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What Do World's Two Biggest Dangers Have in Common? Washington's Blog

What Do World’s Two Biggest Dangers Have in Common? Washington’s Blog.

Anyone who cares about our natural environment should be marking with great sadness the centenary of World War I. Beyond the incredible destruction in European battlefields, the intense harvesting of forests, and the new focus on the fossil fuels of the Middle East, the Great War was the Chemists’ War. Poison gas became a weapon — one that would be used against many forms of life.

Insecticides were developed alongside nerve gases and from byproducts of explosives.  World War II — the sequel made almost inevitable by the manner of ending the first one — produced, among other things, nuclear bombs, DDT, and a common language for discussing both — not to mention airplanes for delivering both.

War propagandists made killing easier by depicting foreign people as bugs. Insecticide marketers made buying their poisons patriotic by using war language to describe the “annihilation” of “invading” insects (never mind who was actually here first). DDT was made available for public purchase five days before the U.S. dropped the bomb on Hiroshima.  On the first anniversary of the bomb, a full-page photograph of a mushroom cloud appeared in an advertisement for DDT.

War and environmental destruction don’t just overlap in how they’re thought and talked about.  They don’t just promote each other through mutually reinforcing notions of machismo and domination.  The connection is much deeper and more direct. War and preparations for war, including weapons testing, are themselves among the greatest destroyers of our environment.  The U.S. military is a leading consumer of fossil fuels. From March 2003 to December 2007 the war on Iraq alone released more CO2 than 60% of all nations.

Rarely do we appreciate the extent to which wars are fought for control over resources the consumption of which will destroy us.  Even more rarely do we appreciate the extent to which that consumption is driven by wars.  The Confederate Army marched up toward Gettysburg in search of food to fuel itself.  (Sherman burned the South, as he killed the Buffalo, to cause starvation — while the North exploited its land to fuel the war.)  The British Navy sought control of oil first as a fuel for the ships of the British Navy, not for some other purpose.  The Nazis went east, among several other reasons, for forests with which to fuel their war.  The deforestation of the tropics that took off during World War II only accelerated during the permanent state of war that followed.

Wars in recent years have rendered large areas uninhabitable and generated tens of millions of refugees. Perhaps the most deadly weapons left behind by wars are land mines and cluster bombs. Tens of millions of them are estimated to be lying around on the earth. The Soviet and U.S. occupations of Afghanistan have destroyed or damaged thousands of villages and sources of water. The Taliban has illegally traded timber to Pakistan, resulting in significant deforestation. U.S. bombs and refugees in need of firewood have added to the damage. Afghanistan’s forests are almost gone. Most of the migratory birds that used to pass through Afghanistan no longer do so. Its air and water have been poisoned with explosives and rocket propellants.

The United States fights its wars and even tests its weapons far from its shores, but remains pockmarked by environmental disaster areas and superfund sites created by its military.  The environmental crisis has taken on enormous proportions, dramatically overshadowing the manufactured dangers that lie in Hillary Clinton’s contention that Vladimir Putin is a new Hitler or the common pretense in Washington, D.C., that Iran is building nukes or that killing people with drones is making us safer rather than more hated. And yet, each year, the EPA spends $622 million trying to figure out how to produce power without oil, while the military spends hundreds of billions of dollars burning oil in wars fought to control the oil supplies. The million dollars spent to keep each soldier in a foreign occupation for a year could create 20 green energy jobs at $50,000 each. The $1 trillion spent by the United States on militarism each year, and the $1 trillion spent by the rest of the world combined, could fund a conversion to sustainable living beyond most of our wildest dreams. Even 10% of it could.

When World War I ended, not only did a huge peace movement develop, but it was allied with a wildlife conservation  movement.  These days, those two movements appear divided and conquered.  Once in a blue moon their paths cross, as environmental groups are persuaded to oppose a particular seizure of land or military base construction, as has happened in recent months with the movements to prevent the U.S. and South Korea from building a huge naval base on Jeju Island, and to prevent the U.S. Marine Corps from turning Pagan Island in the Northern Marianas into a bombing range.  But try asking a well-funded environmental group to push for a transfer of public resources from militarism to clean energy or conservation and you might as well be trying to tackle a cloud of poison gas.

I’m pleased to be part of a movement just begun at WorldBeyondWar.org, already with people taking part in 57 nations, that seeks to replace our massive investment in war with a massive investment in actual defense of the earth.  I have a suspicion that big environmental organizations would find great support for this plan were they to survey their members.

Soil as Carbon Storehouse: New Weapon in Climate Fight? by Judith D. Schwartz: Yale Environment 360

Soil as Carbon Storehouse: New Weapon in Climate Fight? by Judith D. Schwartz: Yale Environment 360.

The degradation of soils from unsustainable agriculture and other development has released billions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere. But new research shows how effective land restoration could play a major role in sequestering CO2 and slowing climate change.

by judith d. schwartz

In the 19th century, as land-hungry pioneers steered their wagon trains westward across the United States, they encountered a vast landscape of towering grasses that nurtured deep, fertile soils.

