We will face a bad encounter with the two degrees of climate change

In 2007 despite all the talking, targets and emission trading schemes, the emissions of industrialised countries rose by 1%. This may not sound much but those emissions, particularly carbon dioxide, will be around for a very long time. The fact that 2008 might see is small drop in emissions does not bring us any hope. It is simply that we have turned the tap down a very small amount, but the atmosphere continues to fill with long lasting greenhouse gases.

The easiest way to avoid the effects of rapid climate change is to stop burning things. Combustion creates carbon dioxide which is put into the atmosphere by the process of burning.  Most burning is undertaken to produce energy, whether for the home or for travel of for industrial processes or for commerce. Some burning occurs naturally as part of a particular ecosystems natural cycle, but by far the greatest amount of carbon dioxide is created by burning in order to create heat or electrical energy.

Put very simply (and I know that there are exceptions) there is a relationship between the energy created from burning and the emissions that burning creates according to the fuel type used. Some fuels emit lower amounts of greenhouse gas per unit of energy that they burn and other fuels emit higher amounts of green house gas per unit of energy.

Individually, the various processes for converting fuel into energy can be efficient (so that less fuel is used) or inefficient (so that more fuel is used) but it is useful to consider things simply and to understand the unit of energy produced by burning and the amount of greenhouse gas emissions that unit has created.

In the order of the most polluting (in emission terms) the list is as follows:-

1.      Coal

2.      Biomass (usually wood pellets)

3.      Oil

4.      Natural Gas

If coal had an emission factor of 100, natural gas would have an emission factor of 30.

This is the harsh reality. There is no known way of sequestrating the emissions of burning any fuel, be it wood, oil, coal or gas, so it is important that when it comes to climate change strategies we should not be blinded by arguments that there is some way of sequestrating the carbon dioxide in the burning process that works on an industrial scale. We have to accept that burning coal and wood is particularly high in emission outcomes.

So far humanity has burnt around a half a trillion tonnes of coal in the past two hundred and fifty years and that has been an important part of raising atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide from around 250 parts to million to nearly 290 parts per million. It has also had the effect of making the seas measurably more acidic as well as creating the phenomenon of acid rain which has devastated lakes of fish and wildlife and damaged forests.

Of course coal is not solely responsible but it has played the major part in climate change. The United Kingdom, which was the first nation to use coal to industrialise its economy, has been the nation that has emitted more greenhouse gas than any other nation. Perhaps the United States and China will eventually overtake the United Kingdom in this unwanted record, but as things are today the United Kingdom is still the world leader, historically, in producing greenhouse gases.

So coal is the worst culprit when it comes to fossil fuel emissions. There is still possibly another half a trillion tonnes of coal that may be burnt in the next forty or fifty years, and politicians from almost every country seem intent on burning it. The United States seems to be moving towards the position where new coal power burning plants will be banned.

However the United Kingdom and China all have plans to build more coal burning power plants instead of phasing existing plants out of production.

Scientists have recently suggested something that I have been urging for several years. According to their mathematics, unless we stop burning coal they think that average planetary temperatures will rise above 2 degrees Celsius by 2050. Of course we have to do other things as well as stop burning coal, but stopping to burn coal is the quickest way to reduce humanity’s greenhouse gas emissions.

So far politicians have run very scared from this issue. In the United Kingdom the Government announced a proposal to build five new coal burning power stations that would be “carbon sequestration ready”. It is a curious ambition as they do not really know what carbon sequestration will involve. No doubt he power stations will have idle pipes and chambers to store carbon dioxide as soon as someone invents the process, but that will mean that the emissions will continue at the galloping rate, with the likely result that we will reach the extra two degrees sooner rather than later and that those extra degrees will starve, flood, damage by tempest and kill many of the inhabitants of this world as ruthlessly and as indiscriminately as one of the plagues described in the old testament.

Of course the climate modellers do not know precisely what the effects of burning the other half trillion tonnes will be on the climate. Their best guesses, from their modelling as reported in Nature recently indicate an increased temperature range by somewhere between 1.3C and 3.9C.

The scientists and modellers concerned include researchers from Oxford University, and the Climate Change Impact Research team in Germany. In Potsdam Dr Mainshausen concluded that if we keep on burning fossil fuels as we do now, the 2 degrees Celsius average warming would have arrived in 20 years, and thereafter the warming would be more. Dr Mainhausen thinks that there is a 25% probability of exceeding 2 degrees average warming by 2050 if we cut emissions by 50% now.

At the moment we trust our politicians with averting these risks but they are ill informed and ill equipped to take the hard measures to prevent what is becoming an increasing scientific likelihood of disastrous climate change in the very short term.

Dr Mainhausen has reached the conclusion I reached some years ago – we must stop burning coal if we are to achieve our less than 2 degree target; I would go further than this and add that we must also stop burning biomass too. Otherwise we shall experience a bad encounter with the two degrees of global warming.

4 Responses

  1. Robert, I know it is not ideal but wouldn’t Coalbed Methane extraction combined with CCGT electricity generation, be a better option than the new coal fired power stations. Because not only is coal a lot more polluting as you highlight above, the other factor is that most of the coal used in the UK, over two third’s is currently imported. So there is an even greater environmental impact because of the transportation factor.


  2. For the last 8000 years man has lived in harmony with nature, 1800 was the real beginning of change.

    Burning any non renewable fuel to make another is where we started going wrong.

    The very policy of slash and burn will implode without another way out, in quick time will we be back to 8000 BC, less we work with nature the more we will suffer.

    Waste is what the modern way is very efficient at, new electic or white goods are made to run on stand by, companies are taking away our manufacturing to part foeign in the name of the dole que, when are we going to sit up and listen to what the general public are crying out loud, we have turned our back upon our own and reap the benefits at the cost to both the population and mother earth, without her we are a non entity.

    Are we to become a victim of our own greed ?

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