonnes (1,000 Gt) of CO2 can be emitted between 2011 and 2100 for a 66% chance (or better) of remaining below 2 °C of warming (over preindustrial times)… However, between 2011 and 2014 CO2 emissions from energy production alone amounted to about 140 Gt of CO2… [Subtracting realistic emissions budgets for deforestation and cement production,] …the remaining budget for energy-only emissions over the period 2015–2100, for a ‘likely’ chance of staying below 2 °C, is about 650 Gt of CO2.

        That 650 gigatons of carbon amounts to less than 19 years of continued business-as-usual emissions from global fossil energy use. The notion that the world could make a complete transition to alternative energy sources, using only that six-year fossil energy budget, and without significant reduction in overall energy use, might be characterized as optimism on a scale that stretches credulity.

        The “how much will we have?” question reflects an understandable concern to maintain current levels of comfort and convenience as we switch energy sources. But in this regard it is good to keep ecological footprint analysis in mind.

        global-hectares-per-capita

        According to the Global Footprint Network’s Living Planet Report 2014, the amount of productive land and sea available to each person on Earth in order to live in a way that’s ecologically sustainable is 1.7 global hectares. The current per capita ecological footprint in the United States is 6.8 global hectares. Asking whether renewable energy could enable Americans to maintain their current lifestyle is therefore equivalent to asking whether renewable energy can keep us living unsustainably. The clear answer is: only temporarily, if at all . . . so why attempt the impossible? We should aim for a sustainable level of energy and material consumption, which on average is significantly lower than at present.

        Efforts to pre-adapt to shrinking energy supplies have understandably gotten a lot less attention from activists than campaigns to leave fossil fuels in the ground, or to promote renewable energy projects. But if we don’t give equal thought to this bundle of problems, we will eventually be caught short and there will be significant economic and political fallout.

        So what should we do to prepare for energy reduction? Look to California: its economy has grown for the past several decades while its per capita electricity demand has not. The state encouraged cooperation between research institutions, manufacturers, utilities, and regulators to figure out how to keep demand from growing by changing the way electricity is used. This is not a complete solution, but it may be one of the top success stories in the energy transition so far, rivaling that of Germany’s Energiewende. It should be copied in every state and country.

        4. Consumerism is a problem, not a solution

        Current policy makers see increased buying and discarding of industrial products as a solution to the problem of stagnating economies. With nearly 70 percent of the United States economy tied to consumer spending, it is easy to see why consumption is encouraged. Historically, the form of social and economic order known as consumerism largely emerged as a response to industrial overproduction—one of the causes of the Great Depression—which in turn resulted from an abundant availability of cheap fossil energy. Before and especially after the Depression and World War II, the advertising and consumer credit industries grew dramatically as a means of stoking product purchases, and politicians of all political persuasions joined the chorus urging citizens to think of themselves as “consumers,” and to take their new job description to heart.

        If the transition to renewable energy implies a reduction in overall energy availability, if mobility is diminished, and if many industrial processes involving high heat and the use of fossil fuels as feedstocks become more expensive or are curtailed, then conservation must assume a much higher priority than consumption in the dawning post-fossil-fuel era. If it becomes more difficult and costly to produce and distribute goods such as clothing, computers, and phones, then people will have to use these manufactured goods longer, and repurpose, remanufacture, and recycle them wherever possible. Rather than a consumer economy, this will be a conserver economy.

        The switch from one set of priorities and incentives (consumerism) to the other (conservation) implies not just a major change in American culture but also a vast shift in both the economy and in government policy, with implications for nearly every industry. If this shift is to occur with a minimum of stress, it should be thought out ahead of time and guided with policy. We see little evidence of such planning currently, and it is not clear what governmental body would have the authority and capacity to undertake it. Nor do we yet see a culture shift powerful and broad-based enough to propel policy change.

        The renewable economy will likely be slower and more local. Economic growth may reverse itself as per capita consumption shrinks; if we are to avert a financial crash (and perhaps a revolution as well) we may need a different economic organizing principle. In her recent book on climate change, This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein asks whether capitalism be preserved in the era of climate change; while it probably can (capitalism needs profit more than growth), that may not be a good idea because, in the absence of overall growth, profits for some will have to come at a cost to everyone else. And this is exactly what we have been seeing in the years since the financial crash of 2008.

