Geo-engineering

I argued on my Climate Cliff page that it could already be too late to stop climate change running away from us despite massive carbon cuts.

If we instituted a truly massive ‘war-time economy’ against burning coal and oil and gas, there might still be a chance to avoid the climate cliff and the sheer cost of geo-engineering. (See footnote). But I don’t see it happening. We’re still pumping out ever more CO2. So what can we do if we go over the Climate Cliff?

What is the ‘crash position’?

Green Deserts:  (Afforestation). Desalinated sea-water could be used to irrigate deserts and grow forests, sequestering all our carbon emissions! This is a climate fix even if we continued burning all our fossil fuels. This is one of my favourites because of all the great side benefits; food and fibre and fuel. Done right, this could create attractive orchards and paper mills and timber  towns across the Outback and Sahara. We would enjoy food grown from within our deserts! The main problem? The cost: this is one of the most expensive geo-engineering schemes, and costs $3.5 trillion, or 5% of the global GDP.

White Skies: pour sulfur dust into the upper atmosphere to shield us from the sun. This may be one of the cheapest ’emergency cures’ but also has some very nasty side effects.

Olivine dust: Spreading this dust everywhere will suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, but costs around $200 Billion a year. It has less side effects than White Skies, but costs more and does not have the great food, fibre, and fuel benefits of Green Deserts (and what would be the value of protecting rare tropical rainforests by flooding the market with timber from the Outback and Sahara!?)

The sheer cost!

If we really decided to invest in clean energy, we would not need to waste money on problematic geo-engineering schemes. The same money would instead prevent global warming instead of wasting (roughly) $200 billion on the ‘cure’. Some of these schemes cost around $200 billion a year. (Or $2 trillion a decade!) This is an enormous amount of money. This money could pay for a clean energy system for the planet in about 3 decades ($6 trillion total!) if we put it towards nuclear power, rather than some of the schemes listed below.

As Engineer Poet estimated:

This needs to be compared to the cost of other measures.  A nuclear powerplant at €2000/kW (Nth of a kind, assuming a rationalized regulatory system) operating at 90% capacity factor displaces about 1 ton CO2 per MWH or about 7.9 million tons per 1 GW plant per year, ~470 million tons over a 60-year lifespan.  Investing €200 billion per year in nuclear powerplants would produce 100 GW of new plants per year, which would cut emissions by about 790 million tons/yr each year.  Ten years into a construction program at this pace, the net CO2 emissions from coal combustion would be cut by about 7.9 billion tons per year, roughly 1/3 of the total human emissions of 26.4 GT/yr.

This rate of production would quickly saturate the European, US and Japanese electric markets and require installations in nations far afield.  It would require less money (you’d be done after 30 years), require moving far less material, and have many knock-on effects such as radically reduced air pollution and improved balances of trade in the OECD.

The obvious conclusion:

1. If we act fast enough right now we could save a stack of money, save a stack of ecosystems, and save a stack of lives by preventing the worst of climate change. Then we wouldn’t have to spend money on these geo-engineering ‘cures’. As the Stern and Garnaut Reports both concluded, prevention is far, far cheaper than a cure. 20 times cheaper!

2. If we leave it too late, we will be stuck with the bill for both the clean energy we have to build anyway and these geo-engineering schemes! We will still have to spend trillions on a clean energy system, as we will eventually run out of fossil fuels anywayAND then also fund expensive geo-engineering projects like those mentioned below.

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4 Responses to Geo-engineering

  1. Byron Smith says:

    Dave – Your figure for “current” CO2 emissions is based on the 2007 AR4, itself based on even older measurements. AR4 SPM says: “Annual fossil carbon dioxide emissions increased from an average of 6.4 [6.0 to 6.8] GtC (23.5 [22.0 to 25.0] GtCO2) per year in the 1990s to 7.2 [6.9 to 7.5] GtC (26.4 [25.3 to 27.5] GtCO2) per year in 2000–2005 (2004 and 2005 data are interim estimates).” So we’re not at 26.4Gt per year, but are currently at something like 35Gt CO2 p.a. (depending on which set of figures you choose).

