Do scientists have a duty to expose popular misconceptions?
Renewable energy, nuclear power and Galileo
James E Hansen 21 February 2014
James E Hansen: ‘Galileo knew that the truth would come out eventually and no one would be harmed. So he could just mutter under his breath “and yet it moves!” That, I cannot do.’ Image https://www.facebook.com/jimehansen
Climate scientists have long warned of potential catastrophic effects of unchecked fossil fuel use.
Public awareness of the climate threat has increased. Yet growth of carbon dioxide (CO2
) in the air, the main driver of climate change, has accelerated inexorably, as nations use cheap fossil fuels to power their economies.
Governments recognize the climate threat, universally endorsing the Framework Convention on Climate Change
, with the objective of avoiding dangerous climate change. Yet governments continue to encourage the fossil fuel industry to extract almost every fossil fuel that can be found, including the most carbon-intensive and dirtiest fuels such as coal, tar sands and tar shale.
Figure 1a: Global CO2
annual emissions from fossil fuel use and cement manufacture.
How can governments be so unresponsive to a public need? ‘It’s not dumbfounding,’ you may say. ‘The fossil fuel industry uses its enormous resources to influence public opinions and government policies.’ Certainly they do, but that is only part of the story, and that part of the story has been reported reasonably well.
Here I present climate and energy data to help expose popular misconceptions about energy. These misconceptions have a greater impact on prospects for stabilizing climate and preserving the remarkable life on our planet than fossil fuel lobbyists and climate change deniers will ever have. First I must present data for what I call the ‘carbon math’ and the ‘energy math.’
A specific carbon math
is beginning to be appreciated by the public and policymakers, thanks to a dogged ‘do the math’ tour and advocacy by Bill McKibben and his 350.org organization
. The goal of 350.org, eventual return of atmospheric CO2
to a level no greater than 350 ppm (parts per million), was born several years earlier. It had become clear that CO2
should peak at less than 450 ppm and eventually decline to no more than 350 ppm, if we are to retain a planet closely resembling the one that we know and love—a planet with reasonably stable shorelines that preserves the abundance of other species, species whose services humanity so enjoys and takes for granted. The scientific basis for this conclusion was documented
by authors with a broad range of relevant expertise.
The implication of the carbon math is that most of the remaining high-carbon fuels—coal and unconventional fossil fuels such as tar sands—must be left in the ground. The world must move rapidly to clean carbon-free energy, or we will leave our children and future generations a deteriorating climate system spinning out of their control.
Figure 1b: World energy consumption (excluding wood).
Governments are not entirely ignorant of the carbon math, but their concerns about energy usually outweigh concerns about carbon. Therefore, it is important that the energy math be well understood, as well as the relationship between the carbon math and energy math. I will argue that there are misunderstandings or misconceptions of the energy math, which can almost be characterized as myths. Let’s first examine some fundamental carbon and energy data.
) emissions did not decline following the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. Indeed, emissions and even the growth rate of emissions accelerated (Fig. 1a). The largest growth of CO2
emissions and energy use was in China, where provision of electricity expanded to more than 90% of the population, lifting several hundred million people out of poverty
. Coal use caused most of the emissions growth and coal is now the source of nearly half of global fossil fuel carbon emissions (Fig. 1a).
Fossil fuels provide more than 85% of the world’s energy (Fig. 1b). One misconception discussed below concerns the fallacy that renewable energy is rapidly supplanting conventional energy. Total non-hydro renewables today offset only about one year’s growth of energy use.
Figure 2a: Global CO2
annual emissions (log scale).
Energy use and carbon emissions in developed countries approximately leveled off over the past 35 years (Fig. 2), where developed countries are defined as Europe, the U.S., the former Soviet Union, Japan, Canada, and Australia. The leveling of emissions from developed countries is in part a result of outsourcing of manufacturing to developing countries.
Global carbon emissions (Fig. 2a) are the sum of exponential growth curves for developed and developing countries, with developed country growth climaxing about 1970. Energy use in developed countries continued to increase modestly after 1970 (Fig. 2b), but carbon emissions stabilized because the increased energy was provided mainly by nuclear power.
