Climate Change After Trump: What Can We Expect?

We begin 2021 with the hope that the return of a stable government will bring progress on climate change. The Biden administration will reinstate the environmental safeguards rescinded by the outgoing administration, and it will rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement.  But that just gets us back to where we were four years ago when we were setting new fossil fuel emissions records almost every year.

A return to the status quo before the recent four-year aberration in our national government will not help us. The main factor that prevented action on climate change then is still present: lobbying by the fossil fuel industry.  This is what keeps some members of Congress repeating the industry lies that deny the scientific evidence of manmade global warming and its dangers.  And it is what keeps the unrestricted consumption of fossil fuels possible.

This corruption of our political system is bipartisan. Even during the Obama administration when the Democrats held both houses of Congress, the President refused to take action to reduce the burning of fossil fuels when he had the opportunity.  Republican or Democrat, there will be no political will to address the problem while the fossil fuel lobby continues to dole out money to politicians in exchange for protecting them from accountability for their deceitful despoliation of the planet.

And so, even with Democrats occupying the White House and controlling both houses of Congress, we are not likely to see any dramatic changes that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The only thing that will finally break this impasse is a deteriorating climate that begins to take big bites out of our GDP. That will force politicians to end their corrupt bargain with the gas, oil, and coal companies.

So, we have two issues to consider: (1) the political will to act and (2) the physical capacity to make the required reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in time to stave off an environmental catastrophe once the political obstacles have been removed.  To explore these questions, I have prepared two scenarios. One of these scenarios examines the feasibility of eliminating fossil fuel emissions by 2050 – a goal most climate scientists say we must achieve to avoid worst-case outcomes. The other scenario considers the technological and engineering constraints on our ability to reduce greenhouse gases over the next 30 years.

Greenhouse gas emissions are produced by the generation of energy by fossil fuels, so I will use energy consumption as a proxy for emissions.  I will also compare the two scenarios to actual energy consumption in 2019 and to the EIA (Energy Information Administration) forecast for 2050. The following chart shows the comparison:

Row #

Subject

Total

FF

Nuclear

Wind

PV Solar

Other Ren

Tot Ren

1

2019 Actual

28,970

23,500

2,300

300

70

2,800

3,170

2

2050 Forecast

33,000

25,000

2,000

2,400

800

2,800

6,000

3

Zero Emissions

22,800

0

2,000

12,000

6,000

2,800

20,800

4

Alternate Plan

23,000

13,000

3,200

2,700

1,300

2,800

6,800

5

Alt Plan %’s

100%

56%

14%

12%

6%

12%

30%

 

I’ll now discuss the forecast and both scenarios.

The 2050 Forecast: 

The EIA forecast assumes a business-as-usual approach. Total energy consumption will increase by 14%, fossil fuel consumption will increase by 6%, and nuclear energy will decline by 13% due to scheduled decommissionings and no new construction.  The forecast has wind energy increasing eightfold and solar energy increasing by a factor of 11.

Wind and Solar:  Increased production will require faster deployment rates. I will assume that we will ramp up over the next nine years, and that from 2030 to 2050 the rates of deployment remain constant. For wind, the rate of deployment must increase from 20 TWh per year to 85 TWh per year by 2030.  This is 4.25 times the current rate.  For solar, the rate of deployment must increase from 10 TWh per year to 30 TWh per year by 2030.  This is 3.0 times the current rate.

Since this is an EIA forecast, I will assume that these multiples are achievable. But this business-as-usual forecast is a prescription for disaster because, rather than decreasing, fossil fuel combustion increases by six percent.

The Zero Emissions Scenario:

The goal is to eliminate fossil fuels by 2050. We can expect that we will reduce total energy consumption while we replace fossil fuels with non-polluting sources of energy. Both are necessary to reduce emissions. I will assume that energy consumption declines by 20% by 2050. This should be achievable since initially we can take advantage of low-hanging fruit.

We must also consider that in the U.S. there is a prevailing sentiment against building more nuclear capacity. This leaves the entire job on the shoulders of renewables, and the only sources of renewables that are growing are wind and solar.

Together, wind and solar must produce 18,000 TWh of energy by 2050 to replace fossil fuels and compensate for the 13% reduction in nuclear. Since wind is expected to outstrip solar, I will assume that wind energy increases to 12,000 TWh and solar to 6,000 TWh – an increase of 11,700 TWh for wind and 5,930 TWh for solar. (I will assume that energy from other renewable sources remains constant.)