        US-family-wealth-1917-2014

        The idea of a conserver economy has been around at least since the 1970s, and both the European degrowth movement and the leaders of the relatively new discipline of ecological economics have given it a lot of thought. Their insights deserve to be at the center of energy transition discussions.

        5. Population growth makes everything harder

        A discussion of population might seem off-topic. But if energy and materials (which represent embodied energy) are likely to be more scarce in the decades ahead of us, population growth will mean even less consumption per capita. And global population is indeed growing: on a net basis (births minus deaths) we are currently adding 82 million humans to the rolls each year, a larger number than at any time in the past, even if the rate of growth is slowing.

        Population growth of the past century was enabled by factors—many of which trace back to the availability of abundant, cheap energy and the abundant, cheap food that it enabled—that may be reaching a point of diminishing returns. Policy makers face the decision now of whether to humanely reduce population by promoting family planning and by public persuasion—by raising the educational level of poor women around the world and giving women full control over their reproductive rights—or to let nature deal with overpopulation in unnecessarily brutal ways. For detailed recommendations regarding population matters, consult population organizations such as Population Institute and Population Media Center. Population is a climate issue.

        6. Fossil fuels are too valuable to allocate solely by the market

        Our analysis suggests that industrial societies will need to keep using fossil fuels for some applications until the very final stages of the energy transition—and possibly beyond, for non-energy purposes. Crucially, we will need to use fossil fuels (for the time being, anyway) for industrial processes and transportation needed to build and install renewable energy systems.We will also need to continue using fossil fuels in agriculture, manufacturing, and general transportation, until robust renewable energy-based technologies are available. This implies several problems.

        As the best of our remaining fossil fuels are depleted, society will by necessity be extracting and burning ever lower-grade coal, oil, and natural gas. We see this trend already far advanced in the petroleum industry, where virtually all new production prospects involve tight oil, tar sands, ultra-heavy oil, deepwater oil, or Arctic oil—all of which entail high production costs and high environmental risk as compared to conventional oil found and produced during the 20thcentury. Burning these heavier, dirtier fuels will create ever more co-pollutants that have a disproportionate health impact and burden on low-income communities. The fact that the fossil fuel industry will require ever-increasing levels of investment per unit of energy yielded has a gloomy implication for the energy transition: society’s available capital will have to be directed toward the deteriorating fossil fuel sector to maintain current services, just as much more capital is also needed to fund the build-out of renewables. Seemingly the only way to avoid this trap would be to push the energy transition as quickly as possible, so that we aren’t stuck two or three decades from now still dependent on fossil fuels that, by then, will be requiring so much investment to find and extract that society may not be able to afford the transition project.

        But there’s also a problem with accelerating the transition too much. Since we use fossil fuels to build the infrastructure for renewables, speeding up the transition could mean an overall increase in emissions—unless we reduce other current uses of fossil fuels. In other words, we may have to deprive some sectors of the economy of fossil fuels before adequate renewable substitutes are available, in order to fuel the transition without increasing overall greenhouse gas emissions. This would translate to a reduction in overall energy consumption and in the economic benefits of energy use (though money saved from conservation and efficiency would hopefully reduce the impact), and this would have to be done without producing a regressive impact on already vulnerable and economically disadvantaged communities.

        We may be entering a period of fossil fuel triage. Rather than allocating fossil fuels simply on a market basis (those who pay for them get them), it may be fairer, especially to lower-income citizens, for government (with wartime powers) to allocate fuels purposefully based on the strategic importance of the societal sectors that depend on them, and on the relative ease and timeliness of transitioning those sectors to renewable substitutes. Agriculture, for example, might be deemed the highest priority for continued fossil fuel allocations, with commercial air travel assuming a far lower priority. Perhaps we need not just a price on carbon, but different prices for different uses. We see very little discussion of this prospect in the current energy policy literature. Further, few governments even currently acknowledge the need for a carbon budget. The political center of gravity, particularly in the United States, will have to shift significantly before decision makers can publicly acknowledge the need for fossil fuel triage.

        As fossil fuels grow more costly to extract, there may be ever-greater temptation to use our available energy and investment capital merely to maintain existing consumption patterns (likely for the rich above all), and to put off the effort that the transition implies. If we do that, we will eventually reap the worst of all possible outcomes—climate chaos, a gutted economy, and no continuing wherewithal to build a bridge to a renewable energy future.

