Climate Etc.

Is much of our effort to combat global warming actually making things worse?

by Judith Curry

Humanity is owed a serious investigation of how we have gone so far with the decarbonization project without a serious challenge in terms of engineering reality. – Michael Kelly

Michael Kelly has published an important new paper in MRS Energy & Sustainability: A Review Journal [link to abstract; link to full manuscript]:

Lessons from technology development for energy and sustainability

There are lessons from recent history of technology introductions which should not be forgotten when considering alternative energy technologies for carbon dioxide emission reductions. The growth of the ecological footprint of a human population about to increase from 7B now to 9B in 2050 raises serious concerns about how to live both more efficiently and with less permanent impacts on the finite world. One present focus is the future of our climate, where the level of concern has prompted actions across the world in mitigation of the emissions of CO2. An examination of successful and failed introductions of technology over the last 200 years generates several lessons that should be kept in mind as we proceed to 80% decarbonize the world economy by 2050. I will argue that all the actions taken together until now to reduce our emissions of carbon dioxide will not achieve a serious reduction, and in some cases, they will actually make matters worse. In practice, the scale and the different specific engineering challenges of the decarbonization project are without precedent in human history. This means that any new technology introductions need to be able to meet the huge implied capabilities. An altogether more sophisticated public debate is urgently needed on appropriate actions that (i) considers the full range of threats to humanity, and (ii) weighs more carefully both the upsides and downsides of taking any action, and of not taking that action.

Press release from MRS E&S

Cambridge (UK) professor says much of the effort to combat global warming is actually making it worse

As part of an open discussion on the critical issue of energy, sustainability and climate change, MRS Energy & Sustainability—A Review Journal (MRS E&S) has published a paper in which Cambridge (UK) engineering professor M.J. Kelly argues that it is time to review the current efforts to reduce carbon emissions, some of which “represent total madness.” This paper is one of a series of articles in MRS E&S that, with varying opinions, address this controversial topic.

In his peer-reviewed article, Lessons from technology development for energy and sustainability, Kelly considers the lessons from global decarbonization projects, and concludes that all combined actions to reduce carbon emissions so far will not achieve a serious reduction. In some cases, these efforts will actually make matters worse.

Central to his thesis, which is supported by examples, is that rapid decarbonization will simply not be possible without a significant reduction in standards of living. The growing call to decarbonize the global economy by 80% by 2050 could only foreseeably happen alongside large parts of the population plunging into poverty, destitution or starvation, as low-carbon energy sources do not produce enough energy to sustain society. According to Kelly, “It is clear to me that every further step along the current pathway of deploying first-generation renewable energy is locking in immature and uneconomic systems at net loss to the world standard of living.”

As Kelly notes, it has been 40 years since the modern renewable energy developments began, and yet the fraction of world energy supplied by renewables (wind, solar and cultivated biomass sources combined) has hardly increased. The BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015 reports 3 % for wind, solar and cultivated biomass sources combined, for 2014.

Kelly’s argument is that weaning off fossil fuels will take much longer than postulated by some experts. He suggests that a more viable option is to employ another generation of fossil fuels—during which economic conditions of humankind can be improved and alternate solutions can be explored and developed. As the global population is set to rise from 7 billion to 9 billion in 2050, an altogether more sophisticated debate is needed on appropriate actions that considers the full range of threats to humanity, and carefully weighs the upsides and downsides both of taking action—and refraining from it.

For a counter viewpoint to this article, see Energy and sustainability, from the point of view of environmental physics, by Micha Tomkiewicz.

Excerpts from the paper:

The paper is behind paywall, here are some extensive excerpts (bold mine, except for section titles):


I have stressed above the role of individuals in the Royal Society taking a leading role in the debates: it continues to this day with individuals aligned on both sides. The one change from history is that a bylaw of the Society that stood for most of its history has been overturned in recent decades. Whereas once “…it is an established rule of the Society, to which they will always adhere, never to give their opinion as a body upon any subject either of Nature or of Art, that comes before them”, now the Royal Society plays an active role in the debate, coming at it from only one side, without adequate acknowledgement of the lack of unanimity within the fellowship.

