September 28, 2009
Cheaper To Remove CO2 From Atmosphere?

Regardless of whether you think atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) is a problem assume for the moment you want to reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. How best to do this? Prevent CO2 from being released into the atmosphere or remove the CO2 once it is there because maybe that approach is cheaper?

Governments are doing practically nothing to study the removal of carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere, but this technology could be a much cheaper form of climate protection than photovoltaic cells and other approaches getting lavish support, according to an article published today in Science.

David W. Keith, a physicist at the University of Calgary, reviews some of the technologies for air capture of carbon and notes that there is not a single government program devoted specifically to that purpose. Dr. Keith estimates that less than $3 million per year in public money is currently being spent on related research, even though it could potentially be a bargain.

The example cited by Dr. Keith as a very expensive way to avoid CO2 emissions is the use of photovoltaic panels. But I wonder if PV today is worse than expensive: How much CO2 gets released in the production of PV in the first place? The reason I ask that question is that expensive products on average require more fossil fuels in their manufacture than cheaper products. Products that require more expensive manufacturing require more energy to do the manufacturing. In the case of PV that includes mining materials, purifying materials, transporting materials, running production lines, and then transporting and installing the resulting products. That energy isn't just for the PV cells but also for the glass covering, aluminum and other rack material, grid tie inverters and other electrical equipment.

Now, I'm not arguing against the PV industry. Since demand for PV made from current tech provides revenue to develop newer and cheaper ways to make PV I expect the ratio of energy return on energy invested (EROEI in some circles) for PV manufacture will improve and become very favorable even if it isn't favorable now. So the PV industry is still going to eventually make a huge contribution toward cutting back on fossil fuels usage. But given the high (albeit rapidly falling) cost of PV it is not clear to me that it has a big positive EROEI.

Another point: We can also cut back on fossil fuels usage by using energy more efficiently. For example, better home design to lower heating and cooling needs will reduce fossil fuels usage. But in a world where China has surpassed the United States in CO2 emissions we might derive real benefit from the development of ways to remove CO2 that is already in the atmosphere. What I'd like to know: Could a massive program of tree planting, harvesting, and submersion in deep lakes remove CO2 at a lower cost than the cost of carbon capture and storage on coal electric plants?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2009 September 28 12:13 AM  Climate Policy


Comments
not anon or anonymous said at September 28, 2009 6:11 AM:

1. Position a floating platform in China's exhaust pipe, in international waters.
2. Plant something on it.
3. ? (Plants like CO2!)
4. Profit from food sold back to China and surrounding regions.

And you're going to need some gunboats to protect the flotilla. Not from China, but from "environmental" fascists who hate growing things.

Tom Billings said at September 28, 2009 10:18 AM:

Better than letting all that carbon sit in lakes would be to use it to enable tropical soils to become deeply and truly fertile, using "bio-char". Take the wood that otherwise will rot and return CO2 to the atmosphere when the tree dies, and char it into charcoal at low temperatures. Mix that charcoal with the dirt covering it and the dirt underneath it in the site. Then mix in all the things the soil needs for fertilizer for the next 3-5 years, and you will have highly productive land in which we know the carbon will be entombed for at least 2,500 years, and almost certainly far longer. The charcoal keeps the nutrients' ions in place against heavy tropical rains, and thus available to grow crops at high productivity per acre over many years. That allows half the carbon in the tree to be out of the atmosphere far longer than sequestration in freshwater lakes. It also allows taking up the volatiles cooked out, and using them for energy, since they are combustible, for the most part.

This would make far more sense than clogging the lower reaches of deep freshwater lakes with wood to keep Oxygen away from it.

not anon or anonymous said at September 28, 2009 11:29 AM:

This doesn't sound right to me. If chemical scrubbing of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is energy-effective, surely we should be doing it at coal plant smokestacks and other CO_2 sources, where the carbon dioxide is available in nice, high concentration.

Engineer-Poet said at September 28, 2009 12:10 PM:

What "not" said.  Extracting CO2 from 2600 volumes of air is inherently more energy-intensive than grabbing it from stack gas, or generating a pure stream using oxy-fuel combustion; you have a lot more entropy to get rid of, and thus more energy discarded as waste heat.

It may be cheaper to generate a sequestration-ready CO2 stream even from coal than to dump to the atmosphere, if my hunch is correct.  It is quite feasible to gasify coal to a gas which is mainly CO and H2.  The CO is easily separated; if it is burned at very high pressure in a stream of O2 and recycled CO2, it can run a supercritical CO2 turbine system at very high efficiency.  The high thermal efficiency keeps the fuel cost low, the high fluid density keeps the machinery small and relatively cheap, and the product is straight CO2 ready to go down a well.  The other products from the plant include hydrogen (for combustion in air or chemical synthesis).  Almost all compounds which cause air emissions in conventional plants wind up in the ash or are scrubbed out of the syngas in the cleanup; such a plant could be nearly emissions-free in all categories.

Marcel F. Williams said at September 28, 2009 12:13 PM:

Extracting CO2 from the atmosphere is the key to ending our dependence on fossil fuels for transportation and industrial chemicals since all you have to do is synthesize the extracted CO2 with hydrogen in order to make: gasoline, diesel fuel, jet fuel, methane, methanol, and dimethyl ether. Of course you'd need to be able to produce hydrogen via the electrolysis of water through non-carbon dioxide polluting technologies such as nuclear, hydroelectric, wind, and solar energy.

