Climate Change

Melting permafrost causing a house to collapse
The melting of permafrost, the year-round frozen ground in polar regions, has led this house to collapse in the Alaskan fishing village of Shismaref. When permafrost melts it releases methane trapped underground into the atmosphere, posing a grave threat to the global climate system.

What may prove to be the most significant impact of increased energy consumption is human-triggered climate change. Our global economy relies intensively upon fossil fuels: oil, coal and natural gas. When combusted for energy, these fuels unavoidably release carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide prevents the sun's rays from being reflected back into the atmosphere, trapping the sun's heat inside the earth's atmosphere and creating a greenhouse effect that will warm the entire earth's average climate over time.

What makes climate change so dangerous is the uncertainty of what its eventual consequences will be. The earth's climate is so large and complex that many poorly understood "feedback mechanisms" could cause the climate to reach a tipping point and spin wildly out of control. One example is the melting of the earth's polar ice caps. This will leave more surface area of dark sea water and land. While white ice reflects sunlight back into space, dark water and land absorb it, causing the pace of warming to quicken. The melting of permafrost in the polar regions, another feedback mechanism, may release millions of tons of trapped methane, a hugely potent greenhouse gas. As these feedback loops get started, they will accelerate heating, cause greater disruption in the earth's ecosystems and make it far more difficult to stabilize the warming.

It must be emphasized that there is no longer a scientific debate over the causes of climate change. Climate change is occurring, and it is anthropogenic--the result of humans burning fossil fuels. The scientific community has now moved on from that question and onto the questions of how bad it could get, and when. Increasingly the answers appear to be "very bad" and "very soon."

Traffic
Cars are rapidly becoming more popular all over the world, and nearly all of them still run on fossil fuels.

At the heart of the problem are fossil fuels. Many technologies that can begin to replace fossil fuels already exist and huge strides could be made today to implement these technologies and curb greenhouse gas emissions. Unfortunately the power of inertia means that wrenching ourselves free from these addicting fuels will be difficult. As was pointed out in the History of Energy Use article, fossil fuels are the energy source of modern civilization. Without fossil fuels our industrial civilization would not exist. It was only with the unlocking of the massive amounts of energy in coal which allowed mankind to develop the technologies to exploit oil on a grand scale, then natural gas, then the renewables and nuclear power. The energy intensity in fossil fuels simply has no naturally occurring competitor.

There are many alternatives, but as we examined in our energy profiles, all of them have drawbacks which have prevented their widespread adoption to this point. Only two relatively carbon-free sources of energy have had any success in gaining a share of fossil fuel's near-monopoly of energy: Nuclear power and hydroelectric power. The handicaps of the first have primarily to do with public perceptions about the safety of nuclear power plants and their fuel, and the prohibitive economics of building nuclear power plants. The second, hydroelectric, is largely restricted by geography; many of the world's best locations for hydroelectric dams have already been tapped. With global warming leading to more frequent droughts and the loss of glacial snowpacks, hydroelectric power will become an even less reliable source of power. The other renewable technologies, like wind, geothermal, tidal and solar, are not yet energy-intensive enough to begin to replace the fossil fuel infrastructure without a concerted global political effort. This effort is not yet occurring.

So can catastrophic climate change be stopped? Certainly. As the Economist wrote in the lead-up to the 2010 Copenhagen climate change conference:

Although the benefits of averting that sort of catastrophe are incalculably large, the costs of doing so should not be enormous--as little as 1% of global output, if policy is well designed. This newspaper reckons that the world should fork out, rather as householders spend similar proportions of their income on insuring their homes against disaster.

It is best to think of fighting climate change as a very inexpensive (given the alternative) insurance policy. So if we redirected 1% of global output to preventing catastrophic climate change, what would we get for this insurance policy?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change believes any realistic solution to global climate change will have to be a multi-pronged approach, taking into account second generation renewables including wind, geothermal, solar and biofuels, an expansion of both nuclear and hydroelectric power, carbon capture and sequestration, and improvements in energy efficiency.

These changes are all well within our grasp, but the major stumbling block to solving climate change is political, rather than technological or even economic. As things stand today in 2014, it is increasingly apparent that the global political system is poorly equipped to deal with the extraordinarily complex nature of climate change.

Even on the national and sub-national level, implementing a relatively small carbon tax, a measure that virtually every economist in the world agrees will be a key market mechanism for pricing fossil fuels out of the market, is hugely controversial. Such proposal are opposed by voters of all political stripes: The Canadian Liberal Party's carbon tax proposal was vigorously opposed by many voters on the right side of the political spectrum, while a gas tax implemented by the B.C. Liberal Party, which would have essentially the same effect, was opposed by the provincial NDP and many on the left side of the spectrum.