Today, just three percent of North America’s tallgrass prairie remains. Its disappearance has had a dramatic impact on the landscape and ecology of

The world’s cultivated soils have lost 50 to 70 percent of their original carbon stock.

the U.S., but a key consequence of that transformation has largely been overlooked: a massive loss of soil carbon into the atmosphere. The importance of soil carbon — how it is leached from the earth and how that process can be reversed — is the subject of intensifying scientific investigation, with important implications for the effort to slow the rapid rise of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

According to Rattan Lal, director of Ohio State University’s Carbon Management and Sequestration Center, the world’s cultivated soils have lost between 50 and 70 percent of their original carbon stock, much of which has oxidized upon exposure to air to become CO2. Now, armed with rapidly expanding knowledge about carbon sequestration in soils, researchers are studying how land restoration programs in places like the

polar jet stream

Rattan Lal
Soil in a long-term experiment appears red when depleted of carbon (left) and dark brown when carbon content is high (right).

former North American prairie, the North China Plain, and even the parched interior of Australia might help put carbon back into the soil.

Absent carbon and critical microbes, soil becomes mere dirt, a process of deterioration that’s been rampant around the globe. Many scientists say that regenerative agricultural practices can turn back the carbon clock, reducing atmospheric CO2 while also boosting soil productivity and increasing resilience to floods and drought. Such regenerative techniques include planting fields year-round in crops or other cover, and agroforestry that combines crops, trees, and animal husbandry.

Recognition of the vital role played by soil carbon could mark an important if subtle shift in the discussion about global warming, which has been

A look at soil brings a sharper focus on potential carbon sinks.

heavily focused on curbing emissions of fossil fuels. But a look at soil brings a sharper focus on potential carbon sinks. Reducing emissions is crucial, but soil carbon sequestration needs to be part of the picture as well, says Lal. The top priorities, he says, are restoring degraded and eroded lands, as well as avoiding deforestation and the farming of peatlands, which are a major reservoir of carbon and are easily decomposed upon drainage and cultivation.

He adds that bringing carbon back into soils has to be done not only to offset fossil fuels, but also to feed our growing global population. “We cannot feed people if soil is degraded,” he says.

“Supply-side approaches, centered on CO2 sources, amount to reshuffling the Titanic deck chairs if we overlook demand-side solutions: where that carbon can and should go,” says Thomas J. Goreau, a biogeochemist and expert on carbon and nitrogen cycles who now serves as president of theGlobal Coral Reef Alliance. Goreau says we need to seek opportunities to increase soil carbon in all ecosystems — from tropical forests to pasture to wetlands — by replanting degraded areas, increased mulching of biomass instead of burning, large-scale use of biochar, improved pasture management, effective erosion control, and restoration of mangroves, salt marshes, and sea grasses.

“CO2 cannot be reduced to safe levels in time to avoid serious long-term impacts unless the other side of atmospheric CO2 balance is included,” Goreau says.

Scientists say that more carbon resides in soil than in the atmosphere and all plant life combined; there are 2,500 billion tons of carbon in soil, compared with 800 billion tons in the atmosphere and 560 billion tons in plant and animal life. And compared to many proposed geoengineering fixes, storing carbon in soil is simple: It’s a matter of returning carbon where it belongs.

Through photosynthesis, a plant draws carbon out of the air to form carbon compounds. What the plant doesn’t need for growth is exuded through the roots to feed soil organisms, whereby the carbon is humified, or rendered stable. Carbon is the main component of soil organic matter and helps give soil its water-retention capacity, its structure, and its fertility. According to Lal, some pools of carbon housed in soil aggregates are so stable that they can last thousands of years. This is in contrast to “active” soil carbon,

‘If we treat soil carbon as a renewable resource, we can change the dynamics,’ says an expert.

which resides in topsoil and is in continual flux between microbial hosts and the atmosphere.

“If we treat soil carbon as a renewable resource, we can change the dynamics,” says Goreau. “When we have erosion, we lose soil, which carries with it organic carbon, into waterways. When soil is exposed, it oxidizes, essentially burning the soil carbon. We can take an alternate trajectory.”

As basic as soil carbon is, there’s much scientists are just learning about it, including how to make the most of its CO2 sequestration capacity. One promising strategy, says Goreau, is bolstering soil microbiology by adding beneficial microbes to stimulate the soil cycles where they have been interrupted by use of insecticides, herbicides, or fertilizers. As for agroforestry, programs with greater species diversity are better able to maximize the storage of carbon than monocultures. Many researchers are looking to biochar — produced when plant matter, manure, or other organic material is heated in a zero- or low-oxygen environment — for its ability to turn problem areas into productive sites while building soil carbon. Says Goreau, “Vast areas of deforested land that have been abandoned after soil degradation are excellent candidates for replanting and reforestation using biochar from the weeds now growing there.”

An important vehicle for moving carbon into soil is root, or mycorrhizal, fungi, which govern the give-and-take between plants and soil. According to Australian soil scientist Christine Jones, plants with mycorrhizal connections can transfer up to 15 percent more carbon to soil than their non-mycorrhizal counterparts. The most common mycorrhizal fungi are marked by threadlike filaments called hyphae that extend the reach of a plant, increasing access to nutrients and water. These hyphae are coated with a sticky substance called glomalin, discovered only in 1996, which is instrumental in soil structure and carbon storage. The U.S. Department of Agriculture advises land managers to protect glomalin by minimizing tillage and chemical inputs and using cover crops to keep living roots in the soil.

In research published in Nature in January, scientists from the University of Texas at Austin, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, and Boston University assessed the carbon and nitrogen cycles under different mycorrhizal regimens and found that plants linked with fruiting, or mushroom-type, fungi stored 70 percent more carbon per unit of nitrogen in soil. Lead author Colin Averill, a fourth-year graduate student at the University of Texas, explains that the fungi take up organic nitrogen on behalf of the plant, out-competing soil microorganisms that decompose organic matter and release carbon. He says this points to soil biology as a

Our understanding of how soil life affects the carbon cycle is poised for tremendous growth.

driver of carbon storage, particularly “the mechanisms by which carbon can stay in the ground rather than going into the atmosphere.”

