Jul 21 2022

Global Warming – We Have the Technology

The most frustrating aspect of the global warming saga is that we actually have much of the technology we would need to massively decarbonize our industries. All we have to do is do it. But we lack the political to do what is necessary. It wouldn’t even require any huge sacrifice (as the naysayers falsely claim), at least not on the part of the general public. We would definitely need some creative destruction in various industries, but nothing significantly different than the background turnover that already is happening due to technological advance.

The transportation sector is largely solved. Battery electric vehicles (BEVs) are accessible, more than functional enough, and in most cases cheaper over their lifetime than internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles. Investing in some infrastructure, and tweaking incentives is enough to significantly accelerate the turnover from ICE to BEV. Like many things, the first 60-80% should be easy, and there will be increasing challenges to get the last 10-20% or so, but 80% is enough to significantly reduce the carbon footprint of transportation. We can worry about that last 20% in 20-30 years.

The energy sector is also solved (technologically speaking). Between wind, solar, nuclear, geothermal, and hydroelectric we can provide all the electricity we need, and cover growing electricity needs into the future. Again, we just have to do it.

I want to discuss a few recent technological developments that show we are also making progress in decarbonizing other sectors.

Green Steel

Steel production worldwide is massive – almost 2 billion tonnes per year. Steel production is responsible for about 10% of global carbon emissions, so if we could convert most steel production to greener methods that is a huge opportunity to reduce global warming. The reason for the high carbon footprint is that steel production uses a lot of energy, and most of that energy comes from burning fossil fuels.

The basic process is to crush iron ore into small bits and then sinter or melt them into solid pellets. Meanwhile coal is heated to form coke. The iron pellets and coke are then heated together in a blast furnace, removing oxygen from the iron, to make crude pig iron. That iron is then heated again with oxygen to remove carbon down to the desired level for crude steel. About 70% of steel is made this way. The other 30% uses electric arc furnaces instead of fossil fuel furnaces, but these are used only to recycle scrap steel.

There are a couple of methods being developed for fossil fuel-free steel production. These generally involve using hydrogen and electricity instead of coke and fossil fuels. First, of course, we need green hydrogen (another burgeoning technology), by making hydrogen from water using green electricity. That hydrogen can be used to get the oxygen out of iron ore, making sponge iron. Sponge iron can then go into an electric arc furnace to make steel. Another method uses electricity instead of hydrogen to reduce the iron (remove the oxygen).

Changing the steel industry over to green steel production will be challenging. It will also require massive new electricity generation. But it has already been done on an industrial scale, making green steel that is used for production. There is no question this will involve new capital investments, but again, we have the technology.


Carbon Neutral Jet Fuel

I don’t think electric jets are happening anytime soon, so for now jets will continue to burn hydrocarbons. Our best bet to decarbonize the commercial air travel industry is therefore to create a green hydrocarbon fuel. Some researchers are working on biofuel alternatives, and these may play a role, but biofuels tend to be land intensive which limits their use. Another method has recently been tested at a production (not just laboratory) level.

The method uses solar power to heat materials in a tower. The chemical reaction uses CO2 and H2o plus the solar heating to create “consecutive redox cycling”, first creating hydrogen and carbon monoxide (both high energy molecules that are useful as feedstocks to biofuel) and then finally into both kerosene and diesel fuel. The entire system is carbon neutral and requires no inputs from fossil fuels. Kerosene can be plugged into the existing commercial jet infrastructure, from storage, to distribution, to use in existing jets. The entire process has a 4.1% efficiency in converting solar energy to gas. This is sufficient for the process to be viable, but of course the researchers hope to get that efficiency higher, and project they should be able to achieve 15% efficiency.


Rail CO2 Capture

This one is really clever. There are two features of trains that make them useful as a method for producing energy and removing CO2 from the atmosphere. First, trains have a lot of momentum, which represents a massive amount of energy. That energy is simply wasted when trains brake, largely turning that energy into heat. It is estimated that this energy from all trains is about 105 times the amount of energy produced by the Hoover Dam. Another way to look at this is that each full braking maneuver of a typical passenger train could generate enough energy to power 20 average American homes for an entire day.

We already have the technology to capture that energy, through regenerative braking. The question is – what do we do with that energy? Simply storing it in batteries is not feasible, nor is feeding it to the grid from a moving train. But there is another option, one that leverages the fact that the trains are moving. A car could be attached to trains that contains the equipment necessary to perform carbon capture – to remove CO2 from the air. Normally large fans are necessary to move air through the carbon capture chambers where the chemical process happens. These fans use a lot of energy themselves. A train-based system would not need the fans, as it could rely on the speed of the train itself to move air through the chambers.

One of the researchers involved in this work, Professor Peter Styring, estimates:

“The technology will harvest meaningful quantities of CO2 at far lower costs and has the potential to reach annual productivity of 0.45 gigatons by 2030, 2.9 gigatons by 2050, and 7.8 gigatons by 2075 with each car having an annual capacity of 3,000 tonnes of CO2 in the near term.”


So What’s the Holdup?

There are other technologies I could highlight as well. We need to convert hydrogen production to green hydrogen, and we need to do further research into green concrete, for example. But right now, with existing technology, we could convert our industries over in the next 2-3 decades to reduce CO2 emissions by a significant amount – 80-90%. Carbon capture technology could then take care of the rest. Given current trends, we will likely go a long way toward this goal. But current trends will not go far enough or get there fast enough.

Of course the reason is simple – economics. Many of these methods (but certainly not all) require up front investments, or increased total costs. A great method of reducing carbon is not very useful if it is not economically viable. But this is the ultimate point of this article – it is economically viable if we want it to be. In fact, it should be economically viable.

Economists are converging on a consensus of estimates that global warming is extremely expensive. It could cost the US alone $14.5 by 2070, and by 2100 could be costing the US economy $2 trillion every year. The world economy could shrink by $23 trillion by 2050 due to climate change. Even if you want to quibble with these various estimates, there is a clear consensus that climate change is costing and will increasing cost trillions of dollars in economic damage and lost output.

So when we consider the economic viability of mitigating strategies, we have to compare them to that cost. The cost of global warming is essentially an externalized cost of industries that put CO2 into the atmosphere. But we can simply not let them externalize this cost. There is another consensus emerging among economists – that the only real solution, the one thing that will significantly change the game, is a carbon tax. Tax carbon release and suddenly all of the green technologies become economically viable, and investments in new green infrastructure become worth it. Even among conservative and libertarians, there is support for a carbon tax. Many in industry want it, because it levels the playing field for everyone.

Technology is not the limiting factor in addressing climate change. It’s economics, but we have economic solutions also, and so the only ultimate limiting factor is politics. So basically that means it’s our problem. Those of us living in democracies can fix the problem (at least in our corner of the world) if we make it a high enough political priority. Right now, we simply don’t.

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