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Hit the brakes hard

Filed under: — group @ 29 April 2009 - (Español)

There is a climate splash in Nature this week, including a cover showing a tera-tonne weight, presumably meant to be made of carbon (could it be graphite?), dangling by a thread over the planet, and containing two new articles (Allen et al and Meinshausen et al), a “News & Views” piece written by two of us, and a couple commentaries urging us to “prepare to adapt to at least 4° C” and to think about what the worst case scenario (at 1000 ppm CO2) might look like.

At the heart of it are the two papers which calculate the odds of exceeding a predefined threshold of 2°C as a function of CO2 emissions. Both find that the most directly relevant quantity is the total amount of CO2 ultimately released, rather than a target atmospheric CO2 concentration or emission rate. This is an extremely useful result, giving us a clear statement of how our policy goals should be framed. We have a total emission quota; if we keep going now, we will have to cut back more quickly later.

There is uncertainty in the climate sensitivity of the Earth and in the response of the carbon cycle, and the papers are extremely useful in the way that they propagate these uncertainties to the probabilities of different amounts of warming. Just looking at the median model results, many people conclude that a moderately optimistic but not terribly aggressive scenario such as IPCC B1 would avoid 2°C warming relative to pre-industrial. But when you take into account the uncertainty, you find that there is a disturbingly high likelihood (roughly even odds) that it won’t.

Schmidt and Archer N and V figureBoth papers come to the same broad conclusion, summarized in our figure, that unless humankind puts on the brakes very quickly and aggressively (i.e. global reductions of 80% by 2050), we face a high probability of driving climate beyond a 2°C threshold taken by both studies as a “danger limit”. Comparing the two papers is obscured by the different units; mass of carbon versus mass of CO2 (moles, anyone? Is there a chemist in the house?). But chugging through the math, we find the papers to be broadly consistent. Both papers conclude that humankind is already about half-way toward releasing enough carbon to probably reach 2°C, and that most of the fossil fuel carbon (the coal, in particular) will have to remain in the ground.

We feel compelled to note that even a “moderate” warming of 2°C stands a strong chance of provoking drought and storm responses that could challenge civilized society, leading potentially to the conflict and suffering that go with failed states and mass migrations. Global warming of 2°C would leave the Earth warmer than it has been in millions of years, a disruption of climate conditions that have been stable for longer than the history of human agriculture. Given the drought that already afflicts Australia, the crumbling of the sea ice in the Arctic, and the increasing storm damage after only 0.8°C of warming so far, calling 2°C a danger limit seems to us pretty cavalier.

Also, there are dangers to CO2 emission other than the peak, such as the long tail of the CO2 perturbation which will dominate the ultimate sea level response, and the acidification of the ocean. A building may be safe from earthquakes but if it is susceptible to fires it is still considered unsafe.

The sorts of emission cuts that are required are technologically feasible, if we were to build wind farms instead of coal plants, an integrated regional or global electrical power grid, and undertake a crash program in energy efficiency. But getting everybody to agree to this is the discouraging part. The commentary by Parry et al advises us to prepare to adapt to climate changes of at least 4°C, even though they recognize that it may not be possible to buy our way out of most of the damage (to natural systems, for example, including the irreversible loss of many plant and animal species). Anyway, how does one “adapt” to a train wreck? There is also the fairness issue, in that the beneficiaries of fossil energy (rich countries today) are not the ones who pay the costs (less-rich countries decades from now). We wonder why we were not advised to prepare to adapt to crash curtailing CO2 emissions, which sounds to us considerably less frightening.

p.s. For our German-speaking readers: Stefan’s commentary on the KlimaLounge blog.

604 Responses to “Hit the brakes hard”

  1. 551
    MikeN says:

    No mention of tariffs on this post. So how do people plant to get China to reduce its emissions? Without that even an 80% US reduction would have no effect on climate.

  2. 552
    pete best says:

    Re #539, its being ignored because it is the life people lead and if petrol is cheap enough then its the way of the west. As petrol becomes more expensive there will be many means of cutting waste a lot of it brought about by necessity. However if petrol becomes expensive again, it is either tax or by the amounts available and we do not want to visit peak oil do we ?

  3. 553
    Hank Roberts says:

    Efficiencies possible everywhere you look:

    Got anything with an electric motor in it? 40-year-old furnace, maybe?

    If you can see the nameplate/identification on the motor, you can look it up and figure out what to do.
    This is just one of many tools on the page:

    “MotorMaster+ Version 4.0.6
    Release Date: March 1, 2007
    An energy-efficient motor selection and management tool, MotorMaster+ software includes a catalog of over 20,000 AC motors. This tool features motor inventory management tools, maintenance log tracking, efficiency analysis, savings evaluation, energy accounting, and environmental reporting capabilities….”

