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The high cost of inaction

Filed under: — Jim @ 14 October 2011

In 2004 Stephen Pacala and Robert Socolow published a paper in Science in which they argued that a pragmatic, but still difficult, way of stabilizing atmospheric CO2 levels over the long term was via the implementation of seven “stabilization wedges” over the next 50 years. The idea was very simple: each wedge represented one in-hand technology or societal practice that could be implemented, relatively slowly at first and increasing linearly with time, to make a small but growing dent in the rise in CO2 emissions, stabilizing them at 2004 levels (about 7 Gigatons C/Year) over the next 50 years (see figure below).

These seven wedges would be chosen from among a larger set of fifteen possibilities that included standard mitigation approaches such as increased energy efficiencies in vehicles and buildings, carbon capture at coal plants, nuclear power increases, and reduced deforestation and agricultural tillage-based losses. These practices would collectively buy time while larger scale transformations to renewable energies on a global scale could be developed and implemented that would drive emissions to zero over the following 50 years. This drastic emissions drop in the second 50 year period requires an immediate start on the research needed to develop and implement these technologies five to ten decades out, and the wedges themselves require a deliberate and committed effort, starting now.

A couple of weeks ago, Socolow updated this work in a brief commentary piece to show where we are seven years later. The results are not encouraging. First, and most significant, rather than decreasing the emissions rate, the lack of implementation of these strategies has been accompanied by an accelerated rate of emissions, such that annual CO2 output is now just under 9 Gt C/yr, a 2 Gt/yr increase. Accounting for natural sequestration, this represents an increase of about 13-14 ppm CO2 over that time. But this is not the full story by any means. As Socolow notes, if we re-set the clock to 2011 and start the wedge strategy implementation now, it would now take nine wedges implemented at the proposed rate of the original seven, to accomplish the same goal (keeping emission rates constant over the next 50 years).

The stabilization wedge concept, circa 2004 vs 2011

Here is the real kicker however.   Even if we were to do so, starting today, with stable emissions for 50 years and then falling gradually from there to zero emissions over the following 50 years, an additional ~50 ppm of CO2 would be added to the atmosphere by 2111, relative to what would have been added had the seven wedge strategy been initiated in 2004. This equates to a roughly 0.5 W/sq m forcing increase, and a ~0.4 degree C global temperature increase, assuming an equilibrium sensitivity of 3 deg C per CO2 doubling and that the additional 50 ppm is added on top of the increase that would have occurred even if the 2004 wedge strategy had in fact been initiated.  In other words, seven years of inaction, even if we immediately begin implementing the strategy now and fully carry it out over the next century, have larger climatic consequences over the next century than one might expect.

So are we ready to begin that now, and the research needed for the drastic drops from 2061 to 2111 that the strategy requires, or will we be repeating this same story in 2018, with a couple more wedges required, and another 50 ppm or more likely in the pipeline and no commitment to the needed advanced technologies?

You can read more about it, and commentary on it from some influential folks, here, here, and here.

142 Responses to “The high cost of inaction”

  1. 1
    A. Jessen says:

    A thought-provoking piece, but I’m a bit confused. Isn’t CO2 output currently around 30 Gt a year? If so then presumably the figures in the article are just for the carbon?

    [Response: Correct, thanks for clarifying.–Jim]

  2. 2

    Sometimes our political process reminds me of the movie scene where Joe Pesci kills a rival by using a vise. The savage, bizarre excess of the process isn’t just destructive, it looks to be the activity of people who enjoy the harm they’re doing. Consider AGW, Peak Oil, our ruinous trade imbalances, and our involvement in Middle East warfare. In each case, developing alternate energy sources would be sane and humane, but our hoodlums-in-charge have us doubling down on carbon.

  3. 3
    Chris Colose says:

    A. Jessen, yes, it should be GtC, not Gt CO2

  4. 4
    Karen Street says:

    The original wedge concept was based on stabilizing emissions in 50 years, and assumed a rate of increase for emissions lower than most other analysts were assuming. Then in 2006, China built 100 GW in coal.

    From Science, September 10, 2011 Farewell to Fossil Fuels? Martin I. Hoffert;329/5997/1292

    “Unfortunately, the original wedges approach greatly underestimates needed reductions. In part, that is because Pacala and Socolow built their scenario on a business as usual (BAU) emissions baseline based on assumptions that do not appear to be coming true…

    “The enormous challenge of making the transition to carbon-neutral power sources becomes even clearer when emissions-reduction scenarios are based on arguably more realistic baselines, such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s “frozen technology” scenario. Capturing all alternate energy technologies, including those assumed within this BAU scenario, means that a total of ∼18 of Pacala and Socolow’s wedges would be needed to curb emissions (see the figure). And to keep future warming below 2°C, even under the Davis et al. age-out scenario, an additional 7 wedges of emissions reductions would be needed—for a total of 25 wedges (see the figure).”

    This analysis antedates the German decision to increase use of fossil fuels dramatically.

  5. 5
    Edward Greisch says:

    2 Jeffrey Davis: Reference book: “The sociopath next door : the ruthless versus the rest of us” by Martha Stout. New York : Broadway Books, 2005.

    According to Martha Stout, 4% of all people are born sociopaths/sciopaths/psychopaths. There is no cure because it is caused by a part of the brain simply being missing. A written test, the MMPI [Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory] can identify sociopaths.