        7. Equity within and between nations has to be addressed

        The ability to harness energy creates wealth and confers social power. With the advent of fossil fuels came a rush of wealth and power such as the world had never before seen. Naturally, humanitarians saw this as an opportunity to spread wealth and power around so as to lift all of humanity above drudgery, eliminate hunger, and even put an end to war. And to a large degree that opportunity has been seized: overall, child mortality rates are down, life expectancy is up, infectious diseases are on the decline, hunger has been reduced (even as population has dramatically grown), andmortality from violence has declined since the end of World War II.

        Yet globally, wealthy industrial nations have disproportionately benefitted from the fossil fuel revolution while poorer nations have disproportionately borne the costs. And a similar disparity also exists within nations, both rich and poor ones. Further, the injustice of energy wealth vs. energy poverty is increasingly magnified by climate impacts, which fall disproportionately upon energy poor societies—both because of geographical happenstance and because they do not have the same level of resources to devote toward adaptation.

        Now we arrive at a crossroads, where the wealth-generating energy sources of the past two centuries (fossil fuels) must give way to different energy sources. While the decades ahead may see declining per capita energy consumption in the industrialized world, the transition to renewable energy does not automatically herald a more egalitarian future. Entrenched economic interests that benefited disproportionately during the fossil fuel era may seek to maintain their advantages as everyone else adjusts to lower consumption levels, attempting to ensure that their slice of a diminishing pie is left untouched. It is also possible that nations, and wealthy communities within nations, will build robust, largely self-contained renewable energy systems while everyone else continues to depend upon increasingly dysfunctional and expensive electricity grids that are increasingly starved of fuel. In either case, current levels of economic inequality could persist or worsen.

        Pursuing the renewable energy transition without equity in mind would likely doom the entire project. Unless the interests of people at lower economic levels are taken into account and existing inequalities are reduced, the inevitable stresses accompanying this all-encompassing societal transformation could result in ever-deeper divisions both between and within nations, and lead to open conflict. On the other hand, if everyone is drawn into a visionary project that entails shared effort as well as shared gains, the result could be overwhelmingly beneficial for all of humanity. This is true, of course, not only for the renewable energy transition but also for our response to impacts of climate change that are by now unavoidable.

        8. Everything is connected

        Throughout the energy transition, great attention will have to be given to the interdependent linkages and supply chains connecting various sectors (communications, mining, and transport knit together most of what we do in industrial societies). Some links in supply chains will be hard to substitute, and chains can be brittle: a problem with even one link can imperil the entire chain. This is the modern manifestation of the old nursery rhyme, “for the want of a nail…the kingdom was lost.”

        Consider, for example, the supply chain analysis for wind turbines.

        materials-wind-turbine

        The graphic above shows the various components, each with its own manufacturing sector somewhere in the world. Planning will need to take such interdependencies into account. As every ecologist knows, you can’t do just one thing.

        9. This is not plug-and-play; it is civilization reboot

        Energy transitions change everything. From a public relations standpoint, it may be helpful to give politicians or the general public the impression that life will go on as before while we unplug coal power plants and plug in solar panels, but the reality will probably be quite different. During historic energy transitions, economies and political systems underwent profound metamorphoses. There is no reason to suppose that it will be different this time around. If this is done right, the changes that must take place will bring with them opportunities for societal improvement and the greater wellbeing of everyone—including the rest of the biosphere.

        *           *           *

        For every answer David Fridley and I identified to the problem of how to power a modern industrial society with 100 percent renewable energy, it seemed that one or more questions popped up. For example, a massive deployment of electric cars would drastically reduce our dependence on oil—but how will we make electric cars without fossil fuels for plastics and tires? The high temperatures for industrial processes used to make glass and steel for those cars could be supplied by renewable electricity, but at what price? And how will we build and repair roads?

        Studies showing an easy and affordable path to 100 percent renewable energy typically have an agenda with which we entirely concur: the transition away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy must occur, whatever the roadblocks. Some of those roadblocks take the form of simple inertia: companies—indeed, whole societies—will invest in fundamental changes to their ways of doing business only when they have to, and most are quite comfortable with their current fossil-fuel-dependent processes, supply chains, and of course sunk costs.

