Climate meltdown can be halted
Global warming manageable only if tackled now, researcher says
Disastrous climate change can be averted, says David Keith. It will take time and could be enormously costly, but global warming can be halted.
"It is very much a manageable problem," says Keith, a Canada Research Chair in energy and the environment at the University of Calgary who has a more upbeat take on the notoriously gloomy topic than many of his colleagues. "It is more manageable than a lot of other big problems in the world."
But he and his colleagues say it is only manageable if the problem is tackled now.
Mark Jaccard, a specialist in environmental management at Simon Fraser University, says "the real crisis is a political crisis."
"You have to start immediately, and then over four or five decades we might make it," says Jaccard. "If Stephen Harper says 'I'm going to start a two-year dialogue process to discuss policy,' then he is a traitor to this issue."
Greenhouse gas emissions must be cut dramatically, most scientists agree, if the world is to avoid climate meltdown. No one can say for certain how far they need to be scaled back, but climatologists say reductions must be deep. Keith says it would be "prudent" to aim in the long-term for "pre-industrial levels" of carbon dioxide (CO2) -- which is a tall order.
The world could still have cars, computers and power plants, but they would have to operate without pumping seven billion tonnes of carbon a year into the atmosphere, as they do today.
What is needed is a revolution -- on a scale comparable to the communications revolutions that have transformed society in the last three decades -- of the energy system.
The key is to capture or eliminate carbon emissions, or to produce fuel and electricity without generating carbon emissions in the first place. And much of the technology to do so, they point out, exists today.
"What we need to do is build power plants without smokestacks," says Keith, a lead author of a recent report on the capture and storage of the carbon released by the fossil fuels now supplying 85 per cent of the planet's energy needs.
The world needs to pull out the stops on renewables and other carbon-free forms of energy such as nuclear power, he says. If need be, carbon could be sucked right out of the air, a concept Keith is already exploring with a prototype capture stack in his Calgary lab.
The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is now pushing 380 parts per million -- higher than it's been in 650,000 years. If emissions continue to climb at current rates, the concentration is expected to soar past 500 ppm by 2050, double pre-industrial levels, which many see as the point when the real trouble begins .brbr "No climatologist wants to test what will arise if carbon dioxide levels drift much higher than 500 ppm," Scientific American noted in a recent report.
Fixing the climate does not yet require radical schemes such as shading the Earth with huge reflective shields or shooting sulfur pellets into the atmosphere to cool down the global thermostat, as recently suggested by Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen of Germany's Max Plank Institute. Crutzen says such ideas should not, however, be "tabooed"; they might be needed if the politicians fail to act in time to avoid "drastic climate heating."
Keith says it is "completely plausible" society will have to resort to such schemes if emissions are not dramatically reduced by 2050. But he and others say the priority now should be to aggressively "decarbonize" the energy system.
"Every increase in (CO2) concentration carries new risks, but avoiding that danger zone (doubling of pre-industrial levels) would reduce the likelihood of triggering major, irreversible climate changes, such as the disappearance of the Greenland ice cap," say Robert Socolow and Stephen Pacala of Princeton University. They have laid out a plan to remove carbon from the world's energy system, which requires freezing emissions at current levels, then halving them over the long term.
Holding emissions constant while the economy continues to grow "is a daunting task," but they say it can be done using existing technologies.
Their multi-pronged strategy entails being aggressive about capturing carbon heading up smokestacks and ramping up the use of solar, wind, nuclear and hydrogen power. Like Keith, they stress diversification, so if one technology doesn't pan out others can pick up the slack.
Jaccard's says fossil fuels can still play a key role in the energy future, as long as the CO2 generated is captured and pumped back into the ground.
He estimates that adopting "near-zero emission technologies" would see Canadian energy bills rise less than one per cent a year.
Even coal, the dirtiest of the fossil fuels, could still compete. "There is room for coal but there is no room for emissions," says Jaccard, adding that clear regulations and penalties for emitting carbon are needed to force the change. In the absence of penalties, governments from China to British Columbia continue to approve new electricity plants that will burn coal and spew huge amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere for decades to come.
Keith says he is heartened by recent action in the U.S., where several states are introducing legislation to cut emissions. Canada, he says, needs to do the same.
"The best scenario is that we begin to impose serious rules and the costs of reducing CO2 emissions turns out to be less than we think," says Keith "And we solve the problem."
NEARING THE TIPPING POINT?
If greenhouse gas emissions keep climbing, scientists say the climate system will eventually hit tipping points that could leave much of the planet unrecognizable and uninhabitable.
No one can say with certainty how close the point of no return is, but several ominous changes are already underway.
Summer ice in the Arctic could be gone by 2050 for the first time in a million years.
The enormous Greenland ice sheet is melting twice as fast as it was a decade ago, scientists say. There are predictions the ice sheet could cross a threshold before the end of this century that will lock the world into a sea level rise of up to seven metres over coming centuries. A sea level rise of just one metre -- which could occur in this century -- would inundate almost a third of Bangladesh and turn 30 million people into climate refugees.
Rising temperatures and the huge store of melting ice could also alter ocean currents. British scientists say there has already been a 30 per cent weakening in some of Atlantic ocean currents carrying tropical heat north in the last 50 years, which has renewed fears an abrupt climate change might send parts of Europe and North America into a mini ice age.
Permafrost, which covers half of Canada and almost 20 per cent of Earth's surface, is another major concern. As temperatures climb, massive stores of carbon and methane -- both climate-warming gases -- locked in the frozen ground might escape, feeding even more climate warming. Scientists recently reported in the journal Nature a marked rise in methane emissions from thawing lakes and bogs in Siberia.
FEELING THE HEAT: HOW THE CLIMATE IS CHANGING OUR WORLD
Part five of a six-part CanWest News Service series exploring climate change and its impact on our environment.
Monday: An Ipsos-Reid poll reveals Canadians' thoughts about climate change
Tuesday: Overview of climate change
Wednesday: The melting North
Thursday: Not-so permafrost
Friday: Waste problems and solutions
Today: Climate repair
And if you are still reading - my not published let to ed on series. Note ominous runaway global heating end to today's article.
Feeling the Heat continues the impressive new journalistic leadership by the Vancouver Sun. Energy Bulletin (the most important site on the net) directed readers to the "excellent series" Energy: Tough Choices Ahead and now Canadians are finally being intelligently informed about climate change.
Margaret Munro's look at melting permafrost is both interesting and informative, but she doesn't have the space to investigate the problems for infrastructure in Canada's North, especially key pipelines; and she only just mentions the "nightmare scenario" of runaway global heating (James Lovelock's term) due to methane and carbon dioxide released from melting permafrost. There have been several recent science papers reporting vast methane escape from melting permafrost in Siberia.
Science quantifying the potential for runaway global heating from presently sequestered "carbon bombs" such as methane in permafrost or carbon in a drying Amazon will be dominating climate change news over the next year. Given thirty to fifty year time lags, humanity may have already qualified for the Supreme Darwin Award for Self-Extinction; or quantification of this risk may indicate that Draconian change is needed immediately if not sooner in order not to cross a tipping point to an uninhabitable planet.
Unfortunately, acute path dependence in our service sector economies - Can any government introduce policies that impact the economy by more than minor percentage points? - and the impotence of global scale institutions means that effective change is next to impossible. Is there going to be a further Canwest series detailing possible governance innovation to unblock rapid change in both alternative energy development and in achieving high quality lifestyles instead of obese quantity consumption?