    Since sociopaths care about nothing and nobody, they are bored. They seek excitement constantly. You got it right.

  6. 6
  7. 7
    Mike Roddy says:

    Good one, but it’s not really news to the people who read this blog and Climate Progress. The next stage has to be developing better ways to communicate to the public, because journalists obviously are not going to do it for you.

    [Response: Yes, Climate Progress has been on top of this, but I particularly like the succinct way that Socolow lays out very simply and quantitatively the cost of seven years of inaction, in terms of final CO2 concentrations. This is very helpful I think–Jim]

  8. 8
    prokaryotes says:

    Since 2004, there have been considerable improvements to renewable energy and the discovery of negative-emmission technologies. And we have tested and quantified the potentials of biochar better. But with no real action and still tolerating organized climate denial, there will be not enough change.

    Humans are too stupid to prevent climate change

    [Response: Well, Lovelock [doesn’t] understand that the emails in the CRU hack do not in fact represent real evidence of “data fudging” and manipulation for a set agenda, so I wouldn’t put much stock in that.–Jim. Update: it’s been pointed out to me that Lovelock has changed his position regarding the CRU emails being evidence of fraud, so I retract that comment.–Jim]

  9. 9
    Edward Greisch says:

    I don’t know if “Occupy Wall Street” will help or not, but you can find one near you at:

  10. 10
    David M says:

    You’ve got to read Dyson’s comment on the link. I hope I die before I get old.

  11. 11
    Chris O'Neill says:

    an additional ~50 ppm of CO2 would be added to the atmosphere by 2111,

    This equates to a roughly 0.5 W/sq m forcing increase, and a ~0.4 degree C global temperature increase,

    I’ve sometimes wondered how the future forcing from suphate aerosols (currently ~ -1 W/sq m) can be expected to play out over the period that we hope to reduce fossil fuel burning, given that sulphate aerosols are caused by fossil fuel burning. That -1 W/sq m is an awful lot of negative forcing, enough that if it “suddenly” disappeared then we should “suddenly” expect the global temperature to increase by 0.8 degrees C. So trying to rapidly reduce fossil fuel burning also carries the risk of temporarily increasing global temperature, unless we want to do atmospheric engineering at the same time.

    [Response: This is the point made by Armour and Roe in a recent GRL paper. The loss of net aerosol cooling is inevitable if we decarbonize the economy, so the warming you get from that (uncertain) 1W/m**2 should be considered part of our committed warming from fossil fuel use. –raypierre]

  12. 12
    Burt Armstrong says:

    I do not like my conclusions but I do not think that there is any indication that control of carbon will start anytime soon. This stated is only an observation of what is happening at the present and what has happened in the past in issues as contentious as is climate change. We as a society have lost the ability to understand a complex issue that harms the short term bottom line of big business. Why, realistically we have the news media where most people get their information being owned by big business and nor responsible to the public. This consolidation of the news media is a new event and has a short history of three or so decades. Plus the media wants controversies not settled science. A controversy sells people on consuming more media and that is better for their short term bottom line.

    We are in the era of both Truth Free Media and Truth Free Government.

    This issue is not about truth and never has been, it is about the short term bottom line. It has been fought by people who erroneously think that by providing the truth the public will understand the issues and force their governments to comply with reducing the burning of fossil fuels. Such silly thoughts have gotten us to the current place and keeps us continually distracted with the thoughts that governments will start to act for the long term good. No they will not, they only think about the next election nothing longer term comes on their radar.

    No we will not start to control carbon emissions for a long time. I can not reasonably see any meaningful control starting before 2020. I just attended a University lecture by the head economist of Alberta University that showed that it is more economical to control carbon at the 650 ppm level than either 550 or 450 which also appeared on his graphs. Nowhere in his talk did he mention 350ppm. Yes I was shocked but he had the sides with the arcane economic magical math to prove his point. Course why anyone thinks economists can project the future with any accuracy better than magic is another question.

    So when are we going to realize that we should start to talk about controlling at 450 and 550 because that is where economic thought is now and they have the ear of government and business. If you are not shocked then you live on another planet and do not crucify me, I am only transmitting the troubling information.

    So with people like him out there talking to governments just when do you think government will act? Not in the next election cycle (2012) that is for sure so we are looking at 2016 at the earliest for the question even to come up in a meaningful way, like there is a problem even to address. Then you have the inertia of society to change and it is terribly slow to respond ears like in the following election cycle not the current on it is voted on so add another 2–4 years for anything to start after it is voted on. That is where I get the 2020 as the earliest date we can look to reasonable start to control green house gasses and at what ppm will they be at with business as normal happening until then? So 2020 is the earliest and likely far to early at that.

  13. 13
    JimCA says:

    I think you are confusing Gt of C with Gt of CO2.

    33 Gt of CO2 would contain about 9 Gt of C.

  14. 14
    Pete Dunkelberg says:

    Also Check Joe Romm’s
    and links therein. Romm notes “Even the traditionally staid and conservative the International Energy Agency explained two years ago that “The world will have to spend an extra $500 billion to cut carbon emissions for each year it delays implementing a major assault on global warming.””

    Romm and others prefer 14 or 15 wedges, not just seven.
    Somewhere that I can never find, there is a pie chart of all those wedges.

