Azara Blog: Global warming, carbon capture and storage, and politics

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Date published: 2005/02/23

The third lecture of the university's Third Annual Lecture Series in Sustainable Development (2005) was given today by Andrew Palmer of the Cambridge University Department of of Engineering (so a "home" speaker). This was by far and away the best attended of the lectures so far. It was also by far and away the best lecture so far. (The fact that the dreadful buzz word "sustainable" was not mentioned even once was only one reason.)

He gave a summary of some of the problems and some of the possible solutions to do with the increasing amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and the consequent affects on the planet (such as global warming).

He was originally an oil engineer and he first mentioned that he became aware of the environmental impact of his work when working on the oil fields in Alaska.

He said that the perceived priorities of mankind has changed over the past few decades. Once upon a time people were worried about population and the supply of food. And at some point water and disease were considered the most pressing issues. Now it is war/terrorism and global warming. (Of course the underlying issue for all of these things is still population. It's just that most of the major players, including governments, the media and so-called environmentalists currently choose to ignore the issue of population.) (And the worries change because it is convenient for the ruling elite to keep scaring their citizens, and the latter become innured to today's hysteria so we have to move on to another one.)

He showed the standard graph of CO2 concentration in the atmosphere, from its pre-industrial levels of around 270 ppm to the current 370 ppm and ever increasing. He mentioned that the greenhouse effect is of course crucial to life on Earth. If the atmosphere was only nitrogen and oxygen then the aveage surface temperature would be -6C. With the "natural" level of CO2 of 270 ppm then the average surface temperature is instead 15C. If you double the level of CO2 (and we will almost certainly hit that between 2050 and 2100) then if at that level we had equilibrium then the average temperature would increase by 2.5C.

He mentioned the usual effects of this increase. The temperature rise will not be uniform across the planet. The sea level will rise. The frequency of storms will increase. The North Atlantic circulation might stop. The Greenland ice sheet might melt. Etc. This rate of change in the temperature is high but not higher than for certain natural catastrophes, such as massive volcano eruptions and large meteor impacts.

Before continuing he mentioned that the scientific consensus view might be wrong. (Indeed it is almost certainly wrong. Not many scientific theories last even a hundred years.) Scientists are subject to the same herd instinct as everyone else. And there is a large pressure applied to anyone who questions the usual orthodoxy. In particular getting tenure could prove difficult.

But in this talk he did not want to argue with the consensus view. (He implied later that he agrees with it.) He instead wanted to discuss what could realistically be done. He said that some people might want to return to an energy-poor pre-industrial society (read: so-called environmentalists) but most people do not.

He mentioned that increased CO2 had both positive and negative effects. For example, with higher average temperatures in Europe more people would die in summer but less people would die in winter. He claimed that Arrhenius, who was the first person to realise (1896) that increasing CO2 would increase the average temperature, thought this was a good idea, and apparently there were actually proposals to try and do so.

The midpoint scenario for global warming predicts (under current theories) that sea levels might rise by 0.6 m in the next 100 years (more if the Greenland ice sheet melts). But to keep that in perspective, the 1953 storm surge in the North Sea led to an increase of sea levels by 3.2 m in the space of 15 hours. This was a disaster for the Netherlands and the east coast of Britain. Afterwards the Dutch put something called the Delta Project in place to protect themselves against this, at the cost of billions of dollars. (Apparently there was not much opposition to start with, for obvious reasons, but towards the end there were some objections on environmental grounds.) Palmer claimed that some well-known so-called environmentalist once claimed to him that a sea level rise of just 0.2 m would spell disaster for the Netherlands (no doubt part of the campaign of hysteria), but this was manifestly nonsense.

He said that one estimate of the cost to the US of working around the effects of global warming (if business continued as now) would be around 1 to 1.5% of GDP, and it might well be higher for particularly vulnerable countries like Bangladesh.

Onto the Kyoto Treaty. This agreement means that some countries are supposed to make a small reduction in greenhouse gas emissions (with the UK a relatively high figure of 12.5%) but some, such as India and China, are under no obligations at all (and will definitely keep increasing emissions for the forseeable future). Palmer said "even if the Kyoto targets are met the effect on the level of CO2 will not be detectable". (So Kyoto is a bit of a joke, but potentially an expensive joke. But it is the only game in town.) And apparently China is building so many coal power stations right now that those alone increase the level of CO2 more than the decrease forseen with the Kyoto Treaty.