See Gasoline from Air and Water:

http://newpapyrusmagazine.blogspot.com/2008/11/gasoline-from-air-and-water_24.html

Joe Y said at September 28, 2009 12:30 PM:

Removing the CO2 from the air is (relatively) cheap and easy, and has already been pointed out by several scientists, one of whom (John Martin) stated that, "Give me a half a tanker of iron and I will give you another ice age."

All that's required is the dumping of iron filings in high concentrations in the ocean, and the cultivation of the resultant algae blooms.

Joe Y said at September 28, 2009 12:32 PM:

Ugh! Why didn't I just check wikipedia first: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iron_fertilization

Busterdog said at September 28, 2009 12:55 PM:

Because reducing CO2 was never the point anyway. The point is to do penance. This is a religious issue to the green crowd. If you found a way that everyone could use all the energy they want then just scrub it out of the atmosphere, they would oppose you because westerners need to be punished for all their misdeeds.
There was an Edenic time before industrialization. Then can the fall from grace and now we are heading for an apocalyptic destruction but true believers can be saved if we all bow to Gaia and suffer.
If it sounds familiar it is. That is the template we have and self righteousness is a powerful drug.

Garson O'Toole said at September 28, 2009 1:06 PM:

CNN had some coverage in the area with an article 'Synthetic tree' claims to catch carbon in the air. But the work was not yet funded.

"Half of your emissions come from small, distributed sources where collection at the site is either impossible or impractical," said Professor Klaus Lackner, Ewing-Worzel Professor of Geophysics in the Department of Earth and Environmental Engineering at Columbia University. …

But after years of research, Lackner told CNN he and his colleagues have developed a sorbent that is "close to the ideal," in that it uses a relatively small amount of energy to release the CO2 and is not prohibitively expensive.

"By the time we make liquid CO2 we have spent approximately 50 kilojoules [of electricity] per mole of CO2." Compare that, Lackner said, to the average power plant in the U.S. which produces one mole of CO2 with every 230 kilojoules of electricity.Randall Parker asks "Could a massive program of tree planting, harvesting, and submersion in deep lakes remove CO2 at a lower cost than the cost of carbon capture and storage on coal electric plants?"

That plan for carbon storage might be flawed based on criticism directed at hydroelectric dams that submerge plant material:

This is because large amounts of carbon tied up in trees and other plants are released when the reservoir is initially flooded and the plants rot. Then after this first pulse of decay, plant matter settling on the reservoir's bottom decomposes without oxygen, resulting in a build-up of dissolved methane. This is released into the atmosphere when water passes through the dam's turbines.
The excerpt above is from New Scientist. I do not know what happens to CO2 or methane in "deep lakes".

(I know CNN and New Scientist are imperfect sources and would happy to hear directly from scientists.)

mike said at September 28, 2009 2:36 PM:

But how will that enhance the ability of the government to micromanage every aspect of our lives?

David Govett said at September 28, 2009 2:59 PM:

Reduced crop yields.

odograph said at September 28, 2009 6:11 PM:

My history is that I have a chemistry degree, and am conversant with the basic physics of the greenhouse effect. I wasn't always sure that it was a problem. When I first heard of C02 emissions strengthening the effect, back in the 80's, I thought it was a neat-weird idea but nothing to worry about. I've kept an eye on reports since then, over the last 30 years. I changed my mind a time or two. I hoped that the CO2 effect might be small compared to climate cycles, or that plants would take up the slack. Unfortunately the evidence continued to pile up, and be confirmed, on the "bad" side of the balance sheet. I'd say that not only is CO2 enhance climate change bad, it is verging on getting worse, faster. We are getting into warming zones where the arctic permafrosts start to release their methane. That is a feedback loop we could really do without.

It will end badly.

We still need to help the science translate to the general public. They don't hear it unfiltered. They get "stories" from environmentalists or skeptics. Well, maybe folks like National Geographic or The Weather Channel do a pretty good job. It's too bad some label those fair and sane folks as "enviros" and stop listening.

So Randall, I wouldn't punt on "Regardless of whether you think atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) is a problem." Get the science out there.

... and sadly we might talk about what to do when our CO2 (and methane) fixes are too late. We'll need them, but maybe we'll need something else too ... human aided migration of species trapped by shifting climate zones? Instead of combating "alien" species, will we need to welcome them?

odograph said at September 28, 2009 6:13 PM:

(On CO2 capture, sure go ahead. I probably won't get too excited though until a demo plant is built, and audited. I understand that the ocean fertilization tests done so far didn't test/audit out too well.)

Randall Parker said at September 28, 2009 6:48 PM:

not anon or anonymous,

I have in mind using plants to pull out the CO2. I really want to know about the economics of this approach.

What I would like to know: How large an area of ground would need to be planted in order to pull out CO2 as fast as it is emitted? What are the outer limits on what is possible with a plant-based approach to carbon capture?

Also, are trees the most efficient plants to use to pull CO2 out of the atmosphere? I suspect so for a few reason:

1) Trees can be grown for years before harvesting. So you do not have to put labor, equipment, and energy into planting and harvesting an area of ground every year. I would expect tree harvesting to sink them into deep lakes would be more cost effective.

2) Trees can photosynthesize for more of the year. Plants that get planted every year typically do not get planted until after last frost and therefore lose the opportunity to capture sunlight for much of spring. The first day of spring is just as long a day as the first day of autumn. Yet the latter has much more photosynthetic action going on.