    (Hat tip to someone on KQED Radio last night speaking at the World Affairs Council:

    05-0 Three challenges in one: the economy, energy, and the environment (check their Archive website in a week or so, it should be available online)

    Jane C.S. Long, Associate Director, Energy and Environment, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
    Dan Reicher, Director for Climate Change and Energy Initiatives,
    David Victor, Director, Program on Energy and Sustainable Development, Stanford University

    Replacing one old motor in a furnace cut the house total electricity use by 40 percent overall.

  4. 554
    Hank Roberts says:

    Another from the eere link:

    The Quick Plant Energy Profiler, Version 2.0

    Release Date: November 5, 2008
    The Quick Plant Energy Profiler, or Quick PEP, is an online software tool that helps industrial plant personnel quickly diagnose how energy is being used at their plant and the largest opportunities to save energy and money. The tool gives an overview of the energy that a plant purchases and the major energy-consuming systems. Quick PEP tool is your first step in identifying areas for potential savings. Once those areas have been identified, Quick PEP provides a broad list of potential next steps to begin realizing energy and cost savings.

    Version 2.0 includes the addition of Chinese language support for the whole software tool. New features also include an Energy Intensity Spreadsheet for expanded baseline capabilities, and a CO2 Footprint Calculator…..

    If you haven’t heard of this and you’re a person in a job who makes these decisions, go look.

  5. 555
    Phil Scadden says:

    MikeN – an 80% reduction in US GHG looks very effective to me. 80% from europe too and you are going somewhere fast. And whats more those cuts on the people who created the problem in the first place. Why do you think it would be ineffective?

    Reduce China’s emission? Easy stop buying chinese goods. A quick look at their export numbers would suggest that it is Western consumption that generates their emissions. More realistically, if China doesnt cap/tax/whatever carbon internally, then tax it at the border.

  6. 556
    Hank Roberts says:

    The country that makes the technology work first will be selling it to those who weren’t as quick.
    Let’s look it up:

    Here’s one:

    Excerpt follows:
    Reuters, 5 May 2009 – China is set to smash its target for a roll-out of solar power by 2020 more than fivefold and possibly even tenfold, a researcher with the National Development and Reform Commission, the economic planning ministry, said on Tuesday.

    The government is expected to unveil an economic stimulus package for renewable energy within the next few months.

    Shi Dinghuan, president of the Chinese Renewable Energy Society, said the 2020 goal for renewable energy would be revised under the new stimulus plan to more than double the 2007 plan.

    China has already more than tripled the 2020 target for wind to 100,000 MW and is expected to easily surpass its nuclear target.

    The revised target for wind could be 100-150 GW, Xinhua news agency quoted sources close to the plan as saying on Tuesday. …”

  7. 557
    Steve Reynolds says:

    Martin Vermeer: “On what time scale?” [for sea level increase to compare to altitude change equivalent O2 depletion from 1000ppm CO2]

    How about the expected time to reach 1000 ppm under BAU? I think that is about 200 years.

    John P. Reisman, any response?

  8. 558
    sidd says:

    Re: Impact of wind electricity on pricing

    I must recommend Mr. Guillet’s article at

  9. 559

    Rod B writes:

    James, it sticks in my mind that Texas is also dictating a certain percentage of generation from renewables, regardless of cost. Though if push gets to shove I’ll have to yield to FurryCH — she’s usually much more up on the local power situation.

    Texas also has renewable mandates, but all that does is set the amount that’s going to be purchased. If a utility felt that 20% renewable purchases was a better idea looking forward, they wouldn’t be able to because they’d be stuck buying the lowest price power at auction.

    My guess is that Texas is pretty full up on renewable energy as the farms out in West Texas pump out quite a bit of power.

    On the Really Good News front, I understand that Oncor (the guys who own a lot of distribution here) have a rebate program going and there is a bill in the legislature to to do state-wide rebates.

    On other Really Good News, I spent 5 hours yesterday with lawyers working on a few patents to make renewables more financially beneficial to all parties. Which is about as vague as “Patent Pending” ever gets …

  10. 560
    James says:

    MikeN Says (6 May 2009 at 11:53):

    ““The carbon price must be sufficient to affect lifestyle choices.” – Jim Hansen

    Anyone still claiming this will be no major inconvenience?”

    Is your last name Pangloss, perchance? I don’t know why else you’d automatically equate a change in lifestyle with inconvenience. My experience has been quite otherwise: over the years I’ve gradually, as circumstances permitted, adopted a lifestyle quite different from the mainstream, one that also (and initially by coincidence, as I’d not really heard of global warming then) gives me a considerably lower than average carbon footprint. Far from being inconvenient, these lifestyle changes were win-win-win: reduced carbon footprint, improved quality of life, and saved money.

