Burning up

November 11, 2008 at 2:27 pm | Posted in Climate Change | Leave a comment

This report (PDF) by ten of the world’s leading climate scientists (very briefly discussed here) has been causing a fair amount of worried hand-wringing on the environmental blogs, partly because of the very stark predictions it makes, but also because it renders the task of constructing an effective climate change policy more difficult than ever.

As I wrote earlier, the magic number used by climate scientists is 350 parts per million (ppm); that’s the maximum amount of carbon our planet can handle before the damaging effects of climate change take effect. At the moment, we’re at around 385, and that number is increasing by about 2 ppm every year.

As Bradford Plumer explains, until recently, climatologists have believed that stabilising the amount of carbon at around 450 ppm was the most realistic target for world governments to aim for, and if there was a concerted global effort to cut emissions 80% by 2050, then there’d be a good chance of us achieving that. We would still inevitably experience the damage of climate change, such as changes in weather patterns and rising sea levels, but it would at least avoid something far, far worse.

That understanding has been cast into doubt by this report, which glumly predicts that holding the number steady at 450 ppm would still lead to the erosion of the arctic tundra, the peatlands drying out and saturation of the ‘carbon sink‘, all of which could amplify the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, and potentially take it to such doomsday levels as 700 – 1000 ppm. Scary, scary stuff.

Even more depressing is the report’s conclusion that we need to completely eradicate burning coal into our atmosphere by 2030. Problem is, the global use of coal rose by 30% between 2001 – 2006, and when China’s building two new plants a week, it seems fanciful to think we can shut these all down in the time required.

Which brings us to the thorny topic of ‘Clean Coal‘. Clean Coal champions will tell you that if we need to reduce emissions, it is surely sensible to adapt existing coal-fired power stations so that instead of letting the carbon float up into the atmosphere, we can capture it, bury it underground and make like it never existed.

Sure, it’d be a great idea if it weren’t for a few not-so-minor problems. The first is that there is not yet a single plant which operates with carbon capture & storage (CCS) technology, and when you consider that the process requires a massive expense of energy to get moving – an expense which will doubtless be passed onto the consumer – we don’t know how comercially viable it is. Secondly, not every coal-fired power station is built on land suitable to store carbon; because of the significant ecological damage which could occur in the event of even low-level CO2 leakage, we couldn’t just allow them to be installed anywhere. Thirdly, we’ll still have the problem of the environmental damage caused by mining – particularly open-cast – and the attendent resources used in transporting coal, and it remains unknown whether it is permanently safe to store CO2 underground.

Therein lies the almighty headache for those who’re trying to plan our way towards a safer climate and a more sustainable use of energy. I’ve no doubt that clean coal might play some role, but only amongst a myriad of cleaner, more efficient alternatives. And if this report is anything to go by, it need to start happening very, very soon.

Image one: Perito Moreno Glacier in Argentina. Taken by Flickr user Marina & Enrique (Creative Commons)

Image two: Thorpe Marsh Power Station near Doncaster. Taken by Flickr user Dr Stanz (Creative Commons)

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