3) Trees can be used for other purposes when the need arises such as structural and heating. Suppose we experience another VEI 7 or, far worse, VEI 8 volcanic eruption. Far larger forests would make useful energy banks for heating homes of a suddenly far colder world.

There's also the ocean fertilization approach. The research to date has been somewhat disappointing. But I'm not convinced yet that ocean fertilization can't work. We might just need to develop better fertilization techniques. Maybe keep the iron at the surface with slow release or mix it with other nutrients or time it better.

odograph,

I'm trying to get people to think constructively about what to do to move beyond fossil fuels. One can stop and spend all one's time just on the global warming evidence debate and that just gets really tiring and pointless.

Randall Parker said at September 28, 2009 9:42 PM:

Joe Y,

Not so quick with the ocean iron fertilization idea. See my May 9, 2009 post Simplest Ocean Iron Fertilization Disappoints On Carbon Sequestration.

Randall Parker said at September 28, 2009 10:38 PM:

odograph,

If the warming becomes an acute problem Gregory Benford's proposal to use silicon dioxide could be implemented in a hurry. Want to go all out to cool down the planet? We could probably move the needle within a few years of starting. We could also paint all the world's roofs white in a hurry. We really need to develop a white asphalt replacement.

Ocean iron fertilization might do more to cool the planet via sulfate production than by pulling CO2 out of the atmosphere.

I've got a whole category archive on climate engineering.

John Moore said at September 28, 2009 10:48 PM:

Odograph writes:

I hoped that the CO2 effect might be small compared to climate cycles, or that plants would take up the slack.Unfortunately the evidence continued to pile up, and be confirmed, on the "bad" side of the balance sheet.

Unfortunately, the subject has become highly politicized, grossly distorting the balance of "evidence."

You claim to understand the greenhouse effect. Are you aware that a doubling of the CO2 will only increase the earth's temp by 1 degree C, based on greenhouse effect? And that's true of each doubling - it's a logarithmic effect - the opposite of the exponential one expects with all the crisis talk.

That means that all the rest of the claimed effect (not measured, only forecast by crude and uncalibratable models) has to be due to positive feedback.

You raise the specter of methane release by arctic warming. If that were such a big problem, why didn't we get runaway greenhouse warming during past, non-CO2 enhanced warm periods? Or, why didn't we get it during the times we had CO2 levels 10 times our current levels.

There is a whole lot of incentive for many people to scare monger. Hence you have to be careful of any claims of certainty or accuracy about climate prediction (for example, the last 10 years of climate stability has been both mostly unreported, and most definitely unforecast).

Engineer-Poet said at September 29, 2009 2:39 AM:

Mr. Moore, it would be nice if you are right, but it would be tragic if you are wrong.

When CO2 levels were 10 times today's, methane did not have any chance to accumulate in permafrost and ocean sediment clathrates.  Besides, when CO2 was a steady 2500 ppm or so, that's what life was adapted to.  Life today, including every one of the cultivated plant species which we use for food, medicines, building materials and you-name-it, is adapted to ~300 ppm of CO2 by millions of years of evolution.  500 ppm won't kill them, but it WILL give the advantage to lots of "weedy" species like woody vines.  That's a disaster for us.

The clathrates did let go 55 million years ago.  Do you realize that during the PETM, polar ocean temperatures averaged something like 10-20° C?  Most of the globe would be unlivably hot for humans under those conditions, and for most everything else besides.

odograph said at September 29, 2009 3:14 AM:

John, I think you are an extreme optimist to suggest that CO2 emission will be capped at a doubling. We are 35% up now, with no slowing in sight. (Regulations are toothless, year-to-year emissions vary more with cycles of economic activity.)

Billy Oblivion said at September 29, 2009 4:48 AM:

@Randall:
1) Trees can be grown for years before harvesting. So you do not have to put labor...

This is a bug, not a feature. If one were to use crops like industrial hemp, or some vegetable oil producing plant that grows quickly (young plants pull more CO2 out that mature plants) one could start paying less than fully employed folks in 3rd world countries to plant, harvest and process these crops. If you first plant crops that improve the soil or environment (I'm thinking here of how these folks: http://redapes.org/ first planted trees that provided shade and the right chemical aerosols to create clouds and rain) and then move on to more productive uses of the land you can solve several problems at once.

Randall Parker said at September 29, 2009 7:36 AM:

Billy Oblivion,

Nobody wants to pay for cutting atmospheric CO2. Anything that costs more reduces the amount that'll be done. The need to use 3rd world labor is a bug, not a feature - unless of course you personally want to pay the laborers or you can convince Bill Gates to pony up the money.

All,

What happens to the human respiratory system with doubled CO2? I've never read anything about it.

Engineer-Poet said at September 29, 2009 6:44 PM:

The typical CO2 concentration in exhaled breath is 2-3%, with an upper limit around 6%.  The human body isn't going to notice the difference between .03% and .06% CO2 in inhaled air.  It's the effect on flora and water chemistry that we need to worry about.

Trees are not an option; they are not productive enough.  Assuming the upper limit of 10 tons/ac/yr green weight (5 tons dry weight, 45% carbon), that is perhaps 2.5 tons/ac/yr (being generous).  If 1 billion acres can be devoted to harvest for carbon sequestration world-wide, that is only 2.5 billion tons/yr of carbon.  Human activities emit about 7 petagrams (7 billion metric tons) per year.