        Studies claiming that a transition to renewable energy will be easy and cost-free may allay fears and thus help speed the transition. However, sweeping actual difficulties under the carpet also delays confronting them. We need to start now to address the problems of energy demand adaptation, of balancing intermittency in energy supply from solar and wind, and of energy substitution in thousands of industrial processes. Those are big jobs, and ignoring them won’t make them go away.

        If many of the unknowns in the renewable energy transition imply roadblocks and speed bumps, some could turn out to be opportunities, and we cheerfully acknowledge that many conundrums may be much more easily solved than currently appears likely. For example, it is conceivable that new technical advances could result in a zero-carbon cement that is cheaper to make than the current carbon-intensive variety. But that’s extremely unlikely to happen until serious attention is given to the problem.

        At the end of the renewable energy transition, if it is successful, we will achieve savings in ongoing energy expenditures needed for each increment of economic production, and we may be rewarded with a quality of life that is acceptable and perhaps preferable over our current one (even though, for most Americans, material consumption will be scaled back from its current unsustainable level). We will get a much more stable climate than would otherwise be the case, along with greatly reduced health and environmental impacts from energy production activities.

        But the transition will entail costs—in terms of money, regulation, and the requirement to change our behavior and expectations. And delay would be fatal.

        Recommendations

        Below are some suggestions geared specifically to environmental nonprofits and funders.

        Environmental Organizations

        • Create social momentum to support a global powerdown, helping prepare society for an effort and a shift as huge as the Industrial Revolution. While the concern about providing opponents with ammunition is understandable, downplaying or ignoring the real implications of the energy transition may not only engender distrust, it might also waste an opportunity to provide people with a sense of agency.
        • Where key uses of fossil fuels are especially hard to substitute (aviation fuel, for example), argue for work-arounds (such as rail) or for the managed, gradual scaling down of those uses.
        • Explore how the transition could provide satisfying livelihoods and support thriving localized, steady state, circular economies. The Transition Network has already given considerable thought to this. Organizations of young organic farmers (like Greenhorns) and farmer training services (like the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association), are only scratching the surface of what is needed. The Business Alliance for Local Living Economies is providing networking services for sustainable enterprises, but could perhaps provide more of a training function, if it were supported to do so.
        • Take a leadership role in initiating visionary projects to further the energy transition, then enlist communities to take those projects on, and to benefit from them. These could be renewable energy, local food, transport, import substitution, recycling, or energy efficiency projects—the possibilities are nearly endless.
        • In addition to resisting the dominance of fossil fuels, engage with communities to create persuasive models of how people can live and thrive with much reduced reliance on fossil fuels.
        • Advocate for a just transition to renewable energy that benefits all people and communities. If the NGO world doesn’t do this, who will? And without such advocacy, the energy transition could actually exacerbate existing inequity.

        Philanthropy

        The philanthropic sector inevitably exerts a very large influence over the priorities of nonprofit organizations that it funds. Funders should increasingly support:

        • Efforts to educate and inspire citizens about the energy transition.
        • Projects that involve development of new economic models that enable people to live with less energy, but in ways that bring greater life satisfaction.
        • Replicable models of community development that include taking charge of local energy production and reducing fossil fuel demand across many sectors.

        Funders could also help the nonprofit community view the energy transition as a systemic transformation, one that only begins with shutting down coal power plants.

        The technical coordination of the renewable transition is itself an enormous task, and currently nobody is handling it. It will likely require a global authority to determine how to direct the use of the world’s remaining burnable fossil fuels—whether toward the further growth of conventional manufacturing and transportation, or toward the build-out of renewable energy-based generation and consumption infrastructure. Only such an authority could globally prioritize and coordinate sectoral shifts (in agriculture, transport, manufacturing, and buildings) to reduce fossil fuel consumption as quickly as possible without reducing economic benefits in unacceptable ways.

        But in the absence of such an international authority, the onus of this work will fall largely upon nonprofit environmental organizations and their funders, along with national and local governments.

        One way or another, it’s time to make a plan—as comprehensive and detailed as we can manage—and run with it, revising it as we go. And to “sell” that plan, honestly but skillfully, to policy makers and our fellow citizens.

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