    [Response: That’s for stabilizing concentrations at a much lower than what Pacala and Socolow are aiming for: 500 (initially) and 550 (now).–Jim]

    Socolow’s preferred wedges:
    “Many of the stabilization wedges promoted in Pacala’s and my 2004 paper are ready for vigorous implementation, including ending deforestation, pursuing energy efficiency in all economic sectors (while monitoring actual energy savings), expanding large-scale wind and solar power (while attending to the associated infrastructure), and ramping up carbon dioxide capture and storage projects at coal and natural gas power plants (while radically reducing emissions that affect public health). There is not much risk of braking too quickly in these cases.”

    Is carbon capture and storage is ready for prime time? That’s news to me.

  15. 15
    BillD says:

    I agree with James Hansen that exploitation of the tar sand oils in Canada and elsewhere is a key to whether we will take steps to get carbon emissions under control. The fact that the Democratic administration is going full speed on the pipeline from Canada without even mentioning impacts on climate change bodes very badly for the future. On the other hand, we have Gov. Perry proposing “drill baby drill” on steriods with much reduced environmental safe guards. Where is the media balance. Why are environmental extremists on the right able to dominate the media? Until mainstream science is better publicized the future is bleak.

  16. 16
    prokaryotes says:

    Jim, my impression is that Lovelock’s remarks (without him reading the emails) has 2 side’s of the coin. Fudging climate data is a crime against humanity, committed by the people which trumped up the story in an orchestrated campaign, originating from Delingpole and McIntry’s blog and those who fund the denial machine.

    False climate change data a Crime Against Humanity

    That aside, my point was that humans are to stupid to combat climate change, this means how to treat the denial machine and large scale action to prevent dangerous emission scenarios. Industrial civilization is in collective denial and disconnected from nature, and my impression is that most of the undeveloped world is uneducated on this.

  17. 17
    Nagraj Adve says:

    Interesting as Prof Socolow’s piece is, and with respect, I felt his current piece (as also their earlier article in Science) misses 2-3 core issues underlying global warming. One it does not deal with systemic traits that are inherent to capitalism, namely the drive for profit, the use of cheap energy (coal), and growth, which is central to the system.
    Two, they do not adequately deal with class, particuarly consumption by the better off.
    The above, in a nutshell, are why emissions have continued to rise and why political and financial elites don’t do anything about them. It’s very disturbing but hardly surprising. Prof Socolow persists in not addressing these core issues.
    Nagraj Adve

  18. 18
    PeteB says:

    Is not a simpler solution to just bring in an additional ‘Carbon’ tax, taking account of our best estimate of the damage caused, incorporating the chances it might be worse, the chances it might be better. We can do this gradually to minimise economic dislocation and adjust the price in the light of new research. We can also distribute the proceeds of this tax to make sure it is not regressive.

    Where there is economically attractive alternatives, these will quickly take over. Where fossil fuels including the carbon tax is still the most economically attractive, we are at least are paying a realistic price that includes the cost of the damage caused.

    I am not convinced that centrally planned initiatives are the optimal way of combating this

  19. 19
    Icarus says:

    Do these scenarios assume that the climate system will continue to sequester around half of our annual CO₂emissions? My understanding is that the oceans will cease to be a net sink around 2050 on the current path… a path which puts us at 2°C above mid-20th Century global temperature by mid-21st Century. It seems unlikely to me that the terrestrial carbon sink won’t also have turned into a net source around that time, or earlier.

    Is it physically possible to ‘stabilise’ global temperature at some much higher level of atmospheric CO₂that we choose, or will multiple positive feedbacks make that impossible? If the latter is the case then there must be a point at which no amount of emissions reductions will halt global warming. We would need to be actively removing CO₂from the atmosphere, and the only way I know of to do that which doesn’t require massive inputs of energy is biochar. However, if we’re already adding three times as much CO₂to the atmosphere as the entire terrestrial biosphere is capable of absorbing, there’s no chance at all of growing enough biomass to offset more than a small proportion of current emissions by converting to biochar.

    I suppose what I’m saying is that it appears to be too late to have any realistic chance of avoiding a very large rise in global temperature, however aggressive (and currently inconceiveable) our emissions reductions are. I’m not trying to be a ‘doomer’ but I just don’t see how it could be done, all things considered.

    [Response: There is no consideration of changing flux rates between the atmosphere and the other two pools, as far as I can tell. If the existing sinks shrink, the final CO2 concentration will be even higher, as you state. Two of their possible wedges do actually involve increasing the terrestrial sequestration rate (by reforestation, plantation planting, and increased conservation tillage), so they are actually proposing an increased sink rate over the 50 years in these cases. They state: “A second half-wedge would be created by reforesting or afforesting approximately 250 million hectares in the tropics or 400 million hectares in the temperate zone (current areas of tropical and temperate forests are 1500 and 700 million hectares, respectively). A third half-wedge would be created by establishing approximately 300 million hectares of plantations on nonforested land….If conservation tillage could be extended to all cropland, accompanied by a verification program that enforces the adoption of soil conservation practices that actually work as advertised, a good case could be made for the IPCC’s estimate that an additional half to one wedge could be stored in this way. “–Jim]

  20. 20
    Anna Haynes says:

    It would be helpful to have a dollar amount for cost of a year’s delay if we limit ppm to the 500-550 Sokolow is aiming for, akin to the IEA estimate.

    (It’d hit home in a way that “.4 C” doesn’t, for most.)