One implication of this research, says Goreau, is that “the effect of most landscape alterations is to convert them from systems that store carbon efficiently … toward ones that are inefficient in the use of nitrogen, and as a result are losing carbon storage.” By landscape alterations, he means from forest to cropland, or from small farms to industrial agriculture operations that use the chemicals that inhibit the mycorrhizal and microbial interactions that store carbon.

Our understanding of soil microbiology and how soil life affects the carbon cycle is poised for tremendous growth, says Goreau. This, he says, is thanks to the burgeoning field of metagenomics, the study of genetic material from specimens taken directly from the environment rather than cultured in a lab. “For the first time,” says Goreau, “we can identify all major soil biogeochemical pathways from the genetic information in the microbes.”

Even at our current level of knowledge, many see great potential for storing carbon in soil. Lal of Ohio State says that restoring soils of degraded and desertified ecosystems has the potential to store in world soils an additional 1 billion to 3 billion tons of carbon annually, equivalent to roughly 3.5 billion to 11 billion tons of CO2 emissions. (Annual CO2 emissions from fossil fuel burning are roughly 32 billion tons.)

Many call Lal’s carbon soil storage figures low. This could reflect the fact that soil carbon is generally measured in the top 15 to 30 centimeters, whereas soil at depth may store carbon at much higher rates. For example, in land with deep-rooted grasses the soil can go down five meters or more.Research by Australian and British scientists published last year in the journal Plant and Soil examined soils in five southwestern Australia sites

MORE FROM YALE e360

As Uses of Biochar Expand,
Climate Benefits Still Uncertain

Biochar

Research shows that biochar made from plant fodder and even chicken manure can be used to scrub mercury from power plant emissions and clean up polluted soil. The big question is whether biochar can be produced on a sufficiently large scale to slow or reverse global warming.
READ MORE

at depths as great as nearly 40 meters. These findings add impetus to explore strategies such as working with deep-rooted perennial grasses to secure carbon at depth.

Those who champion soil carbon for climate mitigation frequently look to grasslands, which cover more than a quarter of the world’s land. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, grasslands also hold 20 percent of the world’s soil carbon stock. Much of this land is degraded, as evidenced in the U.S. Great Plains and places like northern Mexico, Africa’s Sahel, and Mongolia.

Seth Itzkan — founder of Massachusetts-based Planet-TECH Associates, a consulting firm specializing in restoration ecology — advocates Holistic Planned Grazing (HPG), a model developed by Zimbabwean wildlife biologist Allan Savory. In this practice, livestock are managed as a tool for large-scale land restoration, mimicking the herding and grazing patterns of wild ruminants that coevolved with grassland ecosystems. Animals are moved so that no plants are overgrazed, and grazing stimulates biological activity in the soil. Their waste adds fertility, and as they move in a herd their trampling aerates soil, presses in seeds, and pushes down dead plant matter so it can be acted upon by soil microorganisms. All of this generates soil carbon, plant carbon, and water retention. Savory says HPG doesn’t require more land — in fact it generally supports greater animal density — so it can be applied wherever livestock are raised.

In Australia, which has been suffering extreme heat and wildfires, policy-makers are taking seriously programs that build and stabilize soil carbon. The action plan Regenerate Australia outlines a strategy to restore up to 300 million hectares (740 million acres). A core goal is attaining previous soil carbon levels by introducing more sustainable grazing, farming, and water-retention practices.

Says Rattan Lal: “Soils of the world must be part of any agenda to address climate change, as well as food and water security. I think there is now a general awareness of soil carbon, an awareness that soil isn’t just a medium for plant growth.”

Why Are Climate Scientists Ignoring Peak Oil and Coal?

Damn the Matrix

While looking for evidence of whether Kevin Anderson realises we have problems with resources constraints, I found the below article (written three years ago mind you) which goes some way towards explaining why Climate Scientists are ignoring Peak Oil and Coal……

Climate scientists often make assumptions about large-scale growth in resource extraction without thoroughly referring to relevant studies in other disciplines. This is partially understandable given that they are not economists or political scientists. Yet I believe it is cause for concern.

While criticising the pervasive obsession with infinite growth of our political and economic institutions, it appears that many (albeit not all) climate scientists hold the belief that human ingenuity will somehow substitute declining oil with different forms of natural-gas, liquefied-coal, shale gas, and other carbon fuels at prices that can sustain growth.

For example, at the Cancun climate summit there was a paper by Professor Kevin Anderson

View original post 1,448 more words

Energy East pipeline a potential CO2 traffic jam, report says – Politics – CBC News

Energy East pipeline a potential CO2 traffic jam, report says – Politics – CBC News.

TransCanada CEO Russ Girling announces the company is moving forward with the 1.1 million barrel-per-day Energy East Pipeline project, at a news conference in Calgary, Aug. 1, 2013. A new report from environmental think-tank Pembina Institute believes Energy East would add 30 to 32 million tonnes of CO2 a year into the atmosphere.TransCanada CEO Russ Girling announces the company is moving forward with the 1.1 million barrel-per-day Energy East Pipeline project, at a news conference in Calgary, Aug. 1, 2013. A new report from environmental think-tank Pembina Institute believes Energy East would add 30 to 32 million tonnes of CO2 a year into the atmosphere. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

The greenhouse gas emissions from oil flowing through TransCanada Pipelines’ proposed Energy East project would be equivalent to putting seven million new cars a year on Canadian roads, according to a report from an environmental think-tank released today.

