Monday, July 22, 2013

Geoengineering Reality and Debate Misconceptions

One of the most obvious realities that environmentalists continue to deny is the near inevitability that the application of at least one type of geoengineering technique will be required to mitigate the worst consequences of global warming. The rationality behind this denial appears to derive from fear that the application of geoengineering technique x will fail and increase the damage to the environment beyond what global warming will do alone. On its face this fear is understandable, but its viability demands the critical assumption that society can effectively and rapidly reduce global CO2 emissions in the very near future. With CO2 emissions increasing last year to the highest levels in human industrialized history and with almost all top tier developing economies (China, India, Brazil, Russia and Mexico) experiencing positive growth in their emissions the probability of a massive global emission reduction is extremely unlikely. Even the great global recession of 2008 to 2010 only produced a 2.6% reduction in global CO2 emissions between 2007 and 2008, but despite lingering global economic “sluggishness” global CO2 emissions have increased by approximately 10.67% from 2007 to 2011 (most reliable data) because of the above developing nations.1 The fact that in May the global concentration of CO2 exceeded 400 ppm for the first time in thousands of years should further limit optimism. The graph below demonstrate that most of the highest emitters in the developing world are going the wrong direction in absolute emissions by either increasing those emissions or not reducing them (basically remaining stable even through the recession).

Three things to note for the above graph: first, the CO2 emission data was calculated from the US Department of Energy’s Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center (CDIAC) through either raw data collected from country agencies by the United Nations Statistics Division or calculated from emission per capita information and global census data. Second, CDIAC data and International Energy Agency (IEA) do have some differences due to the way the CO2 emission data is collected, thus the raw data is a little different, but both trend the same way at similar magnitudes.

Also both estimate methodologies typically only focus on emissions from fossil fuels and manufacturing processes (like cement), not from land use or forestry, etc., although this information is known to some extent. In addition recall that these values are only relevant for CO2 emissions, they are not CO2 equivalency figures, which would include other greenhouse gases like methane. Three, although the numbers for Brazil are more sporadic and lower than other countries, Brazil is still incredibly important to consider because it is the third-largest emitter of total greenhouse gases globally with a vast majority of those emissions derived from agriculture and forestry activities, most notably the destruction of rain forest to expand agricultural lands.2 Unfortunately after a brief period of reduced forest destruction the last few years have seen a significant increase in deforestation in Brazil.

Unfortunately in addition to their own personal denial, despite the above trends and data, some geoengineering opponents do not argue honestly when debating the virtues and vices of possible strategies. There are three common misconceptions that are utilized by these opponents to mar candid debate. The first misconception is when discussing solar radiation management (SRM) techniques opponents commonly use language that could insinuate that the cessation of the strategy, for whatever reason, will result in a greater than expected temperature increase versus if the technique was not used in the first place. While such a message may not be the intent of opponents the use of language requires specific word choice and with their selections opponents are either being unjustifiably lazy or are genuinely attempting to sabotage the debate.

For example common word use in describing the above problem is as followed: “if the SRM system fails then the Earth will warm even faster…” The actual meaning of this statement illustrated by the graph below; note that the actual numerical values in the graph are fictional and only the general trend in surface temperature change is important.

From the example graph for the first 10 years of the SRM deployment surface temperatures increased only 0.1 degrees whereas without SRM deployment surface temperatures increased 0.7 degrees. Once SRM deployment is stopped, for whatever reason, surface temperatures increase at a faster rate versus its rate of increase without SRM at all. However, there is no significant empirical or theoretical evidence to suggest that temperatures in the SRM scenario will increase to a higher maximum point than temperatures in the non-SRM scenario. This distinction is left somewhat ambiguous in the language used by geoengineering opponents. While the accelerated warming seen in the SRM scenario can be more detrimental to the environment than the gradual warming seen in the non-SRM scenario if the maximum temperature is inherently detrimental the rate of warming over that time period (15 years in this case) is irrelevant. Basically if plant/animal x cannot survive at the maximum temperature a non-consistent rate of increase does not matter because plant/animal x is going to die anyways. Finally this scenario of course assumes that the SRM technique fails in the first place.

The second misconception involves disparaging various geoengineering techniques because no single one solves all of the environmental problems created by global warming or human pollution in general. Therefore, because no geoengineering technique solves all of these problems no technique should be utilized at all. This foolish rationality is commonly demonstrated when opponents point out that SRM techniques will not have a direct rectification effect on ocean acidification. When there are multiple problems in a given scenario it is irrational to not administer a strategy that will potentially solve some of the problems solely because that strategy will not solve all of the problems, especially because in most situations a panacea solution does not exist. Even CO2 emission reduction may not be a panacea solution because of the rate in which reductions are required versus how fast these reductions will occur in reality in relation to positive environmental feedbacks.

