Net Zero by 2050: Technology for a Changing Climate

 

Seventeen of the 18 warmest years in the 136-year record all have occurred since 2001.

Jem Bendell, Institute for Leadership and Sustainability, 2020

 

Climate change represents an urgent and potentially irreversible threat to human societies and the planet.

IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), 2018

 

We are as gods and might as well get good at it.

Stewart Brand, Whole Earth Catalog, 1968

 

The only people who think you can have infinite growth on a finite planet are mad men and economists.

Anon.

Our climate is changing, and it’s changing fast. Temperatures are rising, there are more storms (and they are of increasing severity), wild fires are raging, sea levels are rising and previously fertile lands are suffering from chronic drought. These changes are largely caused by human action, particularly our willful dumping of enormous quantities of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere. If we are to maintain anything close to our current lifestyles, we need alternative, carbon-free sources of energy, we need them at a world-wide scale, and we need them quickly. Action is needed; time is not on our side.

Four Strategies

 

Anyone who studies climate change quickly learns how complex the topic is — there are so many issues to consider, and they all interact with one another in ways that are hard to understand, or even identify. This complexity makes it hard to answer the perennial question, “What should we do?”

 

This question can be addressed in one of the four different ways. They are all important, there is considerable overlap between them, and most people will work in different areas at different times. Still, it is useful to understand the distinction between them. They four approaches are:

  1. Work with government agencies and large organizations to create policies that help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

  2. Develop new technologies that can generate energy without creating carbon emissions.

  3. Modify personal and local community lifestyle that reduces one’s own environmental and carbon footprint.

  4. Accept that it is too late to completely stop climate change, and develop adaptive strategies that will help us live in a changed world.

 

At this site the focus on the second item in the list: technologies. Is it possible that technology can help us meet our climate change challenges? Some of these technologies, such as solar and nuclear power are mature and well established. Other technologies, such as nuclear fusion and ammonia fuel cells are more futuristic. We examine many of the proposed technologies not just for their technical feasibility, but also whether they can be implemented at scale in the short amount of time available. We also consider the resources needed to implement each of the proposed responses.  An evaluation of various technological responses is provided at the Technologies page.

Interesting Times

 

We live, as they say, in interesting times. I started this site toward the end of the momentous year 2020 — a year that has changed so many of our beliefs and assumptions. We have been hit by a once-in-a-century pandemic which is not yet under control, hundreds of thousands of people have died, our politics (at least in the United States) are tense and chaotic, and the economy is in terrible shape. It seems as if all the old certainties have gone, and we don’t what is going to take their place.

But maybe there is a silver lining. Maybe the pandemic and all the other problems provide an opportunity for fresh thinking, in other areas, including our response to climate change.

Credit: Unsplash

Vicki Hollub (1960- )

The year 2020 has been consequential in another way. Large corporations increasingly understand public and business opinion is shifting. Their customers are aware of the damage that we are doing to the planet, and they want action. In particular, many of the oil companies are trying to transform themselves into energy companies. For example, as I write these words the President of Occidental Petroleum, Vicki Hollub, describes her company as now being a “carbon management company” that will change its own operations to achieve net zero emissions. Such talk would have been inconceivable just a few years ago.

Yet that is the language that executives from virtually all energy and oil companies are speaking.

But how does a company such as Occidental move from being an oil company to being a ‘carbon management company’? How can they apply their formidable technical and management skills to the new world that we are entering? In particular, which technologies should they choose to develop?

It is questions such as these that are addressed at this site.

Net Zero by 2050

The topic of climate change is complex and difficult to understand. There are so many factors to consider that it is risky to make hard predictions as to what the world may look like over the course of the next few decades. However, many organizations and government bodies are coalescing their thoughts and goals around the theme ‘Net Zero by 2050’. It is certainly a catchy slogan. But is it realistic? It is this question that this book attempts to address.

 

Expanding the slogan, the goal reads as follows,

 

We must reduce carbon emissions to net zero by the year 2050 in order to keep atmospheric temperatures at no more than 2°C above the pre-industrial baseline. The consequences of not doing so will be devastating to all of human society and to planetary ecosystems.

 

Can we truly transform society in just 29 years such that we are not adding CO2 to the atmosphere, given that we currently are adding something like 35 gigatons (billion metric tons) a year? Figure 1.1 shows how much CO2 we have dumped into the atmosphere over the course of the last 30 years. Can we really turn this trend around in such a short period of time. After all, it took us 300 years to move from a pre-industrial way of life our current way of life which is dependent on fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas). Can we shift to an entirely new industrial infrastructure in just 30 years? And, if so, what is the route for reaching that goal?

In this section various figures and charts are presented. They are taken from the draft book Technology for a Changing Climate.

 

Figure 1 is based on a 2020 report from the World Meteorological Association. It shows how atmospheric temperatures have changed since the late 19th century. The trend line is unambiguous — temperatures are increasing, and they have increased at an even faster rate during the last decade.

Figure 1

Global Temperature Trends

Figure 2 is the ‘Keeling Chart’ named after David Keeling. It shows the change in atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration, starting in the mid-1950s. The chart reinforces the conclusion that the climate is changing, and that it’s changing quickly.

Figure 2

Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide Concentration

Figure 3 is the same Keeling Curve, but with overlays to do with global responses added to it.