Global energy consumption will continue to rise for decades. Why? First, population is likely to reach about nine billion before it begins to decline, even in the best case. Second, developing world energy use is still rising (Fig. 2), as it must to achieve living standards that allow their emphasis to be on more than survival. Even China, though most of its population is now above the poverty line, will use more energy, because its economic development and the well-being of its citizens are not yet at the point where energy needs level out. Third, in the developed world, despite improving energy efficiency and assertions by some people that they will live low energy life styles, there is no indication of a dramatic decline in overall energy use. People travel and plan to continue to travel. Small declines in energy use in the developed world so far are a consequence mainly of outsourcing of manufacturing, not low-energy life styles.
Figure 2b: Global energy consumption.
Abundant affordable energy is essential to address the world’s economic and environmental problems. Energy is needed to achieve adequate living standards and a stable human population. Economic progress makes it possible to pay attention to the environment, as required if we are to share the planet with the other species, which are needed for our own well-being. With economic progress fertility rates in most developed nations have fallen close to or below the level required for population stability or decline. I believe that the best hope for preserving Earth’s environment and its invaluable abundance of life is through intelligent economic development, and economic development requires a substantial level of affordable energy.
Fossil fuels provided the energy that today’s developed world employed to reach its current standard of living. Unfortunately, if the developing world follows that fossil fuel path, there will be no winners—the carbon math makes that clear. Yet if fossil fuels provide the only realistic available path to development and improved living standards, that path surely will be taken.
It is easy to blame governments for the fact that we are marching inexorably toward climate disasters, as if humanity were a bunch of lemmings scurrying toward a cliff. I have argued that politicians are well-oiled and coal-fired
, and, indeed, documentation of that exists
. However, this is surely not the only cause, and it may not be the most important one.
Indeed, a case could be made that politicians have been pushed into a situation such that they have no choice but to approve continued coal burning, hydro-fracking for increased gas and oil production, and pursuit of oil and gas in extreme and pristine environments. For the sake of understanding the present situation, we must introduce and combine some basic economic, energy and carbon facts.
Figure 3a: Real gross domestic product of several nations.
Economic growth, energy intensity and carbon intensity
Economic growth is needed to provide resources to phase out global poverty and replace dirty high-carbon energy with clean energy sources. The common observation that exponential growth cannot continue for long on a finite planet does not imply that we must go back to pre-industrial life styles. The growth rate of world gross domestic product (GDP) will decline, indeed, it already has declined from about ~5%/year in 1945-75 to ~3% year in recent decades (Fig. 3; annual growth rate of GDP 5-year mean change) and it likely will continue to decline in coming decades. High growth rates are needed in developing countries to end poverty, but the portion of world GDP in developing nations will decline as some nations move to developed nation status.
Climate change will hamper economic growth if climate change spirals out of control, but actions required to avert climate change do not need to hamper the economy. Averting climate change requires restricting fossil fuel carbon emissions
, but there is no per se restriction on economic development. The relation of carbon emissions to GDP is given by the simple formula:
or, in words,
- Carbon Emissions = Gross Domestic Product × Energy Intensity × Carbon Intensity
Figure 3b: GDP and its annual growth rate. Annual growth rate of GDP, blue curve, is the mean annual growth over a 5-year period.
Energy intensity is the energy used to produce a unit of gross domestic product (GDP). Carbon intensity is fossil fuel carbon emitted per unit energy. Global energy intensity (Fig. 4a) decreased ~0.85%/year during 1965-2000 and carbon intensity decreased ~0.40%/year (Fig. 4b). Heavy black lines in Fig. 4 show global averages of EI and CI. Thus the global GDP growth of +3.52%/year in 1965-2000, was partially offset by the declines of energy and carbon intensities. Net growth of +2.27%/year over 1965-2000 based on these changes of GDP, EI and CI imply carbon emission growth of ~119% over 35 years, which is consistent with actual fossil fuel CO2 emission growth (116%) of Fig. 1a.
We focus on global energy and global carbon intensities, because they are the quantities that impact global climate. Also global quantities inherently include the effects of outsourcing, i.e., transnational shifting of manufacturing with resulting increased transportation distances.
