Climate ripe for transformative change

Opinion Editorial published in the Herald Sun, Wed 1 October 2008. Note that the Herald Sun version was trimmed in editing. The full version, hyperlinked, with a few key statements about energy costs included, is reprinted below.

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The Garnaut Climate Change Review is now complete. Its brief was to “examine the impacts of climate change on the Australian economy, and recommend medium to long-term policies and policy frameworks to improve the prospects for sustainable prosperity.”

To me, the concept of sustainable prosperity is the key to turning climate change mitigation into a win-win scenario. I’ll explain why in a moment. But first, some background.

Ross Garnaut, the economics professor from the Australian National University who had oversight of the review, was criticised by many climate scientists for proposing weak carbon emissions reduction targets. After all, the mainstream science says we are close to, or have already overshot, the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide that causes dangerous climate change.

Yet Garnaut’s initial proposal would have us increasing carbon dioxide by another 44%. This is a compromise goal, but one he considers feasible. After all, the difficulty in reaching international agreements on how each nation might wind back their carbon output is immense.

This mismatch between the policy and the science poses a significant problem. With it, we cannot hope to avoid most of the really serious economic and environmental impacts of global warming.

Garnaut calls it the ‘diabolical problem’.

But what if we are looking at the problem from the wrong way around? What if the diabolical problem is really just the ultimate gold-plated opportunity for the next economic revolution?

A reliable and continually growing supply of cheap, easily generated energy was the driving force behind the industrial revolution and modern communications age. This, in turn, has brought us high standards of living, amazing technological breakthroughs, and sustained economic growth.

The catch is that this cheap, reliable energy has come from fossil fuels such as coal and oil. Huge stores of carbon, buried safely for millions of years, are now being released back into the air by us at an astounding rate. Hit the climate system with a shock like this, and it hits back. Hard.

Experts also admit to another, little discussed problem. Our energy infrastructure needs a major overhaul, to replace ageing equipment and increase its capacity to supply more energy to an expanding economy. The International Energy Agency’s price tag is $US 22 trillion by 2030.

Then there is the peaking of fossil fuel supplies.

We are close to the point where we’ve reached maximum global oil production. Black gold, Texas tea – it’s getting harder and harder to squeeze out of the rocks at an economically competitive price. And demand from China for oil is growing fast. Prices are rising as a result, and they’re not ever heading back to the inexpensive days of the 1980s and 1990s.

It’s not only oil. There’s plenty of coal left in the ground (at least in some locations), but much of it is difficult to mine (it’s deeply buried), or it’s too hard to get it quickly enough to the heaviest users due to supply bottlenecks. The price of thermal coal, as a result, has tripled in the last 12 months.

So, we need more energy to prosper. But traditional sources of energy, based on fossil fuels, are becoming scarcer and more expensive. Their extensive use also causes dangerous climate change.

Put this way, the decision to invest heavily – and rapidly – in renewable energies like geothermal (hot rocks), solar thermal (desert mirrors), wave and wind power, and rooftop photovoltaic systems, is a no brainer. These technologies offer the only way to achieve an ongoing, growing energy supply. What’s more, unlike carbon-based energy, they are getting cheaper, not more expensive.

The Garnaut Review recognises these core issues, but its focus remains too heavily directed towards emissions reductions targets. I’d argue that if we concentrate most of our effort on helping the market get the renewable energy solution right, then carbon emission will fall rapidly as result. It’s an emergent property of fixing the energy supply. It doesn’t need to be an explicit aim.

Oh, and we get a prosperous, sustainable economy to boot. Win-win.

Barry Brook is Sir Hubert Wilkins Professor of Climate Change at the University of Adelaide

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11 Comments

  1. I agree that sustainable energy will have to be the new boom economy if we are to have a chance of passing on a habitable planet to our grandkids. I’ve almost finnished reading Climate Code Red and was extremely interested in the authors’ comments on agri-char. Infact I’ve been interested in the subject since the ABC broadcast a documentary about Amazonian black earth in 2004. The video is available on Google video here:

    http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=8993313723654914866

    The potential of this technology to terra-form our land using productive and sustainable practices is great. And the big plus is that it sequesters carbon naturally. This has to be one of the many technologies that research and development dollars should be spent on. Not this fake CCS stuff.

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  2. Biochar has its role to play, but don’t oversell it.

    The best scheme to permanently and relatively inexpensively remove carbon from the active carbon cycle is via air capture:

    http://www.ucalgary.ca/news/september2008/keith-carboncapture

    My preliminary estimate is in the $(US)30–38 range per tonne of CO2; an important advantge is that the captured CO2 need not be transported long distances, only possibly the electricity to power the capture units.

    If the goal is to permanently remove carbon from the acdtive carbon cycle, this is no more expensive, less I think, than deeply burying biochar.

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  3. more expensive, less I think, than deeply burying biochar

    In a recent Catalyst program they showed bio-char being spread on top of the soil and in the video I referenced all of the terra-preta is shown in the top metre or so of the soil. I’m not sure that you have to bury it at all.

    I would have thought that there would be a lot more interest in this post. Seems everyone is worried about the financial turmoil. I get the feeling that people really don’t understand how big a problem global warming is.