Most of the engineering Fellows I have consulted have some reservations about the current stand, reservations that are reflected here. One should be able to look to the academies worldwide for an open, balanced, and full discussion of these matters, with engineering-level integrity when contemplating what actions to take: in practice, the level of ‘post-normal science’ (where the ‘facts are uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high, and decisions urgent’) gets in the way. There is no such thing as post-normal engineering. There is an abundance of reports focusing on the energy needs of humanity and the sustainability of mass action, but relatively little acknowledgement of the upsides of present cities as a way for allowing large populations to live in some comfort.

Decarbonizing the world economy

I start by accepting the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report at face value, although I shall return to this towards the end.

I am concerned that what is done in the name of decarbonization should leave the world in a better place. I am sure that what has been done so far in the name of decarbonization is set to fail comprehensively in meeting its avowed target, and that a new debate is needed. If our emissions of carbon dioxide are causing the world to warm and lead into possibly difficult times in the future, it is important also to establish the upsides of such emission. Peter Allitt quotes: “The rising carbon dioxide footprint may be troublesome, but it is a side effect of the creation of immense benefits.”


It is important to note the scale of the perceived problem. The entire history of modern civilization that started with the first industrial revolution has been enabled by the burning of fossil fuels. Our mobility, our health and lifestyles, our diet and its variety, our education system, particularly at the higher level, and our high culture would be quite impossible without fossil fuels, which have provided over 90% of the energy consumed on the earth since 1800. Today, geothermal, hydro- and nuclear power, together with the historic biofuels of wood and straw, account for about 15% of our energy use. Even though it is 40 years since the first oil shocks kick-started the modern renewable energy developments (wind, solar, and cultivated biomass), we still get rather less than 1% of our world energy from these sources. Indeed the rate at which fossil fuels are growing is seven times that at which the low carbon energies are growing, as the ratio of fossil fuel energy used to total energy used has remained unchanged since 1990 at 85%. The call to decarbonize the global economy by 80% by 2050 can now only be described as glib in my opinion, as the underlying analysis shows it is only possible if we wish to see large parts of the population die from starvation, destitution or violence in the absence of enough low-carbon energy to sustain society.

Energy Return on Investment

The debate over decarbonization has focused on technical feasibility and economics. There is one emerging measure that comes closely back to the engineering and the thermodynamics of energy production. The energy return on (energy) investment is a measure of the useful energy produced by a particular power plant divided by the energy needed to build, operate, maintain, and decommission the plant. This is a concept that owes its origin to animal ecology: a cheetah must get more energy from consuming his prey than expended on catching it, otherwise it will die. If the animal is to breed and nurture the next generation then the ratio of energy obtained from energy expended has to be higher, depending on the details of energyexpenditure on these other activities.

Weißbach et al. have analysed the EROI for a number of forms of energy production and their principal conclusion is that nuclear, hydro-, and gas and coal-fired power stations have an EROI that is much greater than wind, solar photovoltaic (PV), concentrated solar power in a desert or cultivated biomass: see Fig. 2 . In human terms, with an EROI of 1, we can mine fuel and look at it—we have no energy left over. To get a society that can feed itself and provide a basic educational system we need an EROI of our base-load fuel to be in excess of 5, and for a society with international travel and high culture we need EROI greater than 10. The new renewable energies do not reach this last level when the extra energy costs of overcoming intermittency are added in. In energy terms the current generation of renewable energy technologies alone will not enable a civilized modern society to continue!


Suppose the world unites and agrees to provide $1Tpa for ten years to mitigate future adverse climate change. What is the best strategy for spending that money for the reason given, namely to mitigate future climate change, and what will we be able to measure as the outcome of such an investment?

The answer is that no-one knows the latter now, or will ever know on the 2050 timescale. A crude calculation suggests that such a sum would allow the capture of all the CO2 from coal fired power stations over the next year, reducing global CO2 emissions by about 40%. But what difference would that actually make to the future climate, and would we be able to measure that difference as being attributable to the $1Tpa spent, and so even begin to assess the potential value-for-money of the investment?

What if the sun goes cool, or we have a spate of major volcanic eruptions: would we be able to isolate the contribution from the reduced CO2 emissions? No. It is sober to compare the sheer scale of this undertaking in view of the total uncertainty in the outcome. It is a current act of faith that investments in green energy projects are intrinsically good.