  11. 561

    pete best wrote:

    Houses need 50% more efficent insulation, thats a lot an will require great expense to keep houses in keeping and achieve that.

    Houses need to be 50% SMARTER. My A/C at my house runs a lot less than it might otherwise for a host of reasons –

    1). Less waste electricity producing less heat.
    2). More efficient A/C system.
    3). Increased use of layered draperies.
    4). Smarter programmable thermostat.

    The result? My bill was $24 last month, and $9 of that was stupid service charges. Oh — and don’t credit the solar too much. We’ve had a horrible time with clouds for the past several weeks. The real savings — more than what I produce — is from changes that have nothing to do with renewable energy.

    Do you know what device in my house now uses more power than the rest (ignoring A/C)? My laptop. More than the fridge, all the televisions combined, more than the other two computers that have to stay on 24/7. That doesn’t require some great change in insulation. It just requires that energy wasting devices be forced into non-existence by regulatory bodies.

  12. 562

    Sidd @ 558:

    That article is somewhat misleading as the actual balancing energy costs are understated, at least for power here in the States.

    Be that as it may, the trend, as I understand it, is to replace fuel-consuming reserves with demand management. Some of my co-inventors when I worked for the Three Letter Company were in New England where they have programs allowing the utility to turn your heat or A/C or water heater, or some other huge load, off for 15 minutes in exchange for a rate discount. Other utilities are experimenting with things like requiring businesses to pre-cool facilities during off-peak hours so that they warm to the correct temperature during peak hours, rather than allowing them to warm during off-peak and then hold during peak. Those strategies have $0.00 costs / MWH, which beats the Euros / MWH quoted in the article.

    Free market capitalism works, but sometimes it needs a swift kick in the butt.

  13. 563

    #557 Steve Reynolds

    I’m not a math guy.

    As far as being concerned about oxygen depletion, I’m not. At least not at this time. I have to admit I was too lazy to get into the FACE experiments in the original post you remarked about, so I painted a picture for contrast. But there are indications that increased CO2 may not be as advantageous as some seem to believe.

    In my own mind I seem to recall that larger oxygen concentrations net larger lifeforms on the planet like when dinosaurs walked around, or before then when there was evidence of 100 foot tall ferns. So the contrast still has some validity. I don’t know how reasonable it is to expect greater plant productivity for food with increased CO2 when the oxygen levels are not going up?

    Sorry for the slow reply, I’m on the road and only was able to reply to one item yesterday on another thread.

  14. 564
    Jim Eager says:

    MineN @551 asks: “So how do people plant to get China to reduce its emissions?”

    You might want to read this (and the linked sources):

    Is China ready to act on climate? Part 2: The green dragon is considering a carbon tax and a major carbon intensity target

  15. 565
    Mark says:

    Joh, the ferns that grew to such massive size in the Triassic and so on were very poor in nutrition. That’s why the eaters were so massive. There’s naff all there, so you need a lot inside you to feed you.

    And who here wants to eat carrots that are more carbon than your pencil?

  16. 566
    dhogaza says:

    So it appears Chip has moved firmly from the “it isn’t happening” camp to the “we can’t stop it camp”.

    Has he already joined the “it will be good for us” camp, or will we have to wait awhile for that to happen?

  17. 567
    James says:

    FurryCatHerder Says (7 May 2009 at 0:31):

    “Houses need to be 50% SMARTER. My A/C at my house runs a lot less than it might otherwise for a host of reasons –”

    And with the benefit of a different climate (high desert, with typical 40F or more spread between daily high & low), insulation, shade trees, and a willingness to open & close windows means that I stay comfortable despite the fact that my A/C system hasn’t run for a decade.

    “Do you know what device in my house now uses more power than the rest (ignoring A/C)? My laptop.” – In normal use – just coding, or running a web browser – I consistently run under 20 watts (on a Core2 Duo system). The occasional test runs will of course crank that up quite a bit, but still…

  18. 568
    Darryl Roy says:

    With reference to Stephen Schneider’s The worst-case scenario, my readings of recent geology research suggests that the actual worst case is a replay of the oceanic anoxic events (nice summary that extends the wiki article) that appear to be associated not only with most mass extinctions in the geologic record, but also with the conditions permitting the deposition of most petroleum source rocks.

    I was not entirely happy with Peter Ward’s Under a Green Sky, which was the first popular science book (that I’m aware of) to focus on the subject. But, I would welcome a review of the subject for popular audiences under RealClimate’s banner.

  19. 569

    Our ship is being blown toward the rocks by a strong wind. The engines have failed.

    The passengers are holding up handkerchiefs to slow down the wind because they were told to “act locally.”