Explosion of coal use in the 21st century (Fig. 1a) reversed the downward trend of global carbon intensity (Fig. 4b), which instead increased +0.6%/year during 2000-2012. Global energy intensity was flat (~0.1%/year) during 2000-2012, as energy intensity decreases in developed countries (partly a result of increased outsourcing of manufacturing) were offset by the increasing fraction of energy use in developing countries with higher, albeit decreasing, energy intensity. Consequently, despite a global economic crisis within the 2000-2012 period and a global GDP growth rate of about 2.5%/year, fossil fuel carbon emissions increased 3%/year during 2000-2012.
Figure 4a: Energy intensity, defined as energy consumption (Gt of oil equivalent) divided by real gross domestic product (trillions of 2005 US $).
Global and national energy and carbon intensities (Fig. 4) provide some insights relevant to policies required to achieve rapid slowdown of global carbon emissions. First, the seemingly paradoxical result that global energy intensity is barely declining despite large improvements in individual nations is a readily understood consequence of the increasing proportion of carbon emissions from developing countries. Shifting of manufacturing to developing countries is likely to continue, e.g., from China to less developed countries as costs in China rise along with an increasing standard of living there. One implication is the need for an international carbon fee or tax, which would simultaneously put downward pressure on both global energy intensity and global carbon intensity, as discussed below.
The carbon intensity of China is stubbornly high (Fig. 4b) because of the high proportion of coal in its energy portfolio. France achieved the greatest reduction of carbon intensity (Fig. 4b) via a shift over about a 10-year period to nuclear power for 80% of its electricity. French carbon intensity stalled at about half of global carbon intensity, because of fossil fuel use in transportation, heating and manufacturing. The even greater reductions of carbon intensity that will be needed to achieve rapid global CO2
emission reduction likely require increased use of carbon-free electricity in transportation, heating and manufacturing.
Biospheric Carbon Carbon emissions are often given as the sum of fossil fuel and biospheric emissions, the latter mainly a result of deforestation. It is better to focus on the fossil fuel carbon, which will remain in the climate system ~100 000 years. Net biospheric carbon in the air is smaller and potentially can be put back into the biosphere, including the soil, this century via improved agricultural and forestry practices. This restoration is feasible, despite human occupation of substantial land area, because carbon uptake is increased by the greater airborne CO2.
Figure 4b: Carbon intensity, defined as fossil fuel carbon emissions (GtC) divided by energy consumption (Gt of oil equivalent). Energy intensity of China is normalized to 1.56 that of the United States in 2005.
Slowing carbon emissions growth
Skyrocketing global CO2
emissions (Fig.1a), increasing 3%/year in the 21st
century, have led people, including some scientists, to practically ‘throw in the towel’, i.e., to conclude that global warming of several degrees is inevitable. Such pessimism is uncalled for and such defeatism will be unforgivable in the future when our descendants assess what happened.
The 2009 Copenhagen Accord of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change affirmed a target of reducing emissions to keep global warming from exceeding 2°C relative to pre-industrial times. However, global warming of 2°C is well into the ‘dangerous’ range that all nations agreed to avoid in the Framework Convention signed by 190 nations
. Warming of 2°C would lead to eventual sea level rise of several meters, extermination of a substantial fraction of species, and extraordinary increases of extreme regional climate anomalies, including heat waves, drought, forest fires, extreme rainfall and floods, and stronger storms.
Given the 0.8°C warming that has already occurred, the planet’s current energy imbalance
, and energy infrastructure in place, it is now practically impossible to keep maximum warming as small as 1°C. Such a goal, which is needed to keep global temperature within or very close to the Holocene range to which civilization is adapted, would require reducing fossil fuel emissions about 6%/year
. On the other hand, a target of limiting global warming to 1.5°C is feasible, the principal requirement being that fossil fuel emissions peak by 2020 and then decline by 2%/year; in addition a drawdown of 100 GtC CO2
via improved agricultural and forestry practices would be required and the net forcing change from non-CO2 climate forcings would need to be zero
Figure 5a: Fossil fuel CO2
emissions in China.
Note different scales in figures 5a and 5b—China ~ 4 × India
Achievement of any reasonable goal for limiting climate change obviously requires pulling on both the energy intensity and carbon intensity levers. Because these levers must be pulled globally, an across-the-board rising carbon fee/tax is required covering all fossil fuels. The fee would be collected by each participating nation at its domestic mines and ports of entry. The global fee could be initiated by an agreement between China and the U.S., with all other nations invited to have an equivalent carbon fee. Products from nations that did not join (participate) would be taxed at the border of the importing nation, according to a standard formula accounting for the carbon content of the product. Also exporting participating nations would rebate that amount to their own manufacturers for exports to nonparticipating nations, thus assuring that industry in participating nations suffers no trade disadvantage.