We here at EnergyBC firmly believe fighting climate change should not be a political issue, but one that should be informed by sound science and economics. Every idea and proposal concerning energy should be considered in light of the best information possible, regardless from what quarter it originates. This is doubly important given the stakes involved, which could hardly be higher. Providing the soundest information possible in order to allow voters and policymakers to make informed decisions about energy and climate change is one of the chief purposes of this website.

On an international level the history of industrialization and energy inequality is poisoning negotiations on a new global climate treaty. The West, who rose to prominence on the most carbon-intensive fossil fuel--coal--are now asking the countries they once dominated, China and India, among others, not to follow in their footsteps. It is a position that reeks of hypocrisy. But if the global climate is to have a chance at stabilization, these developing countries must not rely on coal. In a business as usual scenario, China, for example, is projected to emit as much carbon by 2030 as all the countries of the world combined did in 2008. This is despite the fact that China is already the world leader in many renewable technologies such as wind. The power needs of China's vast population are difficult to comprehend. There are glimmers of hope from this massive expansion of industrialization. Brazil, for instance, gets 90% of its electricity from hydropower.

Cumulative Carbon emissions 1850-2005
This graph shows the total carbon emitted by each country from 1850-2005. As can be seen, the western countries at the top, the U.S. and Germany, industrialized with coal and have emitted a tremendous amount of carbon over the course of the 20th Century. Canada, in 9th spot, has emitted a huge share of carbon for its relatively tiny population. Canadians are some of the biggest emitters of carbon in the world on a per capita basis. China, today the world's number one emitter, and other developing countries, have only begun burning huge amounts of carbon recently and therefore rank comparatively low by this measure.

And unfortunately, climate change is not the only problem our reliance on fossil fuel poses. Fossil fuels, by their nature as non-renewable resources, will one day run out. That day may be sooner than many of us appreciate. This will be discussed in our next article.

Peak Fossil Fuels





Bibliography

'Climate Change Trends: Carbon Emissions Giants.' National Public Radio, 2011. Accessed June 3, 2012.

'Copenhagen climate summit held to ransom -- Gordon Brown.' BBC News, 22 December 2009. Accessed June 3, 2012.

Free Exchange Blog, 'Do economists all favour a carbon tax?' The Economist, September 19, 2011. Accessed June 3, 2012.

G. Harrison, H. Whittington, and S. Gundry. 'Climate Change Impacts on Hydro-Electric Power.' University of Edinburgh, School of Engineering. 2011. Accessed June 3, 2012.

'IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007.' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 2007. Accessed June 3, 2012.

J. Curry, J. Scramm and E. Ebert, 'Sea Ice-Albedo Climate Feedback Mechanism.' Journal of Climate. Volume 8 (1993): 240.

Murrell, David. 'Eight Arguments Against a Carbon Tax.' Canadian Centre for Policy Studies. September 2008. Accessed June 3, 2012.

Various authors, 'Vulnerability of Permafrost Carbon to Climate Change: Implications for the Global Carbon Cycle.' Bioscience. September 2008, Vol. 58, No. 8: 701-715. Accessed June 3, 2012.

'Stopping climate change.' The Economist. Dec. 3, 2009. Accessed June 3, 2012.

'World Energy Outlook 2009.' International Energy Agency, 2009. Accessed June 3, 2012.

'Brazil's Reliance on Hydropower.' Growing Blue. 2012. Accessed June 3, 2012.

References

  1. J. Curry, J. Scramm and E. Ebert, Sea Ice-Albedo Climate Feedback Mechanism, Journal of Climate Volume 8 (1993): 240.
  2. Various authors, Vulnerability of Permafrost Carbon to Climate Change: Implications for the Global Carbon Cycle. Bioscience. September 2008, Vol. 58, No. 8: 701-715.
  3. IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 2007.
  4. G. Harrison, H. Whittington, and S. Gundry. Climate Change Impacts on Hydro-Electric Power. University of Edinburgh, School of Engineering. 2011.
  5. Copenhagen climate summit held to ransom -- Gordon Brown. BBC News, 22 December 2009.
  6. Stopping climate change. The Economist. Dec. 3, 2009.
  7. IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 2007.
  8. Free Exchange Blog, Do economists all favour a carbon tax? The Economist, September 19, 2011.
  9. Murrell, David. Eight Arguments Against a Carbon Tax. Canadian Centre for Policy Studies. September 2008.
  10. Climate Change Trends: Carbon Emissions Giants. National Public Radio, 2011.
  11. World Energy Outlook 2009. International Energy Agency, 2009. p. 10.
  12. Brazil's Reliance on Hydropower. Growing Blue. 2012.
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