    I, Jim Bullis, says, “Fix the engines. Spare parts are —” I get cut off. Mark says, “That is too many words, he must be deceiving us.” A large group of passengers begins to dismantle the engines so they can reassemble them in a better way. Manuals are thrown overboard.

    Someone says, “Call the Navy.” There is no response to that, everyone thinking the Navy will find it inconvenient to come over and help.

    Gavin explains the inconvenience of going on the rocks.

    Captain Anne van der Bom says, “We have to start somewhere. Lower the anchor.”

    Anchor locker tender, Jim Bullis starts again, “Excuse me Captain, hm, bitter end of anchor chain not secured — ”

    Captain Anne growls at Bullis and restates order. The anchor is released. All agree to send Bullis to the brig on charges of “denialist.”

    Conversations about the wind speed and direction and whether the Navy should be bothered begin again. More handkerchiefs are deployed.

  20. 570
    Mark says:

    You, Jim Bullis are ignoring that there are no spare parts and that there are enough life rafts for everyone and land is only three miles away.

    But you want EVERYONE to stay on the boat while you fix the engines.

    And then find out it’s too late for the engines to generate enough thrust to stop the ship slamming into the cliffs anyway.

    [Response: Metaphor overload occurring.... - gavin]

  21. 571
    MikeN says:

    Jim, ignoring the ifs in ‘considering a carbon-intensity target’, a carbon intensity target only means that emissions will not grow as fast as the economy. So maybe China’s emissions by 2030 will not be equal to current world emissions. You still have a 20% share that is growing.
    Even if China were to reduce emissions by 30%, the other 80% would have to reduce emissions by 92.5%.

  22. 572
    MikeN says:

    If warming of 2.1C is reduced to 1.9C is that a major benefit?

    [Response: No. But the difference between 4 deg and 2 deg is. - gavin]

  23. 573

    #565 Mark

    Thanks for the perspective on that.

    Steve Reynolds, maybe you can share your math on the question you are presenting?

  24. 574
    Steve Reynolds says:

    John P. Reisman: “…maybe you can share your math on the question you are presenting?

    OK; from:'s_atmosphere

    Nitrogen (N2) 780,840 ppmv (78.084%)
    Oxygen (O2) 209,460 ppmv (20.946%)
    Argon (Ar) 9,340 ppmv (0.9340%)
    Carbon dioxide (CO2) 383 ppmv (0.0383%)

    If CO2 were to increase to 1000 ppm (from 383 given above) burning carbon with all O2 coming from the atmosphere, then O2 would roughly decrease from 209,460 ppm to 208,843 ppm (since CO2 molecules require equal numbers of O2 molecules). That is a decrease of 0.29%.

    The equivalent altitude increase could be calculated directly, but it’s easier to use the table at:

    which shows at 3.65% reduction at 1000 feet. So interpolating, the equivalent altitude change for 1000ppm is 80.7 feet or 24.6 m (if I did not make any errors).

    Interestingly, that is within the range of projected sea level increase for 1000ppm. So even if someone gets altitude sickness with an 80 foot increase in altitude, they will not need to move to a lower location; sea level increase will bring the O2 partial pressure back up for them.

  25. 575

    Steve R:

    24.6 m (if I did not make any errors).

    Seems about right, my back-of-the-envelope gives the same:

    (600 ppmv / 200,000 ppmv) * 8000 m = 24 m,

    where 600 ppmv is the change in O2 concentration (same as that in CO2 concentration… volumes correspond to molecule counts), 200,000 ppmv is oxygen concentration, and 8000 m the base-e scale height.

    That’s why I asked about the time scale: by 2209 we won’t have 24 m yet, but when Antarctica goes as it will, we’ll certainly exceed it.

    sea level increase will bring the O2 partial pressure back up for them.

    Eh, no… the air displaced by the rising sea will go into the space evacuated by the melting ice ;-)

    (Assuming that (1) all of the sea level rise is due to ice melt, and (2) the densities of sea water and ice are the same. Both assumptions are wrong, the wrongnesses working in opposite directions.)

  26. 576

    Jim @ 528:

    Whatever power source that the government requires the utility to use, that will be used. Once it is in use, the addition of a new load will be handled by available capacity. If that is coal and coal is not heavily handicapped by some government imposed penalty, coal will be burned in response.

    Whether there is a huge penalty or an outright ban on coal use, another fuel would have to be bought on the market. That action will indirectly result in price pressure on that other fuel which will be compensated for by greater coal use somewhere else.

    It will be a long time before new electric loads will not have this effect. In the meantime, it will be far better to simply not use so much energy.

    Ignoring that you’re ignorant of how the electric market works, coal is having problems at present. The energy content per ton is declining, and ignoring ups and downs, the cost is increasing right along with the environmental impacts of removing the tops off of entire mountains.

