Sunday, January 22, 2023

Foggy Forecasts for Clean Energy Futures

"Can we build out renewable energy fast enough to avoid some nasty tipping points?"

When the climate changes that quickly we’d like to know what the most likely outcomes are going to be for us. As I write this, there are thousands of incredibly knowledgeable and intrepid researchers around the world running complicated AI climate simulations through advanced supercomputers whose processing speeds are accelerating all the time. Their answers get better by the week and day, and the questions get more sophisticated. More and more data is being fed in from field instruments and newer generations of satellites and depth buoys — everything from seawater salinity to permafrost melt, and fugitive methane from pipelines and abandoned wells to the sunlight reflectivity of urban sprawl.

  • The rate of acceleration in technologies like direct air capture (DAC) and bioenergy with carbon capture (BECCS).
  • The rate of acceleration in agriculture, forestry and other land use (AFOLU).
  • Potential future carbon intensity of energy production.
  • Potential changes in the global level of demand for energy itself.
  • Trends in non-CO2 emissions, predominantly methane.
Then in 2022, the IPCC published its Sixth Assessment, Working Group 3 Report (with an ecovillage on the cover) that contained another 1202 potential future pathways. Both Potsdam and IPCC concluded, ominously, that the vast majority of projections predict increases far higher than 1.5°C by 2100.

Bending the Curve

One part per million (ppm) CO2 in the atmosphere is equivalent to 2.12 billion tons of carbon (GtC). Thus, an excess of 280 ppm accumulated in the atmosphere since we went from wood to coal and oil means there are (2.12 x 280) 600 billion tons too much that will remain up there for many centuries. Think of a wall of compressed seaweed 1 km high, 1 km wide, and 6000 km long. When the expert researchers looked at the 26 pathways that assume our ability to withdraw and permanently store that carbon they came to the conclusion that the world will most likely run out of all the easy options by 2025 or 2030. Avoiding the nastiest tipping points between now and mid-century will require the removal of something like 2 billion tons of carbon from the atmosphere every year by the end of this decade and doubling and tripling that rate in the out years.

Accomplishing this removal by artificial forests (DACCS) will require a lot of additional, renewable energy, but there is another snag. We are already depending on a lot of additional, renewable energy to replace dirty coal and nuke plants, automobiles and gas cooking ranges.


Meanwhile, let’s end this war. Towns, villages and cities in Ukraine are being bombed every day. Ecovillages and permaculture farms have organized something like an underground railroad to shelter families fleeing the cities, either on a long-term basis or temporarily, as people wait for the best moments to cross the border to a safer place, or to return to their homes if that becomes possible. There are still 70 sites in Ukraine and 300 around the region. They are calling their project “The Green Road.”

The COVID-19 pandemic destroyed lives, livelihoods, and economies. But it has not slowed climate change, a juggernaut threat to all life, humans included. We had a trial run at emergency problem-solving on a global scale with COVID — and we failed. 6.7 million people, and counting, have died. We ignored well-laid plans to isolate and contact trace early cases; overloaded our ICUs; parked morgue trucks on the streets; incinerated bodies until the smoke obscured our cities as much as the raging wildfires. We set back our children’s education and mental health. We virtualized the work week until few wanted to return to their open-plan cubicle offices. We invented and produced tests and vaccines faster than anyone thought possible but then we hoarded them for the wealthy and denied them to two-thirds of the world, who became the Petri-plates for new variants. SARS jumped from people to dogs and cats to field mice. The modern world took a masterclass in how abysmally, unbelievably, shockingly bad we could fail, despite our amazing science, vast wealth, and singular talents as a species.

Having failed so dramatically, so convincingly, with such breathtaking ineptitude, do we imagine we will now do better with climate? Having demonstrated such extreme disorientation in the face of a few simple strands of RNA, do we imagine we can call upon some magic power that will change all that for planetary-ecosystem-destroying climate change?

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