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Climate Change: Is Failure Now Inevitable?

Robert Wilson's picture
University of Strathclyde

Robert Wilson is a PhD Student in Mathematical Ecology at the University of Strathclyde.

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  • Sep 22, 2014

energy transition and climate change failure

Later this week, the world’s leaders, or at least some of them, will meet in New York to discuss what is to be done to limit future temperature rises on the only planet we have. Once again we will be greeted by opinion pieces telling us that an upcoming climate conference, in Paris this time, is the last chance to save the climate, and we will be inundated with “major new studies” telling us exactly what “major new studies” have been telling us for the last decade. Optimists will confidently inform us that cheap low-carbon technology is just around the corner, while others will implore us to overthrow capitalism to fix the climate. Nothing changes.

If the Copenhagen conference in 2009 was the last chance to save the climate, as we were then told, then the climate has clearly not been saved. The burning of fossil fuels goes on more or less unabated. Last year we dumped more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than ever before. Yet, efforts to save the climate also continue unabated.

Have we not failed already?

Failure, of course, is one of degree. However, the discontinuous mind will not stand for such subtlety. Arbitrary lines of success and failure must be drawn, and we must stick to them. The physical difference between 450 and 460 ppm may be small, the psychological difference is immense.

Yet, who now believes that we can successfully keep atmospheric carbon dioxide levels below 450 parts per million? Do you? It used to be said that two pints of beer would be enough to get a climate scientist to admit this was longer possible. Now I suspect you would just need a Diet Coke.

The prospect of keeping atmospheric carbon dioxide levels below 450 ppm is now essentially zero, an obvious reality that few will publicly acknowledge. This can be shown in various ways. However, I will do so here by considering the implications of the important, and under discussed work, led by Steve Davis of the University of Stanford on “committed emissions.”

The term “committed emissions” is easily understood by analogy. Consider someone who wishes to lower her coffee intake. If she recently went to a supermarket and bought 50 bags of the stuff she is more or less committing herself to drinking that amount of coffee in future. On the other hand, a person who has no coffee lying around the house can much more easily avoid coffee. Clearly if you want to get off something, you want to make it as easy as possible to do so.

The same goes with fossil fuels. In the last decade Germany has developed a much lauded renewable energy programme. However, in the same period they have built a huge number of new coal power plants. In total 10.7 GW will be opened in the first half of this decade. If history is a reliable guide, we can assume that these plants will last for at least 40 years and will have load factors above 50%. Therefore, by building these plants Germany has probably committed itself to emitting over two billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere over the plants’ lifetimes. If they had built nuclear power plants instead they would have committed themselves to just over 0 tonnes of carbon dioxide. However, past mistakes cannot be easily undone.

Not everything lasts as a long as a coal power plant. Your car or gas furnace lasts perhaps a decade. However, once bought you aren’t likely to replace something until it’s useful life is over. So, let’s run a simple thought experiment. What if we immediately stopped building any new fossil fuel infrastructure? All new infrastructure will be something green and will emit no carbon dioxide, and we will simply use the existing fossil fuel infrastructures for as long as we would have. Your Honda Civic will be replaced by an electric car once you feel the need to buy a new car. The gas furnace heating your home will be replaced by a heat pump when it its useful life is over. Once a coal power plant is not economical to run, it will be replaced by a low-carbon plant. This is, to put it mildly, a wildly optimistic scenario. But a revealing one.

Fortunately, numbers have been estimated for such a scenario in a paper published in Science four years ago by Steve Davis and others. Their median estimate is that existing fossil fuel infrastructure will result in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels increasing by 20 ppm above today’s level of just under 400 ppm.

This, of course, is a completely implausible scenario. Despite the incessant hype surrounding Tesla, we are not moving to electric cars tomorrow, and the same goes for almost everything else. Instead, let’s try a slightly more credible scenario: emissions peak in a decade and we stop building any new fossil fuel infrastructure. This is, again, rather optimistic. Nuclear energy is not likely to see significant growth in the next decade. Currently, wind and solar energy barely represent one tenth of the annual growth in global primary energy consumption, while coal coal consumption is making up its highest proportion of energy consumption growth in decades.