    Meanwhile, wind capacity is being added globally in the gigawatt range and coal plants — outside of China, pretty much — are facing greater resistance in being built.

    In short, the problem is being fixed. Not as fast as it possibly could, but we’re certainly not racing towards the rocks where some half-baked collection of ideas need to be tried. Wind works. Where wind doesn’t work, people are looking to solar, tidal, and other energy sources. Researchers are coming up with ways to solve the problems that are being caused by renewable energy, investors are putting capital to the task, and apparently the Chinese have discovered that sick people is a bigger problem than power generation.

  27. 577

    James @ 567 –

    Sadly, I’m stuck with Windows on the laptop.

    Do have a question — where the heck did you find a power supply that consumes 20 watts total system power in those configurations that will also deliver peak power?!? I’m asking here because I figure there are enough geeks who’d like to know the answer to that one. I’ve looked at a number of 80Plus certified supplies and can’t get total system power while active below 30 watts.

  28. 578
    Mark says:

    “# MikeN Says:
    7 May 2009 at 3:57 PM

    If warming of 2.1C is reduced to 1.9C is that a major benefit?”

    Is it of no benefit?

  29. 579
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Mike N. asks, “If warming of 2.1C is reduced to 1.9C is that a major benefit?”

    If CH4 and CO2 emissions from permafrost were to kick in in a major way at 2 degrees C, yeah, you betcha! It would seem to me that to answer this question, you might want to know a bit more about tipping points.

  30. 580
    MikeN says:

    >but when Antarctica goes as it will, we’ll certainly exceed it.

    How do yo know it will? What are the minimum temperatures in Antarctica, and how likely is it that warming will exceed that amount?

  31. 581
    Mark says:

    “How do yo know it will?”

    Well, it’s been all gone before. And that was with little more (if any) CO2 than we have now. And the sun was a little cooler too.

    So how do you know that, unlike last time, there will be permanent ice in antartica?

  32. 582
    Mark says:

    Further to 579, is there any major difference between 0.1C and 0.0C? Well, if it’s ice, yes.

  33. 583
    Jim Eager says:

    Re MikeN @571, Oh, I quite agree that “carbon-intensity targets” will not result in the reduction of a single gram of atmospheric CO2, but China is not the first nation to adopt the carbon-intensity ruse as it’s opening position, the US, Canada and Australia showed the way for them.

    The point is that the hue and cry has long been that China will make no effort towards reining in and reducing its CO2 emissions.
    The fact is they are now at least talking about heading in the right direction.
    The fact is only a few short moths ago “carbon-intensity targets” was the official position the US government as well. Things are changing rapidly.

    China is well aware of the potential harm a warming climate will present to the coastal infrastructure that has produced their economic advancement, and to their ability to feed their population. It is no longer a foregone conclusion that China will not accept CO2 reduction measures.

    Those sticking to the old talking point are being left behind by reality.
    As usual.

  34. 584
    James says:

    FurryCatHerder Says (8 May 2009 at 4:44):

    “Do have a question — where the heck did you find a power supply that consumes 20 watts total system power in those configurations that will also deliver peak power?!?”

    You’re going a bit beyond my level of geekiness (or at least are out of my subject area). I probably should have been a bit more explicit, and said that the power use I quoted comes from the PowerTop program. It’s derived by looking at battery power consumption over a period (and so only works on laptops, though most of the power-saving pointers will work on any machine).

    The power supply I use is the standard “brick” A/C supply that comes with the machine (Lenovo T61), so strictly speaking my actual power use is a bit more than when running on battery due to AC/DC conversion loss. I don’t think that’s much, though: the brick is barely warm to the touch. Would be interesting to use one of those KillAWatt meters to find the total – but not interesting enough to justify buying one :-)

    PS: My objective – and it was a bit of work, messing around with compiling custom kernels and so on – wasn’t actually saving a few watts of power. I just wanted to get rid of the noise from the system fan. Which I suppose is yet another way in which energy efficiency pays off. Plus I can run on battery longer…

  35. 585
    Steve Reynolds says:

    Martin: “the air displaced by the rising sea will go into the space evacuated by the melting ice ”

    OK, that is partly true, but assumes the ice was very close to sea level. For the high altitude ice in Greenland and Antartica that space is at lower pressure. So sea level rise will still partially ofset O2 depletion…

  36. 586
    Martin Vermeer says:

    Re #585 Steve R. fair enough… but actually much of the ice is close to sea level. Antarctica goes up to 4.5 km, but most is lower, as is Greenland. And, even under a high ice surface much of the ice volume is close to sea level. Only a precise numerical computation can tell…

    #580 MikeN:

    All it takes is three degrees, and 1000 ppmv gives a lot more than that.

