In his early days as Climate Czar, John Kerry described the current climate crisis as a great opportunity to change our energy infrastructure and create thousands of new jobs. More somber voices, however, question whether we can do this in time to avoid a climate catastrophe.
The science tells us that we must reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030 and eliminate them by 2050 if we are to stay below a 2-degree Celsius rise in the global mean surface temperature of the Earth – or face calamitous climate consequences if we don’t.
The cumulative increase in the surface temperature of the Earth is now (Jan ‘21) 1.1 degrees Celsius. This is described as the increase since 1880, but if you look at the following graph, you will see that the increase occurred in a much shorter time.
Between 1880 and 1964, there was no net change in temperature. This means that the 1.1-degree Celsius temperature increase we’ve seen has occurred in just the past 57 years.
Now we’ll take a closer look at the period of time beginning in 1964 and extending to 2050.
The formula is the equation for the trend line. The R2 value indicates how accurately the trendline matches the data. The closer to 1, the more accurate the trendline. In this case, 93% indicates a high degree of confidence in the trendline.
The trend line crosses the 2-degree mark around 2040. With no change in the historical trend in emissions, this is when we will reach the threshold that will signal an unavoidable and serious destabilization of the global climate. Some climate scientists think that this is underestimating the case and say that all hell will break loose if we reach 1.5 degrees Celsius. That’s only another 0.4 degrees. We have increased the surface temperature of the Earth by 0.4 degrees Celsius just in the past 12 years. As GHGs (greenhouse gases) build up in the atmosphere, the rate of temperature rise steadily increases. In other words, it won’t take another 12 years to get to 1.5 degrees.
What is the history of carbon dioxide emissions? (Note, carbon dioxide serves as a proxy for all greenhouse gases.) The following graph shows global annual CO2 emissions caused by humans since 1970:
Other than the dip in 2008 due to the crash of the housing market and the dip in 2020 due to COVID-19, annual carbon dioxide emissions have been on a steady rise for the past 50 years, averaging an increase of 4.5 billion tons per decade. (The abrupt acceleration in 2003 was due to China beginning rapid economic development.)
The next graph compares the EIA emissions forecast with the required emissions reductions.
Is this an achievable goal? The UN says it is. Many top tier climate scientists say it is.
Let’s consider 2019, the year before COVID-19 hit and drove down energy consumption by 7%. In 2019, global carbon dioxide emissions were 37.5 billion tons. Emissions are the result of generating energy. In 2019, the amount of energy produced globally by humans was 184,000 Terawatt-hours (TWh). Renewables generated 30,000 TWh or 16% of all energy produced. Let’s now assemble the components of our forecast.
The 30,000 TWh of renewable energy breaks out by source as follows:
|Source||% of Ren Energy|
Biomass and hydroelectric are legacy renewables. Biomass has been used for thousands of years and hydroelectric for more than 100 years. There are various forecasts for these sources of energy, but the geophysical limitations on hydroelectric and the competition of biofuels with food crops makes future growth in these energy sectors problematic. So, for the purposes of this analysis, I will assume they remain constant.
Wind, Solar, and Fossil Fuels – 2019:
Now we’ll focus on wind, PV solar, and fossil fuels. We expect that wind and PV solar will account for all growth in renewable energy. This graph shows the amount of energy produced by wind, solar, and fossil fuels in 2019.
Excluding nuclear and legacy renewables, fossil fuels produced 94% of the energy, wind produced 4.5% and solar 1.5%. The goal is for the 6% now produced by wind and solar to grow to 100% by 2050.
Increase in Energy Demand:
The US Energy Information Agency (EIA) BAU forecast is that that global energy consumption will be 207,000 TWh by 2030 and 267,000 TWh by 2050. I believe it is reasonable to assume that rapidly deteriorating climate conditions will force countries to take action that heretofore has only been discussed. I’ll assume that we can reduce the 2030 increase by 25% and the 2050 increase by 50%. The revised forecast is 201,000 TWh by 2030 and 226,000 TWh by 2050.
The IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) has low, medium, and high projections for the growth in nuclear energy. I will assume that deteriorating climate conditions will produce less resistance to the use of nuclear energy, and so I will use the high projection.
|Nuclear Capacity and Energy Forecast|
|Capacity (GW)||Energy (TWh)|
The link is here:
Wind and Solar Forecast:
A 2019 report by IRENA (The International Renewable Energy Agency) on wind energy provides the following forecast:
The link to this report is here:
The table on the left shows wind capacity in gigawatts. The table on the right shows wind energy production. The efficiency of wind turbines currently ranges from 30% to 45%. As wind turbines grow larger their efficiency increases. The maximum possible efficiency is 60%. The size of wind turbines is increasing so I will assume an average of 45% efficiency in calculating wind energy.
