While America sleeps
December 11, 2018 by Denis Pombriant
Of the four issues that drive climate change—energy and infrastructure, population, carbon absorption, and water abundance and distribution—it’s tempting to identify “the one” on which all others depend and solve it. But all of the challenges have to be solved together. Like solving a Rubik’s Cube you can’t solve one side at a time. The solutions outlined below are detailed in “The Age of Sustainability” though they are not presented in any ranking order.
We’ll start with energy because it might be the thorniest issue. We’re conditioned by almost 250 years of dependence on fossil fuels that began in the Industrial Revolution. Many people see renewable alternatives as interesting experiments that might contribute to providing energy abundance but not to solving the twin issues of climate change and dwindling petroleum supplies. Coal still appears to be abundant but its highly polluting nature means that we’ll die of asphyxiation before we use it all. A true Hobson’s choice.
The knock against renewables that we often hear is that they’re good when the sun shines or the wind blows but that they are too intermittent to make a dent in the energy budget. Some companies are bringing large battery arrays to market to smooth out the peaks and troughs but there’s an even better approach because we shouldn’t limit our perspective on renewables to solar and wind. It’s geothermal energy and it will have to make a strong contribution to the planet’s energy diet if we ever expect to get off the fossil fuel carrousel.
Briefly, geothermal energy relies on harvesting heat from the earth’s crust to boil water and create steam that drives conventional steam power generators—without the emissions of a coal, oil or natural gas burning plant and without the radioactive waste of nuclear plants. A broad zone of geothermal activity belts the earth running up the coasts of South and North America, around the Pacific (the so-called ring of fire) across southern Asia and through the Himalayas, through the Mediterranean and into the Alps.
If you think this is too exotic so is building a huge dam across a big river and making hydro-electric power, but we did it. Think of geothermal as the 21st century answer to hydro.
There is enough geothermal energy to serve our purposes for all energy, including transportation, for thousands of years. This will dictate that the global energy standard becomes electricity and not fossil fuels, a transition that, if left unmanaged, could take a generation.
It’s worth keeping in mind that experts point out our petroleum reserves are under stress and may last another 50 years so time is of the essence.
The unique nature of the element carbon makes its compounds with hydrogen great and stable devices for energy storage. But hydrocarbons are also the starting point of modern materials from nylon and polyester to synthetic rubber, pharmaceuticals, fertilizers and other agriculture chemicals, cement, glass, and much more. Even rocket fuel.
There is a limited quantity of fossil fuels left in the earth and it is running out, especially petroleum. It is too valuable to burn given its other uses and one of our conservation efforts should be toward preserving as much of it as possible so that it will be available for those other purposes.
A new energy paradigm based on renewable electricity is a high priority to save hydrocarbons, reduce toxic emissions, and form a bridge to a cleaner environment.
While we’re on the topic, there is no electric replacement for the jet engine which is used extensively in defense and long-haul transportation. Not having jet fuel would complicate modern life incalculably.
As we mentioned in part one, population increases have made other climate related problems more severe. Since the 1980s we’ve added about one billion new people per decade to the planet’s population, a growth rate that stopped being sustainable decades ago. Swelling population puts stress on the supply of commodities like food, water, energy, housing, and other staples of life. We saw in Part One that destabilizing climate paired with increasing effects of climate change can result in famine, wars, and population dislocation.
These issues can drive societal panics to limit migration and close borders but without producing solutions to the core problems. Population and reproduction are intensely personal matters that are sometimes associated with extremism and it is not the intention of this piece to solve the population problem but instead to say that the current situation is unstable and prone to disaster regardless of what other energy and carbon absorption strategies we employ.
A 10-billion-person population by mid-century is baked into any calculation of what to do about renewing resources like energy and water. We need creative solutions to all the problems humanity faces—all sides of Rubik’s Cube—as well as population to survive the climate crisis in good order.
