Varun Sivaram

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Are We All Toast After 2017?

by Michael Levi
November 10, 2011

The annual International Energy Agency (IEA) World Energy Outlook (WEO) was published yesterday with an attention-grabbing headline: the chance of avoiding dangerous climate change will “be lost forever” unless the world changes course by 2017. The basic argument is simple. The world is constantly accumulating more fossil fuel based infrastructure (power plants, cars, and so on). If the infrastructure that’s expected to be in place by 2017 is allowed to live out its economic lifetime – something that seems like a realistic assumption – it alone will generate enough emissions to put the world on course for a greenhouse gas concentration of 450 parts per million (ppm), which much of the climate policy world focuses on. Since it’s implausible to imagine that no more carbon-emitting infrastructure will be built after 2017, the net result will be to bust through the safe limit. The only way out it to start curbing emissions now.

The IEA report is an important warning that delay is imprudent and that a 450 ppm world is increasingly hard to imagine. But I think it goes too far. There are three important reasons to be skeptical of the 2017 deadline that it presents.

The first is that there is no hard threshold that signifies safety. The world might end up at 450 ppm and still experience four or more degrees (centigrade) of warming. It might end up at 650 ppm and only experience two. Climate change is about probabilities. This doesn’t mean that we should gamble with high greenhouse gas concentrations – but it does mean that we shouldn’t give up just because some particular threshold gets crossed.

The second is that the IEA imposes an overly strict limit on the emissions that are tolerable between now and 2035. It asserts that cumulative emissions between now and 2035 must be below some certain level (which it calculates) if the world is to avoid crossing the 450 ppm line. That’s incorrect. There are many long term pathways that are consistent with a 450 ppm (or any other) target, some of which involve larger emissions between now and 2035 than the IEA demands. To be certain, lower emissions now would take some pressure off in the medium and long term. But the hard limit is looser than the IEA assumes.

The third problem with the IEA analysis lies in its assumptions about what existing infrastructure really commits us to. Joe Romm points out correctly that desperation may drive countries to junk infrastructure before its economic lifetime is out. Indeed desperation might not even be necessary. It is relatively inexpensive to ditch natural gas generating capacity – the up front capital commitments are pretty small. And if carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) retrofits can be developed – a big if, I know – it may be possible to lower emissions without ditching existing infrastructure.

That doesn’t change the gist of the IEA message: delay makes hitting aggressive climate goals increasingly impractical and is thus irresponsible. But it’s unwise to draw yet another final line in the sand. I suspect that if 2017 comes around and we’ve made inadequate progress, people will find a way of extending the deadline once again.

Post a Comment 9 Comments

  • Posted by David B. Benson

    The point made about ditching CCGTs is worth keeping in mind.

    However, it appears that indeed in places with increasing rain the intensity is increasing approximately exponentially with temperature. That accords with some fundamental physics. The result is increased occurrances of torrential rains, hard on infrastructure of all forms.

  • Posted by Andreas Debus

    You americans are destroying the planet.
    You consume 8x the energy a citizen of china consumes.
    But we here in Europe are also guilty of consuming to much and enslaving the people of china.

    You “think tank” people should have read “The limits to growth” very carefully but dismissed it as bs.
    Now we all pay the price and share the consequences.

    Economic growth was good for a time but will lead us now into the abyss. At there core of the problem is a rotten interest based monetary system that got totally out of control and will explode into our collective face now.

    I once was proud of americans because you got rid of A.Hitler. But no more.

  • Posted by Andreas Debus

    What you people from the econmics schools don´t get is that money is irrelevant.

    Nature knows only one kind of money: Energy.
    If build now solar and wind energy and cut our consuming demands in half we can live a good life forever.

    But you will wait until it´s to late because it “costs to much money”.

    You will not get until the end. Game Over!

  • Posted by Andreas Debus

    What´s the point in building three combustion engines if you can build solar panels and a wind turbine for the same amount? It´s not economical you say? Yes! Because it depends on cheap oil. But you have not yet calculated the real price of burnt oil and all the damage it has done and will do in the future. Same holds for atomic power.