Wildly optimistic, yes, but where does this take us? Very close to 450 ppm. Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have increased by an average of 2.2 ppm each year over the last four years. So, a decade from now we will almost certainly be at or above 420 ppm. And our committed emissions will push us beyond 440 ppm.

This hopeful scenario of not building any fossil fuel infrastructure a decade from now, however, is simply not credible.  Some scientists tell us that 100% renewable energy is achievable in short order. However, they should consider the airport they sit in before a Boeing 747 whisks them off to tell the world about the inevitable green future. How do you fly a plane without kerosene? The building they sit in is nothing but a mass of reinforced concrete. How do you make the steel without coal? How do you make the concrete without emitting carbon dioxide during the production of cement? Easy answers to these questions are not forthcoming.

A decade from now Pratt and Whitney will not stop making jet engines. MAN diesel will not stop making engines for container ships to transport electronic gadgets from Asia to western consumers. China will not stop making blast furnaces for producing steel. A large section of the fossil fuel economy is likely to remain largely unchanged over the years and decades to come.

Our committed emissions, and the fact that we have no viable substitutes for many of the uses of fossil fuels, now make it clear that keeping atmospheric carbon dioxide levels below 450 ppm is implausible. This can be concluded by doing a simple back of the envelope analysis of the underlying realities, as I have done.

More worryingly, our politicians are incapable of delivering anything other than the sub-optimal. Europeans are now burning more and more coal in power plants, while burning less and less natural gas. Americans could easily reduce their personal energy consumption with no impact on quality of life, yet this appears to be a politically incorrect proposition. Meanwhile, Germany has shut nuclear power plants while building new coal power plants, and got applauded for doing so by the very people who supposedly care the most about protecting the climate. Easy and cheap cuts in carbon emissions are simply left on the table, untouched. What possibility is there of politicians agreeing to emissions cuts that might inflict some pain, or even just the perception of pain?

One day we may look at a sports utility vehicle in a densely populated city as many now look at a burning cigarette in a crowded bar. That day remains a long way off. It is time to lower our expectations.

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Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on Sep 22, 2014

How do you make the steel without coal?

Use basalt fiber in lieu of steel.  It has the added virtue of being immune to rust.

How do you make the concrete without emitting carbon dioxide during the production of cement?

If you don’t mind spending some extra energy, you can dehydrate certain minerals like serpentine and then react them with the CO2.  If you use electric heat instead of coal (or blow the kiln with oxygen rather than air) you will get a nearly pure CO2 stream.  If bio-coal is used for the fuel and the CO2 is sequestered, the cement could be carbon-negative.

Easy answers to these questions are not forthcoming.

They’re not so hard, so long as you don’t have to look at the price tag.  That is something I admit that I have not done.

donough shanahan's picture
donough shanahan on Sep 23, 2014

Only not that hard when you ignore the engineering implications, deployment at demostration scale (never mind industrial) and use the word ‘potential’.

Basalt fibre to replace steel requires a molten extrusion process at 1400C or above. Modern consensus does not put either of these ideas at the forefront of alternative steel or concrete research methods. Its mostl ikely market would be the replacement iof glass fibres but thati s not progressing either.

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on Sep 23, 2014

Basalt fibre to replace steel requires a molten extrusion process at 1400C or above.

Production of new steel requires temperatures roughly the same, plus the energy to chemically reduce oxide to metal.

Modern consensus does not put either of these ideas at the forefront of alternative steel or concrete research methods.

Is the consensus taking carbon intensity into account?  Erroneous premise, faulty conclusion.

donough shanahan's picture
donough shanahan on Sep 23, 2014

The problem is not necessarily the temperature but the extrusion. The raft temperature in a blast furnace is much higher but due to low contact with the walls and favourable chemical properties of the refractories used, this issue can be managed.