    “100 GW of new plants per year, which would cut emissions by about 790 million tons/yr each year”
    No, they might displace that amount of emissions *growth* if they were being built instead of new coal, but they would not cut emissions unless coal plants were being shut down for each new nuclear plant. Thus, you’d need considerably more than your figures in order to account for further growth in energy demand.

    Plus, this estimate assumes that nuclear can be built for €2b per 1GW plant. Perhaps that might be the case at some point in the future, but we’re nowhere near that now.

  2. Eclipse Now says:

    Good point Byron! I guess the focus of EP’s point was that $200 billion is a lot of money to waste on spreading dust in the skies (White Skies) or on the ground (Olivine Co2 sequestration) to solve global warming when it should instead go on nuclear power plants which might help prevent it in the first place.

    Electricity use is supposed to DOUBLE from 2000 to 2030.
    http://www.iaea.org/Publications/Magazines/Bulletin/Bull461/power_to_the_people.html

    A war-time emergency economy really is required. We need to pump $400 billion into nukes each year to build new power and replace the old. That’s a lot of money, but when broken down into a global economy of about $70 trillion dollars annual GDP, it’s not so much. But will it happen? No. I tend to speak in absolute terms of what is possible in an ideal world where everyone rationally looked at the technical possibilities and just decided to get on with it! This of course never happens in the real world. Politics gets involved, especially with nuclear power.

    I’m just saying that if I ran the world, we’d probably put $600 billion a year into solving global warming once and for all: $400 into nukes (with subsidies for poorer post-colonial nations to develop their economies) and $200 into Olivine to stabilise the warming over this period. After 30 years the emergency build out of nukes would have broken the back of the problem and the human population would be stabilising. Transport systems would also move to electricity as oil became more expensive, and New Urban movements would also have increased many efficiencies.

    Beyond that point, both Olivine and Biochar would help bring us back to 350ppm over time.

  3. Jim Baerg says:

    You might want to include Ocean Iron Fertilization in the geoengineering section. It is proposed both to pull CO2 out of the atmosphere & ocean & also to increase fishery production.

    Googling that term turns up a few items on the idea like the wikipedia article.

    Here is the website of an enthusiast for the idea
    http://russgeorge.net/

    I would like to see some more experiments with it, including careful checking for every downside to the idea anyone can think of.

  4. Eclipse Now says:

    Hi Jim,
    yeah, I’d like to see more work done on it as I just read this yesterday.
    “The iron fertilization of the ocean had generated optimism until an experiment earlier this year dampened hopes. When the theory was tested in a 115-square-mile area of the Southern Ocean, tiny crustacean zooplankton ate up all the phytoplankton.”
    http://www.earthisland.org/journal/index.php/eij/article/hacking_the_sky/

    But isn’t that the point? The small fish eat the zooplankton, the big fish eat the smaller fish, the ocean food web is stimulated into action and hopefully some of that carbon ends up on our dinner plate and some of it at the bottom of the ocean? Indeed, if krill are super-stimulated into even larger schools, whales will have more to feed on and whale droppings are an enormous source of both more ocean fertilisation and more phytoplankton, and hopefully some of that phytoplankton will end up at the bottom of the ocean.
    http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2010/06/16/2927491.htm

    Indeed, some more recent tests appear quite positive:

    November 27, 2014
    About two ago ago, an ocean fertilisation test, fertilizing around 120 tonnes of iron sulphate off Canada’s coast. Satellite images confirmed the claim by the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation that the iron spawned an artificial plankton bloom as large as 10,000 square kilometers. Now it appears that the fish catch in the area was boosted by over 100,000 tons. Pink salmon mature in two years. Salmon can add a pound a month if they are well fed in the ocean. 2013 had the largest pink salmon run in 50 years.

    http://nextbigfuture.com/2014/11/scaling-and-testing-geoengineering.html

    If we then look at ways to sequester our sewerage onto land, removing heavy metals but saving the NPK and carbon as compost for farmlands, I wonder if that would not only help create a more industrial-strength permaculture recycling of NPK but also dump carbon from seafood onto our farmlands?

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