Why we don’t have the luxury of saying no to low-carbon energy, in one chart

Science Magazine

Reproduced as a public service from Anderson & Peters (2016), Science 354(6309), pp.182-183.

I’ve long maintained that the climate crisis is so acute that humanity simply does not have the luxury of picking and choosing which low-carbon energy sources we’d use. That option was foreclosed perhaps two decades ago, but the idea that we’ll lick the climate change with only our favorite technology dies hard.

Two recent studies highlight an important yet almost totally ignored problem with current climate plans and show why energy cultism must end. In short, these studies (and others like them) show just how much our plans depend on magical CO2-sucking technology conveniently appearing, and suggest that the Earth’s ability to sequester carbon on its own will decrease if we’re able to decrease atmospheric CO2 levels, causing a need for more active measures.

However, for the short term the more important of the two, and therefore the one I’m going to focus on in this post, is this paper from the hallowed pages of Science (one of the two “gold-plated” scientific publications in the world). In it, Kevin Anderson and Glen Peters dissect the assumptions that have gone into climate models and scenarios the world’s leaders believe might deliver us from excesses of runaway warming. What they find is alarming, to say the least: with few outlier exceptions, these models will not work without so-called negative emission technologies that suck carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Without, the Paris target of 1.5°C (necessary to save small island states and many low-lying, poor countries from drowning) is right out, and even the more conservative 2°C is looking very unlikely.

The problem is, these technologies don’t actually exist. As the authors note in their paper, two decades of research have failed to produce a viable, economical technology for the easiest use case: removing carbon dioxide from fossil fuel power plants. This failure bodes ill for the more difficult but, for climate plans, absolutely necessary use case, removal of carbon dioxide from bioenergy power plants. This largely theoretical technology, known as BECCS, or burning biomass while removing and storing its carbon dioxide emissions, is supposed to be widely used from 2030 onwards. But there’s very little indication it’ll be ready by then – if ever.

Even if the technology works, we’d still be faced with the problem of finding enough biomass to feed its voracious appetite. We’ve long criticized existing environmental organizations for their energy plans that blithely assume we can find as much new arable land for our energy plantations as is currently used for our most important staple crop, wheat. Similar problems abound in more “official” climate scenarios: the two authors helpfully calculate that we’d need the total land area of one to two Indias just to grow the feedstocks, note that logistics of such undertaking (equivalent to up to half of the total global primary energy consumption) aren’t considered, and conclude that even if we make it work somehow, the biodiversity loss could equal that projected from 2.8°C warming.

I’m not an expert but can forecast that if a plan requires harnessing a subcontinent or two, there could be some difficulties ahead.

Negative emission technologies such as BECCS are used in the climate scenarios because they are easy fixes for a very difficult problem. However, the magnitude of our reliance on them is rarely communicated to decision-makers and the public, partly because climate scenarios are reported using net carbon emissions only. But what if BECCS and other fantasy technologies fail to deliver, as they very well may do?

Then we’re in a deep doo-doo. And the depth of the hole we’ll find ourselves in is greatly influenced by the existence of lamentable energy cults. Even at this late hour, there are very influential persons arguing that we shouldn’t use – or won’t need – technology X or technology Y for emission reductions.

This, too, is fantastical thinking. It’s an energy cult straight from the trenches of 1980s energy debates, and it’s woefully out of date when the world is headed towards four or more degrees of warming. All technologies have their challenges and if history is anything to go by (see my previous piece on historical energy transitions here), all technologies will suffer from problems and issues the optimist boosters won’t see in advance. Renewable energy revolutions have already shown they’re not as quick or easy as some believed, if we failed to learn the exact same lesson from the stalled nuclear energy revolution of the 1960s. I predict BECCS “revolution” will also suffer from a variety of unforeseen (or, more properly, foreseen but ignored in the initial optimism) problems, and that its rollout will not be as easy as the official scenarios believe.

The bottom line, therefore, is clear: as long as we’ve actually demonstrated in practice that we can get deep enough emission cuts with a given set of solutions, we should be extremely wary of opposing any potential partial solution to the climate crisis. These, by the way, include degrowth, downshifting and other “social” solutions – we shouldn’t think only technology will or even can help us out here, although we shouldn’t discount technological solutions either.

We don’t have a plan or planet B nor time to concoct one: we have one shot and one shot only to make this thing work, so let’s make sure we throw everything we’ve got at this mess and hope and pray some solutions at least work. Either get on the act or get out of the way, and stop trying to derail projects that might help, even if you don’t love the solution.