Randall Parker said at September 29, 2009 7:11 PM:

E-P,

The Earth's surface area is about 148,940,000 km˛ land which is about 36.7 billion acres. Your estimate then is that a tenth of the Earth's surface used to grow trees for burial would be needed to cancel out CO2 emissions. Almost 10% of that is Antarctica. Then there are deserts, high altitude mountain ranges, Greenland, and northern areas where trees can't grow. So, yes, I doubt we can put aside a tenth of the planet's surface to grow trees for harvest and sinking in lakes.

We have too many people and not enough land and resources.

John Moore said at September 29, 2009 10:06 PM:

E-P

Mr. Moore, it would be nice if you are right, but it would be tragic if you are wrong.

There are always big dangers lurking out there. If the methane does let loose, it would indeed be a big, big problem.

But here's a couple of items of perspective:

1) There is not reliable science behind the CO2 alarmism. The reliable science is behind the basic greenhouse effect, and it is small potatoes. After that, you have a lot of speculation (based on speculative computer models that cannot be calibrated) that relies on strong positive feedback. There are reasons to believe that the feedback is not that strong - the most significant being that it hasn't shown a signature in previous warmings or coolings.

2) It really doesn't matter. We can do all the greeny stuff we want, and it will make only a small difference in CO2 emissions, because we only have 5% of the Earth's population. China and India are almost certainly politically incapable of making major reductions in the large increases expected from them. Only a world-wide dictatorship, with some pretty brutal powers, would have a change at forcing CO2 reductions, because, in spite of what we keep hearing, CO2 reductions are inherently very painful. In the same way that you (correctly) point out that our current biome is evolved for ~300ppm CO2, our human system is evolved to use liquid hydrocarbons for transportation and bulk hydrocarbons for heating and electricity.

I do support lots of research, because the risk is not zero, and hydrocarbons are a limited resource (not as limited as most folks think though - North America's is mostly limited by environmental restrictions). I also think we are nuts not to be building cookie-cutter nuclear plants, but the same people most adamant about CO2 reductions won't let us (not to mention the NIMBY's, who the greenies have scared to death).

Odograph - I am not suggesting that we will end at a doubling. I don't know where it will end. I was pointing out the logarithmic nature of the greenhouse effect. Let me provide more info: doubling CO2 gives us 1 degree C rise; quadrupling it gives us 2; octupling it gives us 3. See what I mean?

Engineer-Poet said at September 30, 2009 7:58 AM:
There is not reliable science behind the CO2 alarmism. The reliable science is behind the basic greenhouse effect, and it is small potatoes. After that, you have a lot of speculation (based on speculative computer models that cannot be calibrated) that relies on strong positive feedback.
Which we know has to be there, because CO2 alone can't account for the 30°C difference between Earth's average temperature and what a blackbody would be.
There are reasons to believe that the feedback is not that strong - the most significant being that it hasn't shown a signature in previous warmings or coolings.
What could account for a 20°C temperature rise at the poles during the PETM?  There's your extreme feedback, from the historical record.
It really doesn't matter. We can do all the greeny stuff we want, and it will make only a small difference in CO2 emissions, because we only have 5% of the Earth's population.
It DOES matter, because the G8 produce a huge fraction of the world's industrial machinery (including powerplants) and purchase a very large part of Chindia's exports.  If the G8 start producing only zero-emission plants, replacing the existing fleets and not selling any boilers or turbines to nations building emitting plants, most nations will have no choice but to go along.  Chindia will switch to zero-emission if it hurts less than losing their export markets.
Only a world-wide dictatorship, with some pretty brutal powers, would have a change at forcing CO2 reductions, because, in spite of what we keep hearing, CO2 reductions are inherently very painful.
I keep hearing this, and my response is "B... S..T!"  Technologies like nuclear power are quite competitive and emit roughly nothing.  Getting rid of Hummers and Escalades and driving Fusion hybrids instead would save money.  Insulation saves money, electric vehicles save money at anything like future oil prices.  What we need is the ethos to drive it across the society.
I was pointing out the logarithmic nature of the greenhouse effect.
The concentration of water from feedback is exponential with temperature.
Randall Parker said at September 30, 2009 6:43 PM:

John Moore,

What Western countries do about energy policy matters a great deal. Western countries can develop the technologies that will drive down the costs of cleaner energy sources. For example, tax incentives for solar panel installation create demand for PV manufacture which causes more companies to enter that industry and that speeds up the rate of innovation. As a result manufacturing costs are declining rapidly.

I'd love to see the US government set minimum efficiency standards for coal electric plants in excess of 50% and even higher if 55% or 60% if possible. Raise the bar just high enough that it is a possible stretch to implement so that the technology gets developed. Then the technology for doing so will be for sale in other countries and less coal will get burned per amount of electricity produced.

I'd love to see stronger measures to kick-start the nuclear power industry as well. Ditto for better batteries for electric cars.

These measures will change what technologies are available 5, 10, 15 years from now and therefore the level of emissions of a large assortment of pollutants.

odograph said at October 1, 2009 7:26 AM:

John Moore,

The thing about skeptics is that they love to argue in obscure places, like blog comments.

I'm not going to engage with that because (1) I'm not interested, (2) I think it is a bad venue, and (3) I think it is "enabling" a scientific avoidance.