The Pembina Institute’s study looked at the potential upstream carbon pollution — that is, from the well to the refinery gate — from oil flowing through the pipeline and found that it could add anywhere from 30 to 32 million tonnes of CO2 a year to the atmosphere.

“For a single piece of infrastructure, that’s huge. It’s more than the emissions of five provinces,” explained Clare Demerse, Pembina’s federal policy director and co-author of the report.

“The single most effective climate policy today [in Canada] is Ontario’s decision to phase out coal [for generating electricity]. The emissions associated with building Energy East could effectively wipe out the gains of our single most effective climate policy by far,” she told CBC News.

Tune in to The National on CBC-TV tonight to hear how pipeline companies and environmentalists are changing their tactics in Canada’s energy infrastructure debate.

Energy East is planned to take both conventional and oilsands oil from Alberta to the deep-water port in Saint John. The project would convert an existing natural gas pipeline that runs to the Ontario-Quebec border to carry oil, then build a new pipeline the rest of the way. When running at full capacity, Energy East would eventually carry 1.1-million barrels of crude a day.

TransCanada has yet to file an application with the National Energy Board, but it is expected to do so in the middle of this year.

Demerse admits that this is a preliminary report and that it is hard to comment accurately on Energy East because so little detail is known about the project. Still, she said, Pembina wanted to start the conversation about it as soon as possible.

TransCanada said it wants to take a closer look at the numbers before it comments on the report. The pipeline company has already held information sessions about the project in communities along the route.

Crash on Demand: Energy Descent Scenarios

Crash on Demand: Energy Descent Scenarios.

by David Holmgren, originally published by Holmgren Design  | TODAY

This is Part 2 of David Holmgren’s new essay Crash on Demand: Welcome to the Brown Tech Future, which updates his Future Scenarios work. Read Part 1 here

Is time running out for powerdown?

Many climate policy professionals and climate activists are now reassessing whether there is anything more they can do to help prevent the global catastrophe that climate change appears to be.   The passing of the symbolic 400ppm CO2 level certainly has seen some prominent activists getting close to a change of strategy.  As the Transition Town movement founder and permaculture activist Rob Hopkins says, the shift in the mainstream policy circles from mitigation to adaptation and defence is underway (i.e. giving up).[1]

While political deadlock remains the most obvious obstacle, I believe at least some of that deadlock stems from widespread doubt about whether greenhouse gas emissions can be radically reduced without economic contraction and/or substantial wealth redistribution.  Substantial redistribution of wealth is not generally taken seriously perhaps because it could only come about through some sort of global revolution that would itself lead to global economic collapse. On the other hand, massive economic contraction seems like it might happen all by itself, without necessarily leading to greater equity.

The predominant focus in the “climate professional and activist community” on policies, plans and projects for transition to renewable energy and efficiency has yet to show evidence of absolute reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that do not depend on rising greenhouse gas emissions in other parts of the global economy.  For example, the contribution of renewable technology installation to reduced GGE in some European countries appears to be balanced by increased GGE in China and India (where much of the renewable technologies are manufactured).

The Jevons’ paradox[2] suggests than any gains in efficiency or tapping of new sources of energy will simply expand total consumption rather than reduce consumption of resources (and therefore GGE).

Richard Eckersley in his article ‘Deficit Deeper Than Economy’ identifies the improbability of ever decoupling economic growth from resource depletion and green house gas emissions.  He states “Australia’s material footprint, the total amount of primary resources required to service domestic consumption (excludes exports and includes imports) was 35 tonnes per person in 2008, the highest among the 186 countries studied.  Every 10 per cent increase in gross domestic product increases the average national material footprint by 6 per cent.  By 2050, a global population of 9 billion people would require an estimated 270 billion tonnes of natural resources to fuel the level of consumption of OECD countries, compared with the 70 billion tonnes consumed in 2010.”[3]

Time seems to be running out for any serious planned reductions in GGE adequate to prevent dangerous climate change without considering a powerdown of the growth economy.  The ideas of degrowth[4] are starting to get an airing, mostly in Europe, but the chances of these ideas being adopted and successfully implemented would require a long slow political evolution if not revolution.  We don’t have time for the first, and the second almost certainly crashes the financial system, which in turn crashes the global economy.

Is time running out for bottom up alternatives?

Like many others, I have argued that the bottom up creation of household and community economies, already proliferating in the shadow of the global economy, can create and sustain different ways of well-being that can compensate, at least partly, for the inevitable contraction in centralised fossil fuelled economies (now well and truly failing to sustain the social contract in countries such as Greece and Egypt).  When the official Soviet Union economy collapsed in the early ‘90s it was the informal economy that cushioned the social impact.  Permaculture strategies focus on the provision of basic needs at the household and community level to increase resilience, reduce ecological footprint and allow much of the discretionary economy to shrink.  In principle, a major contraction in energy consumption is possible because a large proportion of that consumption is for non-essential uses by more than a billion middle class people.  That contraction has the potential to switch off greenhouse gas emissions but this has not been seriously discussed or debated by those currently working very hard to get global action for rapid transition by planned and co-ordinated processes.  Of course it is more complicated because the provision of fundamental needs, such as water, food etc., are part of the same highly integrated system that meets discretionary wants.

