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Friday, August 31, 2018
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Eight years ago, I posted some words here about whether climate change was as serious as it was being made out to be, and whether the evidence that global warming was being caused primarily by man-made CO2 and other greenhouse gasses was as solid as climate advocates had asserted. Today, given the evolving weather trends over the past decade or so, I tend to be more sympathetic to the view that climate change is real, and I generally agree that the trend is towards higher temperatures
(both air temps and sea temps) and more instability in established weather patterns.

Personally, I don’t think that emission reduction or green energy strategies are going to do much to stem the change, at least not in the next few years or even decades. In the longer term, technology will make our industrial and transport infrastructure more efficient and less dependent upon carbon-based fuels. “Renewables” (aka “green energy” sources such as wind and solar generators) along with nuclear power now meet about 21% of global energy demand. This will get close to 25% by 2020.

Renewables and nuclear might hit 50-50 parity with carbon-based fossil fuels by around 2070, according to some optimistic projections; these scenarios assume that carbon-based fuel use starts declining by 2020. However, a 2016 US Energy Information Agency projection (made during the Obama Administration) indicates that carbon fuel usage will continue to grow thru 2040. In the EIA scenario, renewables and nuclear account for perhaps 30% of world energy in 2040 (it will probably take longer and longer for each percent increase, given that the easiest applications will come first and the harder, more expensive applications of renewable and nuclear energy will follow; widespread use of renewables will require significant investment in developing and installing new technologies for efficient energy storage and transmission).

This study also projects that carbon emissions will increase 34% during that time span, with annual emissions rising from 32 billion metric tons in 2012 to 43 billion metric tons in 2040.

In the next few decades, I don’t believe that any nation, big or small, is going to be willing to intentionally reduce their living standards, or volunteer to limit their overall economic growth (which is a sure-fire way of quick and sure carbon emission reduction). So, forget about halting or even significantly slowing the annual increase in atmospheric CO2 anytime soon, no matter what they commit to at all of those lovely meetings. We now have an average atmospheric carbon concentration at 408 ppm; the historical range over the past 400,000 years thru 1900 was 180-300. The OECD “line in the sand” that will supposedly keep warming under 2 degrees C (a frequently-cited estimate of a manageable warming trend) is 450 ppm. A recent estimate says that the earth’s atmosphere will actually hit 600 by 2050.

One under-appreciated factor is the earth’s “breathing”, the CO2 released by microbes eating carbon in the soil (the carbon is from decaying plants and trees and dead animals). The comparative yearly CO2 release from the soil is around 90 trillion kilograms versus 11 trillion for man-made industrial sources powered by fossil fuels. But the soil exhaust may be rising due to climate heating from industrial CO2. Scientist Ben Bond-Lamberty explains: “Because soil respiration is so large, even small percentage shifts translate into large amounts of carbon moving around . . . specifically, soil respiration is probably 85 to 95 petagrams (with one petagram equaling a trillion kilograms) of carbon every year, compared to 10 to 12 put out by human industrial activities. So a small change in the former can have a big impact.”

Recently, I came across a chart that I find very useful in understanding the overall climate and carbon problem. This chart makes you realize that trees and vegetation point to the way out, probably the only real way out. Trees and other vegetation die and thus deposit carbon in the soil, which eventually gets “breathed” back into the air via bacterial decay; however, in the shorter-run, trees soak up more CO2 than they release. Thru sunlight, photosynthesis and water, along with some soil nutrients, nature gave trees and vegetation a natural technology that breathes in 2 parts of carbon from the air, and only returns 1 part; the other part gets deposited into tree and plant matter. Again, the carbon in that matter ultimately goes back into the soil, and later still, back into the air through microbial decay. But in the short-run, trees and green stuff help to mop up a lot of atmospheric carbon.

As I already said, I have given up on international politics (Kyoto Accord, Paris Accord, Al Gore, etc.) as an effective way to control global warming. National governments will talk the talk, but in the end they won’t do much to restrict carbon emissions, because restrictions can quickly affect the living standards of a whole lot of people. Perhaps the Trump Administration has just been honest in that regard by leaving the Paris Accord. Climate engineering, better known as “geoengineering”, is the only practical hope of controlling climate change IMHO.