You want to know, go read what the National Science Foundation says. If you aren't sure that one nation's scientists can be trusted, cross-read with a Japanese or an Australian or a French site. If they agree ... you have your answer. You've got to be full on "tinfoil hat" at that point to claim they are all sending a false message. Vast global conspiracies are the stuff of fiction, or nutjobs.

To engage with E-P instead is a waste of time, and confusing to yourself and your readers.

John Moore said at October 1, 2009 8:47 PM:

Odograph,

Another thing about blog comment sections are the personal attacks. I have plenty of decent sources, including researchers I know personally and frequently discuss the topic with. I know several "out of the closet" skeptics, and quite a few more "in the closet due to career issues" skeptics - all with PhD's in atmospheric sciences, mostly climatology. I have personal experience with atmospheric modeling, and I frequently read the articles in my AMS journals.

But yes, this is not the place to get into details, and I don't keep every detail and every response in my head.

As for the "false message" - there is a huge positive feedback system for the sociology of AGW science. It ranges from the way science is funded these days, to the powerful interests outside of science, to the quasi-fundamentalist religious nature of modern environmentalism.

Do you know how many articles in unrelated fields use climate change as a hook for publication and getting a grant? Take a look here.

Anyone in the atmospheric science fields knows the career hazards of publishing skeptical articles, which is one reason that many of the visible skeptics in the field are senior enough that their careers are secure - but there are a lot of these senior scientists and they are becoming increasingly vocal. When "the father of climatology" calls it a fraud, and many other senior scientists are vocally angry with the shrill pronouncements, it's time to pay attention to them.

You seem to share the widespread meme that "skeptic" means nut. That attitude (also represented by the use of "scientific avoidance"), and how widespread it is, shows how pathological the environment surrounding climate "science" has become.

The scientific method eventually arrives at truth, but it does so in spite of consensus. Unfortunately, too often the consensus is wrong (check out the cause of ulcers, for example), but the fact that it is the consensus, while of limited value scientifically, is of huge social consequence.

That is what is going on in the AGW field. It has become politicized so far that it is very difficult to see what is really going on.

It is apparent, however, if your read the journals rather than the press, that the science is full of very large questions, large error bars, and large disputes. The question is not settled, and no amount of huffing and puffing about it will change that. Only mother nature will tell.

One thing is a fact that few will dispute: the AGW projections are based primarily on computer models, and those models are completely incapable of detailed simulation of the physics. Hence the serious work is involved in calibrating the parameterizations of those models, which is extremely difficult - especially since in this non-linear dynamic system, small errors can have huge impact. Contributing to the problem is that it is impossible, literally, to test the parameterizations in a high CO2 regime. Add to that the poor record of those models so far, and it doesn't look like something we should wreck the global economy for!

Randall Parker said at October 1, 2009 9:21 PM:

John Moore,

I agree that the models can't predict because they are too simple. But I do not come at global warming from the position of certainty. We can't provde or disprove that the planet is going to heat up by 1,2,3 degrees celsius this century. But isn't it prudent to not entirely discount the possibility? Aren't we conducting a huge experiment with the atmosphere with uncertain but possibly very harmful effects?

As for wrecking the world's economy: I think that unlikely. I think our bigger threat for a Depression comes from Peak Oil. That'll cut oil consumption much more rapidly than any international treaty that might get signed to deal with CO2 build-up. If the decline from peak oil production comes too soon and happens too rapidly we won't have the technologies needed to do a fast migration away from oil. This is especially the case with the transportation sector which in the US gets 95% of its energy from oil.

Engineer-Poet said at October 2, 2009 8:01 PM:

I was worrying about AGW long before it became the politicized mess it is now (which is when it started to be taken seriously enough to attract the sort of contrary PR efforts used to deny the effects of tobacco; not coincidentally, some of the same people are involved in the denial).

Contributing to the problem is that it is impossible, literally, to test the parameterizations in a high CO2 regime.
So we should just yawn and drive the global atmosphere into a condition the effects of which we can only guess, literally?  I'll bet that when people do this in their personal lives, you sneer and call them idiots.  Consistency requires a less blasé attitude on your part for this too.
Add to that the poor record of those models so far
Yes, they didn't model some of the heat-transfer effects in ice sheets so there is ice loss going on that wasn't expected until 50 years from now.  Not something that supports the null hypothesis, though.
it doesn't look like something we should wreck the global economy for!
All it takes is a serious drought to slam any local economy; both agriculture and industry are affected, and hydro generation takes a dive.  Costs for many necessities of life go up, and take away from spending on everything else.  Now make the drought decades long, across much of the world and associated with other substantial costs.  That's just a part of what a 2° warming will do.

If you want to save the economy, action on climate isn't optional.  It's mandatory.

John Moore said at October 3, 2009 12:09 AM:

But isn't it prudent to not entirely discount the possibility? Aren't we conducting a huge experiment with the atmosphere with uncertain but possibly very harmful effects?

If you want to save the economy, action on climate isn't optional. It's mandatory.

What seems to be missing from the precautionary principle on AGW is the lack of applying the same principle to economics and human affairs. Nobody had made credible claims of methods to achieve the precautions without major impact on the economies of the world, and ultimately the geopolitics. The impact of small changes on society can have dramatic consequences, as history shows over and over again.

If we could end our experiment with the atmosphere without likely devastating economic (and resulting human) costs, I'd be all for it.

