Concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, in parts per million, for the past 650,000 years. Graphic: NOAA / MIT Technology Review

By Ken Caldeira
25 January 2016

(Technology Review) – Many years ago, I protested at the gates of a nuclear power plant. For a long time, I believed it would be easy to get energy from biomass, wind, and solar. Small is beautiful. Distributed power, not centralized.

I wish I could still believe that.

My thinking changed when I worked with Marty Hoffert of New York University on research that was first published in Nature in 1998. It was the first peer-reviewed study that examined the amount of near-zero-emission energy we would need in order to solve the climate problem. Unfortunately, our conclusions still hold. We need massive deployment of affordable and dependable near-zero-emission energy, and we need a major research and development program to develop better energy and transportation systems.

It’s true that wind and solar power have been getting much more attractive in recent years. Both have gotten significantly cheaper. Even so, neither wind nor solar is dependable enough, and batteries do not yet exist that can store enough energy at affordable prices to get a modern industrial society through those times when the wind is not blowing and the sun is not shining.

Recent analyses suggest that wind and solar power, connected by a continental-scale electric grid and using natural-gas power plants to provide backup, could reduce greenhouse-gas emissions from electricity production by about two-thirds. But generating electricity is responsible for only about one-third of total global carbon dioxide emissions, which are increasing by more than 2 percent a year. So even if we had this better electric sector tomorrow, within a decade or two emissions would be back where they are today.

We need to bring much, much more to bear on the climate problem. It can’t be solved unless it is addressed as seriously as we address national security. The politicians who go to the Paris Climate Conference are making commitments that fall far short of what would be needed to substantially reduce climate risk.

Four weeks ago, a hurricane-strength cyclone smashed into Yemen, in the Arabian Peninsula, for the first time in recorded history. Also this fall, a hurricane with the most powerful winds ever measured slammed into the Pacific coast of Mexico.

Unusually intense storms such as these are a predicted consequence of global warming, as are longer heat waves and droughts and many other negative weather-related events that we can expect to become more commonplace. Already, in the middle latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere, average temperatures are increasing at a rate that is equivalent to moving south about 10 meters (30 feet) each day. This rate is about 100 times faster than most climate change that we can observe in the geologic record, and it gravely threatens biodiversity in many parts of the world. We are already losing about two coral reefs each week, largely as a direct consequence of our greenhouse-gas emissions.

Recently, my colleagues and I studied what will happen in the long term if we continue pulling fossil carbon out of the ground and releasing it into the atmosphere. We found that it would take many thousands of years for the planet to recover from this insult. If we burn all available fossil-fuel resources and dump the resulting carbon dioxide waste in the sky, we can expect global average temperatures to be 9 °C (15 °F) warmer than today even 10,000 years into the future. We can expect sea levels to be about 60 meters (200 feet) higher than today. In much of the tropics, it is possible that mammals (including us) would not be able to survive outdoors in the daytime heat. Thus, it is essential to our long-term well-being that fossil-fuel carbon does not go into our atmosphere. [more]

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