Energy and Global Warming, 2014

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Global energy generation now makes up some 60% of greenhouse gas emissions

Simple societies can get by with remarkably little energy. However, since the industrial revolution societies would increasingly be vulnerable to collapse without reliable access to large and increasing amounts of energy. Global energy generation now makes up some 60% of greenhouse gas emissions (IEA). Energy has many important implications with regard to 9-10 billion living well by 2050, but we focus on greenhouse gas emissions, and climate change.

when the long term warming trend is examined there is nothing so unusual about the recent pause

Global surface temperatures have changed little over the last 15 years, leading to discussion about whether human created climate change has ceased, or at least is much smaller than thought. With so many global challenges to address, it would be nice to get off the hook so easily. Unfortunately the evidence is not strong (e.g. UK Met Office (2013)). Indeed, when the long term warming trend is examined (see below) there is nothing so unusual about such pauses (see also the mid 1940s–70s, accompanied by an initial hiatus in the rate of CO2 increase), nor are they unexpected if global warming is occurring, as the capacity of other components of the system, such as the sea’s ability to absorb heat, also vary (due to global circulation rhythms and irregularities) on decadal scales.

Above: Yearly global surface temperature anomalies 1880-2012, set against the 1981-2010 average A great deal has been made of increasing global temperatures apparently being on hold over the last decade or so. But seen in this wider context there is nothing particularly unusual or unexpected about such fluctuations, and certainly nothing to suggest we should conclude that climate change is a myth or that prudential action based on the pros and cons of action or inaction is inappropriate. Source: BIMS State of the Climate in 2012

The warming pause might buy time

The warming pause might buy time, although there may be a compensatory increase waiting in the wings. The scale of the challenge and the risks are so vast that it is reckless to waste any let-off, temporary or otherwise. Another area of confusion is how it can be that areas experience periods of possibly record low temperatures during a period of global warming. But fluctuations around the world at any one time will always likely be greater than any underlying trend. It may even be that stronger weather systems, arising from greater heat energy in the system, pull air further down from the poles, or up from the equator, resulting in greater extremes of both cold and warmth around the weather system. The map (below) shows the global average temperature between January and October 2014. Even though overall, this period was the warmest on record, there were still parts of the world that were cooler than average and some even with record low temperatures. While western Europe experienced record high temperatures, those living in the eastern US could be wondering what happened to global warming.

Above: Global temperature deviation from average, January-October 2014 The first ten months of 2014 (January–October) were the warmest such period since record keeping began in 1880, with a combined global land and ocean average surface temperature 0.68°C above the 20th century average of 14.1°C, surpassing the previous record set in 1998 and tied in 2010 by 0.02°C. 2014 is currently on track to be the warmest year on record. Source: NOAA National Climatic Data Center

Countries and regions have made various statements of intent to reducing greenhouse gas emissions dramatically from ‘Business as Usual’. Unfortunately, when judged by actions rather than words, the consequences of current actions, shown in the projections of the International Energy Authority, are for increases in energy-related CO2 emissions that are massively above those presumed necessary to have a 50% chance of keeping global temperature rises below 2°C of pre-industrial levels (see below). Rises above 2°C are assumed to have major economic and human costs.

Global energy-related CO2 emissions for three IEA scenarios. Fossil fuel use continues to grow in all three scenarios, at least until 2020 for the ‘green’ 450 scenario. 450 means keeping keeping CO2 levels in the atmosphere below 450 part per million, which in turn is believed to be necessary to have a 50% chance of keeping global temperature rises below 2°C of pre-industrial levels. Source: IEA World Energy Outlook 2012

Both the ‘Current Policies Scenario, CPS’, and the ‘New Policies Scenario, NPS’ (where “existing policies are maintained and recently announced commitments and plans, including those yet to be formally adopted, are implemented in a cautious manner”) are modelled to result in global temperature rises of 5.3 and 3.6 °C respectively.

Breaking the link between greenhouse gases and energy … is not particularly expensive … for the EU projected growth by 2050 is instead reached in 2051

Breaking the link between greenhouse gases and energy is technically feasible. Perhaps more surprising — providing it is smartly done — it is not particularly expensive, especially when considered in terms of the risks and costs of inaction. For example, one evaluation assessed European-wide implementation (PwC 2010) of renewables, avoiding fossil fuels and nuclear. This was seen as a long-term strategy, implemented in conjunction with establishing a ‘super-smart’ trans-national power grid. The conclusion was that the cost could be trivial compared to disruptions such as the 1970s oil crisis or the 2007/08 financial crash: the equivalent of delaying global growth so that the projected growth by 2050 is instead reached 2051. It does get expensive if e.g. the current worn-out European grid is replaced without focusing on distributed renewably generated power over long distances (this requires incompatible technology from that used on existing grids), and has to be replaced again. The approach to pricing is also crucial (c.f. the approach of Germany versus Sweden). Since the PwC report, the cost reductions in decentralised power generation, notably the plunging cost of solar, has also come into the frame. A Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory study in 2013 and a 2014 study by Stanford University tells a similar story for the US. Developing countries, without legacy infrastructure, have some advantages here.

Without such changes, and with the predicted greenhouse gas emissions in the CPS and NPS worlds, 9-10 billion people are not going to live well by 2050.

Source: Trends to Bend, modus vivendi, 2014, MMG