  21. 21
    Anna Haynes says:

    (sorry, Socolow)

  22. 22

    The haloed 4th Estate model of the media was largely a result of World War 2. Before that the yellow press dominated. The heroism of lots of reporters and photographers — the famous photographs of D-Day, for example — raised the profession’s status. Then, for a a couple of decades the relative idealism of William Paley lifted entire news organizations up so that they appeared to have the status of a little less than angels. But that was solely the work of individuals. After Paley, people like Rupert Murdoch and Jack Welch have seemed to revel in destroying journalism’s status. The old, large news organizations today exist to advance corporate interests. The development of the WWW destroyed most of the rest of the financial resources of journalists, and today they are little more than PR men. Relying on journalism to spread the truth about climate change is a serious mistake. There are idealists here and there, but there’s almost no distribution structure for them anymore.

  23. 23
    Brian Dodge says:

    “It has become clear that they neither understand the causes of climate change nor understand how to prevent it.” Freeman Dyson,

    This is a self serving, politically motivated, intentional lie.

    As a physicist, Dyson knows about the radiative properties of CO2, H2O, and other polyatomic gases.
    As a physicist, Dyson knows that even cold gases can excite some of their polyatomic gases to an isotropically radiative state.
    As a physicist, Dyson knows that the postulate that a cold gas with excited radiating molecules can’t radiate to a warmer earth violates relativity. (G. Gerlich and R. D. Tscheuschner didn’t know this)
    As a physicist, Dyson knows that water vapor isn’t well mixed, since it exists as a solid and a liquid in earth’s atmosphere.
    As a physicist, Dyson understands the Clausius–Clapeyron relation.
    As a physicist, Dyson knows the difference between measuring and counting, and that inherent measurement errors don’t falsify fundamental physical laws.
    As a mathematician, Dyson knows that the uncertainty in our measurements and modeling of those measurements, which lead to the statement that “a doubling of CO2 will cause an increase of global average temperature in a likely range of 1.5 to 4.5 °C, with the best estimate being 3 °C” doesn’t preclude catastrophic warming and secondary effects.
    As a mathematician, Dyson knows the difference between probability and risk, and that our uncertainty about how bad global warming will be makes his wish for inaction more, not less, dangerous.

    “…the claims of scientific experts to understand climate change have become less and less credible.” ibid

    What insulting arrogance. Dyson’s not Galileo, and climatology isn’t faith based geocentrism.

    “…the Democratic Party made a tragic mistake when it adopted the alarmist view of climate change as a part of its ideology.” ibid

    No. The mistake is the right wing choosing denialism over science, and believing that enough political wishful thinking will “create our own reality”. The tragedy is ranchers going broke in the Texas drought; farmers flooded out in the Ohio, Missouri, and Missippi river basins; 35000 heat related deaths in Europe; thousands dead and millions homeless in Pakistan floods (what political hacks like Freeman Dyson call “useful victims”); food riots over heat driven declining rice production and rising prices; the deaths and crop destruction in the 2010 Norther Hemisphere hat wave; and on and on and on…

  24. 24
    Davos says:

    A (apparently) dirty little secret in this community is it’s not just ‘denialism’ that’s responsible for the failure of significant wedge mititgation strategy to be implemented.

    No one’s willing to look at environmentalists themselves.

    Of course there’s always going to be opposition to implementing various things for various reasons… but when you have local environmentalist opposition to projects that require local approval to get off the ground, this is a serious (and tragic) jeopardization of the entire project. These folks would represent the most informed on the subject, and the most motivated. Even ardent ‘denialists’ might still be convinced to welcome a privately financed increase of the tax base, but others may not be convinced about a project until after hearing the disapproval of a community environmentalist.

    With that in mind… until those committed to clean(er) energy are willing to put up with a wind farm, solar installation, biomass facility, natural gas installation, and/or nuclear power plant in THEIR backyard– none of these strategies is going to be more than just pillow talk and arm waving. And, judging from the number of such projects that have been proposed and then cancelled/rejected, it is this type of NIMBY hypocrisy that just might be more directly detrimental than science denialism.

  25. 25
    Donald Condliffe says:

    Cutting carbon emissions has not happened. Rather the amount of carbon release is increasing. For example from the US EIA “Most of the electricity in the United States is produced using steam turbines. Coal is the most common fuel for generating electricity in the United States. In 2010, 45% of the Country’s nearly 4 trillion kilowatt hours of electricity used coal as its source of energy.” Many US home renters depend on coal burning power plants to not freeze in winter or swelter in summer. Does anyone out there think that there will be action by the US Congress forthcoming to spend money or make rules to upgrade tens of millions of rental homes in the US?

    Globally coal mining is projected to increase not decrease, as long as there are reserves, at least until 2025. People in China and India want modern amenities that require electricity. Lots and lots more electricity. It is likely that worldwide we will burn every ton of coal we can get and still want more power from every other source available.

    Every fossil fuel source available is increasing production to the extent feasible. We are about to start mining tar sands on a massive scale in Alberta to feed the US market. Fracking is creating immense new wealth and natural gas burning is increasing. It seems that the best long term estimate of carbon emissions is a steady upward projection at or above the old worst case projections.

    Unfortunately the inaction is continuing and there is no prospect of that changing. There is near zero likelihood of carbon emissions coming down in the foreseeable future. No change in humanity’s behavior pattern is happening. I now think no change can be reasonably be expected until large scale environmental disasters cause such devastation that people are terrified into action. That will be a bit late.

