Global Warming – The Entire Story
I have been posting these blogs about Global Warming for almost twenty years. My good friend Robert Zubrin published a good starter on the topic on April 14 and I included it in the April 17 note. I am going to combine some of his data with some of my own to make a stronger story. The bottom line is that Global Warming is real, and the world is going to change for the worse over time, only not the rapid decline some environmentalists are spouting, but you will see definite changes over your lifetime. Our major problem is that Global Warming has become a political issue and our government is lying to us about how to best counter global warming for their own political gain. Instead of funding advanced research and development for essential base power options like geothermal, fission, and fusion they are conducting a war against fossil fuels guaranteed to inflate the cost of living and please their political donors. This is not right and is going to slow down real progress on reducing global warming. Somehow, we need to introduce unbiased scientific reasoning into the Global Warming debate. Next is the data defining the underlying problem. The link between Energy Consumption and Gross Domestic Product (GDP)
All of us are aware of the industrial revolution where use of coal generated steam to power machinery that generated products and electricity which raised our standard of living from medieval to comfortable. That was followed by exploitation of petroleum products which made us mobile and greatly increased the types of products available. This improvement in standard of living is highly desirable and more of the planet’s inhabitants are burning fossil fuels to achieve it. Unfortunately, this increases the carbon dioxide emissions which are a major component of greenhouse gases driving Global Warming.
Figure 1 below plots the relationship between Global Carbon Utilization (fossil fuel carbon consumption in million tons/year) and average Global Domestic Product per Capita ($/person) from the year 1875 to 2020. In this curve it easy to see the rapid industrialization of China during the 1990s which was powered primarily by coal plants.
Figure 2 also below shows global yearly CO2 emission by region from the year 1751 to 2015 by region.
Figure 1 - Human GDP has improved in direct proportion to worldwide energy use (Primarily fossil fuels).
Figure 2 – Global CO2 Emissions by Region
As you can see CO2 emissions are a global problem and the United States and Europe with 22% of the total emissions are not going to solve this problem on their own. As I point out in following sections solving Global Warming requires reducing the cost of base power, and since we will have no cost-effective way to eliminate fossil fuels in the foreseeable future, increasing the cost of fossil fuels in the near term is counterproductive.
The current billions of tons of CO2 emissions are causing global warming. The increased CO2 emission has caused global temperatures to rise an average of 1C since 1870. The increased CO2 is also changing the Earth’s atmospheric chemistry, threatening to change the chemistry of the oceans, with potentially very negative effects on marine life.
Our government has focused on using carbon taxes or production limitations to increase fuel prices, discouraging people of limited means from using fossil fuels. I believe this campaign to be unethical. A primary problem in the world today is poverty. Energy is a basic good, both in itself, and because food prices, being highly dependent on transport costs, largely track fuel prices. All sales taxes are regressive, but because they target basic goods, and do so on the basis of mass, rather than cost, carbon taxes are ultra-regressive. A $50 discount store dress incorporates the same amount of carbon in its production as a $500 high fashion dress. A conventional sales tax would hit the expensive dress 10 times as hard. A carbon tax would increase the cost of both by the same amount. So really, carbon taxes can be viewed as a scam for transferring the tax burden from the rich to the poor.
But whether or not you agree that carbon taxes are unethical, there can be no question that, as a method of reducing carbon emissions, they have been a spectacular failure. In the three decades since the early 1990s, when climate warming alarms first aroused world leaders to action, global CO2 emissions have doubled—just as they did from the 1960s to the 1990s, the 1930s to the 1960s, and 1900 to 1930. This is because energy use is fundamental to living standards, and people, not wishing to be poor, will do whatever it takes to position themselves to be able to use more of it.