However, the time available to create, refine and rapidly spread successful models of these bottom-up solutions is running out, in the same way that the time for government policy and corporate capitalism to work their magic in converting the energy base of growth from fossil to renewable sources.[5] If the climate clock is really so close to midnight what else could be done?

Economic crash as hell or salvation

For many decades I have felt that a collapse of the global economic systems might save humanity and many of our fellow species great suffering by happening sooner rather than later because the stakes keep rising and scale of the impacts are always worse by being postponed.  An important influence in my thinking on the chances of such a collapse was the public speech given by President Ronald Reagan following the 1987 stock market crash.  He said “there won’t be an economic collapse, so long as people don’t believe there will be an economic collapse” or words to that effect.  I remember at the time thinking; fancy the most powerful person on the planet admitting that faith (of the populace) is the only thing that holds the financial system together.

Two decades on I remember thinking that a second great depression might be the best outcome we could hope for.  The pain and suffering that has happened since 2007 (from the more limited “great recession”) is more a result of the ability of the existing power structures to maintain control and enforce harsh circumstances by handing the empty bag to the public, than any fundamental lack of resources to provide all with basic needs.  Is the commitment to perpetual growth in wealth for the richest the only way that everyone else can hope to get their needs met?  The economy is simply not structured to provide all with their basic needs.  That growth economy is certainly coming to an end; but will it slowly grind to a halt or collapse more rapidly?

The fact that the market price for carbon emissions has fallen so low in Europe is a direct result of stagnating growth. Past economic recessions and more serious economic collapses, such as faced by the Soviet Union after its oil production peaked in the late 1980’s,[6] show how greenhouse gas emissions can and have been reduced, then stabilizing at lower levels once the economy stabilized without any planned intention to do so.  The large number of oil exporters that have more recently peaked has provided many case studies to show the correlation with political upheaval, economic contraction and reductions in GGE.  Similarly many of the countries that have suffered the greatest economic contraction are also those with the greatest dependence on imported energy, such as Ireland, Greece and Portugal.  The so-called Arab Spring, especially in Egypt, followed high food and energy prices driven by collapsed oil revenues and inability to maintain subsidies.  The radical changes of government in Egypt have not been able to arrest the further contraction of the economy.

The effects of peak oil and climate change have combined with geopolitical struggles over pipeline routes to all but destroy the Syrian economy and society.[7]

Slow Contraction or Fast Collapse

The fragility of the global economy has many unprecedented aspects that make some sort of rapid collapse of the global economy more likely.  The capacity of central banks to repeat the massive stimulus mechanism in response to the 2008 global financial crisis, has been greatly reduced, while the faith that underpins the global financial system has weakened, to say the least.  Systems thinkers such as David Korowicz[8] have argued that the inter-connected nature of the global economy, instantaneous communications and financial flows, “just in time” logistics, and extreme degrees of economic and technological specialisation, have increased the chances of a large scale systemic failure, at the same time that they have mitigated (or at least reduced) the impact of more limited localised crises.

Whether novel factors such as information technology, global peak oil and climate change have increased the likelihood of more extreme economic collapse, Foss and Keen have convinced me that the most powerful and fast-acting factor that could radically reduce greenhouse gas emissions is the scale of financial debt and the long-sustained growth of bubble economics stretching back at least to the beginnings of the “Thatcherite/Reaganite revolution” in the early 1980s.  From an energetics perspective, the peak of US oil production in 1970, and the resulting global oil crises of 73 and 79, laid the foundations for the gigantic growth in debt that super accelerated the level of consumption, and therefore GGE.

Whatever the causes, all economic bubbles follow a trajectory that includes a rapid contraction, as credit evaporates, followed by a long-sustained contraction, where asset values decline to lower levels than those at the beginning of the bubble.  After almost 25 years of asset price deflation in Japan, a house and land parcel of 1.5ha in a not too isolated rural location can be bought for $25,000.  A contraction in the systems that supply wants are likely to see simultaneous problems in the provision of basic needs.  As Foss explains, in a deflationary contraction, prices of luxuries generally collapse but essentials of food and fuel do not fall much.  Most importantly, essentials become unaffordable for many, once credit freezes and job security declines.  It goes without saying that deflation rather inflation is the economic devil that governments and central banks most fear and are prepared to do almost anything to avoid.

Giving credence to the evidence for fast global economic collapse may suggest I am moving away from my belief in the more gradual Energy Descent future that I helped articulate.  John Michael Greer has been very critical of apocalyptic views of the future in which a collapse sweeps away the current world leaving the chosen few who survive to build the new world.  In large measure I agree with his critique but recognise that some might interpret my work as suggesting a permaculture paradise growing from the ashes of this civilisation.  To some extent this is a reasonable interpretation, but I see that collapse, as a long drawn-out process rather than resulting from a single event.[9]

I still believe that energy descent will go on for many decades or even centuries.  In Future Scenarios I suggested energy descent driven by climate change and peak oil could occur through a series of crises separating relatively stable states that could persist for decades if not centuries.  The collapse of the global financial system might simply be the first of those crises that reorganise the world.  The pathways that energy descent could take are enormously varied, but still little discussed, so it is not surprising that discussions about descent scenarios tend to default into ones of total collapse. As the language around energy descent and collapse has become more nuanced, we start to see the distinction between financial, economic, social and civilisational collapse as potential stages in an energy descent process where the first is fast changing and relatively superficial and the last is slow moving and more fundamental.

