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The end of civilisation will be painted green

It is fairly common these days to come across somebody on social media who thinks that leaving the freezer door open or running the air conditioner outside might provide us with a means of halting global warming.  And while engineers and physicists might be tempted to laugh at the suggestion, those making it are not so different to the apparently intelligent and well-educated folk who have persuaded governments to spend millions on research into technologies that suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.  Indeed, both ideas are fundamentally flawed for exactly the same reasons:

  • The atmosphere is vast
  • Cooling it would require massive amounts of energy and resources.

A freezer (and an air conditioner) works by exchanging heat; drawing it from a small space (freezer compartment or apartment) and dumping the excess heat into the much larger environment.  And crucially, the energy required to achieve this is itself converted to waste heat in the process.  Thus, leaving the freezer door open warms to atmosphere (albeit by a miniscule fraction) rather than cooling it.

Carbon capture suffers a similar problem.  While the amount of human-produced carbon dioxide can be measured in billions of tons per year, it remains a tiny fraction of the total atmosphere – currently around 408 parts per million (a little above 0.04 percent).  This renders any attempt to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere a non-starter:

“… any machine that is going to attempt the task – even assuming 100 percent efficiency – would need to hoover up 2,470 tons of atmosphere to capture just 1 ton of carbon dioxide; and it would have to do this roughly a thousand times a second to keep up with our ongoing emissions.”

Moreover, such a machine would require a vast amount of energy to operate; energy that – given our current energy mix – will come primarily from the very carbon-emitting fossil fuels that caused the problem to begin with.

It is our collective failure to even begin to understand the scale of the global warming problem that leads us into faulty analyses that verge on conspiracy theory.  Consider this statement by Andy Stone at Forbes, writing on the eve of the latest IPCC conference:

“Yet at this juncture it’s important to recall that we live during a unique point in history in which we humans have the power to do harm to the planet on a scale previously unimagined and, at the same time, pull ourselves back from the brink.  The last is a truth that’s easy to forget as the window to keep warming below the 2 degrees Celsius Paris threshold narrows.”

In fact, this human “power to do harm” is greatly overstated.  This is not to deny that our collective efforts over the last 300 years have not wreaked havoc upon the habitat that we and millions of other species depend upon; but rather to note that it has taken the full 4,683,704.29 TW/h of fossil fuel energy that humanity has burned since 1800 to raise the planetary temperature by less than two degrees.  Sure, if we keep doing what we have been doing, and continue to grow or economy in line with recent trends, we will build in 4, 5 or 6 degrees of warming that will take millennia to reverse. Nevertheless, human agency in this is far more limited than Stone suggests. 

The 4,683,704.29 TW/h of fossil fuel energy burned since 1800 is a miniscule fraction of the solar energy reaching the Earth every week.  Indeed, in a single month, 18 times more solar energy reaches the Earth’s surface than all of the fossil fuel energy humans have ever consumed.  All that humans have actually achieved is to prevent a tiny fraction of that solar energy from radiating back into space; so that every day a miniscule amount of heat is retained; almost imperceptibly warming the planet.

As with removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere or having every western household open their freezer doors, the processes envisaged to keep temperature increases below two degrees require more energy than was required to raise the temperature in the first place.  Solar energy might be (for all practical purposes) renewable; but the technologies required to concentrate it and convert it into a useable form depend upon massive volumes of fossil fuel energy to manufacture, deploy, maintain and replace.  Excluding hydroelectricity, so-called “renewables” (in reality non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies) currently make up less than 5 percent of global energy production.  More than four-fifths still comes from burning fossil fuels – a percentage that has barely shifted (87%-86%) since the Kyoto conference in 1997.  Indeed, just the additional fossil fuels burned since 2015 is greater than all of the renewable energy we have added to the mix.

In short, the scale of the problem is massive and the laws of physics ensure that any attempt at reversing the problem while maintaining even a semblance of business as usual must require greater energy consumption than was required to produce it.  Since all low-carbon energy generation depends upon fossil fuels for manufacture, deployment and maintenance, and since fossil fuels continue to account for 86 percent of our primary energy, even slowing the rate of warming is likely beyond us.  Simply asserting that humans have agency does not change this.

Global warming is, of course, just one dimension of our predicament.  Global resource depletion is likely to prove far more devastating in the short-term.  The US fracking boom (which accounts for almost all of the global increase in the past decade) is coming to an end; and when it does – most likely in the early 2020s – it will take a Herculean effort (and a great deal of economic chaos) to prevent global oil production from falling.  Mineral resources – including those like cobalt, zinc and chromium which are essential to the proposed transition to a low-carbon economy – have been depleting for decades.  As ore grades degrade, so ever more energy is required to maintain current volumes.  The levels of consumption required to build and deploy the non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies needed to replace the 86 percent of our energy we currently get from fossil fuels would see key minerals become unavailable within a matter of months.

The potential non-technological solutions/mitigations to our predicament – dramatically shrinking the economy and/or massively reducing the human population to something equivalent to the 1500s – are barely more palatable than the predicted effects of global warming itself.  Pretending that humankind has far more agency than is actually the case, on the other hand at least allows us to enjoy (in the developed states) one final “Green New Deal” blowout before the 300 year experiment of industrial civilisation comes crashing down.

As you made it to the end…

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