We all know the US is the biggest contributor to emissions but Palmer pointed out that since the US consumes 20% of the world's oil supply, even if it reduced its oil consumption by 50% (hard to believe that would ever happen, especially considering that its population is still increasing) the world's consumption would only go down by 10%. (Of course the rest of the world might follow suit. Or not.)

He said that the biggest point of the US not signing up to Kyoto was not that it was the end of the world but that it was a gift to politicians in other countries looking for excuses not to do anything serious themselves. He mentioned that one of the first things Gordon Brown did when Labour took over in 1997 was to reduce VAT on fuel (and electricity) for heating, and that of course increased usage and therefore emissions. (Of course, the reason it was done was because poor people, in particular old poor people, were afraid to heat their houses and so freezing to death. But there are other ways to deal with that problem through the benefit system.)

Instead of 12.5%, the wonderful Labour government said it would try to hit 20% reduction in emissions by 2010 (relative to 1990). Apparently the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (RCEP) said in 2000 that this higher target would not be met. They argued for a 60% reduction by 2050. Palmer said he saw no indication politicians were treating this 60% target seriously. In particular after 2010, with the decrease of nuclear power, the levels might start to go up again.

Now he mentioned there were good ways and bad ways to reduce emissions. Good ways include energy conservation, increases in energy efficiency, and use of renewable energy sources. Bad ways included the "dash for gas" (away from coal-fired power stations) and de-industrialisation.

One reason there was a "dash for gas" was because this made hitting the Kyoto targets much easier. But Palmer thought this was an extremely irresponsible thing to have done. (Because gas is a lightweight fuel which allows population mobility and it is stupid to waste it on something like power generation.) Apparently 25 years ago the EU was opposed to changing from coal to gas for this reason (although no doubt coal mining trade unions also had something to do with it). He thought that future generations would curse us for squandering this precious resource.

And the point about de-industrialisation is that it does not reduce emissions, it just moves them somewhere else. For example a steel mill closing down in Sheffield is replaced by one opening in China producing the same goods. The move might even increase CO2 emissions since the factory in China might be less efficient. (This is missing the larger point. It is not just the direct fuel consumption that matters when doing these sums, it is also the indirect fuel consumption, which in this case means labour costs. They are lower in China which means that Chinese workers are willing to work for less money, which means that they will create less emissions than British workers if you do the sum properly. To a first approximation, money = energy, so if something costs more money it has consumed more energy. Of course it is not as simple as that because it depends also on the tax rate and also on how much environmental costs a manufacturer can dump on the rest of the world, e.g. by polluting water, etc.) (So-called environmentalists also miss this point, claiming you can decouple growth of GDP from increases in energy consumption, but that is only because they are not calculating the latter correctly.)

Apparently the world produced 7 gigatonnes of carbon emissions per year (200 tonnes per second). And if we continue with business as usual then that will become 14 gigatonnes by 2050.

He went through the usual list of things that could be done to try and reduce that figure. Minimum efficiency standards for vehicles, Swedish/Canadian building standards (in the UK), full VAT on (heating) fuel (in the UK), taxing airplane fuel, etc. Unfortunately this is one place where he slipped up, because he insisted on demonising car driving yet again, even suggesting people should give up their car and use public transport. This is perhaps fine for professors living and working in provincial towns. But the real point is that because of the high level of petrol tax, car driving is the only economic activity in the UK which already more than pays a carbon tax to cover its associated environmental costs. The same can not be said for public transport, which is massively subsidised. (Of course the proponents might claim that if only everybody used public transport the per unit cost would miraculously decrease so the environmental costs could start to be paid, but that seems unlikely, at least if you wanted to offer a decent public transport system.)

Apparently somebody in Princeton looked at what you could do on the supply side to reduce emissions. You can reduce emissions by 1 gigatonne per year (and we need 7) by doing any of the following:

Palmer then went on to discuss the technical details of carbon capture and storage (CCS). The three things to worry about are capture of the CO2, transport of the captured CO2 to a storage site, and then the actual storage.

