Sunblock for Planet Earth

Feb 19, 2023
Smoke moving and blocking sunset, light leaks flickering.

How best to reduce greenhouse gas emissions: stop burning coal, eat less meat or block out the sun? The first and second look preferable to the third to me.

How many reports do we need?

Every organisation with an interest in climate change seems to produce at least one report a year that analyses countries’ climate targets and promises or what’s needed to stay under 1.5oC of warming this century or reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050. One wonders if all the effort and expense of producing these reports is really necessary. As far as prompting greater climate action is concerned, do they add anything useful?

We already have a very good understanding of the critical situation we are in, of what and who has caused it, and of the consequences of inadequate corrective action. More importantly, we know what we need to do to limit the consequences to manageable proportions. Annually tweaking the percentages, megatons, temperatures, dates, dollars, etc. in accordance with each organisation’s preferred method of analysis hardly seems important while we continue to ignore the obvious and necessary changes required to limit global warming. Because make no mistake, Biden, Xi, Macron, Albanese and the rest of them are not doing anywhere near enough.

I’m tempted to say that I’m not going to cover any more of these reports, which a cynic (not I) might claim are designed to maintain the organisation’s profile and supporter base rather than solve the climate problem. But I’m not going to make such a rash promise, if only because many of the reports do contain interesting nuggets of information even if the concluding messages and recommendations are pretty much all the same.

So … here’s another one.

Transitioning away from coal

Coal is the largest energy-related source of CO2 emissions globally – 10.5 gigatonnes in 2021. Then there is the use of coal by the steel, cement and other industries – about 4.5 gigatonnes. Regrettably, there hasn’t been much change in the total consumption of coal in recent years – it has remained on its plateau for the last decade or so.

China accounts for over half of the demand for coal and when you add in the other developing economies the figure exceeds 80%. I hasten to add, however, that I see these countries as exhibiting symptoms of the coal problem, not being the causes of it.

No surprises then that the International Energy Agency (IEA) concludes that while a range of integrated emissions reduction policies is an essential element of climate action, ‘reducing emissions from coal needs to be a first-order priority [and] a massive scale up of clean sources of power generation, accompanied by system-wide improvements in energy efficiency, is key to reducing coal use’. We hardly needed the IEA to drop those pearls before us (see previous rant) but their new report does contain some of those interesting nuggets:

  • Owners and operators of the 9,000 or so existing coal plants still have more than US$1 trillion of sunk capital waiting to be recovered. IEA suggests that one way to encourage them to retire or repurpose their plants earlier than planned is to help them recoup their initial investment sooner by giving them access to finance at 4% interest rather than the usual 7%. I naively thought that the hope of getting a good return on your investment in a capitalist system was accompanied by the calculated risk of losing some or all of your investment. Apparently not. If you make a bad call, the IEA suggests that you should get special treatment so that you can still meet your original profit-making expectations. Silly me. And silly investors in horses and stables around 1900, in Betamax in the 1980s and in Kodak in the 2000s – you should have asked for a handout to cover your losses.
  • Globally there are currently five coal-based Carbon Capture and Storage (CCUS) projects operating – they capture 5 million tonnes of CO2 per year. A further 23, expected to capture 35 million tonnes per year, are under development. 5 + 35 = 40 million which is about 0.4% of the 10.5 gigatonnes mentioned earlier. Despite this, the IEA still claims that CCUS has ‘important potential to mitigate emissions from coal use’ and likes to differentiate abated and unabated coal power plants. But reducing coal’s CO2 emissions by 30 or even 50 per cent still leaves coal power pumping lots of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. It doesn’t take a genius to see that terms such as ‘CCUS’ and ‘transitioning from unabated coal’ are nothing but distractions for the unwary to help the coal industry stay in business for as long as possible – see previous dot point.
  • Globally, around 8.4 million people work in coal value chains, about three-quarters in mining, processing and transporting coal and about a quarter in power generation. If governments meet their current promises this will fall to about 6.3 million in 2030 but half of this reduction will occur anyway as a result of productivity improvements (automation etc.).
  • About 32 million people already work in clean energy around the world and, if current promises are met, this will increase to 54 million in 2030. I know that for a variety of reasons Jack & Jill Miner can’t simply leave the pit on Friday and become J&J Wind-Farmer on Monday but there does seem to be quite a bit of potential to ensure most displaced workers and affected communities can find a secure future.
  • New jobs are also being created in mining and processing the minerals that are critical for the energy transition. There are significant environmental and social problems associated with these activities but we’ll leave those for another day.