    The Pacala and Socolow paper, much as I liked it and recommended it as a really good example of what we could do, now seems to have been ivory tower thinking not taking into account human nature in the real world.

  26. 26
    Hank Roberts says:

    > Davos says …
    > No one’s willing to look at environmentalists themselves.

    When did you last check that?
    It’s a common claim, often refuted by looking.

    I can recommend Google’s natural language search; it keeps improving.
    Phrase your question as a question and follow it with a question mark.

    Here’s an example:

    From the first page of results:

    Donald R Strong (2008) Ecologists and environmentalism.
    Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment: Vol. 6, No. 7, pp. 347-347.

    “Environmentalism needs serious discussion by ecologists…. Whereas ecology is science and environmentalism sometimes is and sometimes isn’t, the latter is necessary for the former. We ecologists have the same relationship to the subject of our studies as do art historians and archeologists to theirs. There is no opprobrium upon artists and archeologists advocating for the preservation of art and antiquities. Protection of the environment – environmentalism – is advocacy of what we study. Why should we not advocate for protection of the environment in our professional capacity?

    The negative branding of environmentalism comes from groups that are part and parcel of the notorious war on science. They are dedicated to denying the environmental degradation that ecologists are documenting every day ….”

  27. 27
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Well, we will never know until the fossil-fuel paid and ideologically motivated denialists acknowledge physical reality and 1)admit that fossil fuels are finite, so that our energy infrastructure is in need of reinvention; 2)admit that same infrastructure is permanently and adversely affecting the planet’s climate.

    Now why don’t you take your concern trolling to a less intelligent audience where it might be effective.

  28. 28
  29. 29
    tamino says:

    Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed. Consequently he who molds public sentiment, goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions. He makes statutes and decisions possible or impossible to be executed.

  30. 30
    prokaryotes says:

    Davos, Natural Gas is not a solution, Natural Gas is part of the problem.

    Natural Gas Bombshell: Switching From Coal to Gas Increases Warming for Decades, Has Minimal Benefit Even in 2100

    Department of Energy Panel Calls for More Study on Life-Cycle Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Natural Gas Fracking

    [Response: The Cornell natural gas vs. coal study is bunk. It inflates the impact of methane leakage in part by inappropriate use of global warming potentials, and I would argue that even using 100 year global warming potential understates the importance of CO2 as compared to methane due to leakage. But even if you adopt 100 year GWP as your metric, a more reasonable estimate of life-cycle impacts with a more reasonable estimate of leakage makes natural gas a clear winner over coal. Several studies have concluded this, but look particularly at this one]

    . –raypierre

  31. 31
    Toby Thaler says:

    Icarus #19, please refer us to some peer reviewed literature showing that biochar can be a significant mechanism for carbon sequestration. It appears to me that all biochar does is slow the emission of CO2 from biomass like trees that would otherwise rot. Trees which should be left growing/standing as long as possible regardless. And it takes energy to conduct pyrolysis. As with CCS (carbon capture and storage), biochar has the odor of pseudo-science or at least of technologies that fail when scaling up is attempted.

  32. 32
    Toby Thaler says:

    Davos #24. I am active in the debate about biomass. It is my considered opinion that with few exceptions (maybe algae), it is neither carbon neutral nor capable of replacing significant quantities of energy on a sustainable basis. Burning it to make power is also a large public health risk factor.

  33. 33

    Continued coal use is “inevitable,” Davos says. Yet:

    “EIA expects that coal consumption for electricity generation will decline by 19 million short tons (MMst) (1.9 percent) in 2011, as the growth in total electricity generation of 0.6 percent is satisfied by increases in generation from natural gas (1.2 percent) and hydropower (23 percent). Projected increases in generation from natural gas and nuclear, combined with lower electricity consumption, contribute to an additional 3.9 percent decline in electric power sector coal consumption in 2012.”

    That’s short term, of course. Yet coal’s share of the electric generation mix has been falling for several years now; it used to be 52% or more. Now it’s 46% and falling–not fast enough, but falling all the same. The best part of that is that there’s every reason to expect that trend to accelerate.

  34. 34
    prokaryotes says:

    [Prokaryotes, if you would like to make arguments for biochar’s usefulness in regards to mitigation wedge strategies, that’s fine, but please don’t just copy and paste large chunks of text from Wikipedia, or anywhere else for that matter.–Jim]

  35. 35
    Craig Nazor says:


    Your attack on whom you are calling “environmentalist” is long on assumptions and short on specific examples.

    Where, specifically, have environmentalists caused significant delay to the fight against anthropogenic global climate change (AGCC), outside of those technologies that you assume (without offering any evidence) will work to effectively stop AGCC without creating other environmental problems in their wake? Nuclear energy is fraught with significant environmental problems not directly related to AGCC, and some very good recent studies show that the carbon footprint of natural gas may be too large to have a net effect on CO2 reduction:

    One way to combat AGCC, improvements to energy efficiency, was noticeably missing from your list of “NIMBY hypocrisy.” That omission is also found in most statements from the big energy corporations and their investors, because energy companies cannot make money on energy conservation. Was that a coincidence?

    Without specifics, your attack has little merit.

  36. 36
    prokaryotes says:

    Toby Thaler “I am active in the debate about biomass. It is my considered opinion that with few exceptions (maybe algae), it is neither carbon neutral nor capable of replacing significant quantities of energy on a sustainable basis. Burning it to make power is also a large public health risk factor.”