I will also assume that between now and 2030 the rate of deployment of wind and solar doubles and that from 2030 to 2050, it increases sufficiently to reach the targeted production levels.  For wind, the annual rate of deployment between 2030 and 2050 must be 571 TWh, twenty-eight times the current rate. For solar the annual rate of deployment between 2030 and 2050 must be 280 TWh, twenty-five times the current rate.  It is not feasible to achieve these levels of deployment.

The Alternate Plan: 

If we can’t eliminate fossil fuel emissions by 2050, how close can we get? I prepared this scenario to answer that question.

I keep the assumption that total energy consumption decreases by 20%. I also assume that nuclear energy will increase by 40%.  Here is how I calculated that. By 2030 nuclear is given the green light. If development begins immediately, the first plants to be commissioned will go into operation in 2035. At its fastest rate (between 1979 and 1988) France added 30 TWh per year to its nuclear capacity. Let’s assume that we double this to 60 TWh per year. Between 2035 and 2050 we could add 1,200 TWh of nuclear energy. This would offset the 300 TWh expected to be lost to decommissioning and would add another 900 TWh, bringing total nuclear energy in 2050 to 3,200 TWh.

I assumed that the deployment rate for wind will double by 2030 and triple that level by 2050. In 2050 this would generate 2,700 TWh of energy. I assumed that the deployment rate of solar will also double by 2030 and triple that level by 2050.  In 2050 this would generate 1,300 TWh of energy.

With nuclear and renewable inputs known, we can calculate the amount of energy from fossil fuels required.  This works out to 13,000 TWh which is a 45% reduction.

The plan would result in fossil fuels contributing 56% of total energy, nuclear 14%, and renewables 30%.

These are aggressive assumptions, so I think this scenario is ambitious. I conclude that, barring some extraordinary technological breakthroughs, the best we can hope to do is to reduce emissions by around 50% by 2050. The one variable that could change this is the year in which political resistance to reducing fossil fuel emissions occurs. If it is earlier than 2030 then more can be accomplished.  If it is later than 2030, then less can be accomplished.

Carbon Capture:

Emissions are only one part of the problem. The other part is the need to extract carbon dioxide already in the air.  How much carbon dioxide do we need to remove? Based on studies of the interglacial period before the present one (called the Eemian), scientists have shown that the highest concentration of carbon dioxide we can tolerate and still maintain a climate reasonably like the one we have had for the past 10,000 years is 350 parts per million. Today (January 2021) we are at 410 parts per million. The difference (60 parts per million) translates to 550 billion tons of carbon dioxide. What will it take to remove this amount of carbon dioxide from the air?

The industry for the extraction of carbon dioxide is still in its infancy. There are several start-ups where R&D continues, but the amount of extraction being done is miniscule.

The current technology for carbon dioxide extraction from the air involves the use of fans to pull air through a filter (called an “air contactor”) which removes the carbon dioxide. Every cubic meter of air has a mere .75 grams of carbon dioxide, so you must move a lot of air to get a little carbon dioxide.  To remove one metric ton of carbon dioxide you need to pull 1.3 million cubic meters of air through the air contactor. To remove 550 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide you need to pull 770,000 cubic kilometers of air (185,000 cubic miles) through the air contactor.

How large an infrastructure will this require?  A typical 48-inch industrial fan can pull 524 cubic meters per minute operating at 90% of capacity. Assume that one carbon capture plant has 1,000 of these fans.  This plant could remove 187 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. To remove 550 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide in 30 years you would need one million of these plants.

Now consider how these plants are going to be powered. If you use fossil fuels, you are defeating the purpose because you will increase emissions to reduce emissions.  Carbon capture only makes sense if it can be powered by non-polluting energy sources – sources which we don’t have now.

Carbon Engineering is a leading carbon capture company located in Squamish, British Columbia, Canada. Its strategy is to convert the captured carbon dioxide into useful products and thereby offset the cost of operations. While a logical strategy, there is so much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that you would soon saturate the market for products you could make from it.  Without a profit, carbon capture is not a suitable commercial enterprise. This means that ultimately, carbon capture must be a government project.

Considering the scope of the infrastructure required, that the technology is still in its infancy, that it will have to be financed by governments, and that we don’t currently have the required clean energy to do it, this project is not currently feasible.

+++

Under optimum conditions, the U.S. can get close to cutting emissions in half by 2050.  If we are successful in doing this we will reduce cumulative emissions over the next 29 years (it’s already 2021) by 75 billion tons.  But we will still put another 75 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

We have waited too long to take action to reduce greenhouse gases (we are still waiting) to avoid serious climate consequences.  And the U.S. now accounts for only 15% of global emissions.  The fate of the biosphere depends on what happens in the rest of the world, and largely on what is done in Asia – particularly in China and India.