PS. I’d strongly suggest everyone follow Kevin Anderson (Twitter: @KevinClimate) and Glen Peters (@Peters_Glen), and listen to their many recorded presentations about the scale of the climate/energy problem. (This one is a good start.) As I’ve often noted, everyone who thinks climate/energy problem is easy to lick doesn’t really understand the problem.

PPS. Following a great suggestion from an actual anthropologist (@NuclearAnthro, follow him as well!), I’ve corrected this article so that it talks of “energy cults” rather than “energy tribalism.” I like the word “cult” more (IÄ FTAGN!), and “tribalism” has some rather unfortunate, not to say inaccurate connotations. I suggest all energy/climate peeps switch over as well.  




About J. M. Korhonen

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3 Responses to Why we don’t have the luxury of saying no to low-carbon energy, in one chart

  1. Ikemeister says:

    Let’s be clear here. Are you saying that nuclear advocates must accept that wind and solar has a role to play and that conversely wind and solar advocates must accept that nuclear has a role to play? My take is that wind and solar advocates (and anyone that thinks all of the above are needed), are kidding themselves because both wind and solar harvesting cannot scale and buffering methods must be applied to turn those intermittent sources into dispatchable power without producing additional carbon emissions i.e. coal and gas backup are excluded so that leaves hydro backup, storage, and perhaps transmission. If hydro is not available, that leaves storage and possibly transmission (highly questionable since that counts on enough fuel availability variations between connected regions to justify costs). Simply put, the integration costs of the remaining buffering methods are astronomical and resource limited thus simply not feasible. So why fart around with such toys when there are perfectly good solutions available? Realistically nuclear — and hydro where available – must be accepted as the way forward.

  2. Yes, I’m saying that all potential partial solutions may have a role to play, and to oppose them at this moment is likely to hinder, not help, with the climate fight.

    My assessment, based mostly on reading quite a bit on the history of these technologies, is that all technologies that are important enough have scalability issues. Nuclear is no exception, as was seen in the failed nuclear revolution of the 1960s. I really don’t think it’s in practice possible to reverse course and create a close to 100% nuclear powered world by the time we have left; the same goes for 100% renewable powered world.

    Even if wind and solar would produce only some small single percentages of world energy, I would support them today. And it seems fairly clear to me the percentages are going to be quite high. While problems such as intermittency are real, and too often downplayed by RE boosters, it’s also clear that there are many options available for easing these issues. There likely isn’t going to be a single solution for intermittency, for instance, but a portfolio of small partial solutions, like more flexible (and preferably low-carbon) backup, more energy storage, more flexibility, better grid infrastructure, better optimization of production, etc. Taken together, these can well achieve what any single tech by itself cannot.

    Aside from technical and economic issues, nuclear also has a huge image problem, and while we may lament how unfair it may be (it is – though nuclear operators haven’t always helped themselves with their behavior in this regard), this too is a real constraint for the timeframe we have available, and should be treated as such. Likewise, RE deployment has already started to bump into obstacles of public opinion; this, too, should be treated seriously and not brushed aside, as nuclear boosters attempted in the 1970s, to results that are by now all too obvious.

    Finally, the world is a large place and cookie cutter one size fits all solutions are something I’m very wary of in a global context. There may well be times and places where renewables are a better fit for any number of reasons, ranging from public acceptance to availability of renewable resources. Likewise, there may be (and are) times and places where nuclear is a better fit. That’s why my suggestion would be that people who oppose some energy source oppose specific applications of the energy source, such as specific projects, which may well be ill-founded. Opposing technologies in total seems to me quite foolish.

  3. Sampo Kouri says:

    Thank you for doing your part in bringing such important matters into discussion, J.M.Korhonen! To be brief, the need for rapid deployment of (bio-)CCS or BECCS is challenging, as you have mentioned. However, in light of the latest research [1], bio-CCS is necessary to achieve the lowest costs of reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Finland. Therefore, investments in commercial-scale plants should be made without delay. Even with the existing CCS technology (post-combustion capture, used for enhanced oil recovery (EOR) for more than 30 years) bio-CCS will become economically feasible by 2040 [1]. If the research programs for advanced bio-CCS technologies become funding, the costs could decrease allowing bio-CCS to be in commercial use even sooner. Fortunately the development of bio-CCS has taken a big step towards commercialisation with the plant in Decatur, Illinois, USA, beginning operation with 1 million tonnes of biogenic carbon dioxide per year being stored permanently. [2]

    [1] ccspfinalreport.fi
    [2] http://www.globalccsinstitute.com/projects/illinois-industrial-carbon-capture-and-storage-project

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