Is there hope for stopping climate change?

JDN 2457523

This topic was decided by vote of my Patreons (there are still few enough that the vote usually has only two or three people, but hey, what else can I do?).

When it comes to climate change, I have good news and bad news.

First, the bad news:

We are not going to be able to stop climate change, or even stop making it worse, any time soon. Because of this, millions of people are going to die and there’s nothing we can do about it.

Now, the good news:

We can do a great deal to slow down our contribution to climate change, reduce its impact on human society, and save most of the people who would otherwise have been killed by it. It is currently forecasted that climate change will cause somewhere between 10 million and 100 million deaths over the next century; if we can hold to the lower end of that error bar instead of the upper end, that’s half a dozen Holocausts prevented.

There are three basic approaches to take, and we will need all of them:

1. Emission reduction: Put less carbon in

2. Geoengineering: Take more carbon out

3. Adaptation: Protect more humans from the damage

Strategies 1 and 2 are classified as mitigation, while strategy 3 is classified as adaptation. Mitigation is reducing climate change; adaptation is reducing the effect of climate change on people.

Let’s start with strategy 1, emission reduction. It’s probably the most important; without it the others are clearly doomed to fail.

So, what are our major sources of emissions, and what can we do to reduce them?

While within the US and most other First World countries the primary sources of emissions are electricity and transportation, worldwide transportation is less important and agriculture is about as large a source of emissions as electricity. 25% of global emissions are due to electricity, 24% are due to agriculture, 21% are due to industry, 14% are due to transportation, only 6% are due to buildings, and everything else adds up to 10%.

global_emissions_sector_2015

1A. Both within the First World and worldwide, the leading source of emissions is electricity. Our first priority is therefore electrical grid reform.

Energy efficiency can help—and it already is helping, as global electricity consumption has stopped growing despite growth in population and GDP. Energy intensity of GDP is declining. But the main thing we need to do is reform the way that electricity is produced.

Let’s take a look at how the world currently produces electricity. Currently, the leading source of electricity is “liquids”, an odd euphemism for oil; currently about 175 quadrillion BTU per year, 30% of all production. This is closely followed by coal, at about 160 quadrillion BTU per year, 28%. Then we have natural gas, about 130 quadrillion BTU per year (23%), wind, solar, hydroelectric, and geothermal altogether about 60 quadrillion BTU per year (11%), and nuclear fission only about 40 quadrillion BTU per year (7%).

This list basically needs to be reversed. We will probably not be able to completely stop using oil for transportation, but we have no excuse for using for electricity production. We also need to stop using coal for, well, just about anything. There are a few industrial processes that basically have to use coal; fine, use it for that. But just as something to burn, coal is one of the most heavily-polluting technologies in existence—the only things we burn that are worse are wood and animal dung. Simply ending the burning of coal, wood, and dung would by itself save 4 million lives a year just from reduced pollution.

Natural gas burns cleaner than coal or oil, but it still produces a lot of carbon emissions. Even worse, natural gas is itself one of the worst greenhouse gases—and so natural gas leaks are a major source of greenhouse emissions. Last year a single massive leak accounted for 25% of California’s methane emissions. Like oil, natural gas is also something we’ll want to use quite sparingly.

The best power source is solar power, hands-down. In the long run, the goal should be to convert as much as possible of the grid to solar. Wind, hydroelectric, and geothermal are also very useful, though wind power peaks at the wrong time of day for high energy demand and hydro and geothermal require specific geography to work. Solar is also the most scalable; as long as you have the raw materials and the technology, you can keep expanding solar production all the way up to a Dyson Sphere.

But solar is intermittent, and we don’t have good enough energy storage methods right now to ensure a steady grid on solar alone. The bulk of our grid is therefore going to have to be made of the one energy source we have with negligible carbon emissions, mature technology, and virtually unlimited and fully controllable output: Nuclear fission. At least until fusion matures or we solve the solar energy storage problem, nuclear fission is our best option for minimizing carbon emissions immediatelynot waiting for some new technology to come save us, but building efficient reactors now. Why does France only emit 6 tonnes of carbon per person per year while the UK emits 9, Germany emits 10, and the US emits a whopping 17? Because France’s electricity grid is almost entirely nuclear.

But nuclear power is dangerous!” people will say. France has indeed had several nuclear accidents in the last 40 years; guess how many deaths those accidents have caused? Zero. Deepwater Horizon killed more people than the sum total of all nuclear accidents in all First World countries. Worldwide, there was one Black Swan horrible nuclear event—Chernobyl (which still only killed about as many people as die in the US each year of car accidents or lung cancer), and other than that, nuclear power is safer that every form of fossil fuel.

“Where will we store the nuclear waste?” Well, that’s a more legitimate question, but you know what? It can wait. Nuclear waste doesn’t accumulate very fast, precisely because fission is thousands of times more efficient than combustion; so we’ll have plenty of room in existing facilities or easily-built expansions for the next century. By that point, we should have fusion or a good way of converting the whole grid to solar. We should of course invest in R&D in the meantime. But right now, we need fission.