The scale of the different specific engineering challenges of the decarbonization project is without precedent in human history. This means that any new technology introductions need to be able to meet the huge implied capabilities. An appreciation of this sheer scale is very rarely admitted or even appreciated in many of the reports that advocate global decarbonization.

Generic lessons learned from introducing new technologies applied to decarbonization

As we decarbonize the world, we must improve the lot of humanity, not degrade it, and we must go with the flow of human progress not across or against it. Failure to appreciate these lessons could result in major investments not realizing their goals, with much of the investment having to be written off, representing lost opportunities to have done something else that was more effective.

Premature roll-out of immature/uneconomic technologies is a recipe for failure

The virtuous role of government funding in R&D is to be contrast with the litany of failure in recent times of subsidies in support of the premature rollout of technologies that are uneconomic and/or immature.

The primary problem is the use of public money, i.e., subsidies, to encourage the roll-out. They have a plethora of unintended consequences in the energy infrastructure sector. The reason so far for these failures is that the technologies are uneconomic over their lifecycles and immature in terms of the energy return on their investment.

There is an unintended and unwanted social consequence of the roll out of these new technologies. There is ample evidence in the UK of increasing fuel poverty (i.e., household spending over 10% of disposable income keeping warm in winter) in the regions of wind farm deployment where higher electricity bills are needed to cover the rent of the land (from usually already rich) landowners, a direct reversal of the process whereby cheap energy over the last century has lifted a significant fraction of the world’s poor from their poverty.

If the climate imperative weakens, so does the decarbonization imperative

In my view, the 2014 IPCC report was somewhat obfuscatory on this issue: there was no expert assessment of one key parameter, the climate sensitivity (the expected actual temperature rise for a doubling of CO 2 in the atmosphere), because of wide disagreements between models and data, and the current debate points to a lowering of the estimated range of values. In addition any prospect of a further reduction of the temperature rise over the next few decades (e.g., from the sun) gives us extra breathing space on new technology introductions.

This weakening of the timescale for future temperature rises has a direct policy implication in the here and now. Since the design lifetime of most fossil fuel plants is of order 40 years, the world would be wise to opt for another generation of fossil fuels to continue the improvement of the lot of mankind, while making a more determined effort over a longer time to develop real workarounds to the currently perceived problem of carbon dioxide emissions.

It is clear to me that every further step along the current pathway of deploying first generation renewable energy is locking in immature and uneconomic systems at net loss to the world standard of living. In view of the level of hard engineering evidence for this point that is already available, the romantic notion of sustainability at any cost, as opposed to hard-nosed sustainability, is indefensible. There should be a calling to account on how these matters came about.

The demographic transition

The population of the world started growing sharply at the time of the industrial revolution. In the 1960s, a qualitatively new feature emerged which will come to dominate demographics in the latter part of last century: the rate of growth of the population started to decline. As of now wherever the majority of people live in urban areas and have access to universal primary education (particularly for girls) the indigenous populations, are in absolute decline. This applies now in Europe, North America, and Japan. The drop in the fertility rates for child-bearing women in Europe is now so severe that Italy’s population will shrink from 61M to 8M and Germany from 80M to 4M over the century.

The population is predicted to grow to 9B by mid-century and to fall back, even to 7B by 2100. In one hundred years, the discourse will be on the possible uses of infrastructure for 2B people no longer alive on the earth. This future can be seen in certain parts of the world where depopulation has already started, as in the east of the former East Germany. Villages are vacated, buildings torn down—if left to decay they collect vermin and detract from the quality of life of the few who remain. This is now a more certain future than possible uncontrolled future climates.

This prospect has a major impact on the contemporary response to the perceived threats of future climate change. The infrastructure being planned now has to last only 100 years and should be designed for dismantling at the end of service life. The increased energy intensity of industry coupled with an eventually declining population is not as yet factored into the climate models.

JC reflections

This is a terrific paper, that I am still digesting, and will be working to incorporate some of this material into my public .ppt presentation on climate change.

I was particularly struck by:

But it is really the integration and exposition of all these points.  This is surely a compelling argument for anyone who cares about true sustainability and human well being.

When I have spoken with engineers at Georgia Tech, nearly all of them question the feasibility of a rapid transition away from fossil fuels (the ones that don’t question this have been civil/environmental engineers).

First it was the scientists, then the economists.  It is now time for the engineers to drive the discussion and policies on this issue.