by Judith Curry
Do I think we’re doomed to disastrous warming? Absolutely not. But do I think we are doomed if we persist in our current approach to climate policy? I’m afraid the answer is yes. – Myles Allen
Myles Allen has published an astonishing and refreshing article in the Daily Mail entitled Why I think we’re wasting billions on global warming, by top British Climate Scientist. Excerpts:
Last week, I was part of a group of academics who published a paper saying that the faster, more alarming, projections of the rate at which the globe is warming look less likely than previously thought.
That may mean we can afford to reduce carbon dioxide emissions slightly slower than some previously feared – but as almost everyone agrees, they still have to come down.
JC comment: Thank you for acknowledging the obvious, something that interviews of the paper’s lead authors did not.
Do I think we’re doomed to disastrous warming? Absolutely not. But do I think we are doomed if we persist in our current approach to climate policy?
I’m afraid the answer is yes. Subsidising wind turbines and cutting down on your own carbon footprint might mean we burn through the vast quantity of carbon contained in the planet’s fossil fuels a little slower. But it won’t make any difference if we burn it in the end.
We need to rethink. For instance, if you suppose that the annual UN climate talks will save us, forget it. I met a delegate at the last talks in Doha in December who told me he had just watched a two-hour debate that culminated in placing square brackets around a semi-colon.
Since Kyoto, world emissions haven’t fallen – they’ve risen by 40 per cent. And these vast jamborees – some involving more than 10,000 people – haven’t even started to discuss how we are going to limit the total amount of carbon we dump in the atmosphere, which is what we actually need to do to avoid dangerous climate change.
While failing to delay CO2 levels rising through the 400 parts per million level, Kyoto and the policies which stem from it have achieved the loss of jobs from countries such as Britain – where we have at least managed a small reduction in the emissions we produce – to others whose factories are far more carbon-intensive.
As my Oxford colleague, the economist Dieter Helm, noted in his book The Carbon Crunch, we may have cut the CO2 actually emitted here, but our reliance on imports means the total emissions attributable to British economic activity have increased by 19 per cent since 1992.
Where Dieter and I disagree is that carbon taxes are the answer. A carbon tax will not stop fossil fuel carbon being burnt. While a modest tax would be good for turbine-builders and the Treasury, in the short-term it will not promote the technology we need to solve the problem.
There’s been a lot of talk about ‘unburnable carbon’ – the carbon we shouldn’t burn if we are to keep global temperature rises below 2C. A catchy phrase, but can we really tell the citizens of India of 2080 not to touch their coal?
And to those on the other side who think that solar and nuclear will someday become so cheap we will choose to leave that coal alone, I’m afraid you have some basic physics working against you.
Fortunately, there is a solution. It is perfectly possible to burn fossil carbon and not release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere: you have to filter it out of the flue gases, pressurise it, and re-inject, or ‘sequester’, it back underground.
How much is too much? Well, if the Transient Climate Response is 1C-2C, we’ll need to limit future emissions to around a trillion tonnes of carbon to avoid more than 2C of warming.
It could be a lot less or it could be a bit more, but since this is the middle of the range that everyone agrees on, let’s get on with it and revisit the total when temperatures reach 1.5C. That’s when we’ll have more of an idea of where we’re going.
If this is what needs to be done, why not just make it a condition of licensing to extract or import fossil fuels? In forestry, if you fell trees, the law obliges you to replant.
We must use the same principle: a law to compel a slowly rising percentage of carbon dioxide emissions to be sequestered and stored.
Fossil fuel industrialists will need a few years to gear up, but they won’t need taxpayer-funded subsidies.
Of course, there will be a cost, passed on to the long-suffering consumer. But making carbon capture mandatory would trigger a headlong race to find the cheapest sources of carbon dioxide and places to bury it.
Frankly, I’d rather pay an engineer in Poland to actually dispose of carbon dioxide than some Brussels eco-yuppie to trade it around.
Climate physics nerds may protest that it can’t be that simple, because each tonne of carbon in the atmosphere has slightly less impact than the last. But then carbon cycle nerds would point out that for each tonne of carbon we burn, a slightly higher fraction remains in the atmosphere as other carbon pools fill up. And as so often happens in science, if we bring these two sets of nerds together they annihilate each other in a brief burst of powerpoint, and we end up with the relationship we first thought of: 1-2 degrees per trillion tonnes of carbon.
JC comments: Myles Allen’s analysis of the problem is spot on, IMO. With regards to his proposed solution, carbon capture and storage is as appealing in principle as carbon-free energy; however both require substantial research and innovation before becoming economically and environmentally feasible.
But what is really striking about this essay is the refreshing ‘heresy’ of it, something that has been far too rare in the community of climate scientists that are operating under a self-imposed consensus not only about climate science but also the policy options. We need a diversity of interpretations, opinions, and analyses to generate discussion of a broad range of policy options for energy and climate change.
Note to Josh: we need a cartoon of the power point annihilation thing.