The third misconception used by geoengineering opponents is that emission mitigation and geoengineering are mutually contradictory to the public in a way that pursuing one eliminates the desire or need to apply the other. In the recent past Joe Romm of the blog Climateprogress has seemed to push this mindset. Rational individuals realize that geoengineering is akin to a tourniquet; it is designed to ensure that the victim does not die from blood loss or infection due to a major wound until reaching an appropriate operating theater to properly repair the wound via surgery. The tourniquet is not designed as an alternative to surgery, thus it will not replace surgery similar to how geoengineering is not designed as a replacement for reducing CO2 emissions. However, when one receives a major wound not using a tourniquet is quite risky largely relying on dumb luck and positive circumstance to avoid heavy detrimental outcomes including death. Currently the Earth has a major wound and is bleeding profusely. Based on existing global emission rates it is difficult to envision a scenario where a “tourniquet” will not be required.

Some may argue that although China’s CO2 emissions increased between 2012 and 2013 the increase was very low (relatively speaking) and their government has acknowledged the severity of the pollution and emission situation thus reductions will occur in the near future. However, there are two problems with this attitude. First, it does not appreciate the fact that in the past China has produced questionable figures regarding their national carbon emissions undercutting certain values found in more provincial areas versus urban centers.3 This discrepancy in reporting makes it more difficult to trust figures produced by China, so even if it starts reporting carbon emission reductions will those reductions be genuine and how expansive will they actually be? Second, the above attitude does not consider that the scale difficulty in emission reduction is not linear. From arbitrary point x the first 30% is the easiest, the next 35% is rather difficult and the last 35% is incredibly hard based on existing technology and economic/resource availability; this exponential difficulty curve is even sharper for emitters as large as China and to a lesser extent the United States.

The attitude of quick emission reduction also rejects the reality that close to half (estimates vary widely) of the global population is still energy impoverished and despite the best hype (and in some cases outright lies) of its supporters, solar and wind are still more expensive energy options than natural gas and coal because necessary storage mediums and rare earth cost curves, among other things, are not included in cost evaluations; thus while global energy use has approximately doubled (largely thanks to China and India) between 2000 and 2010 (most recent figures) only 14% of that increase came from renewables and a majority of that was hydroelectric not solar or wind.4 So the amount of energy consumption that renewables have to replace has actually gotten worse since 2000 not better.

Unfortunately solar and wind supporters tend to get distracted by the high % increase values forgetting that those % increases are relative and their large values are due to low absolute energy origin points. They also confuse nameplate capacity with operational capacity where operational capacity is the actual amount of energy utilized by society and are commonly 20-30% of the nameplate capacity from wind and solar energy sources. In short those who believe that all society needs to do is rapidly deploy wind and solar infrastructure to solve global warming have not performed a complete and effective analysis of the global warming problem and are operating on flawed blind faith (such a solution could possibly work, but there is no solid theoretical evidence to suggest that it is the best solution or it would work while avoid large detrimental side outcomes).

It is interesting that geoengineering opponents have an incredible level of optimism regarding the ability of the global community to rapidly reduce CO2 emissions despite contrary evidence, yet have an incredible level of pessimism regarding the success probability of any geoengineering technique despite contrary evidence from nature itself that geoengineering can work successfully. The reality of the situation is that genuine scientifically controlled short-term geoengineering studies exploring various strategies need to be designed and applied to develop a better understanding of the potential outcomes beyond simple theory. For example the United Nations could spearhead a program to deposit a constant concentration of sulfur aerosols (typically sulfur dioxide) into the atmosphere over the period of six months and analyze atmospheric and surface changes during the experiment and for at least one year after its conclusion. Obviously due to wind currents it is irrational to hope for complete isolation, but the short time frame will limit unintended consequences from drift. Overall analyzing appropriate application methodologies for various geoengineering techniques is not defeatist, irrational, unnecessary or foolish, it is reasonable, intelligent, practical and a proper action by individuals who actually care about protecting the environment for future generations.

Citations –

1. Drawn from C. emissions data pursuant to those years;

2. International Energy Agency. “CO2 Emissions from Fuel Combustion Highlights.” 2012.

3. Guan, D, et Al. “The gigatonne gap in China’s carbon dioxide inventories.” Nature Climate Change. 2012. 2:672-675.

4. Walsh, Bryan. “Nuclear Energy is Largely Safe. But can it be Cheap?” Time Magazine. July 8, 2013.

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