But there is no need to rush. Technology is moving rapidly, which means jumping now is probably wasting money, time and political capital. I support research into alternate energy technologies, as peak oil (and the geopolitical ramifications of oil in that hands of too many nasty regimes) make that important, with or without the experiment. Of course, if we didn't have CO2 fears, we could handle the problem for the shorter term (while older capital intensive systems depreciate, and newer technologies are developed) by using the hydrocarbons so plentiful in the US and Canada that are largely locked up by government mandates, environmentalist obstructionism, uncertainty about future government policy, and NIMBYism. Likewise, nukes.

If the people making such a big, big stink about AGW had the slightest bit of seriousness, we would see Al Gore hyping nuclear plants, Hollywood making movies about how great they are, and demonstrations demanding nukes. The lack of this demonstrates the lack of seriousness by too many of those who want to influence policy.

Yes, we need alternatives. We need much greater electrical capacity, and should provide it with nuclear. We need better storage of energy for transportation. We need to build in more energy efficient ways.

And guess what - the rising cost of energy is pushing things in that direction.

We are in a period of very rapid change in certain technologies - probably the most significant of which in the area of energy are material science - nanotechnology (which is still in its infant stage). Battery technology may make some good breakthroughs (although some of the most promising are a result of nanotechnology).

But note how the solutions of a few years ago that were going to save us from CO2 disaster have vaporised: nobody is talking about fuel cells or hydrogen cars now. Hmmm... what if we had put all our eggs in that basket?

As an engineer, I also understand what happens when large investments are made based on poor understanding of science and technology, because engineering is defined as applying scientific knowledge to creating practical solutions to problems. As a businessman in the technology field, I see what happens when people speculate on the latest, greatest technology too.

The same is likely to happen with wind and PV solar, and probably solar concentrators. A friend asked: where is the cleanup fund for windmills that are abandoned by owners when they prove not profitable? Nuke plants have to have those funds, so why not windmills? How do we get our deserts back after they are paved over with solar panels or mirrors? I've seen what the oil boom did to the Permian Basin - what is to guarantee that the solar boom won't do the same thing to the Sonoran desert?

I suspect that solar power and wind power will never be major power sources - they are too dispersed and too fickle - both of which raise the real costs significantly. The big island of Hawaii has lots of wind at the southern end (as the trade winds are compressed as they go around the mountains). It has a wind power plant near South Point, which has been dead for years. If it isn't going to make a go there - where oil has to be shipped in at large expense, where there are no nukes and there is no coal, why is it such a great idea? Just an anecdote, but it makes a point.

Here is the crux; we are rushing now, not out of prudence, but out of a whipped up panic - like we did in the late 70's - what joke that was!

A more balanced approach would continue to fund R&D (and provide X-prize like incentives) while also recognizing that we are going to have to burn a lot of hydrocarbons for a while (meaning CO2 remediation should be getting lots of research bucks, instead of the paltry few million it has gotten of the 50 billion or so dropped into AGW research). Geoengineering needs to be looked at also, but when it comes up, the religious fundies who comprise much of the enviro movement freak out and attack the promoters - heaven forbid we should adapt to change rather than try to enforce a rigid climate stasis as called for by the holy scriptures of Gore and Hansen.

What we don't need is this form of gratuitous, meaning-free smear:

which is when it started to be taken seriously enough to attract the sort of contrary PR efforts used to deny the effects of tobacco; not coincidentally, some of the same people are involved in the denial

Engineer-Poet said at October 3, 2009 11:09 AM:
What we don't need is this form of gratuitous, meaning-free smear:
which is when it started to be taken seriously enough to attract the sort of contrary PR efforts used to deny the effects of tobacco; not coincidentally, some of the same people are involved in the denial
It is fact that Doug Goodyear was involved in tobacco denial and now in climate-change denial.  Claiming "smear" is itself a smear.  Those people deserve to be radioactive (as do those who hire them), and you shouldn't be citing them or their associated firms and hired "experts" as authorities.
What seems to be missing from the precautionary principle on AGW is the lack of applying the same principle to economics and human affairs. Nobody had made credible claims of methods to achieve the precautions without major impact on the economies of the world, and ultimately the geopolitics.
Economic analysis that doesn't start with natural resources is meaningless.  Had England not been sitting on lots of coal, burning through its forests would have left it as destitute as Haiti.  Burning through natural capital like forests and soil (and the rainfall which allows them to be productive) is going to have a far bigger impact than who has cheap electricity.
Technology is moving rapidly, which means jumping now is probably wasting money, time and political capital.
Hogwash.  The technology is driven by money, which is mis-allocated by externalization of costs.  Accounting for those costs in cash is zero-sum, but it drives technology in a direction which minimizes the total cost.  Even outright bans work; would you rather have rivers anoxic and stinking because phosphates are the cheapest water softening agents for laundry detergents?

It is feasible to build zero-emission powerplants.  Nuclear and even coal gasification work (syngas can be separated pre-combustion and the carbon sequestered any number of ways).  Just tax carbon and it will happen a lot faster.