    A energy generator is economical as long as it produces much more energy in it´s lifetime then is consumed to produce it. Everything else is secondary.If it doesn´t produce any or much CO2 then it´s better then the other.

    But you “economists” don´t understand how nature works. Physicists do. I bet you are “sceptic” and think “climate change” is bogus.

  • Posted by Davi Cherry

    In the face of this dour news, its time to pay more attention to adaptation. Please check out the Global Adaptation Index™ for information on where the world stands on adapting to climate change.

    Adaptation doesn’t mean we should halt efforts to mitigate climate change, but preparation for climate impacts needs to begin now.

  • Posted by David B. Benson

    Correcting my previous comment, preciptitation ought to go up as about the square of the temperature; still quite dramatic and potentially ruinous for agriculture.

  • Posted by Lubomir Mitev

    IEA Executive Director Nobuo Tanaka made a presentation of the new IEA report at the European Parliament back in July. He reported that the projections for increase of energy from nuclear power will be halved from the previous Energy Outlook. Under the existing scenarios, 360 gigawatt (GW) of new capacity would be built by 2035. In light of recent developments, a review of this situation shows that only 180GW will actually be realised, and most of this will happen outside the OECD (mainly China). This implies that the share of atomic energy in the world will drop from 14% to 10%, leaving a gap between energy production and growing demand.

    In new projections, named the ‘New Policy Scenario’, the IEA estimates that to replace nuclear power, roughly one-third of the gap will be filled by increasing production from coal, another third from gas, and the rest from renewable sources. In a startling comparison, Mr. Tanaka pointed out that this would require an increase of 130 million tons of coal (around the size of Australia’s current production), 80 billion cubic metres of natural gas (roughly Qatar’s production level), and 160 terrawatt-hours from renewables (five times Germany’s current output). Taking into consideration the increasing prices of the first two sources, with renewable energy already being very expensive, electricity costs are set to rise. In essence, a complete phase-out of nuclear power would create enormous risks for energy security.

  • Posted by Jackie

    You can set store in the future by what happened in the past. Past periods of earth history with levels of CO2 as high as they are today had much higher sea levels, hotter temperatures, hugh insects flying around and strange animals running around. And, no humans. Is that what we want?

    Since all the UN countries managed to agree (through negotiation) that 2 degrees is as high as can be allowed before potential feedbacks kick in, its wise to stick by that as a maximum. This is especially true since physical laws don’t give a rats ass about negotiated policy.

    Given the increasingly wild weather while we are at our current level of about 400 ppms CO2, and knowing that we won’t see the full effects of today’s pollution for decades, only a fool would say to take it higher.

    But, we as a species are always following fools. And so, we march onward to complete and utter folly.

  • Posted by Vane Lashua

    As an advocate for a clean sustainable energy future and the policy to achieve it, I like to say, “there is unlimited energy within 10 miles of everywhere on earth … straight down.” In my mind, the logical, core component of such a policy is the development deep geothermal energy — and the sooner, the better.

    Borehole drilling for a typical geo plant is about 10 to 20 percent more expensive than for equivalent oil or gas wells, but external support costs for the energy plant after completion is infinitely less expensive (literally!) … there is no mining, drilling, farming, refining, storage or transport of coal, oil, gas, biofuel, or nuclear material to burn simply to boil water.

    As you know, deep geo plants produce no CO2 or GHGs — none. These pollutants, other environmental impacts and waste disposal issues associated with combustible fuels and nuclear products are eliminated with deep geo. The real footprint of a geo plant with equivalent output can be smaller than hydrocarbon-burning or nuclear plants that use identical steam turbine technology to generate electricity.

    A strategic energy policy that encourages regional geo plants located on public land — such as airports, military bases and appropriately located interstate rights of way — combined with local solar and wind and staged reduction of subsidies for petroleum and biofuels would provide a secure, environmentally neutral, and economically beneficial energy future for the US — and the earth.

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