‘Sun, sun, sun, here it comes …’

… but maybe not for much longer if we don’t rapidly control greenhouse gas emissions and prevent global warming turning into Hothouse Earth. Would we then need a fallback position that nobody likes but has become the only available option?

According to Bill McKibben there seems to be little doubt that one or more of the aerosol particles (e.g. sulfur dioxide, aluminium, calcium carbonate, diamond dust) that various people have suggested could be pumped into the atmosphere to reflect some of the sun’s incoming energy back into space (solar radiation management) would produce a global cooling effect. The more important questions are:

  1. What other effects would there be? (e.g. a Hoagy Carmichael buttermilk sky, reduced photosynthesis, damage to the ozone layer, changes to river flows causing desertification and affecting agriculture and hydropower)
  2. How would the outcomes be different for different places and different people? Would there be winners and losers? Would this precipitate international conflict?
  3. Would there be a catastrophic rebound if solar radiation management was started and then stopped (termination shock)?
  4. Who would make all the necessary decisions and monitor outcomes?
  5. Do we need an international agreement, like the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, that commits countries NOT to do something potentially disastrous, rather than a pact such as the Paris Agreement which entails commitments to do something beneficial?

One of the reasons that we might reach the point of having to choose between geoengineering and population collapse, or even extinction, is that, according to McKibben, World Trade Association rules prohibit climate actions that interfere with its free-trade principles. Yeah, that makes sense.

While principles for the governance of geoengineering have been proposed and a set might eventually be formally adopted by countries, corporations and universities, it’s difficult to prevent individuals doing their own thing.

Stop eating meat to halve global warming

Animal agriculture makes a massive contribution to global warming through the production of methane and nitrous oxide (and a little bit of CO2) and through land clearing to support livestock. Meat from cattle and sheep is by far the most damaging for the climate. Per kilo of protein produced, the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions for cattle and sheep meat are more than ten times higher than pig meat, more than twenty times higher than chicken meat and cows’ milk, and more than forty times higher than eggs.

The global emissions and land use footprints of various agricultural animals and their products are demonstrated in the figures below. It’s pretty obvious that cattle are the major culprits.

What would be the long-term effect of phasing out all animal agriculture? That is, eliminating the GHG emissions and allowing the forests and grasslands to recover. Perhaps surprisingly, such a course of action would have the same effect on global warming by 2100 as a 25 gigatonnes per year reduction in all GHG emissions – that’s half the emissions reductions needed to keep warming under 2oC and about 40% of the reduction needed for 1.5oC. Meat and milk from cattle and buffalo alone account for 80% of these benefits and yet they provide less than 20% of the protein humans eat. I realise that eliminating all meat, dairy and egg consumption is more of a thought-experiment than a serious policy proposal (at present) but it looks a lot safer to me than solar radiation management.

The graph below demonstrates the projected impact of phasing out animal agriculture on global warming (expressed here by the technical term ‘radiative forcing’). Following the global adoption of a plant only diet, the recovery of biomass (forests, grasslands, etc.) as farmland is ‘rewilded’ would make as big a contribution in 2100 to reducing warming as the total reduction of GHG emissions, and it would make it more quickly.

Rockpool ramble

I spent a very pleasant couple of hours gazing into the rockpools at Sydney’s Bottle and Glass Point one January afternoon. The excursion was organised by the Woollahra Council’s Environmental Education Officer. What I hadn’t realised before I got there was that children were the primary intended audience – I was the only unaccompanied adult. No matter, a fun and educational time was enjoyed by all as we saw and learnt about sea stars, sea hares, hermit crabs and more. We were even lucky enough to see a seahorse and two blue-ringed octopuses. The latter being a reminder not to put your fingers anywhere in rockpools that you can’t see into. The Council has made available a short video of our adventures.

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