If the people making such a big, big stink about AGW had the slightest bit of seriousness, we would see Al Gore hyping nuclear plants, Hollywood making movies about how great they are, and demonstrations demanding nukes.
Does the name James Lovelock mean anything to you?
guess what - the rising cost of energy is pushing things in that direction.
Not fast enough, and the market uncertainty stifles investment.  Relying on the price of oil to drive this fails when temporary economic conditions allow the price to fall and cut the cash ROI of the alternatives.  The long-term ROI may be excellent, but if you can't make immediate cash flow you go bankrupt (one of the failures of conventional economics).
But note how the solutions of a few years ago that were going to save us from CO2 disaster have vaporised: nobody is talking about fuel cells or hydrogen cars now.
What a short memory you have.  The hype-drogen "Freedom Car" was the Bush administration's initiative.  Why?  Because the PNGV was set to deliver 72-plus MPG full-sized cars by the mid-2000's, and that would have been disastrous for oil interests.

Both the GM Precept and Chrysler ESX-3 had drivetrains capable of operation on electricity alone (I have no info on the Ford Prodigy).  Those cars would have been the perfect platforms for PHEVs, needing only a bigger battery and a charging plug.  That would have started the trend away from oil.  They were Al Gore's babies, and oil interests killed them.

what if we had put all our eggs in that basket?
That's a call for putting everything in the "new technology will take care of the climate without policy actions, and we can wait however long it takes to work" basket.  Caps are the "demand results by a date certain and hope they come at an affordable cost" basket.  This is why I'm for a carbon tax with a rebate.  It takes however long it takes to work, but the financial return is certain and there's no penalty for moving slower or faster than some schedule.
As an engineer, I also understand what happens when large investments are made based on poor understanding of science and technology, because engineering is defined as applying scientific knowledge to creating practical solutions to problems.
Which is why I'm all about rewarding results and results alone.
As a businessman in the technology field, I see what happens when people speculate on the latest, greatest technology too.
No technological speculation is required.  New tech can help, but everything we need is either in full-scale production or at the pilot stage.  Reward results, let the entrepreneurs take the risks.
where is the cleanup fund for windmills that are abandoned by owners when they prove not profitable?
Are you kidding?  The scrap value is considerable; nobody is going to just leave them.
The big island of Hawaii has lots of wind at the southern end (as the trade winds are compressed as they go around the mountains). It has a wind power plant near South Point, which has been dead for years. If it isn't going to make a go there - where oil has to be shipped in at large expense, where there are no nukes and there is no coal, why is it such a great idea?
Don't ask me what's with Hawaii.  Things are happening in the Atlantic; Aruba has an 18 MW wind farm about to begin operation, and Bonaire is attempting to go 100% renewable.
we are rushing now, not out of prudence, but out of a whipped up panic
Which would not have been at all necessary had we started moving in the early 1990's, the first time legislation was actually proposed to do something.  The arguments you're making now are the same as then.

We don't need much in the way of R&D funding.  Mostly what we need is to internalize the external costs so that people with products have a market that won't vanish every time a contraction lowers the price of fossil fuels.  The Pickens Plan is one of many things that will work, all we have to do is make it pay and people will flock to it.  Tax carbon in general and oil as a national security issue, and people will find solutions out of what we have and what comes to market as a result of the new profit margins.

Randall Parker said at October 3, 2009 12:56 PM:

John Moore doesn't see a need to rush:

But there is no need to rush. Technology is moving rapidly, which means jumping now is probably wasting money, time and political capital.

PV costs are falling rapidly now because Germany signed itself up to create the biggest source of PV demand in the world. We haven't had to rush as much because some other countries signed up to pay the bill to create incentives. But I think we have a moral obligation to pay our share for developing the alternatives.

One of the reasons we can't wait is that a lot of big capital investments last 50+ years. A coal plant built now will be spewing in 2060. The same is true of new houses and commercial buildings. Higher standards for insulation will pay off in the long run. We aren't going to impoverish ourselves by requiring highly energy efficient building design.

I do not even buy the argument for a big expense for dealing with the problem. The difference in cost between coal electric and new nuclear electric is probably 1-2 cents per kwh. Why not just stop building new coal plants and switch to nuclear for new capacity? Or at least require all coal plants to achieve an efficiency greater than 50% or some other reachable number.

Engineer-Poet said at October 3, 2009 7:31 PM:

The immediate problem with switching to all nuclear is that the only technologies we have OTS are PWRs and BWRs, both of which need very large steel forgings and the production capacity is limited and can't be ramped up quickly.  This is one reason why we need to develop at least one standard MSR or LMFBR.

We might be able to build IGCC plants faster.  These still emit, but they lend themselves to retrofits to the power block to go to sequestering systems.  That way, even if they're still running in 2060, they aren't still spewing in 2060.  Plus, sequestered systems can burn biofuels and become part of a carbon-negative energy economy.

John Moore said at October 3, 2009 9:24 PM:
Why not just stop building new coal plants and switch to nuclear for new capacity? Or at least require all coal plants to achieve an efficiency greater than 50% or some other reachable number.

I have no problem with that if we could actually get them built quickly. Unfortunately, as I have said, the environmentalists and NIMBY's obstruct them, and the resulting uncertainty adds greatly to project cost and reduces the incentive to build them, or to invest in the technology (by manufacturers) to build them (although manufacturers can at least sell to other countries, such as France, who are more sane about this). The power of obstructionists in the United States is immense - I've watched as they used every trick in the book, at great expense to the project, just to prevent a telescope from going up on Mt. Graham, AZ. If they will drag out that project (and huge greatly to its costs), what they will do to prevent nukes is much worse.

On this very useful blog, RP has reported on lots of innovation in the nuclear field, which shows a lot of promise - for those societies that will be able to take advantage of it - which does not appear to include ours.