    True, the land masses geometry was different back then, but still…

  37. 587
    MikeN says:

    So what are the maximum temperatures in Antarctica right now? Doesn’t it have to exceed -3C for a 3C warming to melt ice there?

  38. 588
  39. 589

    Furry at #576

    I realize this means me, Jim @ 528:

    You say, “Ignoring that you’re ignorant of how the electric market works,–”

    Response: I would be happy to hear where my description goes wrong.

    And you say, “– coal is having problems at present. The energy content per ton is declining,–”

    Response: Actually, coal is holding its energy content quite nicely. We have been shifting massively to use of coal of lower heat content from the Powder River Basin in particular. It is about a fifth as expensive and it is a lot lower in sulfur. About half the revenue of the Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroads is from hauling it.

    And you say regarding coal, “– the cost is increasing –”

    Response: The Powder River Basin coal that has become the backbone of the power generation world was sold and delivered last year at about $12 per ton, but contracts are now being written at around $21 per ton. At $21 per ton, it works out to about $1 per million BTU (compared to natural gas that averaged around $6 per million BTU, and varies wildly)

    And you say, “– right along with the environmental impacts of removing the tops off of entire mountains–”

    Response: Environmental impacts must be strongly controlled. Mining companies must be held responsible for damages. But the Powder River Basin coal operation has not much to do with problems in Appalachia. It is of course a massive open pit mine and they do indeed scrape off a lot of dirt to get the stuff, low grade that it is. And yes, the low grade coal is stable in the ground so it is subject to being estimated with confidence. The Powder River Basin field alone contains about a thousand years supply at current rates of consumption.

    A debate that addresses these points could be interesting. I think it would conclude with understanding that coal will be the primary fuel used to run electric cars, unless we find a very much more effective approach. When we consider the scale of the problem, reality is seriously lacking in the present set of actions under consideration.

    In this light, we should consider the implications of GM’s plan to shift to electric energy to drive cars. Also check Andy Grove’s plan for “energy resiliency.” And then look at the 100 MPG Hummer, the 100 MPG Fisker, the 100 MPG Bright van, and keep on looking into the 100+ MPG converted Prius cars. (References on request.) DO YOU THINK THEY CARE ABOUT CO2? Maybe there is some deceit going on here.

    As to the potential of wind, solar, etc. Great, but if the costs are not fully recognized, these represent “half baked plans.” The question is affordability on the scale required to actually impact the nature of the response of the electric grid to added loads, not to mention the scale required to actually displace coal as the primary fuel that it is due to its great abundance and low cost.

    I might add that any near term plan to curtail coal use will depend on availability of natural gas. It might be a very important bridge to future more ideal energy sources. I suggest we look carefully at the statement that this fuel is abundant. I give a clue: Natural gas does not exist stably in place, subject to simple measurement of its abundance. I have not come to a firm conclusion, but I am much concerned that the domestic supply of this fuel is not so abundant as we have heard, and so we need to be careful about how we propose to use it.

    I am concerned that impractical solutions, hastily implemented, could turn out to be ineffective with the resulting failure hard to rectify when the public has been disillusioned.

  40. 590
    John Mashey says:


    Implying no comment on the rest of your discussion, one may wish to take The Register with a grain or two of salt.

    Try search for globalwarming. At least right now, the first item is:

    “2060: Humvee-sized, bulletproof meat-eating spiders attack”

    and there are many more fascinating articles.

  41. 591


    I stand by my comments. See for a discussion of your favorite coal mining region. The reason that energy content per ton is falling is, as they say, “All the good ones are taken”. It doesn’t matter what the BTU content is for natural gas, compared to coal, only that the energy content per ton for coal is falling as poorer quality coal reserves are tapped to make up for declining higher quality reserves.

    There is a pilot project planned to put hydro power in the Mississippi. If I caught the news correctly, leases are being taken on every bend in the river south of the Louisiana border.

    Really — not sure why you’ve got this thing against renewable energy, or why you don’t see that the future is very bright, but the stuff works and the future is rather green. We just need the nay-sayers to get the heck out of the way.

  42. 592

    MikeN #587:

    So what are the maximum temperatures in Antarctica right now? Doesn’t it have to exceed -3C for a 3C warming to melt ice there?

    Ehm, it’s not like the ice cube in your whiskey glass ;-) . It doesn’t have to melt in place. Are you aware of the dynamics of continental ice sheets?

    It’s the shelves that go first. Then, the glaciers that they buttress speed up. And eventually, the mass balance of the whole ice sheet goes negative.

    There is a lot that is not yet understood in this, but the phenomenon is real enough.

    For starters:

    Usual caveats for Wikipedia content.