A rising carbon fee is the essential underlying policy needed to phase down carbon emissions. However, it is not sufficient. Clean energy technologies must be available to replace fossil fuels at a cost not exceeding the true fossil fuel cost. True cost includes the externalities, specifically human health and environmental costs of waste products that the fossil fuel industry presently dumps into the atmosphere without penalty. Waste products include not only CO2, but also black soot, organic carbon and other aerosols and gases that are highly deleterious to human health, agricultural plants, and wildlife.
Electricity is a clean energy carrier that provides a larger and larger portion of energy use in developed countries. The crucial requirement for achieving a clean energy future and a stable climate is carbon-free pollution-free electricity generation.
Figure 5b: Fossil fuel CO2
emissions in India.
Note different scales in figures 5a and 5b—China ~ 4 × India
Abundant affordable carbon-free electricity will allow electricity to provide an increasing proportion of energy for transportation and buildings. The essential policy action required to achieve increasing use of clean carbon-free energy for transportation and buildings is a rising carbon fee or tax. The rising carbon fee will drive both the energy intensity and carbon intensity levers. The carbon fee will accelerate efficiency improvements in vehicles and buildings, and it will spur technology and deployment such as improved batteries for electric and hybrid vehicles.
The ‘model’ for economic development ever since the industrial revolution began has been explosive growth of fossil fuel use followed by an effort to clean up the air and water pollution caused by the fossil fuels. It is now clear that a continuation of that approach will have hugely undesirable consequences for all nations, developed and developing. It is in the interests of all, and vital for young people, future generations and nature, that continued and future development be achieved with a new carbon-free model developed via cooperation between developed and developing countries.
China is the urgent case. Global annual carbon emissions have increased 2.9 GtC/year in the 21st century. The increase of China’s carbon emissions in the period 2000-2012 constitutes almost 60% of the global increase. If a pathway and requisite technologies are found for China to achieve its development with much lower carbon emissions, that success may affect the next major developing regions such as India, as well as developed countries, which must phase out their fossil fuel emissions in coming decades.
Figure 6: New electric production capability added in China during 2013.
Source: A Cohen, Clean Air Task Force
, based on preliminary estimates from China Electricity Council for maximum energy production. Assumed capacity factors: fossil (58% per IEA WEO 2013) hydro (34% per IEA WEO 2013); wind (33%); nuclear (90%); solar (15%).
China is making a huge effort to develop increased electricity generation with both coal and clean energies. Indeed, China is now leading the world in installation of new hydropower, wind, solar and nuclear electricity generation. However, the energy development situation in China is often reported, in the West, in very misleading ways. For example, a 2014 article China Roars Ahead with Renewables
magazine reprinted from The Conversation
, stated ‘Reports of China opening a huge new coal-fired power station every week belie the reality—China is the new global powerhouse for renewable modernization and industrialization of the country—is now being powered more by renewables than by fossil fuels.’ The article concluded ‘These results reveal just how strongly China is swinging behind renewables as its primary energy resource…’ This distortion of reality, pointed out by Armond Cohen
of the Clean Air Task Force, is common and contributes to energy misconceptions discussed below.
It is true that China is leading the world in installation of renewable energies. However, a meaningful data presentation for the new energy sources (Fig. 6) shows a rather different picture than that presented in environmentalist literature. Figure 6 shows the production capability of the 2013 installations in terawatt hours. The electric production capability (in terawatt hours) accounts for the capacity factor of each energy source, as opposed, e.g., to misleading numbers for peak output in watts at noon on a sunny day. The new fossil fuel energy output in China, mostly coal, exceeded new wind energy by a factor of six and new solar output by a factor of 27.
Figure 7a: Fossil fuel CO2
2012 emissions (9.6 GtC/yr).
China–US cooperation and planetary resurgence
Figure 7b: Fossil fuel CO2
cumulative 1751-2012 emissions (384 GtC/yr).
Part of a hope-based network restoring and enjoying the Mahurangi
Editor Cimino Cole