I would much rather use the oil, gas and coal for transportation fuel (via chemical transformation into liquid) in the many areas where hydrocarbons are still required - which is almost all personal and business transportation today and into the forseeable future. Liquid hydrocarbons nicely fit the existing infrastructure, while nothing else does.

Building more generating capacity (preferably nukes) at least puts us on the road, so to speak, towards electric vehicles where it makes sense.

I remain highly skeptical of PV and wind. Nuclear can do that job better, much more reliably, using much less space and with much less impact on the environment. PV and wind are only on the table due to irrational objections to nukes (which has also put us way behind the curve, with difficulties catching up as EP points out). Sure, PV and Wind can make contributions at the margin, but only at the margin, unless we simply outlaw all the alternatives or come up with some really remarkable and cheap storage technology. The analyzed cost of PV and wind, if used in any quantity, has to include the cost to deal with their high variability, and that requires either storage, or plants running idle ready for instantaneous (milliseconds) increases in generation.

RP - requiring higher standards of insulation won't impoverish me or you, but it might well damage the economic interests of those living on the margins, although building energy efficient structures may be a much less expensive measure than a lot of other proposed economic interventions. A lot can be done for energy efficiency of structures other than just insulation - or more accurately, structures can be designed that are naturally insulated. OTOH, we have an enormous amount of existing stock, and it just isn't going to go away. The capital to replace even a tiny bit of it is gigantic. A large percentage of those structures are likely to be inhabited 50 years into the future or maybe 150.

Other measures may be much more expensive. Environmentalism is, in reality, a luxury good in too many cases - we can have it, because we are rich (even now), but India? China? Africa? The rest of the world wants to have the better life that can only be achieved by using more energy. Deny them petroleum energy, and they may burn their forests. T

here is a very strong correlation between economic level, energy usage, and great reductions in fertility - and the latter is an important goal that is better achieved through economic progress than any other means (which inevitably turn out to be coercive).

Engineer-Poet said at October 4, 2009 6:27 AM:
Liquid hydrocarbons nicely fit the existing infrastructure, while nothing else does.
This is a classic example of thinking which can't get outside the box.  "Existing [energy] infrastructure" includes the natural gas distribution system and electrical grid, neither of which has much to do with liquid hydrocarbons.  The transport infrastructure includes rail, which is easily electrified.

Existing infrastructure can charge a large fleet of electric vehicles or fill NGVs without any major changes.  As Pickens has noted, shifting electric generation to wind (or nuclear) would free natural gas which could in turn be used to displace petroleum (and coincidentally eliminate the emissions from refining, which NG doesn't need).  None of this requires compatibility with petroleum, and that compatibility is actually a negative if strategic considerations of energy supply are considered.

John Moore said at October 4, 2009 9:40 PM:
This is a classic example of thinking which can't get outside the box.
Give me a few trillions, and I'll jump outside the box.

The infrastructure includes vehicles, roads for them, pipelines, gas stations and other distribution stations, refineries, etc.

You can't just throw that away.

Natural gas is indeed a decent, if less desirable by the user, replacement for gasoline. It is, in that form, a liquid hydrocarbon.

The word "easily" needs to have a dollar quantification added to it. Lots of things are "easy" to think about, but that doesn't make them economical.

If rail is easily electrified, why hasn't it been.

I do agree that the strategic considerations are non-trivial, which is why I support drilling and mining on our continent in the interim. Over a long period of time, the infrastructure can morph. In the short (few decades), it won't.

As an example, European cities still have narrow streets, a holdover from the days of horses. Lots of folks would love to have wider ones (I've driven plenty in Europe and it is an interesting challenge), but they don't want to destroy the infrastructure that exists (such as all the structures lining those streets) to solve the problem.

Engineer-Poet said at October 5, 2009 7:00 AM:
The infrastructure includes vehicles, roads for them, pipelines, gas stations and other distribution stations, refineries, etc.
Of that list, roads and gas stations don't care what goes over or through them.  Gas stations have been selling CNG for a decade, and could sell electricity just as easily.  Most stations make their money from the C-store, so they don't care what fuel/energy they sell so long as it brings in traffic.  Vehicles turn over in about 17 years (and half of lifetime mileage in about 6 years); we throw them away quite literally.  The only things which depend on petroleum are the refineries and pipelines, and we're not going to re-create crude oil just to keep them all busy as-is.
The word "easily" needs to have a dollar quantification added to it. Lots of things are "easy" to think about, but that doesn't make them economical.
When oil accounts for 4% of GNP, the USA has a recession.  How economical is conversion compared to permanent recession?
If rail is easily electrified, why hasn't it been.
Property taxes.  Railroads ripped up track to reduce their taxable value; they sure weren't about to add a whole lot of new taxable infrastructure to save what used to be a pittance in fuel.
Nick G said at October 5, 2009 2:15 PM:

John,

As E-P pointed out, wind and EVs have a very nice synergy. EV's provide all of the buffer needed for wind power on a minute by minute or hourly basis. Heck, EVs could probably buffer wind variance for a week or two eventually.

Wind is relatively cheap: $2T would pay for enough to replace all of the US's coal generation. Heck, that's less than the total cost of the Iraq war! Over 20 years, that's only $100B per year - hardly enough to make such a big fuss about.

Wind would take care of coal's CO2 emissions, and the EV's would take care of peak oil and our oil import problem.

Easy and cheap....relatively.

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