    The point is that you collect the gases from biomass, which otherwise would compose,rot and are already part of the carbon cycle anyway. It’S called BioEnergy and with Biochar in the process BECCS.

    In January 1991, Sweden enacted a CO2 tax of 0.25 SEK/kg ($100 or EUR 72 per ton) on the use of oil, coal, natural gas, liquefied petroleum gas, petrol, and aviation fuel used in domestic travel. Industrial users paid half the rate (between 1993 and 1997, 25% of the rate), and certain high-energy industries such as commercial horticulture, mining, manufacturing and the pulp and paper industry were fully exempted from these new taxes.
    In 1997 the rate was raised to 0.365 SEK/kg ($150 per ton) of CO2.[112][113] In 2007, the tax was SEK 930 (EUR 101) per ton of CO2.[114] The full tax is paid in transport, space heating, and non-combined heat and power generation. Owing to the many exemptions, oil accounts for 96% of the revenues from the tax, although it produces less than three-quarters of CO2 from fuel combustion.
    The tax is credited with spurring a significant move from hydrocarbon fuels to biomass. As Swedish Society for Nature Conservation climate change expert Emma Lindberg said, “It was the one major reason that steered society towards climate-friendly solutions. It made polluting more expensive and focused people on finding energy-efficient solutions.”[115][116]
    It increased the use of bioenergy,” said University of Lund Professor Thomas Johansson, former director of energy and climate at the UN Development Programme. “It had a major impact in particular on heating. Every city in Sweden uses district heating. Before, coal or oil were used for district heating. Now biomass is used, usually waste from forests and forest industries.
    Economic growth appears to be unaffected. Between 1990 and 2006, Sweden’s economy grew by 44-46 percent (approx 2,8% annually)

  37. 37
    Davos says:

    I don’t remember saying that continued coal use is inevitable. I wish it weren’t. It also seems that when another point is brought up (relevantly), it’s left unengaged with the use of links.

    Of course you can link to ‘other folks’ and ‘ecologists’ that are willing to look at the damage done to various green-energy projects by environmentalists that are prioritizing NIMBY concerns over that of the value of these initiatives. I’m talking about the direct engagement of this subject from the leading advocates in the field of climate science. That’s my ‘no one’.

    Think about it. If those who know about the fate of inaction in green-energy initiatives in this present day stand up in city council meetings to quash the installation of a wind farm in their town (trust me, it’s happend) because of xyz, then they are demonstrating that xyz is of greater concern/importance than the future of the planet. This produces a counterproductive harm to the whole operation.

    “Concern-trolling” bah! … Gut-check time… Go down the list of these ‘wedges’ … Nuclear, natural gas, biomass, (and to a lesser extend wind and solar), etc. Which of those are you going to actively campaign to be installed near your home (or at least not prevent their installation)? Which one?

    I myself worked actively for the installation of a (construction-waste) biomass facility less than a mile from my house. It passed through one city council regime, got held up in court, then got rejected by a new city council regime. The figure-head of the vocal opposition was lead by a local meteorologist…Very well informed, and well presented (like most environmentally concerned folks). In the end, millions of dollars went for nothing and the developer is spooked about trying again.

    ANY energy generation facility has things no one wants and no one likes.

    It’s truly sad that there are so many people out there (and perhaps even reading this) that, to quote Ray: “acknowledge physical reality, and 1)admit that fossil fuels are finite, so that our energy infrastructure is in need of reinvention; 2)admit that same infrastructure is permanently and adversely affecting the planet’s climate.” and yet STILL would absolutely refuse to permit a green-energy installtion of one or all the types specified in Socolow’s wedge strategy.

    Flame all you want…but deep down, it’s true.

    To get the type of mass-deployment necessary, it’s going to have to affect your neighborhood too, and you’re going to have to SACRIFICIALLY let it happen. Perhaps being first will motivate others to come in line.

    How about this for a link:
    Anybody see sources of energy here that also show up in Socolow’s Wedge strategy? Look at all the thumbtacks on the map… Admittedly, some of them are for dirty coal plants and the like… But just imagine if the others instead became a newly added part of a growing green-energy infrastructure…

    [Response: It’s true, the kind of opposition you are describing does in fact occur, I’ve seen it too. If we don’t get a wide range of people to see the seriousness of the global problem, we will not get sacrifice at the local level. Keep in mind though that reductions in emissions often do not require an energy generating facility to be placed near communities or whatever else is considered to be “the back yard”.–Jim]

  38. 38
    prokaryotes says:

    Jim, apparently the chunk of information was from the Mitigation study published in nature, in response to post #31. This is exactly the kind of information about technologies, which are required to reach emission targets.
    And in order to answer the question raised in post #31 from “Toby Thaler”, you have to post the abstract of this paper to answer his “concerns”.

    [Response: No, you don’t. You can just refer to the relevant studies and summarize the relevant arguments/points/data etc. Don’t just copy and paste blocks of text with no explanation.–Jim]

    But since that is not wanted here, i leave you just with the exact linkage.

    Here you can read about the energy which is required to power the fast and slow pyrolysis process.

    This study outlines the mitigation potential of biochar. Sustainable biochar to mitigate global climate change

    I’m a bit baffled why, what i consider small chunks of information, are removed at RealClimate.

