• Ian Sutton


Updated: Oct 23, 2021

We need to adopt new sources of energy that are affordable and realistic in a world where there will be declining resources.
Credit: Ian Sutton

In last week’s post, Appropriate Tech, we considered the reality that goals such as ‘Net Zero by 2050’ are not going to be achieved. There are few signs that society is prepared to make the effort, commitment and sacrifice that such programs call for.

This conclusion does not mean that we just give up — it is our responsibility, both as individuals and as a society, to do what we can to slow down to the pace of climate change and to mitigate the consequences. But we also need to be realistic. More and more of our limited resources will be directed toward short-term issues such as flood control and refugee management. This means that energy solutions that require massive investments in high technology — nuclear fusion comes to mind — are likely to have a lower chance of success than those technologies that are less glamorous, but that will actually work in the constrained society of the future. The use of vortex energy that we discussed last week is an example.

Not only do we need to recognize that we are not likely to have the resources and surplus energy to develop high-tech solutions in the limited amount of time available to us, we also need to acknowledge an assumption that is built in to the way most of us approach climate change responses. We assume that if we just do < insert your favorite solution here > then we will be able to maintain our current lifestyle, and even achieve economic growth. It is this attitude that lies behind the enthusiasm for electric vehicles (EVs). An electrically-powered car gives us the same convenience and comfort as a gasoline-powered car, so we are willing to “make the sacrifice” and trade in our old car for a shiny new EV. (We choose not to think about the possibility that that electric vehicle may not be as "green" as we think it is. . A systems analysis of the benefits of EVs would consider the CO2 emitted by the power plant that generates the electricity it uses, and the climate impact resulting from the mining lithium and all the other strange and exotic materials that we need to make the vehicle’s batteries.) The crucial point is that we continue to drive comfortable, private vehicles whenever and wherever we want. We are not obliged to change our lifestyle by say taking public transport, walking or even giving up on that proposed journey altogether.

Ammonia is proposed as a green fuel for the shipping industry

We see this same way of thinking within large organizations. For example, the maritime industry rightly recognizes that the emissions from ships are a significant source of greenhouse gases. Therefore, they are proposing a switch to ammonia as a fuel. Their proposal is for half of the world’s ships to be fueled by ammonia by the year 2050. But is the goal realistic? Consider the following factors.

  • There are technical hurdles to do with safety and ease of ignition that need to be overcome. It’s not as simple as just switching out one fuel for another.

  • The energy of combustion for ammonia is 18.6 MJ/kg, as compared to 43.1 MJ/kg for diesel. So the fuel tanks on the ship would have to be more than twice as big in order to achieve the same range. The space that the extra fuel tanks take up would significantly reduce the amount of cargo that could be carried. The loss of that cargo space would eat into already tight profit margins.

  • Currently almost all ammonia is “brown”, i.e.. it is made from synthesis gas, the manufacture of which generates large amounts of CO2. It is possible to make “green ammonia” based on the electrolysis of water. However, that technology has not been commercialized and the ammonia produced would be costly — once more eating into profit margins. Moreover, the development of a world-scale, green ammonia infrastructure inside just three decades would lead to a massive CO2 pulse.

  • We don’t see much actual progress with respect to ammonia-fueled ships. The publicity to do with the recent grounding of the ship Ever Given showed large numbers of ships backed up waiting to enter the Suez Canal. Not one of these ships uses ammonia as a fuel, yet we have just 29 years to go if we are to achieve Net Zero by 2050. Time is pressing.

The shipping industry plants to convert to ammonia fuel, but so far no ships have done so.

We see therefore that there is much wishful thinking, both by individuals and by large organizations when it comes to switching to “green” energy. But there is an even more insidious problem to do with our responses. When discussing targets such as Net Zero by 2050 we talk and behave as if we are negotiating with another person or organization. If we are proposing a new health care program or an international trade agreement, a delay of a few years may not be all that critical — we can always resume negotiations when the parties are ready. Such is not the case with climate change. The laws of physics, biology and thermodynamics do not negotiate. They are what they are, and they have no interest in our needs, feelings, opinions or desire to maintain our current style of living. Nature bats last.

To revert to the maritime example — there is an assumption that if we can convert even a small fraction of the ships to ammonia fuel by the year 2050 then we have at least made some progress. We can build on that limited progress to convert the entire world shipping fleet by the year < insert a number here >. But by then it may be too late — the consequences of the lack of action will be all too evident.

Climate scientists talk about the extent to which global temperatures exceed the pre-industrial baseline. Based on our current trajectory it is probable that the temperature increase will be in the 2-3°C range by the year 2050, as discussed in This Curve’s Not Bending. What will the world look like at such temperatures? We don’t know exactly what the world will look like at such temperatures, but we do know that it will be bad — today’s droughts, storms, floods and wild fires are a mere precursor to the main show.

It is important not be alarmist and to recognize that some trends may slow down. For example, the relation between atmospheric temperature and CO2 concentration appears to be a logarithmic. Therefore, even if CO2 concentrations continue to climb at their present rates then temperatures may go up more slowly than they have in the past. We may also find that resource depletion — particularly a reduction oil supplies — may reduce the rate at which we are adding CO2 to the atmosphere. But it is equally important not to close our eyes to what might happen, and to acknowledge that our lack of progress to date does not augur well for the future. 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.

Let’s hope that the author is exaggerating. But it does seem likely that failure to take action by the year 2050 will lead to “climate chaos”, not “climate change”. Should that be the case it is unlikely that any investment funds will be available for developing long-range, futuristic technologies such as nuclear fusion or “green ammonia” manufacturing facilities on a word-wide scale.

Therefore, when considering which technologies should be used to avert the worst consequences of climate change/chaos, we need to consider (a) how the selected technology can slow down the speed or impact of climate change right now, and (b) how it can help us live in a world in which the climate has already changed drastically and where resources are limited. Which technologies will be the most helpful and the most realistic in a 2°C world?

The answer to this question is that technologies that are of low complexity and that already exist should receive priority. In other words, we need a mix of low-tech and high-tech. Let’s call it medium-tech.

The sketch at the start of this post illustrates this concept. On the left side — where we are now — we have the resources to pursue high-tech, futuristic options. On the right side of the curve we will need to focus on those technologies that are proven and that are not so resource intensive. It is probable that, somewhere between now and the year 2050, we will pass through some type of complexity peak. After which we will have to focus on the use and development of energy sources that are relatively simple and inexpensive.

This is a world of medium-tech. Although high-tech options are themselves no longer feasible, we can still draw on much of the progress that has been made in recent years. For example, computers are not going away — we will continue to use them to manage our energy systems. Similarly, many of the advances that we have seen in health care will remain. We are not returning to a low-tech world — life as it was before the industrial revolution 300 years ago.

As we discuss technological responses to climate change in future posts, we will consider the following questions with regard to each technical option.

  • Does it actually work?

  • Can it be implemented on a sufficiently wide scale and in a short enough time period to slow down the speed at which the climate is changing, and/or mitigate the impact of such change?

  • Do we have sufficient resources for its implementation?

  • Can the selected technology be useful and helpful in a world where the impact of severe climate change is already being felt?