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.
Our climate is changing, and it’s changing quickly. Temperatures are rising, there are more sever storms, 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 to replace fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) with alternative, carbon-free sources of renewable energy. We need to do this on a world-wide scale, and we need to do it quickly. Time is not on our side.
Climate Change and Technology
Climate change is a complex topic that covers a broad range of topics, many of which interact with one another in ways that are difficult to understand, or even identify. This complexity makes it very difficult to answer the perennial question, “What should we do?”
There are at least four ways of responding. 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. The four approaches are:
Work with government agencies and other organizations to create and implement policies that help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Develop technologies that generate energy without creating carbon emissions.
Modify personal and local community lifestyles.
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: technology. Technology by itself is not an answer — it has to be accompanied by changes in policy and individual behavior. But any serious response to climate change must recognize that we cannot continue the way we are, our current fossil fuel based infrastructure has to change. We need an economy built on renewable energy sources that do not emit greenhouse gases. Some of these technologies, such as solar and nuclear fission, are mature and well established. Others, such as nuclear fusion and ammonia fuel cells are more futuristic.
At this site we examine many of these technological options, not only for scientific feasibility, but also for as to whether they can be implemented at scale in the short amount of time available, say by the year 2050.
Net Zero by 2050
Many governments, large corporations and international agencies have made a commitment to ‘Net Zero by 2050’. It is a catchy phrase, as discussed in the post A Clunky Sentence. These organizations are saying that there will be no net emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) or other greenhouse gases just 29 years from now from any of their activities. This goal will be achieved by replacing fossil fuels (oil, coal and natural gas) with “green”, renewable energy sources. It is likely that some activities, such as airplane travel, will continue to emit greenhouse gases. Therefore ‘Net Zero’ programs call for carbon capture and sequestration technology to remove CO2 that is already in the air.
Missing the Goal
‘Net Zero by 2050’ is a catchy slogan. Unfortunately, based on progress to date, it seems unlikely that we actually achieve that goal. Our response so far has been ‘too little, too late’. There are some signs that the response is changing. For example, many automobile companies have committed to converting to electric vehicles. Nevertheless, CO2 emissions continue to climb inexorably, as we see from the Keeling chart that shows CO2 concentrations as measured since the 1960s.
These words are being written in April 2021. In spite of the economic slow down brought about by the pandemic the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has continued its inexorable rise; we are now at 420 ppm. We not bending the curve. Indeed, it looks as if the rate of increase of the CO2 concentration is actually accelerating. (It is possible that some deus ex machina, a solution that no one has thought of will provide us with as much energy as we want without the emissions. But it is not possible to plan for such solutions since we do not know what they are.
Many thoughtful people recognize that we are not going to achieve the ‘Net Zero by 2050’ goal, but they take the attitude that we are making good progress, and that we will reach the goal, but at a later date, say by the year 2070. The catch is that we cannot treat the 2050 goal as being similar to other political and financial goals such as health care programs or international trade agreements. When negotiating with other people we expect that there will be delays and that the terms of the discussion will change. Unfortunately, this attitude does not work when responding to natural events such as climate change. The laws of physics, thermodynamics and biology do not care what we think. The laws of nature have not interest in our wants, opinions or ideas. They are what they are. Nature bats last.
If we miss the ‘Net Zero by 2050’ goal we need to consider the consequences. Climate scientists measure global warming by the amount temperatures have increased over the pre-industrial baseline. We are already 1°C over that baseline, and 1.5°C is going to happen due to the actions we have already taken. If we do not bend the curve then it is likely that we will hit 2°C before the year 2050, and we could indeed be on our way to 3°C.
What the world will look like at those temperatures will depend on the actions that we take between now and then. But here is what one paper says about 2° and 3°C temperature increases.
Beyond two degrees preventing mass starvation will be as easy as halting the cycles of the moon. First millions, then billions, of people will face an increasingly tough battle to survive.
A three-degree increase in global temperature – possible as early as 2050 – would throw the carbon cycle into reverse. Instead of absorbing carbon dioxide, vegetation and soils start to release it. . . Farming and food production will tip into irreversible decline. Salt water will creep up the stricken rivers, poisoning ground water. Higher temperatures mean greater evaporation, further drying out vegetation and soils, and causing huge losses from reservoirs.
The primary purpose of this web site and blog is to evaluate the different technological options that can either slow down the rate at which the climate is changing, or that can mitigate the consequences. But there is a third goal that needs to be considered. Given that we are not likely to meet the ‘Net Zero by 2050’ goal, what technology can help us live productively in a world where the climate has already changed drastically? Detailed thoughts on this topic are provided in the posts Medium-Tech and Appropriate Technology. The following simple sketch illustrates the concept.
The sketch suggests that somewhere between now and 2050 we will reach a point where we reduce our spending of expensive, futuristic ideas such as nuclear fusion. Instead, focus on technologies that are less glamorous, but that can deliver results quickly and at a much lower cost.
As already discussed, the purpose of this site is to evaluate different technological responses to climate change. The evaluations consist of the following elements.
Does it work?
Options such as nuclear fusion and ammonia fuel cells face formidable challenges. Technologies such as these may show great promise, but they are still at the development stage. Time is pressing.
Can it be implemented on a timely basis?
Is it affordable?
How much fossil fuel energy is needed for its implementation?
Most technological responses require a rapid and extensive build out of a massive new infrastructure. The creation of that infrastructure is likely to require energy that will have to come, in large part, from fossil fuels.
What are the unanticipated consequences?
Replacing one form of energy with another is rarely as simple as it seems. For example, solar and wind power are “non-dispatchable” — they are often not available when needed, or they are available when demand is low. Therefore, they have to be supplemented with conventional power plants and massive energy storage facilities.
Given this background, the site is organized as shown in the menu bar at the top of this page.
Where we are now.
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.
We publish the occasional video.
This section contains articles to do with the themes of this site.
There is a lot of published material to do with climate change and related topics. Some of this material is described in this section, which includes book and web site reviews.
We are working on a book with the same title as this web site. Some of the chapters will be released in ebook form.