    One can only hope that the politicians get smart very quickly and start supporting the development and mass production of the sort of progressive, green technologies that are mentioned here. As Barry said, it will help alleviate both problems.

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  4. I like the idea of biochar, but I have difficulty with the fact that it is essentially not much different to coal. This begs several questions.

    If we were to make as much char as possible, and burned it for fuel instead of an equivalent amount of coal, could we make enough to replace all coal? If not, how much could we replace? What do the answers to these questions say about the practicality of reducing emissions with biochar production in the first place?

    The questions keep coming, but I always get back to these first few…

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  5. Smiley @3, I think the reason you need to ‘deeply bury’ biochar is that the ‘top metre or so of the soil’ is in direct contact with the air, i.e. O2, which means oxidation, which means CO2 production, the avoidance of which is the main point of the exercise. (Fertilisation notwithstanding; you’d need to do some sums to work out the total carbon budget).

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  6. Let me spell this out a bit more clearly. I never said that bio-char had to be deeply buryed. That was suggested by David Benson. Infact I refuted it. From what I’ve seen it is never buried deeply. Bio-char is a highly stable form of carbon.

    I’ve read elsewhere that bio-char is extremely good at binding nutrients to the soil. Here is an important quote from the Catalyst story:

    By adding char, we’ve shown that we can reduce nitrous oxide emission five-fold.

    Therefore you can cut back on your use of fertilisers. Plants grow more vigorously, absorbing more CO2 from the atmosphere.

    The full transcript of the Catalyst program is available here:

    http://www.abc.net.au/catalyst/stories/s2012892.htm

    When they were talking about the avocado farm they showed the char being spread on top of the grass growing under the trees. They didn’t dig it into the soil.

    If you’ve got the time have a look at the documentary I referenced above.

    …and burned it for fuel instead of an equivalent amount of coal, could we make enough to replace all coal

    Not a good option. You’re just putting all that carbon absorbed by growing stuff back into the atmosphere. This exactly why solar thermal, geothermal, wind, wave, photovoltaics and demand reduction through more efficient use of energy are necessary.

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  7. Biochar is 75–98% carbon, effectively a high grade of coal. Producing enough to offset all current emmisions of fossil carbon would take turning all the world’s forests into trees farms to produce the wood to char; not possible. Even producing enough to replace fossil coal woud be too much; by all means stop buring fossil coal. That just leaves all the other sources to offset.

    I was wrong about air capture, having left out a seriously energetic s6tep in the process. I calculate that it would be about twice as espensive as biochar. The least cost solution appears to be olivine weathring:

    ftp://ftp.geog.uu.nl/pub/posters/2008/Let_the_earth_help_us_to_save_the_earth-Schuiling_June2008.pdf

    which at worst is no more expensive than biochar burial and at best possibly only $(US)51 per tonne of carbon removed.

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    Biochar is usually considered as a soil conditioner. As such it is typically worked into the top 30+ cm of the soil. Tests have shown that about half of it, over a few decades, returns to the active carbon cycle; the remainder lasts ‘indefinitely’, a few to hundreds of centuries. Deep burial maakes a artifical coal seam, lasting for multiple millions of years.

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  8. Dear Professor Brook,

    Philip Sutton suggested I contact you via your blog with regard to a query about equating ppm with ‘% emission reduction targets’.

    The correspondence is below. But I can’t attach a chart in Excel to this blog. Is there an email address I can send it to?

    The question is:

    Attached is a chart that I’ve extracted from ‘Six Degrees’ by Mark Lynas. The original shows ppm with corresponding avaerage global temp rises.

    I’m trying to find out how the chart equates to the targets Rudd/Garnaut express in’ % reduction by X date’ from some base.

    The Greens don’t seem to know and I’m wondering who might. Any ideas?

    I think it’s important because it’s pretty clear from ‘Six Degrees’ that we don’t want to have to cope with more than a 2 degree increase (Jim Hansen would be comfortable with even less now that the rate of arctic and antarctic ice melt is accelerating).

    And I believe that in order to communicate the urgency and implications of temp change, we need a simple chart that non-scientists can easily understand and that compares apples and apples by understanding targets in terms of ppm.

    Otherwise the politicians get away with ‘smoke and mirrors’ as usual………../Chris

    From: Philip Sutton [mailto:Philip.Sutton@green-innovations.asn.au]
    Sent: Sunday, 2 November 2008 2:58 AM
    To: Chris Sanderson
    Cc: Robert Rosen
    Subject: Re: Mark Lynas’ ‘Six Degrees’

    Hi Chris,

    Mark Lynas’ ‘Six Degrees’ is a great book. Extremely valuable. But, because climate science keeps developing ‘Six Degrees’ is now out-of-date in one key area. It now appears that climate sensitivity could be twice as high ~6 ºC rather than ~3 ºC, which means that longer term impacts will occur at approximately half the forcing previously anticipated. So Mark Lynas’ equilibrium temberatures will be produced by much lower CO2 levels.

    A climate scientist who is grappling with this is Barry Brook at Adelaide Uni. His blog can be found at:
    https://bravenewclimate.com/

    Cheers, Philip

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