Carbon presents a huge dilemma. We need carbon-based energy sources today and we know their emissions are killing the planet, but we face a classic dilemma. Should we die slowly from emissions or quickly from running out of carbon-based energy? The more likely scenario is that we’ll kill each other in a Hobbesian battle of all against all over dwindling resources like food, energy, and water.
When we talk about limiting emissions, it directly threatens the energy industry which naturally objects rather strenuously and sometimes surreptitiously as the long running case against Exxon-Mobile illustrates. Current reporting says the company knew about the dangers of climate change caused by burning fossil fuels but managed to obfuscate the issue for 27 years.
While limiting emissions is necessary, relying on this single activity as the core strategy for solving climate change is ludicrous. There’s already too much carbon in the air and we add between 35 and 40 billion tons more of it to the environment per year. A single gallon of gasoline burned completely produces 28 pounds of carbon dioxide.
But during the time when we need to wind down the fossil fuel industry—while preserving the petrochemical industry and jet travel—we need to find workable approaches to removing carbon from the atmosphere. Carbon is also dissolved in the oceans causing acidification of sea water which kills coral reefs and fish spry when the acid concentration is high enough. The oceans are in equilibrium with the air and removing carbon from the air will benefit the oceans as well.
Various proposals to capture carbon dioxide from the air with mechanical approaches suffer from similar shortcomings. Capturing carbon dioxide isn’t hard, what is difficult is handling and disposing of it safely after capture. Carbon dioxide is a gas at ambient temperatures. Under conditions of high pressure and cold temperatures CO2 can liquify but it will return to gas upon heating.
Current approaches to carbon capture and sequestration call for injecting liquified CO2 into depleted oil wells where it is hoped it would remain for millions of years. Unfortunately, old oil wells are made of porous rock and the rocks shift and fracture either naturally or when intentionally “fracked” in the oil production process. Thus we have the very real possibility that CO2 imprisoned in old oil fields would escape back into the atmosphere recreating the pollution problem. If you doubt this there are ready made experiments available online in which water taps burn because natural gas produced by fracking seeps into the water supply. It’s the same principle.
A second reason to beware of any carbon capture solution is the amount of energy it requires. The machinery that captures CO2 has to be powered and it makes little sense to burn fossil fuels to make electricity to capture carbon since the electric generating process creates more CO2 than that power could capture even under ideal conditions.
You might suggest using electricity generated by solar and wind or even geothermal to do the job and, while this is an improvement, those renewable resources would be best used to replace coal burning power plants. Nevertheless, using solar power to do the job is directionally good.
The most workable solution is to use photosynthesis to capture carbon. It’s a well-known and tolerated process that’s literally been around for billions of years. Better still, photosynthesis produces carbon compounds that don’t get into the air like sugars for plant growth and food production.
Unfortunately, there’s not enough available land to do this with if you also want to eat. But what if you didn’t need land? What if you could farm the sea? Earth currently produces between 100 billion tons and 115 billion tons of biomass per year including food, forests, grasses, seaweed, mosses, etc. If we could double this production we could make an appreciable change to the climate change graph in a decade.
The solution that’s being discussed in some scientific circles is to promote growth of plankton in the ocean. Plankton comes in two varieties; phytoplankton as it’s called is a category of microscopic plants while zooplankton is comprised of tiny animals. When the two are present zooplankton eats phytoplankton but so do baleen whales and other large sea animals. Phytoplankton has been called the grass of the sea because it plays the same bottom-of-the-food chain role as grass in the savannah.
So the carbon absorption strategy goes like this. There’s very little life activity going on way out in the middle of the ocean. Scientists have discovered that sea water out there lacks enough iron to promote phytoplankton growth. When sea water is stimulated with dilute iron solutions, phytoplankton bloom. Most of this plankton performs the grass function in the ocean but about 20 percent sinks to the bottom when it dies.