  43. 593
    Hank Roberts says:

    > About half the revenue of the Union Pacific and Burlington
    > Northern Santa Fe railroads is from hauling it.

    Hmmm, anyone done scenarios for operating railroads with fewer coal trains in the system? Maintenance would change as well as accessibility for other uses. I recall one of the big Amtrak delays is to get out of the way of coal trains, and another is for the maintenance demanded by the heavy traffic.

  44. 594

    #592 Hank Roberts,

    It is immediately obvious that significant reduction of revenue of any business will be at the expense of the stockholders and employees of that business. That is true for any coal related businesses, whether it be railroads or coal mining. A study would be helpful in trying to phase in changes to mitigate the damage, but any significant limitation on coal use will be a burden to some. A strong economy could handle the transition, probably ok; where we lack competitive industrial activity, we will have serious problems.

    Of course that would have positive and negative impacts. Maybe the Amtrak trains would not have to sit so often on sidings, but also, maybe the tracks would not be maintained. A lot of time could be spent studying these things; I tend to think this could detract from looking at the major economic issues.

    It also seems clear that we are in for some serious trouble if our solutions are in the form of government regulation, where certain activities are banned or taxed away by whatever mechanism. I certainly agree that we have to find a way to not use coal. However, my orientation is to try to find new ways to meet our needs that will minimize our need to produce CO2. The goal should be the quantitative result, not any specific campaign against a target industry.

    For example, maybe a large reduction in oil usage could be accompanied by a small increase in coal usage. If the net outcome was a significant quantitative CO2 reduction, that should be allowed as a possibility.

    A bad course of action might be to assume large amounts of renewable energy or cleaner fuels, and massively shift to electric energy to drive our cars. And as a result we would make cars even bigger and more inefficient. Then if ensuing events failed to meet our assumptions, we could end up with a large increase in coal usage and a large net increase in CO2 emissions. I have tried to point out examples in previous comments here of the Plug-In Hummer, the Fisker, the Bright van, and the plan by Andy Grove to convert “the most inefficient” vehicles into plug-in operation since these seem to be signs of how to do things very badly.

  45. 595

    Correction of my #594, “I certainly agree that we have to find a way to not use coal.” I should have said, “We have to find ways to stop wasteful use of coal.”

  46. 596


    I looked at your link to Wikipedia on Powder River Basin coal.

    But you said, “Ignoring that you’re ignorant of how the electric market works, coal is having problems at present. The energy content per ton is declining, and ignoring ups and downs, the cost is increasing right along with the environmental impacts of removing the tops off of entire mountains.”

    The Wikipedia article fails to mention my ignorance. Neither would it support any claim that the energy content is declining. It correctly shows the cost averages for that specific kind of coal to agree with my information. The average they use of $15 per ton agrees with my statement that it was $12 per ton and now it is being contracted at about $21 per ton. I made the conversions necessary to provide dollars per million BTU to show the overwhelming advantage that that coal at that price has relative to any other fuel choice. Thus, I tried to point out that it is the favored economic choice and any business entity will have great difficulty not choosing it as the most sensible means of filling demand.

    The Wikipedia article also makes clear that the mining operations in the Powder River Basin have nothing to do with and compare very favorably with the Appalachian operations that involved removing mountain tops. However, the article does not clarify that the Appalachian coal is much higher in heat content, much higher in sulphur content, and much higher in price per ton. And historically, a lot more people have been killed per ton mining coal in Appalachia. The Powder River Basin mining operations have remarkably good safety records, if I recall correctly.

    Please try to understand that by trying to bring factual understanding of the problem that I am advocating mindless, wasteful use of coal. Furthermore, natural gas produces about half as much CO2 for the same amount of heat energy. I see this as a very difficult problem, since it seems that this is the only thing that can step up to the necessary scale in the near time frame.

    Neither should the above be taken to mean I am against renewables in any way. I am against false information about renewables, and I find it hypocritical where some such “renewables” are misrepresented such that a lot of well intentioned effort is put into what could be analytically shown to be an ineffective pursuit. Also, much of the time I do not think it is hypocritical, but in zealous efforts to find good answers it is easy for people to overlook details. Only when people talk with real numbers do we have a chance of making fair evaluations. I have to say, I have been disappointed over many years of searching for better power systems. That gets to be a long story.

    I hope to not be seen as a “nay sayer” because I say no to bad ideas. I try to not say no lightly, rather I base my conclusions on significant thought. Often, I am only asking questions where it seems there is important information missing from the discussion. I also should say that I have quite a lot of background in these subject areas.

    But in the end, I agree that it is easy to be a critic and a lot harder to come up with real answers. So I have put a lot of effort into finding constructive alternatives. My set of answers is growing but it seems that there is always a need for some adaptation if they are to become meaningful. Such adaptation will not happen as long as false expectations are held out for easier solutions. Thus, I do sometimes have a vested interest in challenging things that seem like easy solutions which are actually false hopes that stand in the way of real progress.

