Friday, July 6, 2007

ZERO carbon -- how close could the US come, how soon?

A Sudden Change of State

The Guardian (London)

July 3, 2007
George Monbiot

A  new paper suggests we have been greatly underestimating the impacts of climate change - and the size of the necessary response.
Reading  a  scientific paper on the train this weekend, I found, to my
amazement,  that  my hands were shaking. This has never happened to me before, but nor have I ever read anything like it. Published by a team led by James Hansen at Nasa, it suggests that the grim reports issued by  the Intergovernmental  Panel  on Climate Change could be absurdly optimistic(1).

The  IPCC  predicts that sea levels could rise by as much as 59cm this
century(2).  Hansen's paper argues that the slow melting of ice sheets the panel expects doesn't fit the data. The geological record suggests that ice  at the poles does not melt in a gradual and linear fashion, but flips  suddenly  from  one  state  to  another. When temperatures
increased  to  2-3  degrees above today's level 3.5 million years ago, sea levels  rose  not  by  59  centimetres  but by 25 metres. The ice
responded immediately to changes in temperature(3).

We  now  have  a  pretty  good  idea  of  why ice sheets collapse. The
buttresses  that  prevent  them  from  sliding  into the sea break up;
meltwater  trickles down to their base, causing them suddenly to slip; and pools of water form on the surface, making the ice darker so that it absorbs  more  heat.  These  processes are already taking place in
Greenland and West Antarctica.

Rather  than  taking thousands of years to melt, as the IPCC predicts,
Hansen  and  his  team find it "implausible" that the expected warming before  2100  "would permit a West Antarctic ice sheet of present size to survive  even  for  a  century."  As  well as drowning most of the world's centres  of population, a sudden disintegration could lead to much  higher rises in global temperature, because less ice means less heat  reflected back  into  space.  The  new  paper suggests that the temperature could therefore be twice as sensitive to rising greenhouse gases  than the IPCC assumes. "Civilization developed," Hansen writes, "during  a  period  of unusual  climate  stability, the Holocene, now almost 12,000 years in duration. That period is about to end."(4)

I  looked up from the paper, almost expecting to see crowds stampeding through  the  streets.  I saw people chatting outside a riverside pub. The other  passengers  on  the train snoozed over their newspapers or played on  their  mobile  phones.  Unaware  of the causes of our good fortune, blissfully  detached from their likely termination, we drift into catastrophe.

Or  we  are  led  there.  A  good  source  tells  me  that the British
government  is well aware that its target for cutting carbon emissions - 60%  by  2050  -  is  too  little, too late, but that it will go no
further   for   one  reason:  it  fears  losing  the  support  of  the
Confederation  of  British  Industry. Why this body is allowed to keep
holding  a gun to our heads has never been explained, but Gordon Brown has just  appointed  Digby  Jones,  its former director-general, as a minister in  the  department  responsible  for energy policy. I don't remember voting  for  him.  There could be no clearer signal that the public interest is being drowned by corporate power.

The   government's   energy   programme,   partly   as  a  result,  is
characterised  by  a complete absence of vision. You can see this most
clearly  when  you  examine its plans for renewables. The EU has set a
target  for  20%  of  all  energy  in  the  member states to come from
renewable  sources  by  2020.  This  in  itself  is  pathetic. But the
government refuses to adopt it(5): instead it proposes that 20% of our
electricity  (just  part  of  our  total  energy use) should come from
renewable  power  by  that  date.  Even  this is not a target, just an
"aspiration",  and  it is on course to miss it. Worse still, it has no
idea  what  happens  after  that.  Last  week  I  asked whether it has
commissioned  any  research  to  discover how much more electricity we could generate from renewable sources. It has not(6).

It's  a  critical question, whose answer - if its results were applied
globally  - could determine whether or not the planetary "albedo flip"
that  Hansen  predicts  takes  place. There has been remarkably little
investigation of this issue. Until recently I guessed that the maximum
contribution  from renewables would be something like 50%: beyond that point  the  difficulties of storing electricity and balancing the grid
could  become overwhelming. But three papers now suggest that we could go much further.

