It’s easy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions!

Someone asked me to look at his piece on how to tackle climate change without nuclear power, using only 8 wedges. Solving climate change is relatively easy–an underlying assumption of anyone who believes it can be done with only a portion of today’s technology. Policy reports, on the other hand, emphasize the need for applying today’s technology today and increasing energy research by a factor of 3-4 times so that we can apply new technologies tomorrow.

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I’ve seen this optimism often, from the Sierra Club and other environmental groups.

I updated my own calculation for how many wedges are needed. I used a more realistic rate of increase than do Pacala and Socolow, and reduced carbon dioxide emissions 80% by 2058 rather than keeping them the same. These assumptions lead to a need for 18 wedges. If you are good at math, please check! Reductions for all greenhouse gases, not just carbon dioxide, require even more wedges.

How easy will this be? I went to Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Working Group 3, and the reference case from the World Energy Outlook 2004 (International Energy Association). These do not use the term wedge, nor do they look at 50 year chunks of time. How do these reports reduce greenhouse gases enough to keep the world below the 2 C temperature increase many climatologists see as too much?

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They don’t.

IPCC WG3 summarizes 177 analyses. Of those I’ve seen, most give a small number of examples, say a reference and mitigation scenario. Of these 177 mitigation scenarios, 118 reduce GHG emissions enough to keep temperature increase to 3.2-4 C. Only 6 try to find ways to keep the increase at 2 – 2.4 C. None look at even lower caps.

Business as usual (BAU) GHG assumptions are worse than when the studies were done, the world has not acted enough for even more years, so one would expect to find plans for adequate mitigation even more difficult to create today.

There may be post-IPCC analysis on how to keep total GHG emissions low enough to keep temperature increase below 2 C, but I have not seen it.

BAU assumptions assume expanded use of nuclear power, with increases in Asia and elsewhere. I doubt that any of the reports IPCC based its work on produced a mitigation scenario that did not depend on even more nuclear power. Yet none of these reports found sufficient reductions.

Those who communicate that we can do it without nuclear power do more than oppose the largest source of low-GHG electricity that can be added most rapidly today. They tell their listeners that addressing climate change is easy.

If we could agree on the solutions from the policy community, we could move on to the even harder task of cutting GHG emissions even more rapidly and radically. We need to find ways to do more, not argue that we can get by with less.

3 Responses to “It’s easy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions!”

  1. Joffan says:

    First-rate post. The difficulty of the climate challenge ahead is hard to overstate, and pretending that minor tweaks in purchasing habits (aka “efficiency”) will do anything substantive is counterproductive.

    On the other hand, groups that have been implacably opposed to nuclear power for years can send a real message about climate change by switching to support nuclear power. That will reallly tell the world how seriously hard controlling our impact on climate will be – because it will hurt like hell (pride at least, possibly income too) for those groups to switch. I’m not holding my breath though.

  2. I agree with Joffan. A first-rate post. And more environmental groups and prominent environmentalists need to endorse nuclear power.

    Even though there’s a lot of coverage about greenhouse gases, some public-opinion researchers recently told me that only a small percentage of the people polled know where they come from. They assume tailpipe emissions are the main source. They don’t know that 40% of the world’s GHG come from burning fossil fuels to make electricity.

    This is a time for members of the technical community to start doing some outreach and conveying to the public (say, in speeches to your local chamber of commerce or Audubon Society) the real facts about nuclear power.

    The researchers said that most people are persuaded, wrongly, that wind, solar, and other renewables can replace fossil fuels and nuclear and provide all our energy. This fallacy needs to be addressed too, at the grass-roots level.

    One way to do that is to compare the risks and benefits of different energy sources and discuss what those sources are capable of doing when it comes to meeting the steadily increasing demand for electricity.

    I was opposed to nuclear power until it was put in context with the other stuff out there.

  3. Karen Street says:

    Thanks to both of you for your comments.

    While some argue that we don’t need nuclear, we get more CO2 and more coal.

    If you haven’t already, check out Gwyneth Cravens’ excellent Power to Save the World and her new article in Discover magazine.