In 2019 IRENA also produced the following forecast for solar photovoltaic (PV) capacity:
|PV Solar Capacity and Energy Forecast|
|Capacity (GW)||Energy (TWh)|
The link to this report is here:
The PV solar energy produced assumes a 17% increase in the conversion efficiency of solar cells.*
*The energy produced by PV Solar is a function of the efficiency of the PV cell and the amount of time the Sun is shining. Combining the two, the average efficiency of a PV cell today is 16.5%. The most efficient solar cells today convert 24% of the light energy they receive to electricity. The maximum theoretical efficiency of a silicon PV cell is 32%. I will assume that over the next 30 years, solar cell efficiency will increase to 30%. This gives an average efficiency for the period of 28%. This is a 17% increase in efficiency which translates to an average efficiency for the period of 19%.
Combining wind and solar forecasts we have:
|Wind and Solar Energy Forecast (TWh)|
Now we’ll put it all together:
|Total||Biomass||Hydro||Nuclear||Net||W & S||FF||% of Req’d|
You can see that we only reach 13% of our 2030 goal and 23% of our 2050 goal.
Let’s now assume that energy demand remains constant and that we double the amount of energy produced from nuclear, wind, and solar. This is what we have:
|Total||Biomass||Hydro||Nuclear||Net||W & S||Fossil Fuel||% of Req’d|
Even with these liberal and unrealistic assumptions, wind and solar still only produce less than half of what is required to retire fossil fuels by 2050. The inescapable conclusion is that it is not remotely possible to replace all fossil fuel energy with energy from wind and solar by 2050.
And just building wind and solar plants does not solve the problem. We also need to efficiently integrate these intermittent sources of energy into an “on-demand” energy grid. This will require energy storage technologies well beyond what our current technology can provide.
Some hope for a magic bullet – a miraculous technological breakthrough that will solve the problem. The reason this won’t work is because the problem is one of brute force. No matter how clever we are, the laws of physics demand an irreducible amount of energy to free the electrons that produce the thermal or electrical energy we require. That’s why it takes 1,500 2 MW wind turbines to produce the energy of a one 1 GW nuclear or fossil fuel power plant.
And none of this addresses the other big problem – the excess carbon dioxide we have already put into the atmosphere – roughly two trillion tons. Emissions drive up the concentration. The atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide has increased from 280 ppm before the industrial revolution to 412 ppm today. Examination of the interglacial period that preceded ours suggests that anything over 350 ppm will eventually produce a radically altered climate.
Calculations covering the past 60 years show that each part per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere requires the emission of 15 billion tons of carbon dioxide. This means that to get the concentration back down to 350 parts per million will require the removal of almost one trillion tons of carbon dioxide. The technology exists to remove carbon dioxide from ambient air, but the requirements to scale it up to do a task of this magnitude is well beyond our current capabilities.
So why are climate scientists and others who used to issue apocalyptic warnings now providing more reassuring soundbites? I don’t know, but I speculate that things have become so bad that being honest about the situation will only serve to discourage people. So, we are in the “happy talk” phase, which will be followed by the “shock” phase as warming continues to accelerate, causing more frequent climate and more damaging weather events.
Take the recent and unprecedented cold wave that recently hit Dallas. You might think that this suggests that the planet is getting colder rather than hotter, but you would be wrong. As the Arctic warms up – and it is warming faster than the rest of the planet – the temperature differential between the Arctic and temperate zones decreases. It is this temperature differential that produces the Jet Stream, and it is the Jet Stream that keeps the frigid temperatures of the Arctic mostly confined to the Arctic. As the temperature differential decreases, the Jet Stream weakens, and this allows for more frequent excursions of cold air south into the temperate zone. So, as counterintuitive as it might seem, unprecedented cold snaps like the one that hit Dallas are another sign of global warming.
Are there any potential technological breakthroughs that might change the picture? Sadly, the answer is no. Many new technologies are under development, like larger wind turbines, more efficient solar cells, improved batteries, compact nuclear reactors, technologies that use energy more efficiently, etc. But as beneficial as these developments are and will continue to be, they won’t solve the big problem – how to deliver the energy we need without fossil fuels. It is intractable because it is a brute force problem. Fossil fuels are an ideal way to produce that force because of their energy density. It takes an irreducible amount of energy to free electrons from the nucleus of an atom to produce the thermal and electrical energy we require. That’s why it takes 1,500 2 MW wind turbines to produce the energy of one 1 GW nuclear or fossil fuel power plant. No clever innovation will change that.
John Kerry, the IPCC, the politicians, and the climate scientists are wrong – wrong if they really believe what they are saying, and wrong if they know better and are temporizing. We have waited to long to take action to reduce emissions and now it is too late to avoid a climate catastrophe. That’s why Bill Gates, a person who has long been invested in climate science, focuses his writing on how to adapt to climate change.