Yes the modern consensus takes carbon into account but not as a driver, what works is more important. Basalt fibre has a market ready made for it, glass fibre. That would be its first ‘victim’ but the technical issues with high temp extrusion are not resolved.

Hops Gegangen's picture
Hops Gegangen on Sep 24, 2014


Even without a carbon tax, what would the price of coal be in 2100?

The easily mined stuff will surely be long gone….


Robert Cormia's picture
Robert Cormia on Sep 25, 2014

Fantastic article – thanks for having the courage (or common sense) to be so blunt! 450 ppm CO2, plus methane and other GHGs, will likely take us right up to 2 deg Celsius warming, and as many climate scientists have pointed out, amplifying feedbacks might take 2 deg C to 3 deg C. Aside from the predictable loss of arctic sea ice, and evental disintegration of the West Antarctic ice sheet, we’re likely to wake up hundreds of millions of tons of methane stored in permafrost, which could take is to a climate catastrophe before 2100. People need to understand this, and the consequences of all the actions and decisions we make, especially not doing something now, while we still might be able to change the future.

Peter Lang's picture
Peter Lang on Sep 25, 2014

Climate Change: Is Failure Now Inevitable?”

Yes.  Failure was always inevitable as long as the climate alarmists advocated solutions that would raise the cost of energy or in anyway disadgantages some nation states relative to others.  Richard Tol, showed the probability of the UN Climate Conference in Doha, COP 17, reaching agreement.  The likelihood of reaching a global climate agreement is even lower.

This explains why and explains why a high level of partispation is essential: ‘Submission to the Senate inquiry into repeal of the carbon tax legislation’, Submission No.2 “Mr Peter Lang” 


Max Kennedy's picture
Max Kennedy on Sep 26, 2014

Yes, failure was always inevitable so long as denialists and selfish souls refused to accept their responsibility and lacked the moral courage to do what is right.  There are no low cost solutions so the arguement about raising energy costs is specious,  What can be expected of moral cowards though!

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on Sep 26, 2014

A quick check finds prices for basalt fiber less than 2x the price of S-glass.  When the raw material is roughly as cheap as dirt, there’s a lot of room for that to come down.

Hops Gegangen's picture
Hops Gegangen on Sep 26, 2014


Right. Scotty will beam it out from miles underground.



Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Sep 29, 2014

I believe it prudent to use our fossil store (and debt creation) wisely. By that, I mean weed out all the non scientific inputs towards the development of a standardized and modular global deployment of advanced nuclear, in order to bring costs down to within reason. 

If all electricity (including for cars) would be generated by such, then there would be far less of a anthropocene threat from the remaining hydrocarbon use for heavy industry. The increase would at least not be accelerating! Carbon taxes merely shift conversion of hydrocarbons into excess CO2 elsewhere, yet may help to implement the vastly needed nuclear option into a lower cost solution.

donough shanahan's picture
donough shanahan on Sep 29, 2014

Mmmh. I would suggerst that the moral coward group includes a lot of normal, non-denial people too. I wrote an article some time ago elsewhere. The main point which is further backed by the UKERC study I frequently reference:

I would consider my current activities to be quite different to most people in that I live a low energy lifestyle. Importantly though when I advocate the types of choices I have made to others, people clearly balk at making that leap and inevitably, continue in their way.”

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Sep 29, 2014

Such are still a rather small percentage of the overall damage. I do my part not because I think it will actually make (much) of a difference, but to set an example and to practice what little I preach.

It is up to the major governments and rich philanthropists to cause positive change to occur by advocating and developing the next step – advanced nuclear.

Only that gives humanity the options of totally cleaning up our (and our predecessors) mess.

Kimberly King's picture
Kimberly King on Sep 30, 2014

Thanks for calling this out. Itiswhatitis…

In a nutshell, leadership is failing us. Energy illiteracy is pervasive. And so, pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. We should be doing everything to prepare, to respond and adapt.

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