Last  year,  the German government published a study of the effects of linking  the  electricity  networks of all the countries in Europe and
connecting  them  to North Africa and Iceland with high voltage direct
current  cables(7).  This  would  open  up  a  much greater variety of
renewable  power  sources.  Every country in the network would then be able  to  rely  on  stable  and  predictable  supplies from elsewhere: hydroelectricity  in  Scandanavia  and  the Alps, geothermal energy in Iceland  and  vast solar thermal farms in the Sahara. By spreading the demand  across  a much wider network, it suggests that 80% of Europe's electricity could be produced from renewable power without any greater risk of blackouts or flickers.

At  about  the  same  time,  Mark Barrett at University College London
published  a  preliminary study looking mainly at ways of altering the
pattern  of  demand  for electricity to match the variable supply from
wind  and  waves and tidal power(8). At about twice the current price, he found  that  we  might  be  able  to produce as much as 95% of our
electricity  from  renewable  sources without causing interruptions in the power supply.

Now  a  new  study by the Centre for Alternative Technology takes this
even  further(9). It is due to be published next week, but I have been
allowed  a preview. It is remarkable in two respects: it suggests that by 2027  we  could produce 100% of our electricity without the use of fossil fuels  or  nuclear power, and that we could do so while almost tripling its  supply: our heating systems (using electricity to drive heat  pumps) and our transport systems could be mostly powered by it. It  relies  on  a great expansion of electricity storage: building new hydroelectric reservoirs   into  which  water  can  be  pumped  when electricity  is abundant,  constructing giant vanadium flow batteries and  linking electric cars up to the grid when they are parked, using their  batteries to  meet  fluctuations  in  demand. It contains some optimistic  technical assumptions,  but  also a very pessimistic one: that  the UK relies entirely on its own energy supplies. If the German proposal  were  to be combined with these ideas, we could begin to see how we might reliably move towards a world without fossil fuels.

If  Hansen  is correct, to avert the meltdown that brings the Holocene to an  end  we  require a response on this scale: a sort of political "albedo flip".  The government must immediately commission studies to discover how  much  of  our  energy  could be produced without fossil fuels,  set that as its target then turn the economy round to meet it. But a power shift like this cannot take place without a power shift of another kind: we need a government which fears planetary meltdown more than it fears the CBI.

George  Monbiot's  book  Heat:  how  to stop the planet burning is now
published in paperback.


1.  James  Hansen  et  al,  2007.  Climate  Change  and  Trace  Gases.
Philiosophical  Transactions  of  the  Royal  Society - A. Vol 365, pp
1925-1954. doi: 10.1098/rsta.2007.2052.

2.  Intergovernmental  Panel on Climate Change, February 2007. Climate Change  2007:  The  Physical Science Basis - Summary for Policymakers.  Table SPM-3.

3. I am grateful to Marc Hudson for drawing my attention to this paper and giving me a copy.

4. James Hansen et al, ibid.

5.  In  the  Energy  White  Paper  it  says  the  following:  "The 20%
renewables  target  is an ambitious goal representing a large increase in Member  States'  renewables  capacity.  It  will  need to be taken forward in the context of the overall EU greenhouse gas target. Latest data  shows that  the  current  share of renewables in the UK's total energy  mix  is around  2%  and  for  the  EU  as  a whole around 6%. Projections indicate that by 2020, on the basis of existing policies, renewables would contribute around 5% of the UK's consumption and are unlikely to exceed 10% of the EU's." Department of Trade and Industry, May  2007. Meeting the Energy Challenge: A White Paper on Energy, page 23.

6.  Emails  from  David Meechan, press officer, Renewables, Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform.

7. German Aerospace Center (DLR) Institute of Technical Thermodynamics Section   Systems  Analysis  and  Technology  Assessment,  June  2006.  Trans-Mediterranean  Interconnection  for  Concentrating  Solar Power. Federal  Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety, Germany.

8.  Mark  Barrett,  April 2006. A Renewable Electricity System for the UK: A  Response  to  the  2006  Energy Review. UCL Bartlett School Of Graduate Studies   -   Complex   Built  Environment  Systems  Group. to%20Energy%20Review%20-%20electricity.pdf

9.    Centre    for    Alternative   Technology,   10th   July   2007.
ZeroCarbonBritain:  an  alternative energy strategy. This will be made
available at

Climate Change, Economics, Energy, EU, Governance/Management, International, Physical Science, Sustainability, US | Permalink

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