  39. 39
    Davos says:

    @ #35

    I never said that none of those energy options/alternatives don’t have issues or problems. I am in agreement with you about various energy types (aka nuclear) that are “fraught” with problems unrelated to AGCC.

    One of my points is the following: If you therefore elimate each of these energy sources that have these problems, what do you have left? How would Socolow’s wedge theory really work? If we’re supposed to be in the business of identifying strategies or evaluating the science, wouldn’t a truly critical look at this paper identify a lot more problems with it?

    Can we get there with energy efficiency improvements, solar, and windpower? Really?

    Or…instead…what’s more important? Socolow’s wedge project identifies a path to a destination. If we decide the destination is not worth the ‘other environmental problems’, then we run the risk of convincing others that the destination is also not as important. You could create a network of local groups that would rather see “inaction” on a local level when it comes to a number of energy initiatives. Is the “cost” of this inaction not high enough to outweigh its local “benefits”?

    If so…then apparently Socolow needs to redo his wedge theory, and concentrate on what’s left that’s ‘acceptable’. If not, then there needs to be a heckuva lot more sacrifice at the NIMBY level.

  40. 40

    A scholarly primer–unsure whether you’d technically call it “peer-reviewed” or not–on biochar is here:

    (Amazonian Dark Earths)

    I believe the issue of sequestration is addressed therein–among many others.

  41. 41
    James Staples says:

    We who ‘know’ or are members of the ‘Investment Class’ should all do what we can to drive home the point that Trillions of Dollars of assets are at risk from rising ocean levels; as that’s one of the most ‘no-doubt-about-it’ (because it is the longest termed) observations that’ve been made in regards to our Changing Climate, and they well know that at least 70% of the Total Insured Assets – or, to put it in a clearer light, a slice of the Portfilios Net-Worth too large for them to wish to lose – are within the predicted inundation zone.

  42. 42
    Ernst K says:


    Perhaps the one “saving grace” of Alberta’s Tar/Oil sands is that it’s restricted to a single, relatively small jurisdiction. Because of this, complete exploitation of the resource over then next century is virtually impossible because Alberta doesn’t have the capacity to do it even if you allow for a a very high rate of growth in development (i.e. quadrupling production rates over the next 20-30 years). This wouldn’t be the case if the resource was distributed over a number of jurisdictions around the world.

    Some numbers:

    Total Reserves = 1.7 trillion barrels (~10% recoverable with current technology at current prices)

    Current production rate = 1.3 million barrels per day
    Planned production by 2020 = about 3 million barrels per day
    Potential production by mid century = about 5 million barrels per day

    Even at 5 million barrels per day, it will take about 100 years to exploit even the 10% (170 billion barrels) that is currently considered economically recoverable.

    Furthermore, if you consider that 1 barrel of crude oil includes 86.5 kg of Carbon, and allow for an extra 20% to reflect the increased energy required, 170 billion barrels of tar sands translates to 17.6 gigatonnes of Carbon (GTC), which in turn translates to about 8.3 ppmv CO2 (not including any carbon being absorbed by the oceans).

    I believe Hanson does a disservice when he uses the “200 ppm CO2” statistic without putting it in context because it’s relatively easy to show that this number is almost meaningless.

    I fully support maintaining pressure on tar sands development because it is important that exploitation of the resource never gets above a few million barrels a day, if not much less. It’s a resource that needs to be limited to being used to help transition to a carbon-free economy. But there are a myriad of good arguments for keeping development at relatively small scales without worrying that stopping the development is “a key to whether we will take steps to get carbon emissions under control”.

    If anything is a key it’s putting a high price on carbon. The implications of failing to stop Keystone pales in comparison with the implications of continuing to keep fossil fuels the cheapest source of energy.

    [Response: Your figures are based on recoverable fraction at current prices and current technology. Who ever said that both of these would remain fixed? If the tar sands were to become fully recoverable by some combination of higher price and more advanced technology (both of which would also increase the production rate) then your numbers would go up by a factor of ten, and then the total carbon released, when added to carbon from conventional crude and the CO2 already emitted by human activities, would indeed take us very close to the trillion tonne limit that corresponds to a 50-50 chance of 2C or more warming. So, your optimism (and that of the Canadian Embassy) in discounting the significance of the Athabasca carbon pool is in fact based on pessimism about technology and an unrealistic picture of likely price trends in liquid fuel. –raypierre]

  43. 43
    Toby Thaler says:

    Re biochar, #38: The paper you cite makes my point. From the abstract: “In this paper we estimate the maximum sustainable technical potential of biochar to mitigate climate change. …12% of current anthropogenic CO2-Ce emissions.” (my emphasis) And without doing the research, I hedge on my acceptance of the authors’ calculations, especially with regard to full cost accounting (carbon budget). Regardless, the realistic potential is likely to be far less than 12%. As with CC&S, I’m not holding my breath to see biochar become a significant contributor to carbon sequestration. Biochar proponents have been pushing it for years, and I have yet to see any major effort to scale it up. Am I missing something?

    For what it’s worth (lowly policy analyst that I am), my opinion is that our lifestyles are going to change, either by choice for by necessity. There is simply not enough quality energy (see EROI) to sustain the current level of consumption. Whether this ramp down occurs before global economic and social systems collapse (or at least have major crises) due to environmental stresses is open to question. If past performance is used as a predictor, I would say probably not.