So, after we’ve converted the electricity grid to nuclear, what next?
1B. To reduce the effect of agriculture, we need to eat less meat; among agricultural sources, livestock is the leading contributor of greenhouse emissions, followed by land use “emissions” (i.e. deforestation), which could also be reduced by converting more crop production to vegetables instead of meat because vegetables are much more land-efficient (and just-about-everything-else-efficient).

1C. To reduce the effect of transportation, we need huge investments in public transit, as well as more fuel-efficient vehicles like hybrids and electric cars. Switching to public transit could cut private transportation-related emissions in half. 100% electric cars are too much to hope for, but by implementing a high carbon tax, we might at least raise the cost of gasoline enough to incentivize makers and buyers of cars to choose more fuel-efficient models.
The biggest gains in fuel efficiency happen on the most gas-guzzling vehicles—indeed, so much so that our usual measure “miles per gallon” is highly misleading.

Quick: Which of the following changes would reduce emissions more, assuming all the vehicles drive the same amount? Switching from a hybrid of 50 MPG to a zero-emission electric (infinity MPG!), switching from a normal sedan of 20 MPG to a hybrid of 50 MPG, or switching from an inefficient diesel truck of 3 MPG to a modern diesel truck of 7 MPG?

The diesel truck, by far.

If each vehicle drives 10,000 miles per year: The first switch will take us from consuming 200 gallons to consuming 0 gallons—saving 200 gallons. The second switch will take us from consuming 500 gallons to consuming 200 gallons—saving 300 gallons. But the third switch will take us from consuming 3,334 gallons to consuming only 1,429 gallons—saving a whopping 1,905 gallons. Even slight increases in the fuel efficiency of highly inefficient vehicles have a huge impact, while you can raise an already-efficient vehicle to perfect efficiency and barely notice a difference.

We really should measure in gallons per mile—or better yet, liters per megameter. (Most of the world uses liters per 100 km; almost!)

All right, let’s assume we’ve done that: The whole grid is nuclear, and everyone is a vegetarian driving an electric car. That’s a good start. But we can’t stop there. Because of the feedback loops involved, we only reduce our emissions—even to near zero—the amount of carbon dioxide will continue to increase for decades. We need to somehow take the carbon out that is already there, which brings me to strategy 2, geoengineering.

2A. There are some exotic proposals out there for geoengineering (putting sulfur into the air to block out the Sun; what could possibly go wrong?), and maybe we’ll end up using some of them. I think iron fertilization of the oceans is one of the more promising options. But we need to be careful to make sure we actually know what these projects will do; we got into this mess by doing things without appreciating their long-run environmental impact, so let’s not make the same mistake again.

2B. But really, the most effective form of geoengineering is simply reforestation. Trees are very good at capturing carbon from the atmosphere; it’s what they evolved to do. So let’s plant trees—lots of trees. Many countries already have net positive forestation (such as the US as a matter of fact), but the world still has net deforestation, and that needs to be reversed.

But even if we do all that, at this point we probably can’t do enough fast enough to actually stop climate change from causing damage. After we’ve done our best to slow it down, we’re still going to need to respond to its effects and find ways to minimize the harm. That’s strategy 3, adaptation.

3A. Coastal regions around the world are going to have to turn into the Netherlands, surrounded by dikes and polders. First World countries already have the resources to do this, and will most likely do it on our own (many cities already have plans to); but other countries need to be given the resources to do it. We’re responsible for most of the emissions, and we have the most wealth, so we should pick up the tab for most of the adaptation.

3B. Some places aren’t going to be worth saving—so that means saving the people, by moving them somewhere else. We’re going to have global refugee crises, and we need to prepare for them, not in the usual way of “How can I clear my conscience while xenophobically excluding these people?” but by welcoming them with open arms. We are going to need to resettle tens of millions—possibly hundreds of millions—of people, and we need a process for doing that efficiently and integrating these people into the societies they end up living in. We must stop presuming that closed borders are the default and realize that the burden of proof was always on anyone who says that people should have different rights based on whether they were born on the proper side of an imaginary line. If open borders are utopian, then it is utopian we must be.

The bad news is that even if we do all these things, millions of people are still going to die from climate change—but a lot fewer millions than would if we didn’t.

And the really good news is that people are finally starting to do these things. It took a lot longer than it should, and there are still a lot of holdouts; but significant progress is already being made. There are a lot of reasons to be hopeful.

What are the limits to growth?

JDN 2456941 PDT 12:25.

Paul Krugman recently wrote a column about the “limits to growth” community, and as usual, it’s good stuff; his example of how steamships substituted more ships for less fuel is quite compelling. But there’s a much stronger argument to made against “limits to growth”, and I thought I’d make it here.

