As news of weather stations reading beyond the 400 parts per million of Carbon Dioxide comes in, I ask when and how will we be able to leave fossil fuels behind and therefore be able to avoid runaway global climate change?
The temperature boundary has been set: 2 degrees C. This is not “safe”, it’s the point at which the IPCC science – lagging behind real events as it tends to – thinks that there is a 50% chance of our eco-system starting to enter positive feedback and proceed with further warming without human assistance. This is the point of no return which we are heading towards. If this is accurate, we will not be able to do anything about it even if we want to.
So where are we right now in terms of energy supply – the most significant element of the whole climate change subject?
‘In 2008 energy supply by power source was oil 33.5%, coal 26.8%, gas 20.8% (fossil 81%), renewable (hydro, solar, wind, geothermal power and biofuels) 12.9%, nuclear 5.8% and other 4%. Oil was the most popular energy fuel. Oil and coal combined represented over 60% of the world energy supply in 2008.’ (US Energy Information Administration)
So, roughly 80% of our energy comes from fossil fuels and we may be able to get to 80% energy from renewables within 40 years. Two issues from this…
A) 40 years is a big time frame and the targets for CO2 reductions are much quicker than this.
B) How are we going to produce the extra 20% of power needed after 2050, beyond which it is predicted renewables cannot reach?
This whole issue is very much like a more local issue which i’ve been having more than a few thoughts about over the last year – the Gloucestershire (Javelin Park) incinerator (aka energy from waste facility). It’s all about the 30% left over, be it rubbish or an energy gap. How do you bridge that gap? What this comes down to is fossil fuels.
Up to 2050, fossil fuels will be providing a reducing but still very significant proportion of global energy and will still do so after renewables have developed more fully – it is simply too cheap and too easy to burn coal for power. The other option is to develop the next generation of nuclear power, using safe and cheaper sources. Neither this next nuclear generation or a renewable revolution are here yet (not to the level which could replace our present production anyway) so we’re going to be stuck with fossil fuels for at least another generation (or two), which could make de-carbonising our existing supply a priority.
‘This is a full-on fight between information and disinformation, between the urge to witness and the urge to cover up. The fossil fuel industry has funded endless efforts to confuse people, to leave an impression that nothing much is going on. But as with the tobacco industry before them, the evidence has simply gotten too strong. Once you saw enough people die of lung cancer, you made the connection.
The situation is the same today. Now, it is not just the scientists and the insurance industry; it is your neighbours. Even pleasant weather starts to seem weird. Fifteen thousand US temperature records were broken, mainly in the east and midwest, in the month of March (2012) alone, as a completely unprecedented heat wave moved across the continent. Most people I met enjoyed the rare experience of wearing shorts in winter, but they were still shaking their heads. Something was clearly wrong and they knew it.’
As much as I hate saying it, the UK’s dash for gas – to replace aging nuclear and coal power stations with cleaner gas fired power stations – is the lesser of two evils.
Evil 1 – build more coal-fired and nuclear power stations
Evil 2 – build more gas-fired power stations
De-carbonising our existing supply has to be a priority. Switching to known, tried and tested forms of energy production which are also much lower carbon emitters is logical – but is not the only answer. While evil 2 is happening, the renewable industry is given time to develop and mature, hopefully with significant backing from the Government. The thing i’m most worried about is the lack of Government support for the renewable power industry – what is a massive potential source of jobs and the golden pathway out of this mess. We cannot just rely on gas.
A lot of people are highly polarised on this issue – strong arguments for various approaches. The problem is that life isn’t black and white – it’s a vast spectrum of colour. A single technology will not work, particularly when it comes to renewable technology. The UK has a lot of wind, but more limited sun, while many African countries are blessed with the sunshine (a mixed-blessing in many ways) but wind and tidal technology wouldn’t work. There’s lots of hope for the future but we need to start acting very soon in a significant way.