  44. 44
    deconvoluter says:

    re: #23

    Perhaps I have missed it, but I have never seen much evidence that F.D. has read much about climate science. There is evidence that he is by no means the only senior scientist who relies more on prejudice than hard work when considering topics outside his or her expertise.

    Regarding your comment, it is rather hard to challenge F.D. because he says so little. For example his latest argument is not about the science, but an unsubstantiated political assertion that the Democrats would improve their chances by following his example in disregarding the majority of the research. Is their any evidence that some politicians have already made such calculations or is it just a question of voting strengths?

    His second political argument is similar to that of Bjorn Lomborg i.e that mitigation would discriminate against the poor. That risk does need to be addressed but it is not the subject of this thread.

  45. 45
    john byatt says:


    The Australian prime minister with the aid of three independent members of parliament have just passed the carbon price legislation

    They have done this despite knowing that it will be terminal for their election prospects in 2013.. They do not care, placing the greater good as the important outcome.

    All members of the Australian government are to be congratulated for remaining steadfast against a hostile opposition and Murdoch press.

  46. 46
    Damien says:

    For those that may be interested, Australia has introduced legislation for a carbon price, the so-called Clean Energy Future. It has passed the lower house (minority Labor government with the support of the Greens and independents) and is expected to pass the senate shortly.

    The policy aim is a reduction of CO2 by 5% on 2000 levels by 2020 (business-as-usual is expected to be 124% of 2000 levels by 2020). The headline is that it will introduce a price of $23/ton, (applied to the top 500 polluting companies), increasing by 2.5% above inflation until 2015, when it becomes a floating price. There are significant subsides to affected industries, notably the steel industry.

    Price rises for the average household are expected to be $10 per week. Compensation to households via tax cuts and pension increases offset this by $10 per week. Lower income households are over-compensated, higher-income households are under-compensated.

    The federal opposition Liberal/National* party coalition strongly opposes the introduction of the carbon price and promises to repeal the bill should they win government at the next election.

    * The Liberal Party in Australia is actually a conservative party whose philosophies are more in line with the British Conservatives of the USA Republicans. The name sometimes confuses international readers!

  47. 47
    David B. Benson says:

    We have been over the following before here on Real Climate, but this time note that the irregated forests eventually mature and then the resulting wood could be converted to biochar for long term sequestration.

    Irrigated afforestation of the Sahara and Australian Outback to end global warming

  48. 48
    RichardC says:

    35 Craig says, “Where, specifically, have environmentalists caused significant delay to the fight against anthropogenic global climate change”

    The proposed wind farm off of Cape Cod is a grand example. The Kennedys, amongst others, don’t want their views altered. They seem to think that other people’s views should be altered but not their own. This project also highlights the high cost of offshore wind power. Cape Wind will sell intermittent power at around 20 cents per KWH wholesale, which is more than double the price of non-intermittent power – and that’s after huge subsidies. So are we willing to ruin our views and triple the cost of electricity? What choice do we have? Nuclear/Thorium? Oops, there’s another example where environmentalists have impeded a low-carbon alternative.

    Besides, what is the benefit? There are plenty of countries in the world, and most of them don’t have the luxury to absorb a tripling of energy costs. They’ll scoop up any fossil fuels we don’t use. India’s stance is fair and logical. They say they’ll keep per capita CO2 emissions no higher than the USA’s. The result? Most fossil fuels will be used up. Saudi et al aren’t going to stop selling their only product! Tar sand pipelines and increased drilling is the plan for Obama’s USA! Reducing fossil fuel production (and it’s production, not consumption that is key) will always be “a good idea, but not right now, and certainly not for us”. Oil costs $6-$40 and sells for $100. Who’s going to stop producing with those numbers? Renewables, uranium, and thorium will only be used to make up for increased energy demand and the inevitable decline in fossil fuel production as resources get depleted.

    In the end, the cost of inaction might be minimal. Each additional ppm of CO2 is less damaging to the atmosphere than the previous one and we’ll end up tossing sulphur in the atmosphere to compensate as best we can. Geoengineering is cheap, and cheap wins. Let’s just hope that ocean acidification doesn’t kill off too much sea life.

    [Response: You’re kidding right? –Jim]

  49. 49

    #37–Davos: “I don’t remember saying that continued coal use is inevitable.”

    Correct, sir. It was actually Donald Condliffe who said (approximately) that. More exactly, he wrote: “Every fossil fuel source available is increasing production to the extent feasible.” (Not true, although it’s closer to true than I’d like.)

    Anyway, sorry for the misattribution.

  50. 50
    Susan Anderson says:

    Aging technocrat Freeman Dyson is well outside his area of expertise – an argument for treating scientists as humans with the usual share of foibles.

    It is unfortunate that the denial industry has figured out that they can shoot little darts in all directions and get those working on solutions to mistrust each other. This is not surprising or new in propaganda expertise. I’m not saying we’re not prone to building too many walls around our positions, just that all too often the comments are a disingenuous or naively adopted from sources whose motives are hidden enough to deceive.

    It’s getting increasingly unrealistic to keep pointing away from the catastrophic nature of consequences already under way (water, food, and vast numbers of homeless around the globe), though I can see it’s not very helpful to just stand around saying doom doom doom.

    The gold dust being sprinkled about is stupid and dangerous, but the chances of anyone giving up their accelerating “need” for entertainment, comfort and unnecessary conveniences are slim to none.