Carbon Math

I've been thinking a lot this week about the rather terrifying arithmetic behind the climate breakdown. As usual, Magiamma's fantastic weekly summary prompted a great discussion and I found myself responding to a just question from Cassiodorus with a longer comment than my usual terse drive by missives.

How do they sift the whole of Earth's atmosphere
to remove CO2 from it? And how much energy does that take?

Now, of course carbon capture math makes no sense, given our current economic system. There is no market for CO2 once you get past a few niches like greenhouses. None.

In fact, rarely do I see anyone with a grip on the scale of the problem. In the comments I saw the old saw about a “Manhattan Project” but as someone once remarked, that is a science project and what we really need is the same effort that went into WWII for about 14 years with everyone on the same side.

I’m not fan of Ted talks, but the late David Mackay gives a bit of the flavor. And Brett Victor has a web site with some excellent graphics that help get the point across. The numbers are big and the answer to do we need to do X or Y is basically "Yes".

The other day I was at a statistics seminar at the University of Washington, where the guy who built the U.N.'s new Bayesian carbon forecasting model was describing it and taking us through some implications. There are basically three components of carbon Impact: Population, Affluence and Technology (the IPAT equation). It is often said that the problem we have is population growth but according to the model, population only accounts for about 2% of the variance in CO2 projections for 2100. The variance from the other two are about equal.

One surprising result about population growth is that he expects Africa to generate about 75% of the population growth but only 6% of the carbon impact. So population is not the problem in the short term - at least for carbon pollution - and we can't really change that trajectory very quickly without unimaginable levels of violence.

So our only real choices are to reduce per capita GDP or increase the carbon efficiency of that GDP generation. Personally I think we need to do both starting about 10 years ago. But there is no way this can happen as society is currently structured. This is what the numbers are telling us.

I just finished Debt: The First 5000 Years and one thing that gives me hope is the anthropological insight that the current economic order is not the only one humans have used at scale. We are not naturally as predatory as the Libertarians would have us believe, but how long does a change like that take?

Cass finished with the real political problem:

And here's a vital question: are the oil companies to go on their merry ways?

Societies faced with extinction can often do incredible things, including reshaping their economies. They can also ignore the problem and disappear. But we are that society. So get out there and make some noise.

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magiamma's picture

Subsidies for oil industry here:
https://www.iea.org/weo/energysubsidies/

The IEA site was linked to from the Brett Victor site and it also has great info and graphs.

Love the ted talk.

Thanks for starting this conversation. Carbon fuel industry must be shutdown and cutting subsidies seem like a good place to start. How to do that ? Seems like that should be a consideration for the green new deal. More research to do.

There’s an enormous amount of information at the Brett Victor site. It will take days to sift through. Thanks again.

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Stop Climate Change Silence - Start the Conversation
http://hotair.magiamma.com/

Hawkfish's picture

@magiamma

In my world, he is known as a kick-ass designer and programmer (Long nerdy videos). But what I really love about him is his sense that work should be joyful.

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7 users have voted.

We may find that we’re all alone
In the dream of the proud.
- Pink Floyd, On the Turning Away

and it's by products are destroying the earth. As long as the poor schmoo has to get to work, to feed the family and keep a roof over their heads nothing will change. Everyday will be a game of survival where winning is not getting trampled by the Wall Street bull. As automation displaces blue collar workers, and software displaces white collar workers democracy as we know it will die, because it's religion, capitalism, is dying.

The one thing the arms merchants of climate destruction are counting on is that they will be allowed to keep their fortunes and power. That can't be allowed to happen. For when the changes that will need to happen commence, those changes will rain down from the same capitalists and their lackeys that brought about this disaster. They will make sure the suffering falls on the schmoos and not themselves.

The remedies for this will be costly. If the solution is capitalist based, there's money to fund it, we just need the guts to take it.

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Hawkfish's picture

@Snode

But most of them are remarkably ignorant of any intellectual discipline that doesn’t involve money.

Part of the consumption math is the distribution. The IPAT numbers are central tendencies, not full ranges. How can we ask those who have so little to give up more? This is part of the anger behind the guilets jaune.

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12 users have voted.

We may find that we’re all alone
In the dream of the proud.
- Pink Floyd, On the Turning Away

@Hawkfish we're already doomed if the first question that's asked is "how can we afford to finance a project of this size?". Economics is the science of suffering, minus the blood, tears and humanity. The rest is just apportioning the pain. There isn't any question about the math or the science. This mega battleship that we spent centuries turning is going to take enormous resources just to stop, not to speak of turning back. It has to be everybody. In some ways the changes will be almost like the imposition of some alien religion.