The bottom of the ocean lacks light and oxygen and it’s very cold so it is not hospitable to life. Things that sink into this anaerobic environment don’t rot because there are so few things to digest them. Over millions of years, these dead creatures get covered by tons of other debris and when they get deep enough, temperature and pressure in earth’s crust can turn them into petroleum. That’s how today’s petroleum formed 100 million or more years ago.
So about 20 percent of the plankton sinks to the bottom of the ocean and the other fraction is largely seen as food, some of which becomes human food. With a little effort we could produce even more food.
Absorbing carbon through photosynthesis solves several problems. It eliminates the need to supply energy for the process which mechanical systems require. It produces stable compounds that don’t pose the same problems as sequestering CO2. Importantly, it also provides a natural fail-safe. There would be nothing worse than discovering that we’ve sequestered too much CO2and that it could then trigger a new ice age. Constant monitoring of atmospheric CO2levels, which we already do, provides early warning of overshooting carbon absorption goals. But also, the fact that only 20 percent of plankton eventually sink means that the whole process can be managed.
This also means that we’ll be in the carbon absorption/iron fertilization business for many decades but it’s a cheap and easy thing to do and the alternative is too scary to contemplate.
Let’s end with water. Fresh water. There’s plenty of water on the planet but little of it is potable; also, getting it to where it’s most needed has a cost. Humanity has done a great job of damming rivers, creating reservoirs, and accessing ground water from aquifers to satisfy our needs for irrigation and personal use. We pipe it to where its needed and in the process create huge farming regions and living spaces for millions of people.
Water is an ecosystem service, something we get from nature even though we do a lot to process it once we have it. In other words, we don’t have to desalinate and purify it, the ecosystem does that work. But as population increases and the climate changes there is less fresh water to go around and more need to find alternatives like desalination.
During the rest of this century, as population hopefully crests around 10 billion, we’ll need to produce some of the water we need because the ecosystem can no longer keep up. Desalination requires energy and even purifying runoff and industrial grey water requires some energy. That’s why it’s important to develop an energy paradigm that produces more power than we think we need for things like transportation and domestic use. There will be numerous new inventions that will help us supply ecosystem services which we might not be aware that we need right now. Fresh water production in high volume is a great example. Processes, like desalination, will require energy that will have to come from renewable sources.
Humanity faces an interesting challenge from climate change and fossil fuel decline. Until a few years ago solutions for climate change or global warming were out of reach. It takes a good deal of research and development to make and prove solutions to these difficult problems. And it doesn’t help that some parties actively try to disprove the evidence of climate change and oil depletion.
The information revolution that began in earnest in the 1970’s produced silicon chip technology that has been adapted to make solar collection devices. These devices have become small enough and affordable enough to make a positive contribution to renewable energy. Today solar power is becoming price competitive with fossil generation systems.
At the same time, advanced windmill design and new research into geothermal technology have shown how the human race can face our climate problems and win. There are publicly traded companies producing electricity from renewables right now, and they are profitable.
Other solutions, like placing solar farms in space and beaming their power to earth have been proven though they are not under active consideration at the moment. Without an atmosphere solar panels in space are up to ten times more productive.
The technologies we need to address climate change are now available. What’s lacking is political will. The difficult challenges ahead of us don’t have much to do with inventing technology. Instead they deal with shouldering responsibility. For example, replacing the fossil fuel industry with renewables creates the problem of how the economy and its energy producers can write down trillions of dollar’s worth of coal mines, refineries, pipelines, drilling rigs and platforms, and tankers—in other words, stranded assets.
Finance and economics should be considered the fifth issue we have to deal with to form a solution to climate change. These issues require no research and development of the kind that went into the other solutions but in some ways they are the hardest aspect.
To understand how to engage in a productive conversation about these challenges perhaps we should look to another human invention, the 12-step program. As with those programs, the first order of business is acknowledging that the problem exists.
We should start by debating the merits of various solutions instead of engaging in the stale argument of whether climate change is real.