But there are a variety of different forms of geoengineering. Based on what I have read, my opinion is that we should not rely upon carbon capture at the source, and totally forget about blocking solar radiation with high-altitude aerosols. The first is too expensive and possibly ineffective, and the second strategy is too risky, it has too many potential consequences for unanticipated negative effects on life on our planet. The only way to keep the crisis under some measure of control is to come up with a “techno-quasi-tree”, something that can do what regular trees do with carbon in the air, using solar energy and available water and air, and with little human “babying” (human maintenance is energy intense; in the end, the need for human tending can easily prevent an absorption device from achieving the balance of 2 carbon units in, 1 out, 1 sequestered).

This “quasi-tree” had better be relatively cheap and producible in vast quantities, as to be deployed around the globe. It needs to save and store the carbon it removes from the air in a stable fashion, so that this carbon does not get “re-uptaken” into the atmosphere. To deal with excess man-made CO2 emissions, we would need to deploy enough of these things to absorb about 1/10 of the amount of atmosphere CO2 that trees and plants presently absorb (i.e., in addition to what vegetation presently absorbs). That would (hopefully) level off the carbon presently in the air, by halting human-made additions. If we want to start lowering CO2 concentration, we would need even more devices to absorb even more CO2.

Right now, an engineering feat such as what I am describing is a “mission impossible”. A more doable idea at present is to plant more natural trees, i.e. “reforestation”. This strategy might be useful, but it takes a long time for new saplings to grow into real trees, and it would not be easy to obtain the 500-1000 million acres needed for re-forestation to make a real difference, given private ownership rights (although there is 10 times more pasture land on the planet). There are other efforts to develop “direct removal” technologies, and they are progressing in lowering their costs. However, they still cost too much to make a dent in atmospheric carbon levels; right now, they need around $100 per ton of captured CO2.

To put that into context, the annual carbon imbalance from man-made CO2 approaches 20 gigatons i.e. 20 billion tons (i.e., 35 gigatons in human emissions minus what land and sea absorb from this, around 15 gigatons). That would imply an annual cost right now of around $2 trillion per year to absorb all human-made CO2 from fossil fuels. By comparison, the combined economic output of the entire world was estimated at around $78 trillion in 2014. That sounds like a lot, but it amounts to about $10,730 per person; and given the uneven distribution of income, a majority of world population lives on a lot less than that. Another $275 per person per year may be doable for the US and Japan and much of Europe, but for the rest of the world, forget it. And that “rest of the world” is where most of the growth of carbon emissions will be coming from in upcoming decades.

Interestingly, engineering work is now being done on “fake trees” with super-absorbant fake-leaves meant to absorb CO2 from the air. This is a good start, as it focuses on a small and portable thing, not like the huge factory-like systems that are being tested for direct atmospheric removal. We would like to have something small that could be installed most anywhere (aside from the open seas), something that could be distributed world wide, something that even a small homeowner could put in her or his backyard so as to help in the effort to control climate change.

However, the fake-trees being tested thus far do not appear to operate or renew themselves using solar energy (along with air and rain chemistry); they are dependent upon the energy needed to manufacture and maintain them, and that energy will probably include fossil fuel energy. They may require constant tending, e.g. replacing the filtering leaves every 3 years. Real trees can do it all using chlorophyll, without needing humans to tend them. We need a fake tree that operates on solar power and air and rain, and can operate for many decades without human maintenance – like real trees. (However, unlike real trees, we would prefer that the removed carbon not be put back in the soil as part of an organic compound, where it eventually gets back into the air via the microbial respiration process – as I alluded to earlier).

So, humankind is trying to meet the engineering challenge; but so far, no quasi-techno-tree like I envision is on the horizon. I don’t know if it is even possible, but it appears to me that a quasi-tree that would imitate a lot of what real trees do would be the way to go in order to get human carbon emissions under control. If it could be perfected as a relatively small, portable, and easily installed thing that isn’t overly expensive (and hopefully even looks somewhat like a real tree, as to cater to our natural aesthetics), it could really make a dent in the carbon crisis.