In Future Scenarios I suggested the more extreme scenarios of Earth Steward and Lifeboat could follow Green Tech and Brown Tech along the stepwise energy descent pathway.  If we are heading into the Brown Tech world of more severe climate change, then as the energy sources that sustain the Brown Tech scenario deplete, and climate chaos increases, future crises and collapse could lead to the Lifeboat Scenario. In this scenario, no matter how fast or extreme the reductions in GGE due to economic collapse, we still end up in the climate cooker, but with only the capacity for very local, household and communitarian organisation.

If the climate crisis is already happening, and as suggested in Future Scenarios, the primary responses to the crisis increase rather than reduce GGE, then it is probably too late for any concerted effort to shift course to the more benign Green Tech energy descent future.  Given that most of the world is yet to accept the inevitability of Energy Descent and are still pinning their faith in “Techno Stability” if not “Techno Explosion”, the globally cooperative powerdown processes needed to shift the world to Green Tech look unlikely.  More fundamental than any political action, the resurgent rural and regional economies, based on a boom for agricultural and forestry commodities, that structurally underpins the Green Tech scenario, will not eventuate if climate change is fast and severe.  Climate change will stimulate large investments in agriculture but they are more likely to be energy and resource intensive, controlled climate agriculture (greenhouses), centralised at transport hubs.  This type of development simply reinforces the Brown Tech model including the acceleration of GGE.

While it may be too late for the Green Tech Scenario, it still may be possible to avoid more extreme climate change of a long drawn out Brown Tech Scenario before natural forcing factors lock humanity into the climate cooker of 4-6 degrees and resource depletion leads to a collapse of the centralised Brown Tech governance and a rise of local war lords (Lifeboat Scenario).

The novel structural vulnerabilities highlighted by David Korowicz, and the unprecedented extremity of the bubble economics highlighted by Nicole Foss suggest the strong tendencies towards a Brown Tech world could be short lived.  Instead, severe global economic and societal collapse could switch off GGE enough to begin reversing climate change; in essence the Earth Steward scenario of recreated bioregional economies based on frugal agrarian resources and abundant salvage from the collapsed global economy and defunct national governance structures.


[1] See  Why I’m marking passing 400ppm by getting back on an aeroplane by Rob Hopkins published on Transition Culture on 16 May, 2013

http://transitionculture.org/2013/05/16/why-im-marking-passing-400-ppm-by-getting-back-on-an-aeroplane/

[2] During the early stages of the industrial revolution English economist William Stanley Jevons noticed that a doubling in the efficiency of steam engine technology led to an increase rather than a halving of coal consumption as businesses found more uses for the available power. See the Coal Question (1865).

[3] See Deficit Deeper Than Economy http://www.canberratimes.com.au/federal-politics/political-opinion/deficit-deeper-than-economy-20130929-2umd3.html#ixzz2js46nGBp

[4] See Wikipedia article for overview of movementhttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Degrowth

[5] Of course true believers in global capitalism’s capacity to reduce GGE in time, still abound. See for example Christian Parenti’s piece from Dissent, reposted at Resilience.org, which is amusingly titled A Radical Approach to the Climate Crisiswhich is actually a plea for activists to forget trying to reform, let alone build systems based on sustainability principles, in favour of getting behind the power of corporations and governments to make big changes quickly (to get GGE falling fast enough).

[6] See for example, Peak oil and the fall of the Soviet Union by Douglas B. Reynolds on The Oil Drum.

[7] See Guardian article by Nafeez Ahmed.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/earth-insight/2013/may/13/1?INTCMP=SRCH

[8] See Trade-Off, Metis Risk Consulting & Feasta, 2012

http://www.feasta.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/Trade-Off1.pdf

[9] leaving aside the issue of whether the energy descent future will be a permaculture paradise or not.

Acknowledgements
Thanks to Rick Tanaka, Maureen Corbett and Daryl Taylor for comments and corrections

Time to stop investing in carbon capture and storage

Time to stop investing in carbon capture and storage.

by Jennie C. Stephens, originally published by Wiley Online Library  | TODAY

Abstract: Government investment in carbon capture and storage (CCS) is a large and expensive fossil-fuel subsidy with a low probability of eventual societal benefit. Within the tight resource constrained environments that almost all governments are currently operating in, it is irresponsible to sustain this type of subsidy. CCS has been promoted as a ‘bridging’ technology to provide CO2reductions until non-fossil-fuel energy is ramped up. But the past decade of substantial government investment and slow progress suggests that the challenges are many, and it will take longer to build the CCS bridge than to shift away from fossil-fuels. Optimism about the potential of CCS is based primarily on research on technical feasibility, but very little attention has been paid to the societal costs of governments perpetuating fossil-fuels or to the sociopolitical requirements of long-term regulation of CO2 stored underground. Deep systemic change is needed to alter the disastrous global fossil-fuel trajectory. Government investment in CCS and other fossil-fuel technologies must end so that the distraction and complacency of the false sense of security such investments provide are removed. Instead of continuing to invest billions in CCS, governments should invest more aggressively in technologies, policies, and initiatives that will accelerate a smooth transition to non-fossil-fuel-based energy systems. We need to divest from perpetuating a fossil-fuel infrastructure, and invest instead in social and technical changes that will help us prepare to be more resilient in an increasingly unstable and unpredictable future.