The basic idea, most famously propounded by Jay Forrester but still with many proponents today (and actually owing quite a bit to Thomas Malthus), is this: There’s only so much stuff in the world. If we keep adding more people and trying to give people higher standards of living, we’re going to exhaust all the stuff, and then we’ll be in big trouble.

This argument seems intuitively reasonable, but turns out to be economically naïve. It can take several specific forms, from the basically reasonable to the utterly ridiculous. On the former end is “peak oil”, the point at which we reach a maximum rate of oil extraction. We’re actually past that point in most places, and it won’t be long before the whole world crosses that line. So yes, we really are running out of oil, and we need to transition to other fuels as quickly as possible. On the latter end is the original Mathusian argument (we now have much more food per person worldwide than they did in Malthus’s time—that’s why ending world hunger is a realistic option now), and, sadly, the argument Mark Buchanan made a few days ago. No, you don’t always need more energy to produce more economic output—as Krugman’s example cleverly demonstrates. You can use other methods to improve your energy efficiency, and that doesn’t necessarily require new technology.

Here’s the part that Krugman missed: Even if we need more energy, there’s plenty of room at the top. The total amount of sunlight that hits the Earth is about 1.3 kW/m^2, and the Earth has a surface area of about 500 million km^2, which is 5e14 m^2. That means that if we could somehow capture all the sunlight that hits the Earth, we’d have 6.5e17 W, which is 5.7e18 kilowatt-hours per year. Total world energy consumption is about 140,000 terawatt-hours per year, which is 1.4e14 kilowatt-hours per year. That means we could increase energy consumption by a factor of one thousand just using Earth-based solar power (Covering the oceans with synthetic algae? A fleet of high-altitude balloons covered in high-efficiency solar panels?). That’s not including fission power, which is already economically efficient, or fusion power, which has passed break-even and may soon become economically feasible as well. Fusion power is only limited by the size of your reactor and your quantity of deuterium, and deuterium is found in ocean water (about 33 milligrams per liter), not to mention permeating all of outer space. If we can figure out how to fuse ordinary hydrogen, well now our fuel is literally the most abundant substance in the universe.

And what if we move beyond the Earth? What if we somehow captured not just the solar energy that hits the Earth, but the totality of solar energy that the Sun itself releases? That figure is about 1e31 joules per day, which is 1e27 kilowatt-hours per day, or seven trillion times as much energy as we currently consume. It is literally enough to annihilate entire planets, which the Sun would certainly do if you put a planet near enough to it. A theoretical construct to capture all this energy is called a Dyson Sphere, and the ability to construct one officially makes you a Type 2 Kardashev Civilization. (We currently stand at about Type 0.7. Building that worldwide solar network would raise us to Type 1.)

Can we actually capture all that energy with our current technology? Of course not. Indeed, we probably won’t have that technology for centuries if not millennia. But if your claim—as Mark Buchanan’s was—is about fundamental physical limits, then you should be talking about Dyson Spheres. If you’re not, then we are really talking about practical economic limits.

Are there practical economic limits to growth? Of course there are; indeed, they are what actually constrains growth in the real world. That’s why the US can’t grow above 2% and China won’t be growing at 7% much longer. (I am rather disturbed by the fact that many of the Chinese nationals I know don’t appreciate this; they seem to believe the propaganda that this rapid growth is something fundamentally better about the Chinese system, rather than the simple economic fact that it’s easier to grow rapidly when you are starting very small. I had a conversation with a man the other day who honestly seemed to think that Macau could sustain its 12% annual GDP growth—driven by gambling, no less! Zero real productivity!—into the indefinite future. Don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled that China is growing so fast and lifting so many people out of poverty. But no remotely credible economist believes they can sustain this growth forever. The best-case scenario is to follow the pattern of Korea, rising from Third World to First World status in a few generations. Korea grew astonishingly fast from about 1950 to 1990, but now that they’ve made it, their growth rate is only 3%.)

There is also a reasonable argument to be made about the economic tradeoffs involved in fighting climate change and natural resource depletion. While the people of Brazil may like to have more firewood and space for farming, the fact is the rest of need that Amazon in order to breathe. While any given fisherman may be rational in the amount of fish he catches, worldwide we are running out of fish. And while we Americans may love our low gas prices (and become furious when they rise even slightly), the fact is, our oil subsidies are costing hundreds of billions of dollars and endangering millions of lives.

We may in fact have to bear some short-term cost in economic output in order to ensure long-term environmental sustainability (though to return to Krugman, that cost may be a lot less than many people think!). Economic growth does slow down as you reach high standards of living, and it may even continue to slow down as technology begins to reach diminishing returns (though this is much harder to forecast). So yes, in that sense there are limits to growth. But the really fundamental limits aren’t something we have to worry about for at least a thousand years. Right now, it’s just a question of good economic policy.