There is no question, global warming is happening and it is primarily caused by the burning of and subsequent release of CO2 from fossil fuels. Accept it. It’s a fact. Global warming is not a hoax.
It’s also a fact that global warming will cause very serious consequences. Consequences worth doing just about anything to avoid. They include:
- Rising waters displacing millions or billions of people and in some cases flooding whole countries.
- Flooding many of our major world cities. Cities like New York, Boston, Miami, Mumbai etc etc.
- Increasingly unstable weather patterns
- Widespread effects to world agriculture and ecosystems
- Extinction of many species including large fauna such as polar bears and large scale fauna such as coral reefs
- The knock-on effects of these changes including, war,famine, and political instability.
What kinds of actions should we support that will make a difference?
Let’s break down the causes of global warming so they can be understood from a perspective that allows us to imagine what, politically and technically, could be done. As the basic issue is the burning of fossil fuels and subsequent release of the gas CO2, it’s probably a good idea to know what we are burning these fuels for and how much of global warming is caused by each of them?
There are a lot of contradictory numbers out there but for our purposes the below numbers are useful:
- ~ 39% Electrical Generation – Mostly coal fired plants.
- ~ 32% Transportation – Transportation can be further broken down to cars (15%), trucks (8%), Ships (5%), Air (2%) and rail (2%)
- ~13% Industry – which can be further broken down to cement production (5,5%), hydrocarbon burning including coal (6.5%)
- ~ 8% – Land use changes. Cutting down forests etc.
- ~ 7% Heating – Heating houses buildings etc.
To stop global warming how much CO2 do we have to reduce?
It is generally thought that to avoid the more unpleasant implications of global warming we will need to reduce our emissions to about 20% of current levels within ten years.
Is it possible to do it without seriously disrupting our existing lifestyles? What policies or changes can or should we support?
A high level view of how we might achieve these reductions
There are technologies that exist today that can get us most of the way without too much disruption. This is how the problem of global warming could be approached:
CARBON TAX – First of all, there absolutely has to be a carbon tax. Why? New technologies will have to be invested in and a soon as you start moving people off fossil fuels the price of fossil fuels will become so cheap that there will be no incentive to switch technologies. Look at what happened to fuel prices when OPEC fell apart recently. To avoid too much disruption, set the price of gasoline (for example) at a price that can be currently borne by most people yet still providing an economic reason to shift to other technologies. As the price of oil drops, increase the tax to maintain this price. Invest the revenues in new technologies and industry support.
ELECTRICAL GENERATION – The biggest and easiest source of CO2 to get at is electrical generation. In Canada we generate a lot of our electricity with low carbon technology already so this one should be easy. Its also very important to tackle this one first because it is the lever by which many of the other emissions can be attacked. Most of the carbon is generated by coal plants but they are relatively few in number so the problem is manageable. In the short term, technologies such as carbon capture can be applied (even if it is expensive). Failing that, emissions can be reduced by 50% by converting the coal to methane/natural gas before burning. In the longer term, phasing coal fired plants out or converting coal to hydrogen will reduce emissions to close to 0%. Of course, investing in wind power and other renewable energy technologies can help, but if we want change things quickly let’s attack the biggest problems first. Goal: Decrease emissions by 95% in 10 years.
TRANSPORTATION – Transportation carbon emissions are made up of several components:
Cars etc (15%) – There are several technologies that are open to us now that can substantially reduce carbon emissions from cars. The most practical, currently working technology is electrical cars with auxiliary motors. 80% of the driving we do today is within the range of the batteries and when these cars do use their motors they are still efficient. Of course, their ability to reduce carbon depends on the source of electricity that they use which will almost certainly be the electrical grid. That’s why fixing the grid is so important. Other choices will become available in time such as fuel cell cars or cars using various types of hydrogen technology. Goal: Decrease emissions by 85% In 10 years
Trucks/Buses (8%) – Similar technologies to cars can be employed with intra-city buses etc but for long haul trucks it might be better to convert them to CNG (Compressed natural gas) or invest in better storage technologies for LNG (liquefied natural gas) for greater range. Existing diesels can be converted to CNG/LNG fairly easily. CNG or natural gas releases 30% less carbon then diesel fuel and is much much cleaner. Additionally, a percentage of the current truck traffic can be put back on the railroad where, arguably, it belongs. Goal: Decrease emissions by 50% in 10 years.
Ships (5%) – Ships should be converted to LNG. It is very clean, available, and has 70% of the carbon emissions of heavy oil and it has a high enough energy density to power ships across oceans. Ships are already an extremely efficient way to move goods so there is less CO2 savings opportunity here. Goal:Decrease emissions by 30% in ten years.
AIR (2%) – Converting aircraft to low carbon fuels is more difficult because with aircraft, energy density is all important. That being said there is a lot of work being done by the airlines to substitute or blend current fuels with various kinds of bio fuels The other way to reduce carbon emissions is to increase overall efficiency of aircraft which is a process that has been (and continues to be) underway for a long time. Goal: Reduce emissions by 10% overall in 10- years.
RAIL (2%) – Rail is powered by diesel electric systems as a rule. Converting the diesels to LNG will reduce emissions by 30%. Rail, like ships, is already an extremely efficient way to transport goods and people so there is less opportunity here. Goal: Reduce emissions by 30% in 10 years.
INDUSTRY – A full 5.5% of the industry emissions is from cement manufacturing. Wow! Its hard to imagine giving up the use of concrete but there are a lot of people working on this issue right now. Cement production uses a lot of heat and the material gives off CO2 as part of the process so it is a double pronged issue. Industry, aside from cement production, releases CO2 primarily through the burning of fossil fuels so the answer needs to be an increased reliance on the electrical grid and alternative direct energy sources such as natural gas. Goal: Reduce CO2 emissions by 50%.
HEATING – Replace heating with electrical furnaces: Goal: Reduce CO2 by 90% in ten years.
LAND USE CHANGES – Institute policies to to protect and restore damaged ecosystems. Goal: 50% reduction in 10 years.
So where does that get us regarding global warming?
OK we’ve only got to 25.7% but this illustrates how significant the cuts need to be. It is further complicated by the fact that Canada only represents 1.5 % off the world’s CO2 emissions. China is the leader with 24% followed by the United States and then Russia but we are the second highest per capita emitter of CO2, falling in right behind the USA, so we have no reason to feel smug.
We can only start this at home so how do we kick-start the process?
a) We must overwhelmingly agree as a society that something must be done. Give our governments a solid mandate.
b) Government will have to pass laws (carbon tax) and set regulations etc.. Government will have to support industry and invest in new technologies. Global warming will not be addressed without the involvement of governments.
c) Industry must rise to the challenges set by government.
d) We, as individuals, must be responsible and make low carbon choices and be prepared to pay more for CO2 dependent activities.
e) Canada should lead by example and then apply pressure on other states to comply with standards and regulations similar to ours.
So the question to be answered in the Ballot Box is: I agree with the statement, “Global warming is a scientifically proven fact and we must do something about it even though the costs will be high or we will risk serious consequences.” Yes or No?
This article/blog entry is a work in progress so please feel free to provide input and or revisit.
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