The dilemma will be the fortunes that were made, from resource extraction to server farms will have to be the ones to mitigate this crisis, along with the sources of those fortunes. Every action will need to be questioned.

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Cassiodorus's picture

They want to total up their good deeds like eager Boy Scouts and proclaim in the end that their training qualifies them for the job of climate change mitigation. The real math is in trying to make things better -- i.e. global statistics for CO2, species disappearance, and so on.

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"The sustainable and just civilization that we hope to create... cannot be built using a capitalist economy" - Kim Stanley Robinson

Hawkfish's picture

@Cassiodorus

It’s part of the scientific research process. And you are right that the IPAT formalism is too simple to cover important things like environmental degradation, species loss and human dignity. Still, this is a step forward over previous modeling work that was largely based on “expert opinion” (I.e. training) instead of verifiable, data-driven models. Doing this stuff right is hard and takes time.

But it at least captures the basic human material situation. Fundamentally we have to know what sort of lifestyle we can afford for the growing numbers of people in the planet. This is input for whatever political mechanisms we can get together in the short time we have.

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We may find that we’re all alone
In the dream of the proud.
- Pink Floyd, On the Turning Away

Cassiodorus's picture

@Hawkfish It's an issue of that old standby of information science: Garbage in, garbage out. If your "math" is merely an accounting of good deeds by corporate Boy Scouts, then it doesn't mean anything.

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"The sustainable and just civilization that we hope to create... cannot be built using a capitalist economy" - Kim Stanley Robinson

In subsidies for those rat bastards(apologies to rats everywhere)!?!

We need to have the balls to take it, indeed.

fuck

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12 users have voted.

Ya got to be a Spirit, cain't be no Ghost. . .

Lookout's picture

...is easily said, but it is what must be done to survive. Sadly I think greed out weighs our ability to plan for survival.

It may be we're experiencing the start of a magnetic pole reversal...
https://www.reuters.com/article/us-science-north/shifting-north-magnetic...

Nothing to do with carbon but interesting earth science.

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“Until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

Hawkfish's picture

@Lookout

Desperation of the many. Together it leads to paralysis. How do we break that logjam?

Things like an impending pole reversal make me feel like I’m living in a novel. The catalyst for change in Green Mars was the sudden collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet. Maybe only dramatic threats like that can give us the energy to abandon the status quo.

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9 users have voted.

We may find that we’re all alone
In the dream of the proud.
- Pink Floyd, On the Turning Away

Lookout's picture

@Hawkfish

That wall has been well funded by the fossil fuel industry. My only answer is to act as an individual. Drops fill buckets.

Help these folks if you can.
https://www.sunrisemovement.org/
https://xrebellion.org/

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“Until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

I'm doing exactly what you said, calculating what it would take to remove all of the excess CO2 down to. 280 ppm. I have a very good handle on this, both numerically and subjectively. The project costs 100 trillion dollars, about the current global GDP, and would take 10 years of continuous capture once the infrastructure is built. The energy requirements are enormous, probably requiring many many nuclear power plants. There is no major product produced that could justify the cost, except that civilization gets to continue. I have lots of details and I know that I am not only one designing a solution to solve this problem. I'm doing this because I can and it's the right thing to do. However, I am extremely pessimistic that h.Sapiens could ever get their act together to do this.

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12 users have voted.

Capitalism has always been the rule of the people by the oligarchs. You only have two choices, eliminate them or restrict their power.

@The Wizard
i thought i ran some numbers a while back and they were a lot lower than yours (maybe an order of magnitude), but i don't remember.

re nuclear, you don't think we can make it happen with solar generators in the deserts?

hell, if we could "terraform" the deserts -- transform them back into verdant carbon sinks -- that would be the ultimate successful sequestration plan.

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Sigh

Hawkfish's picture

@UntimelyRippd

Say we need nukes. Sorry, but the amount of industrial capacity per kWh is lowest for nukes.

Which is not to say we shouldn’t do everything else too. New Zealand is a terrible place to put them and “industrial capacity” is not infinitely fungible. Still, the Canadian Shield is geologically stable and sparsely populated, so putting a bunch of candu reactors up there to sequester carbon (and maybe even make carbon-neutral fuel) would be my suggestion.

I’m all for every form of non-carbon energy production. Just remember that energy is pretty much equivalent to lifestyle and reducing our generation capacity effectively increases poverty for large numbers of people (mostly brown and Asian people). We can reduce our consumption (like Cassiodorus’ producer consumer networks) but only so far.

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We may find that we’re all alone
In the dream of the proud.
- Pink Floyd, On the Turning Away

CB's picture

@Hawkfish
must be done close to the site of it's production for efficiency. The amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is approximately 0.041% whereas CO2 concentration from pure methane combustion (CH4 + 2O2 = CO2 + 2H20) would approach 100% after the H2O is condensed out. It is also important to recover the heat of condensation/compression from both the H2O and CO2 to be used in power generation.