INTRODUCTION

For over a decade, billions of dollars of government investment in carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology have provided a glimmer of hope for reconciling carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and global growth in fossil-fuel use.[1, 2] CCS has offered a vision of a future in which the impacts of growing fossil-fuel reliance are minimized by capturing and storing the CO2 instead of allowing it to accumulate in the atmosphere.[3, 4] Many have projected that CCS is a technology critical to ‘solving’ climate change while continuing our reliance on fossil-fuels.[5-10]

But it is becoming increasingly clear that investing in CCS is not money well spent. As the global climate-energy situation becomes increasingly dire, bold measures with near-term influence are needed to reduce, rather than sustain, fossil-fuel reliance. Governments around the world need to divest in fossil-fuel technology and stop subsidizing CCS and other fossil-fuel technologies. Instead of continuing to invest billions in CCS, governments should be investing more aggressively in technologies, policies, and initiatives that will accelerate a smooth transition to non-fossil-fuel-based energy systems. Despite the challenges of envisioning a less-fossil-fuel-dependent energy future, we know that an eventual move away from fossil-fuels is inevitable. A decrease in investment in fossil-based energy technology coupled with an increase in innovation investment in non-fossil-based energy systems will help us prepare for this transition promoting gradual change and reducing the likelihood of an abrupt, disruptive shift away from fossil-fuels.

A FALSE SENSE OF OPTIMISM

Given the magnitude of society’s reliance on fossil-fuels, the technological vision of CCS has had a powerful influence on governmental action on climate change.[11, 12] The emergence of the possibility of CCS over 10 years ago enabled many fossil-fuel dependent actors, particularly individuals and institutions in coal-dependent regions of the world, to stop denying the existence of climate change; CCS provided the possibility of continuing coal use while also addressing climate change.[13] Now with recent increases in natural gas reliance, CCS similarly offers the possibility of reconciling climate mitigation goals with growth in natural gas power plants. But this vision of CCS has also enabled complacency about the growing dangers of sustained fossil-fuel dependence. And the billions of dollars in government funds devoted to CCS has reduced the level of investment in non-fossil-fuel energy including initiatives and technologies with more concrete, near-term societal benefits. As the need to reduce fossil-fuel reliance is increasingly acknowledged for climate and many other reasons, CCS investments are dangerous as they further incentivize and legitimize continued use of fossil-fuels, and they create a false sense of optimism that our current energy systems can be safely perpetuated.

Beyond acknowledging CCS investment as an additional fossil-fuel subsidy,[14] many other factors indicate that the time has come for governments to stop investing in CCS. First, despite the billions of dollars already invested, widespread CCS deployment remains a distant, far-fetched, extremely expensive possibility.[15-17] The slow progress and long-time horizon for realizing any potential societal benefits from CCS investments is problematic because the CCS strategy has a limited lifetime.[18] CCS has been promoted as a ‘bridging’ technology to provide some CO2 reductions until non-fossil-fuel energy is ramped up. But the past decade of steady investment but slow progress suggests that it will take longer to build this bridge than to shift away from fossil-fuels.[16] Australia’s recent cuts and deferred investment in its CCS programs reflects recognition of this time-scale problem; Australia cut its investment in its long-term CCS strategy to provide near-term budgetary relief and also to offset costs of the country’s emission trading scheme, which represents a more direct, near-term approach to reducing atmospheric CO2 (the future of Australia’s cap-and-trade system is now uncertain following the September 2013 election).

In the current global economic situation, government expenditure of the magnitude required to advance CCS is no longer justifiable. A single CCS demonstration plant is estimated to cost on the order of 1 billion dollars, and those advocating for more investment in CCS are asking governments to spend $3–4 billion each year for the next decade.[9, 19] Reallocation of this level of funding to promoting non-fossil-fuel energy would be a much less-risky more responsible and justifiable way for government to invest public money.

The amount of energy required to capture and store CO2 is often not adequately recognized in optimistic perceptions of the potential of CCS. This so-called energy penalty has been estimated to be about 30% with a range from 11 to 40%.[20] This means roughly that for every three coal-fired power plants utilizing CCS an additional power plant would be required simply to supply the energy needed to capture and store the CO2. The magnitude of this energy penalty (including even the lower estimates) is so high that it is difficult to imagine a future scenario in which consuming this much additional energy to enable CCS would actually make sense.

In addition, CCS is unlikely to ever become an effective global CO2 reduction strategy because of the political difficulties of managing and preventing leakage of the underground storage of CO2 for thousands of years after it is injected.[21] Optimism about the potential of CCS is based primarily on research on technical feasibility, but very little attention has been paid to the sociopolitical requirements of regulating and enforcing long-term monitoring and maintenance of CO2 stored underground.[22] Global institutional structures with capacity to enforce liability for thousands or even hundreds of years do not exist. And political instability, corruption, and inevitable tensions among countries create severe and constant risks of any proposed global CO2 storage management scheme.[23]

The health and safety costs of perpetuating fossil-fuels represent another reason to end government investment in CCS.[24] The large, industrial-scale, fossil-fuel power plants that CCS is being designed to enable cause major health and safety risks to both the communities surrounding the plant (including water and air pollution) and to the communities impacted by fossil-fuel extraction (including coal mining, hydraulic fracturing for natural gas extraction, and fossil-fuel transport).[25] In addition, strong public concern about the health and safety risks of storing CO2 underground has derailed several large-scale CCS demonstration projects in the past 4 years including the Vattenfall project in Germany and the Barendrecht project in the Netherlands.[26] Concern about earthquakes triggered by injection of large volumes of CO2 underground is contributing to technical understanding of the risks of leakage.[27, 28] The private sector has recognized the many risks of CCS and has only been willing to invest in CCS in conjunction with strong government investment.