The easiest problem amongst the three is transport. That could just use pipelines or vehicles. For storage sites there are several options: natural reservoirs, depleted oil and gas fields, unminable coal fields, at the bottom of oceans (apparently liquid CO2 is more dense than H2O below about 2750 m below sea level), or using reactions with minerals. Palmer thought that the most viable current option was using depleted oil and gas fields (for example, they usually already have pipelines going there, and the "cap" on top of the fields is already known to have prevented escape for 100 million years, although he noted that replacing CH4 with CO2 might cause chemical reactions which might cause this not to work).

Capture is the hardest problem to solve. It is possible but expensive at large-scale plant (e.g. power stations, steel works, etc.) but it is astonomically expensive at small-scale plant (e.g. cars). So it would be best to convert the latter to hydrogen as soon as possible. (Assuming all the problems with hydrogen can be sorted out.) At large-scale plant, capture would be made easier if, for example, coal was burned in oxygen instead of air.

The bottom line was that CCS was possible with existing technologies and so possibly part of the soultion, but he thought not all of the solution.

He ended with a few more controversial comments. Apparently there was a conference in Cambridge in January 2004 which looked at some of these ideas. Apparently Lowell Wood, of UC Berkeley, observed that there is no particular reason to think the current average temperature is the "Goldilock's optimum", and perhaps that was 2C warmer or 2C colder (or ...). Palmer also said that Wood said that the average temperature is lower now than at any time since the Cambrian explosion 545 M years ago, but he admitted later he did not know the details about that so to be taken with a pinch of salt (but if you vary timescales you can usually get the answer you want). (But the point about the current change in temperature is not only the amount or direction but also the speed of the change.)

Finally he mentioned a wacky idea from that conference. That was to add optical scatterers high in the atmosphere. By doing this to a small extent (or putting obstructions between the sun and the earth) it could change the equilibrium temperature back down to 15C even with the CO2 doubling from its "natural" levels. (The current level of solar radiation is around 240 W/m2 and reducing that to 236 W/m2 would supposedly do the trick.)

Well you can imagine the screams about this idea right away. If you get it wrong you could make things much worse. But Palmer did point out that this kind of scheme could be carried out by single countries (the US, Russia, China or the EU) so one of them could just do it as a "gift" to the world. It's a brave new world.

In the question session one person asked about reducing demand rather than trying to sort out supply. Well this kind of question is always asked by the comfortable middle classes. They don't understand why anybody would possibly want to consume more. Unfortunately these people already create more emissions than 90% (or more) of the world, so they themselves are more part of the problem than part of the solution. And we surely must want to bring the average world living standard up to our standard, not the other way around.

He also managed a nice dig at so-called environmental organisations, saying they were "a business no more and no less than Exxon". It's amazing to hear anyone say that. Usually the British media (especially the BBC) just give a pass to the so-called environmentalists, just pretty much printing their press releases without any questioning. Heck, they are "saving the world" so they must be the "good guys". It's good to know that at least someone doesn't take this at face value.

Nuclear power came up. The so-called environmentalists managed to scare the citizens of the West (courtesy of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl) so this is considered a bad, bad source of energy right now in much of the West. (There are exceptions, like France.) And in some sense this is correct, there is still no known good way to get rid of the waste (the idea that you have to store it for tens of thousands of years is unbelieveably scary for anyone with an ounce of imagination). However if you can't get to 2050, you can't get to 2100, and it might be the least worst option for some energy production. Palmer said he was at a meeting recently where a Friends of the Earth spokesperson even said they were willing to contemplate this (hard to believe this is official FoE policy though).

On the same line, someone asked if the government should try and generate some good PR for nuclear power. Palmer said yes, only he observed that "the current government has generated a certain amount of mistrust" and that is certainly the problem. The so-called environmentalists could sink it all in ten minutes with a few carefully chosen words of hysteria.

Someone asked whether fusion research was worth pursuing, given the low odds and long time horizon. Palmer said yes, because although the odds were low the payoff for success would be huge. (Well, there is no such thing as a free lunch, so it is bound not to be as wonderful as its proponents claim.)

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