With a solar-powered carbon-absorbing quasi-tree, together with reforestation and big, efficient factory-like carbon removal structures, humankind might then have a fighting chance to clean up some of their carbon mess at an affordable price, one that will not send the world economy into a tailspin (as a $2 trillion per year system would). With a real, well engineered workable plan for direct carbon removal that is affordable and won’t heavily impact living standards, you could imagine the major industrial nations (including the US) imposing a carbon tax scheme, so long as the proceeds went directly and solely to installing and operating the components of an atmospheric carbon removal system – including the installation of quasi-trees throughout the globe. Ah yes, the time for a 21st century “Johnny Appleseed”, a Johnny Appleseed for controlling climate change, may yet come! That is, if the scientists and engineers can somehow pull off another technology miracle. They have done wonders in the past decade or so with smart phones. Can all of that genius energy somehow be directed to saving humankind from the huge climate-change problems that are approaching?

◊   posted by Jim G @ 6:42 am      

  1. Jim,

    I am not sure how to respond to this post. It’s really too mathematical and too “engineering” for me to give a coherent response or even a response that is in any way sensible. I could say, I’d take a pass on this post, but there are a couple of things that occur to me; so this will be my uneducated and uninformed, full of random tho’ts comment:

    First of all, I found it a “can you believe it?” that there are actually “fake trees” developed to absorb CO2. Amazing! Also it’s a “who’d’ve thunk!” as far as I’m concerned. You give a good summary of why that approach to reducing CO2 probably won’t work.

    A couple of things occur to me that seem to be common sense. One I often wonder about is that ordinary people living in their small homes are encouraged to be “energy efficient”, using their a/c less In the summer and less heat in the winter. Yet business seems to insist often on summer temperatures of 65 degrees in their enclosed buildings, where nothing opens to outside air except the door allowing people in; but the pollution from such temps in large buildings certainly does play a big part in air pollution. I often wonder how high (or low) I would have to raise/lower the temp in my home to help even just a little in reducing CO2.

    Then there is China where in some cities people must wear face masks in order to breathe as the air is so full of pollutants that it is difficult to see, much less breathe thru the “fog” created by pollution. Seems to me some help in reducing air pollution would come from that area.

    Then too, recently, there was an article on what caused the dinosaur extinction in “The Atlantic”. It seems there is a “new” (as in only recently being listened to as a possibility) theory on that. This theory has been around for years but not accepted in scientific circles. It seems for years the theory accepted was that an asteroid hit the earth around the Yucatan, caused a big “explosion” and the dinosaurs all died as a result when the earth became cold and polluted with no sun getting through. Instead, a paleontologist has been working for YEARS to prove, and HAS proved, that the earth changed slowly over time and all the dinosaurs died slowly with the slow change in the earth’s conditions. This theory is gradually becoming accepted as what must have happened as paleontology is disproving the “asteroid hitting earth” theory.

    It seems to me if that’s the case a big part of the changes in the earth would be some kind of natural phenomenon that takes place in the position of the earth relative to the sun; (so it would seem to me). I certainly would agree that humans seem to be “working hard” at increasing the speed at which the earth may be changing; but it does seem to me that change will come, like it or not, just by the earth changes that take place from who knows what? Perhaps changes in the universe? Changes in the position of the earth in space? I remember reading some years ago that the North Pole had had a position change for some unknown reason. I am willing to say that the “unknown reason” may be “unknown” only to me. But I began to wonder when I read about that, those years ago, what effect it would have on the earth. Sometime later, climate change started to be considered—specifically, that the earth was becoming “hotter”.

    While I am sure humans can speed up a process of change in the earth and the CO2 produced by humans and absorbed by trees, I wonder if the current climate change, which I do not doubt is taking place, is not a function of some change in the earth itself rather than anything caused solely by humans.

    I do acknowledge that the above comment is scientifically lacking in the extreme; but I also think there is some aspect of earth change that will not be able to stop it as it is perhaps a natural phenomenon that takes place every several million years. We may just happen to be in one of those sets of several million years. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — September 6, 2018 @ 2:51 pm

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