CLIMATE DISASTER: five questions to ask in any conversation about climate (Part III)
As I began to study climate change, I was constantly confronted with facts that are difficult to understand. To begin with, I could not imagine the monstrous numbers. Who knows, for example, what 51 billion tons of gas looks like?
#1 WHAT PERCENTAGE OF 51 BILLION TONS ARE WE TALKING ABOUT?
I prefer to focus on the primary goal of eliminating 51 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases per year. Take aviation as an example: a program that saved us 17 million tons of gas a year. Divide that number by 51 billion and convert it to a percentage. It equates to about 0.03% of the world’s annual emissions.
Is this a significant contribution? It all depends on the answer to the next question: will this number grow or remain at the same level? If a program starts with 17 million tonnes but has much more potential, that is one thing.
If it remains at the level of 17 million tons, the situation looks completely different. Unfortunately, the answer isn’t always obvious. But it is an important question to ask.
When a certain amount of tons of greenhouse gases is mentioned, translate it into a percentage of 51 billion, that is, the total volume of the world’s annual emissions (in CO2-equivalent).
#2 WHAT ARE YOU PLANNING TO DO WITH CONCRETE?
If we are talking about a full-fledged solution to the problem of climate change, it is necessary to take into account all aspects of human activity associated with the emission of greenhouse gases. Some aspects, such as electricity and cars, have received a lot of attention, but it is only the first step. Passenger cars account for less than half of all vehicle emissions, which in turn represent 16% of global emissions.
Take a look at the diagram showing the types of human activities that cause greenhouse gases. This division into categories is not universally accepted, but I find this breakdown the most useful, and we also apply it in Breakthrough Energy.
Reaching zero means zeroing all these categories.
Fortunately, while electricity only accounts for 27% of the problem, it can provide much more than 27% of the solution. With clean electricity, you can avoid burning hydrocarbons (which emit CO2) as fuel.
Imagine electric cars and buses; electric heating and air conditioning at home and in the office; energy-intensive industries that use electricity instead of natural gas. Clean electricity alone will not lead us to zero, but it will be a major step towards achieving this result.
Remember that greenhouse gas emissions are associated with five areas of human activity, therefore, it is necessary to look for solutions for each of them.
How much greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere because of us?
#3 WHAT ENERGY ARE WE TALKING ABOUT?
This question is most often asked in articles on electricity. Let’s say a new power plant produces 500 megawatts of electricity. Is this a lot? And what is a megawatt? A megawatt is a million watts, and a watt is the power at which 1 joule of work is done in 1 second of time. A watt is not much.
The power level of a small incandescent lamp is about 40 watts. Hair dryer – 1500 watts. The power plant produces hundreds of millions of watts. The capacity of the power plant Three Gorges in China is 22 billion watts, which is the largest in the world.
Since the numbers are rather large, it is useful to have a legend. A kilowatt equals 1,000 watts, a megawatt equals a million, and a gigawatt equals a billion.
The diagram below shows rough ratios that help to present the big picture.
When you hear the word “kilowatt”, imagine a house, a gigawatt is a city, and a hundred gigawatts or more is a large country.
#4 HOW MANY SPACE DO YOU NEED?
Some sources of electricity take up more space, some less. It is important for obvious reasons: we do not have much land and water at our disposal. The location, of course, is not the only problem, but also an important one, so it should be talked about more often than it is happening now.
In this case, we are interested in specific power. It shows how much electricity can be obtained from different sources in terms of a specific area of land (or water, if you install wind turbines in the ocean).
Power density is measured in watts per square meter. If you want to use the wind instead of the sun, you will need a lot more floor space, all other things are equal. It does not mean that the wind is bad and the sun is good. It just means that they have different requirements that need to be considered.
If you hear the claim that some sources (wind, sun, nuclear power plants, etc.) can provide the world with all the electricity it needs, find out how much space will be needed to generate that amount of electricity.
#5 HOW MUCH DOES IT COST?
The reason that the world produces so many greenhouse gases is because modern energy technologies are the cheapest – if you close your eyes to how they harm the environment. This is why converting the current colossal, “dirty”, carbon-based energy industry to new zero-emission technologies will require significant funding.
Most carbon-free solutions will cost more than their fossil fuel equivalents. It’s not just about what Americans and Europeans can afford. There are some pretty impressive green margins that the US can handle, but India, China, Nigeria, and Mexico cannot. We need to bring these markups to such a low level that the whole world can refuse from carbon production.
Let’s do a thought experiment by asking the question, “How much does it cost to remove carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere?” This idea has a name – the direct capture method, LPA. (In a nutshell, air is “driven” over a special device that absorbs and stores carbon dioxide.)
LPG is an expensive and generally unpolished technology, but if it works on a large scale, it will allow us to capture carbon dioxide whenever and wherever it is produced. One of the LPU installations, which is currently operating, is located in Switzerland.
It can absorb gas that entered the atmosphere from a coal-fired power plant in Texas ten years ago. To determine how much this solution will cost, only two indicators are needed: the total volume of global emissions and the cost of absorbing emissions using the LPG.
We already know the volume of world emissions – 51 billion tons per year. There is still no clear data on the cost of capturing one ton of CO2 from the atmosphere, but it is at least $ 200 per ton. With a little innovation, I think you can cut costs down to $ 100 per ton, so that’s the number I will use.
The following equation is obtained: 51 billion tons / year × $ 100 / ton = $ 5.1 trillion / year. In other words, using LPG to tackle the climate problem will cost us a minimum of $ 5.1 trillion a year – every year we generate emissions. It is about 6% of the world economy.
(A monstrous figure, although LPA can actually cost a lot less than trying to cut emissions by shutting down certain sectors of the economy, as we did during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the United States, cost per tonne was between $ 2,600 and $ 3,300, according to the Rhodium Group. In the European Union – more than $ 4400 per ton. In other words, it is 26–44 times more expensive than the $ 100 per tonne we can only dream of so far.)
LPA is just a thought experiment so far. In fact, the LCP technology is not yet ready for global use, but even if the LCP is ready, it is extremely ineffective for solving our problem.
Don’t forget about green margins and ask if they are low enough to pay for less wealthy countries.
SUMMARIZING ALL 5 TIPS:
• Convert tonnes of emission into percentages of 51 billion.
• Remember that you need to find a solution for all five areas of activity responsible for greenhouse gas emissions: industry, electricity, agriculture, transportation, heating and cooling.
• Kilowatt = home. Gigawatt = medium-sized city. Hundreds of gigawatts = big rich country.
• Consider how much space you need for certain technologies.
• Don’t forget about green markups and ask if less developed economies can pay for them.
1) Electrify all possible processes. It will require a ton of innovation.
2) Get electricity from a carbon-free grid. It also requires a lot of innovation.
3) Use a carbon capture method to remove the remaining emissions. Again, innovation is needed.
4) Use materials more economically and efficiently. Innovation is essential again.
To be continued…