Not all CO2 emissions should be treated the same. Some emissions come from electrical powerplants, but a lot come from sources that are vital but can not be serviced by building more solar farms and windmills. Figure 3 below shows which emissions are the most difficult to eliminate. It is based on 2014 data, but the relative proportions should still be current. The hardest to eliminate are long-distance transportation (truck, ocean, and aircraft), variable baseload power, cement production, and iron and steel production. These require major technology breakthroughs, and our government is doing precious little to fund this.
Figure 3 – Sources of Global CO2 Emissions (2014)
I think you are beginning to see the scope of the problem. Just to make sure you see the full picture I will add figure 4 below, which shows that CO2 is only one of several greenhouse gases we have to worry about. Methane, nitrous oxide, and several chlorohydrocarbons are also greenhouse gases. Methane is emitted primarily by livestock, decaying vegetation, and melting permafrost. Nitrous Oxide is emitted by high temperature combustion in automotive and jet engines, and chlorohydrocarbons by leakage from refrigeration products (automotive air-conditioners are a primary source). All of these sources need to be addressed if we are going to eventually stabilize and reduce the Earth’s average temperature.
Figure 4 – Combined Influence of all Greenhouse Gases
There are several methods to reverse the Earth’s rise in average temperatures. One is to stop the emission of greenhouse gases and let the Earth gradually turn the CO2 into rock or something organic, but that takes hundreds of years. Another is to capture the CO2 from the atmosphere and either pump it into reservoirs underground or turn back into something useful like plastic, but that is currently too expensive using existing technologies. The third option is to inject aerosols into the upper atmosphere to increase the Earth’s albedo (reflectivity), thereby decreasing the amount of sunlight reaching the Earth’s surface and reducing the average temperature even with increasing CO2. This happens naturally whenever there is a major volcanic eruption. For instance, the year without a summer (1816) was caused by the eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815.
Current Green-Warrior’s dogma embrace the first two solutions, but absolutely forbids any work or even mention of the third possible solution. I don’t profess to understand why Geoengineering a solution to Global Warming is absolutely forbidden, but they shut down a preliminary Geoengineering test using a balloon proposed in Sweden last year.
I will next discuss where we are now and then where we should be heading.
Biden's war on fuel
The Biden administration approach to this situation has been to try to suppress North American oil and gas production. As Marc Thiessen wrote in the Washington Post on February 24th: He [Biden] prioritized climate change over energy independence and launched a policy of energy disarmament. Biden rejoined the Paris agreement and canceled the Keystone XL pipeline, which by itself would have transported 830,000 barrels of oil per day from Alberta to refineries on the Gulf Coast of Texas — far more than the 538,000 barrels we import every day from Russia). He suspended oil and gas leases in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and sought to deliver on his campaign promise to ban all “new oil and gas permitting on public lands and waters.” And he made clear his intention to tax and regulate the fossil fuel industry out of business, promising that his administration would “end fossil fuel."
Let’s limit the discussion to the United States for a minute and discuss how we might end “fossil fuels”. Figure 5 below shows the types of powerplants recently added in the United States.
Figure 5 – Recent U.S. Powerplant Capacity Added
As you can see 44% of new construction was natural gas, 30% was wind, and 23% was solar. That is about what I would expect given the underlying costs and the political considerations involved. That nuclear, hydroelectric, and geothermal were such a small fraction is surprising given that wind and solar are only available a small fraction of the time. Undoubtably caused by our political system in action.
Figure 6 below compares the levelized costs of electricity generated (in 2018 dollars per megawatt hour) and the value to cost ratio for the main powerplants being proposed.
Figure 6 – 2018 $/MW-hr and value/cost ratio for new Powerplants (2020-2050)
Based on this data you can see that natural gas combined-cycle powerplants are significantly cheaper near term relative to wind and solar, and becomes more expensive out towards 2050 because the government is actively driving up the price of natural gas. The value to cost ratio of natural gas is always better because power from a natural gas plant is available about 99% of the time relative to 25% for solar and 33% for wind. Nuclear powerplants are necessary long-term to eliminate natural gas, but they are only being researched and built overseas because of political biases in this country. That can be seen in figure 7 below.