ENCOURAGING COMPLACENCY WITH CLAIMS OF ‘SOLVING’ CLIMATE CHANGE

A final critical reason to end government investment in CCS relates to the impossibility of claims that CCS is critical to ‘solving’ climate change. Climate science now tells us very clearly that no matter what is done to curb greenhouse gas emissions the climate is changing irreversibly to a new and different reality.[29] So any claims that a specific technology like CCS is critical to ‘solving’ climate change is misleading and perpetuates a false sense of complacency about the realities and risks of climate change. This complacency coupled with optimism that CCS provides a ‘solution’ to climate change is dangerous, and it detracts from the increasingly urgent need for systemic changes that are now desperately needed to prepare us for the changing climate regime.

Continued CCS investment appears to fuel optimism in the face of the dire global energy realities including rapid recent growth in coal-fired power plants in developing countries.[30] During the past decade global coal consumption has grown by more than 50% with much of that growth concentrated in China and India. Maintaining optimism about this situation is extremely difficult, but the assumption and hope that one day these new coal-fired power plants might be retrofitted with CCS has been an important mechanism for remaining positive.[31-33]

CHALLENGING ASSUMPTIONS OF INEVITABILITY OF SUSTAINED COAL USE

For many climate and energy experts around the world, CCS has become the holy-grail of climate mitigation. Advocating for government support for CCS technology has become a passion for many deeply committed, technologically optimistic energy professionals. This optimism seems to make sense for those who believe the dominant narrative that continuing growth of coal is inevitable due to its low cost, abundance, and reliability.[30] In this narrative coal offers unique potential to continue to expand electricity access in the developing world providing unparalleled economic development opportunity. The problem with this narrative is that the extreme negative social, economic, environmental, and human health impacts of coal[24] are dismissed and not adequately considered. The time has come for energy analysts and governments to recognize that sustained growth of coal use is NOT inevitable. If governments invest in and focus on alternative visions, mainstream energy projections based on dominant current assumptions become increasingly unlikely.

The case for substantial government investment in CCS seems to have sustained such broad appeal because many assume that the economic, political, and social hurdles of advancing CCS are lower than the hurdles of moving away from fossil-fuels. CCS advocates frequently point out that CCS is preferable to moving away from fossil-fuels because CCS does not demand a radical alteration of national economies, global trade, or personal lifestyles. But radical systemic change in our energy systems is needed now more than ever before, and investments that slow down this transition are a dangerous distraction.

POLITICAL LOCK-IN

From a technological perspective, it has been suggested that the infrastructural requirements and inflexibility of CCS would exacerbate ‘technological lock-in’ to fossil-fuel use.[11] From a political perspective, it now seems that the sunk-costs associated with the amount of money already invested in CCS is creating a difficult ‘political lock-in’. For governments that have already invested millions or billions of dollars and considerable political capital to advance CCS, ending this support is politically challenging. And the billions of dollars already spent has created a large and powerful CCS advocacy coalition that includes multiple institutions and individuals around the world whose professional responsibilities include advocating for more government funding for CCS.[34, 35] The technically optimistic focus of these CCS advocates has limited consideration of the societal risks of CCS investments and the societal value of investing instead in alternative non-fossil-fuel-based strategies.

FOSSIL-FUEL DIVESTMENT

For the well-being of societies around the world, divestment from fossil-fuels needs to become a governmental priority. Despite the obvious political challenges of resisting the powerful fossil-fuel establishment, a subtle but definite signal of movement toward such a rebellious idea was given by President Obama last summer when he mentioned ‘divestment’ in his speech on climate.[36] Although the US officially continues to espouse an ‘all of the above’ energy strategy which includes investing in CCS, the time has come for the United States and other governments who have invested in CCS to exercise their influence to selectively divest in fossil-fuels and invest more heavily in non-fossil-fuel energy technologies. The perceived need for CCS has already been reduced in the EU where regulations now in place incentivize moving away from fossil-fuels by putting a price on CO2 emissions. And proposed new CO2 regulations in the United States have already changed firmly held assumptions of sustained long-term coal use in the United States and reduced expectations of widespread deployment of CCS.[37]

Government investment in CCS is a large, expensive, and unnecessary fossil-fuel subsidy with an extremely low probability of eventual societal benefit. In the tight, resource constrained environment that almost all governments are operating within, it is irresponsible for governments to sustain this type of subsidy. Deep systemic change is required to alter the disastrous global fossil-fuel trajectory. Government investment in CCS and other fossil-fuel technologies must end, so that the distraction and complacency of the false sense of security such investments provide are removed.

Albert Einstein famously pointed out that problems cannot be solved with the same mindset in which they were created. We need to move beyond the powerful fossil-fuel mindset, and let go of the false sense of optimism that CCS investments provide. We also need to end the perception that CCS or any specific mix of technologies has the potential to ‘solve’ climate change. We need to divest from perpetuating a fossil-fuel infrastructure, and instead invest in social and technical changes that will help us prepare to be more resilient in an increasingly unstable and unpredictable future.

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Citation: Stephens, J. C. (2013), Time to stop investing in carbon capture and storage and reduce government subsidies of fossil-fuels. WIREs Clim Change. doi: 10.1002/wcc.266
Power station image via shutterstock. Reproduced at Resilience.org with permission.
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