The best way to then store this compressed CO2 is in the rock formations from where the methane was produced. As system of dual pipelines carrying high pressure gases could save energy of liquefaction which is very costly for CO2 compared to. Another benefit from injecting the CO2 into these formations would be to increase methane production from the existing wells from the current 20 to 40% recovery rate. Another benefit would be to avoid fracking and the subsequent destruction of the geologic formations (with the concurrent destruction of the water table) to increase natural gas production.

The bottom line is that cheap energy as a god given birthright of the majority of Americans has to end. Cheap and abundant energy sources has been one of the main reasons the US enjoys the highest standard of living in the world.

But it is not only energy that the US pigs out on. It is also every natural resource the world produces.

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Hawkfish's picture

@CB

Was what the original links Hot Air were about. So you are right that capture at the source is, well, smoke and mirrors.

The energy numbers need to be per capita (that’s why China is #2 in the chart). But I don’t doubt the US is still #1 (that shows up as the A in IPAT). In the model they had to project that forward for various countries so they assumed that they would all follow the US pattern. Which is terrifying, but understandable. Especially since they had the data to show exactly that trajectory for over 100 countries.

So not only do we have to get the US to consume less, but we have to convince everyone else to drop their aspirations to consume as much.

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We may find that we’re all alone
In the dream of the proud.
- Pink Floyd, On the Turning Away

CB's picture

@Hawkfish
if you subtract the energy-intensive products that are exported from China. These exports have accounted for a large percentage of China's rapid GDP growth since 1995. This also partially accounts for why energy consumption in the US has somewhat flat-lined in the last decade. But this pattern is rapidly changing as we speak as much of China's current GDP growth is coming from their burgeoning domestic market.

That is why I have included the second chart. It gives a more comprehensive picture of where the world's resources have been consumed in the past. This global chart will change significantly in the coming decade. If you look at the many environmentally sound projects now ongoing in China, it is apparent they will be more judicious in their consumption and less wasteful of the world's finite resources than the US has been in the past.

China to lead world's renewable energy consumption by 2023: IEA
"China leads global growth in renewable energy as a result of policies to decarbonize all sectors and reduce harmful local air pollution, and becomes the largest consumer of renewable energy, surpassing the European Union, by 2023," according to the latest International Energy Agency forecast.

China will also lead solar photovoltaic expansion, and account for more than half of the worldwide expansion, according to the IEA report.

Unfortunately, the US, with it's current deregulation, is balking at making the necessary changes. The US has unlimited funding and political support for its war machine and this WILL be its downfall.

BTW, I don't think most Americans realize the advances China has made in the last decade. They have built a high speed rail line that exceeds the entire installed length of the rest of the world combined in less than ten years. I would put my money on China exceeding the US GDP (nominal) before 2025. They have already exceeded the US GDP (PPP) in 2016. The BRI will be a major game changer.

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Hawkfish's picture

@CB

Europe has also been exporting emissions to China. The per capita measure is an imperfect way of looking at National consumption levels, which is why I brought it up. But yes, in a global economy that doesn’t capture the whole picture.

The rail thing has been on my mind if late. There was an article on EVs in the NYT the other day talking about range anxiety. One of the interviewees was talking about how he drives from Michigan to the east coast several times a year. My reaction was “Why can’t he take high speed rail?” But we know why: the US us too big for this to be practical Except that China has a greater land area! (9.6km^2 vs 8.8). Why anyone thinks that markets produce optimal results is beyond me.

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1 user has voted.

We may find that we’re all alone
In the dream of the proud.
- Pink Floyd, On the Turning Away

Hawkfish's picture

@The Wizard

Yes, capitalism can’t solve this problem. But in the short term just finding a way to stop digging the hole seems like an important goal. But however we do that, eventual sequestration needs to be on the road map.

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We may find that we’re all alone
In the dream of the proud.
- Pink Floyd, On the Turning Away

divineorder's picture

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4 users have voted.

A truth of the nuclear age/climate change: we can no longer have endless war and survive on this planet. Oh sh*t.

lotlizard's picture

feel they have a right to enjoy the rewards, looming climate catastrophe or no.

It’s hard to promote the austerity demanded by a Green revolution when progressives, as here in Germany, insist on defending a Social Democratic woman leader’s right to wear a Rolex, or an immigrant star soccer player’s right to order a €1,200 steak covered in gold leaf and post a video of it, because the figures in question grew up in poverty and later hit it big and no one should begrudge them flaunting their success.

https://taz.de/%215561399/

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