Jun 09 2023

Checkup on Climate Change

There is good evidence that if you want to lose weight, you need to weigh yourself at least weekly. You need the constant feedback of the scale to adjust your behavior. This is a good general principle – having outcome feedback to measure the effect of what you are doing so you can make adjustments. This is the basic concept of many AI learning algorithms. Plug output into input and let it run.

Along these lines, a group of 50 scientists have made a website and report that tracks several useful measures of how the world is doing tackling climate change. They are doing this in part in preparation for the upcoming (and future) IPCC meetings. But it’s also a useful resource for journalists and the public. So – how are we doing? Brace yourself.

One measure they track is the average warming (above pre-industrialized levels) averaged over the last decade running. This helps track one of the primary goals of trying to blunt global warming, keeping peak warming below 1.5 C (2.7 F). In 2019 this average of the previous 10 years was 1.07 C. In 2022, just three years later, this average is up to 1.14 C. My only “note” is that I would put some kind of thermometer or gauge on the website, visually representing current average warming and how close we are getting to 1.5 C. But the numbers tell the tale.

Another way to mark our march toward problematic climate change is known as the carbon budget – how much cumulative CO2 can we release into the atmosphere without pushing warming past 1.5 C? The remaining carbon budget is 250 gigatonnes of CO2. Our current annual rate of CO2 emissions is 41 gigatonnes – so if we stay at the current rate we will exhaust our carbon budget in 2029 – just 6 years.┬áRemember when it was common to report that “we have just 12 years to stop global warming”? That was based on the carbon budget calculation. That’s not really what it means. It’s more accurate to say, we have 12 years, at current CO2 emissions, before we will exceed 1.5 C warming. That figure has now been cut in half, down to 6 years.

Of course that assumes continuing current levels of emissions, which brings us to another measure worth tracking, how much CO2 is the world emitting? As I said, we are up to 41 gigatonnes per year, which is an all-time high. Scientists also track “CO2 equivalents”, which includes all greenhouse gasses (GHGs), such as methane and N2O and other gases. This is not an exact equivalence because the time each gas will remain in the atmosphere is different, but it is based on the GHG effect over the short term. CO2 equivalent emissions are up to 54.8 gigatonnes.

This is the most disheartening number of the site – despite all the efforts that have been made so far, with the dramatic rise of renewable energy, we are still burning more fossil fuel and emitting more CO2 than ever. Installed renewables is not even covering increased electricity demand. This is a real challenge. No one should argue that significantly reducing CO2 will be easy. First, transforming our energy, transportation, and manufacturing infrastructure over to electrical-based technology and green renewable energy and processes requires the building of infrastructure. Building infrastructure (all those solar panels, wind turbines, and batteries) takes energy and carbon. You do get paid back in the long run – but of course there’s the rub, the long run will be too late to stay below 1.5 C.

Also, as we convert transportation and manufacturing to electrical based technology, that increases demand for energy production. Estimates are that by 2050 we will see a 50% increase in energy demand (which may be a conservative estimate). That means if we built enough wind and solar to cover half of our current electricity demand by 2050, we will just be treading water.

Interestingly, there is another short term issue – reducing pollution, which is a good thing, actually worsens global warming in the short run. Many pollutants, such as aerosols, are reflective and reduce warming. Clearing the air, while still putting out CO2, is a double-whammy for warming in the short term.

So in many ways we are kind-of stuck. We need to emit CO2 in order to change over to a green economy, and reducing pollution will increase warming. This is why (I can’t resist pointing out) prematurely shuttering nuclear plants was so nonsensical. The investments were already made – we should squeeze every watt of energy we can out of existing low CO2 energy sources. This is also why we need to take an “all of the above” approach to climate change, and we need to be strategic. We absolutely need to build as much renewable energy as we can, but we cannot just blindly do this in the hopes it will all work. We need to build renewables, extend nuclear plants and build new ones, maximize geothermal and hydroelectric, upgrade the grid, develop more grid storage, plant trees, enrich soil, develop carbon capture and sequestration, develop green hydrogen for industry, and optimize our land use.

First and foremost we need to have a strategic plan for shuttering or converting coal-fired plants as quickly as possible. We simply cannot afford to burn one more lump of coal than we absolutely have to. Retrain coal miners, give them all higher paying, safer, and healthier jobs in green energy. Unless this is a priority, we really have no chance of staying below 1.5 C. We can’t feel better just because we built another wind turbine – unless we are shutting down coal burning, it just won’t matter.

Right now, this is just not happening. We are doing too little and too late. It feels like we are watching a freight train crash in slow motion. There is too much momentum, and nothing we can do to stop it. But of course, there is something we can collectively do – all the things I listed above. We just can’t seem to muster the political will to do so. Hopefully initiatives like this climate website will at least help. We are like a chain-smoking obese diabetic with heart disease. We need to weigh ourselves every day, get regular checkups, and significantly change our behavior.

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