Figure 7 – Status of Nuclear Powerplants Worldwide
The best way to eliminate fossil fuels is with nuclear power but the U.S. government has virtually eliminated any nuclear powerplant research and development aimed at competitive costs/MW-hr in the US. The only new competitive-cost nuclear powerplant concepts are advanced overseas (in Asia) and by private industry in the U.S. (NuScale and TerraPower). This is criminal behavior in my opinion. Our government is deliberately sabotaging our best chance to beat Global Warming long-term for near-term political gains.
The best estimate of the capital costs for various powerplants is shown in figure 8 below.
Figure 8 – Capital Cost Comparison for various Powerplants (2018 )
As you can guess, decisions on which powerplant to build is largely based on capital costs and secondarily on operating costs. Right now natural gas combined-cycle at $1000/kW is the cheapest to build followed by solar and then wind. Therefore, the key to fighting global warming is to research reducing the costs of nuclear and maybe geothermal powerplants to make them cost competitive with natural gas, combined-cycle powerplants, especially in the third world where most of the CO2 emissions are and will-be generated. If zero-emission powerplants are cost competitive they will replace fossil-fueled powerplants in a generation or two.
Current energy generation projections (figure 9) show the magnitude of the problem.
Figure 9 – Projections of Global Energy Consumption by Energy Source
If you look at projections of energy consumption worldwide, the burning of natural gas, petroleum, and even coal is predicted to increase out past 2050 and there is no hope of eliminating fossil fuels before 2080 without hundreds of trillions of dollars investment in nuclear powerplants. The Biden administration is ignoring their own published data for political reasons.
The alternative to nuclear power is building enough batteries to make solar and wind powerplants a reliable source of power. There are two problems with this. The first is cost. Adding enough batteries to make a solar farm generate power through the night triples the cost, making it only cost competitive with current nuclear powerplant numbers, but not even close competitive with natural gas. The second problem is materials availability. There is not enough lithium and cobalt readily available on the planet to convert all cars and trucks into electrical vehicles, let alone back up all the windmills and solar plants needed by 2080.
Now, one would think that environmentalists, concerned about “the existential crisis of climate change,” would support nuclear energy. But of course, they do not. In fact, they seem to hate it with a passion—even exceeding their animus towards fossil fuels and all other technologies. Many people are understandably baffled by this. But the reason for it is simple. The environmentalists hate nuclear energy because it would solve a problem they need to have.
The Biden administration, unfortunately, is beholden to environmentalist organizations for a significant chunk of its electoral funding and support. So, it cannot cross them. Thus in February 2022, even as Putin was gearing up his fossil fuel funded invasion of Ukraine, the Biden administration’s Nuclear Regulatory Commission moved to curtail the duration of the operating licenses of several nuclear power plants.
This summarizes where we are now. It is not a pretty picture. What approach would I recommend?
First, I would do away with the Biden rules to increase the cost of fossil fuels. Given the war in Ukraine and the fact that the world will be burning fossils fuels until at least 2080, it is stupid to not increase production in the U.S. and reduce the free world’s energy costs.
Second, I would fund a “Project Warp Speed II” to build and test compact, factory-built, fission reactors to get the capital costs down those of solar farms plus batteries. The goal is to convince third world countries to replace their fossil-fuel powerplants with nuclear powerplants. As part of that effort, I would provide supplemental funds to many of the private companies in the U.S. currently building and testing fusion test reactors. If a cost-effective fusion powerplant were available fossil-fuels will disappear even faster.
Also, I would make funding available to the most advanced private companies designing and building carbon sequestering devices. They are a longshot, but innovation could bring a breakthrough.
Finally, I would approve preliminary testing of some Geoengineering concepts. It is dangerous to mess with the world’s weather, but if we understand how to control it, we could make the environment less painful while we wind down the Earth’s CO2 content.
Thanks for Reading and Stay Safe,