    It may sound vain, but I think that rather than being in the way, I am way out ahead in finding real answers. Indeed it is vain, but you have to be a bit vain to think you can make big changes to the system.

    I see I missed discussing “how the market works” to the degree needed to explain the complete problem with coal, though I touched on it when I mentioned the cost advantage of coal. The economic coupling effects are a bit complicated, and that can wait for another time.

  47. 597

    Hank writes:

    Hmmm, anyone done scenarios for operating railroads with fewer coal trains in the system? Maintenance would change as well as accessibility for other uses. I recall one of the big Amtrak delays is to get out of the way of coal trains, and another is for the maintenance demanded by the heavy traffic.

    The future needs to include more freight by rail, not less. Yeah, some things are going to be taken off the rails (mile long coal trains, being one of them), but over the road freight needs to go ON the rails and more trucks pass any given busy interstate highway point than rail cars (other than coal trains …) of an equivalent capacity. And that means better, stronger rail systems capable of handling still more freight.

  48. 598


    I’ve not provided any false information about renewable energy. I’ve spent a number of years now trying to understand both the potential for renewable energy and the problems. Based on those two, and with a number of other engineers at Three Letter Computers, Inc, we looked at what technology was available, where the technology was going, and what problems were going to be created through several generations of grid and renewable energy management technology in the pipeline.

    I’m obviously very biased in favor of myself, but the problems that myself and my co-inventors have solved were the problems I spoke against (and I was aware of the limitation several years ago when I first started posting here) and they are some of the key limits to renewable energy penetration. Based on what we did, what research I’ve studied, and what technologies are out there tomorrow, there really just aren’t any limitations other than working capital and industrial capacity.

    There are those who can and do, and those who write about it and don’t. I produced 13.2KWH of electricity so far today. Thanks to earlier energy conservation measures, that’s going to cover 100% of the power consumption inside my house (my A/C compressor is outside …) for the entire day, with two full loads of laundry, recharging my electric motorcycle, and charging the dead battery in my Corvette because it’s an old Corvette and I’ve not bothered fixing the radio that causes the battery to die. I’ll no doubt watch a few hours of TV one of my 3 HD TVs, catch up on some programming on one of my 5 computers, and do power testing on a 3TB Network Attached Storage box I’m working on. All on the power from 16 solar panels.

    It’s just a fact, you can’t argue against it, and you and the rest of the “it can’t be done!” folks need to get over yourselves.

    As for the state of coal, by total BTUs mined, coal has now peaked. Coal isn’t and can’t be the answer, no matter how much you want it to be, the Chinese want it to be, or the Republican Party wants it to be. Needing a growing amount of a declining resource is a really bad idea.

  49. 599
    James says:

    Jim Bullis, Miastrada Co. Says (12 May 2009 at 12:47)

    “I have tried to point out examples in previous comments here of the Plug-In Hummer, the Fisker, the Bright van, and the plan by Andy Grove…”

    But you need to also consider a few examples at the other end of the spectrum, such as the Aptera, Tesla*, Mitsubishi’s (IIRC) iMiev… Electric vehicles that would use much less energy than the current average, even if they were powered by gasoline engines.

    *It’s worth noting that the Tesla is essentially a Lotus with electric propulsion. So guess which automaker had the highest US CAFE number last year? Lotus.

  50. 600

    #598 Furry,

    When I spoke about false information I was referring to general and widespread practices, not you in particular. However, I think I disagree with some of your conclusions. A first hand example in your last: You say, “As for the state of coal, by total BTUs mined, coal has now peaked.” I think this is incorrect, but this is not something you are alone in thinking.

    Look at Fig. 66 of This was before me a link from Joe Romm, so you need not add it to my list of sins. Check Joe Romm’s points at

    Joe Romm thought this figure told us that coal had peaked, as you seem to be saying, and would only last for another 35 years. I think he based that on an assumed price of $12 per ton, which is no longer relevant. As I recall it was the price example used by the USGS analyst. However, at current contracting prices around $21 per ton the reserves extend to about 75 years, and the curve is fairly low sloped out far beyond that. Note also that coal pricing is not open information; it is considered competitive data that is not for public knowledge.

    I insist however that I am providing information and making points about the serious implications of such. Is it really necessary to group me with the Republican Party? Even the Chinese might object to being grouped with that Republican Party.

    But perhaps we can get back to a quantitative discussion. What is the peak rating on your solar panel? What was its true real cost before rebates and other incentives? Do you think it represents an installation that we all can afford, such that it could be adopted on a large scale basis? If so, and only if so, that will have an impact on coal usage.

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