Figure 3

Keeling Curve and Global Responses

The letters ‘COP’ stand for ‘Conference of the Parties’. It is a United Nations organization in which world governments find ways to “avoid dangerous climate change”. The numbers attached to the letters ‘COP’ refer to the conferences that they have held. COP 1 was held in the year 1995; COP 26 had been scheduled to meet in Glasgow in 2021, but was deferred due to the pandemic. The letters IPCC stand for Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. They issue reports to do with the state of climate at regular intervals. The chart shows that these international meetings and research efforts seem to have made little or no difference to our climate trajectories.

The results may seem a little surprising. After all, there has been no lack of publicity when it comes to climate change, and many people are changing their lifestyles by driving electric vehicles, or by installing solar panels on their homes. Yet, unfortunately, the data say otherwise.

 

The situation is discouraging. We are evidently heading toward a climate calamity, actions we have taken to date seem to have had little impact, and we are running out of time.

 

Many people respond to the situation by assuming that some new technology will come to the rescue; that “they” will think of something. After all, our world has changed immensely in just the last decade due to the developments in electronics: social media, artificial intelligence and robotics. Why can’t we assume that some equally dramatic changes will take place and pull our climate change chestnuts out of the fire?

 

It’s a good question, and one that deserves our closest attention. At this site we look at some of the proposed technical solutions to the climate change dilemma, and try to determine how realistic they are. Each section of the site  the book looks at one area of technology and examines its technical, commercial and project management viability.

 

Of course, it is possible that some deus ex machina will make its appearance — some solution that no one has really thought of, but that will be obvious after the event. But, almost by definition, it is not possible to discuss such solutions since we do not know what they are. The discussion in this book has to focus on technologies that are known about, even if they are just at the concept stage.

Project Realities

There are many books, report, blogs and web sites that describe climate change, and  that tell us what its likely consequences will be. The formal reports are generally strong on scientific explanation and analysis. They explain how the climate is changing and what its causes are. There are also mass-market books that describe the consequences of climate change, often in quite graphic terms. However, when it comes to the actions that we can take, many of these publications are largely aspirational in nature — they tell us that we are facing dire problems and that urgent action is needed. They may list some of the possible technological solutions, but they tend to talk about them only in general terms.

 

In particular, few of these scientific and environmental reports consider real-world parameters of scalability, timing, available resources and finance. They tend to assume that because something can be done on a small scale there is no reason not to implement it world-wide, right away. Therefore, when discussing technological responses to the climate crisis, we need to consider not just what can be done at a conceptual or pilot stage; we need to drill down and evaluate ideas for their engineering and project management feasibility. Moreover, the proposed solutions need to be implemented in just three decades. Such a short time span calls for an unprecedented level of political commitment. There are no signs to date that such a commitment is forthcoming.

 

A sketch that is used many times at this site is shown in Figure 4. It illustrates the 'Phase-Gate' approach to project management. Each technology that is reviewed will be placed somewhere within that sketch. Doing so gives us an idea as to how practical the concept is given the time that we have available, and the resources that are required. Given the short amount of time that is available (the year 2050 is just 29 years away) any proposal that is not already in Phase III — Build / Operate — is probably not going to make the cut.

Figure 4

Project Steps

Alternative Fuel Realities

The fundamental problem facing any switch to an alternative energy source is that there is nothing that is as convenient, energy dense, portable and affordable as crude oil, as shown in Table 1.

 

Table 1

Energy Source Evaluation

The columns show the features of that particular energy source.

 

  • Always On
    Some energy sources are available all the time, regardless of weather conditions. Nuclear meets this requirement; wind and solar do not.

  • Portable
    Some energy sources are installed in one location, and cannot be moved. This is particular drawback for many transportation applications.

  • Energy Dense
    This criterion refers to the amount of energy to be found within a given volume of a fuel. It could also refer to the amount of land that the energy source requires.

  • Safe
    All energy sources have some safety concerns — by definition they contain energy, and that energy can be released in an uncontrolled manner. However, some have greater safety concerns — either real or perceived — than others.

  • Scalable
    Some energy sources can be scaled up to meet global demands for energy. Others, such as hydroelectric, are limited as to how much they can be expanded.

  • Availability
    Some energy sources are, for practical purposes, available for the indefinite future. Others are more limited.

 

The rows indicate whether that particular source possesses that particular feature.

 

The thinking behind the selection for each row is described in  the specific chapter. For now, it is sufficient to look at the top line: crude oil.

 

  • It is always on — machinery powered by oil distillates such as gasoline, diesel and aviation fuel are available 24 hours per day.

  • Crude oil is portable. It is generally used in liquid form, which is particularly useful for transportation.

  • It is energy dense. Table 1.2 shows that gasoline supplies 31 megajoules of energy per liter, whereas ammonia supplies only 13 megajoules per liter.

  • It is safe. Oil products certainly have safety issues, mostly to do with their potential for fire. But, by and large, we know how to use them safely.

  • Crude oil is certainly scalable. It is utterly foundational to our current industrial and social infrastructure.

 

It is when we look at availability that we run into difficulties. Oil will always be available, it will never run out. But it is getting more and more expensive to find and locate new sources, and our use of oil creates serious environmental problems, of which climate change is the most serious.

The Blog 

Blog for the site Technology for a Changing Climate: Net Zero by 2050.

Every week, as time permits, (and sometimes more often) we write a blog post to do with current events or trends as they relate to the themes of this site. The blog posts are open for comment and discussion. Please feel free to join in.

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