The climate change conundrum

1 May 2009

Dr Saifur Rahman is a Fellow of the IEEE, was recently appointed vice president for new initiatives and outreach, power and energy, and is an acknowledged expert on climate change issues. Here he talks to Modern Power Systems about how the climate change conundrum might be solved.

Q Is reversing global warming the greatest imperative? Are there others (eg finite supply of fossil fuel) more pressing?

A They are inter-related. The high level of usage is the cause of global warming. For hundreds of years, the atmospheric CO2 background level has been 250 ppm but has now risen to between 380 and 400 ppm. This steady rise started in the nineteenth century with the beginning of industrialisation. It is unquestionably anthropogenic in origin.

Q Can we be sure that the rising CO2 level is the engine of climate change?

A The opposition to this idea is drifting away at a fast rate.

Q Can it be put down to a long term climate cycle?

A No – the scale is much larger than any similar climate event in the last 600 000 years. And global temperature levels follow the CO2 trend closely, although there are single events such as major volcanic eruptions that show up as anomolies.

If we reach 550 ppm that is the tipping point - beyond it is runaway overheating. And the atmospheric lifetime of CO2 is 100-120 years.

Recent data shows that the total gain in atmospheric carbon during 2007 was 10 billion tonnes, and although there are other carbon sources and sinks that are much larger, such as forest fires and absorption in the oceans, and although there is no straight-line relationship between fossil burn nd CO2 ppm, that is a quantity that would be enough to critically affect the balance.

The CO2 rise is exacerbated by the system’s inherent feedback – a rise in ocean surface temperature makes it less CO2 absorptive and reduces the leverage exerted by the oceans, leading inevitably to runaway.

Q When, at the present rate of rise, will the tipping point be reached?

A In 2050, a date that relates to existing targets. The EU has set a target for a 50% reduction by 2050. The newly installed president Obama has already spoken in terms of an 80% limit. But it is worth bearing in mind that almost no-one making predictions now will still be alive in 2050. As for the climate consequences during the intermediate years, no one has a model that can usefully predict it.

Q Are international targets having any effect?

A In 1992 the Rio conference started the process that led to Kyoto, deciding on reduction targets compared to 1990 levels had to be met by 2012. But because no road map that member states were prepared to commit to was set out, no intermediate targets were set, and those 2012 targets are now impossible to achieve. In fact levels have risen since 1992. It is imperative that this mistake is not repeated.

Q What authority could create the necessary schedule?

A If governments said, for example, we must achieve a 10% reduction by 2010, their industries would all be up in arms. Therefore political leaders, especially short term ones, cannot on their own achieve a useful effect.

Q Then how can the conundrum be solved?

A Perhaps by a co-operative effort from concerned parties – the public, scientific and technical societies, think tanks, academics and so on. A public concensus is essential, but is already apparent, at least a dramatic change even during the last three or four years is apparent. A realistic schedule, with achievement bands not rigid targets, is also essential, and it should be arrived at by consultation with industry to find out what industry thinks it can realistically achieve. We need a dialogue, not just more mandates. In any case, unrealistic targets always give politicians and industrialits an excuse for non-achievement.

Q What would be the key points of such a solution?

A Our use of fossil fuels should change. Currently we use petrol for transport and gas for low grade burn such as power stations, These fuels are too valuable to use this way when as a chemical feedstock for fertilisers for example they will be needed indefinitely.

Current energy policies tend to concentrate on the supply side. We should look more closely at the demand side. Academic institutions have a role to play here. Examples of academically led developments would include energy efficient lighting (CFL). In the West, a typical household electricity bill is 25% for lighting. But CFL lighting is very expensive compared to incandescent lamps so mechanisms are needed to encourage sales. Indeed, they are already happening. Some utilities offer them free, becaue it helps reduce demand peaks. The price can be ‘bought’ down by interested parties or government, and in real cases as much as $10 million has been given to chain stores to discount lamp prices. But as they show a return even at full price of only 6 months, the issue is mainly, though not exclusively in poorer economies, an educational one.

However this technique is not infallible. The Thai utility EGAT bought a million low energy lamps to sell at a huge discount but managed to sell only a few. The price was too low and made people suspicious. Also, the ‘coldness’ of the light is not popular. The new generation of CFL lamps has a ‘warmer’ light, but this is yet another area where public announcements are needed to back up a policy.

Nuclear energy

Q Is its poor image justified? Whether it is or not, should its image be allowed to obstruct greater issues, eg providing enough power?

A The poor image is mainly confined to the West. But security concerns over the supply and movement of fuel are real enough. There are fifty countries that have nuclear power plants (including research reactors) and only four that will sell fuel. And nuclear power isn’t cheap – when the UK’s CEGB tried to sell off its nuclear power plants, no buyers could be found. This has a current resonance too in the recent sale of BE to EdF. Initially, because nuclear plants must be operated continuously, the two parties could not agree on the extent to which nuclear plants would displace others during the night. In any case the nuclear debate is immensely complicated and decisions about its future role can only rationaly be taken from a position of information strength.

Fossil fuel prices

Q Is the rise in the prices of raw fossil sources necessarily a bad thing? Is it possible to adapt such mechanisms to the promotion of alternatives on a permanent basis?

A High fossil fuel prices would probably have a beneficial effect, but it is a very difficult policy to plan. US president Clinton set out to raise petrol prices (from a very low base price) and met enormous opposition, a public outcry. He went ahead anyway and got it through Congress, and the sky hasn’t fallen in and the legislation that brought it about has not been repealed.

High prices could be used for example to encourage the extraction of tar sands in Canada and oil shales in Colorado. This is probably the first time in history when prices could be used to reflect long term availabiity of fossil fuels. The tax revenues could then be used to finance alternative energy solutions, although there is an important social consideration – that some of the revenue should be set aside to pay for tax rebates for those on incomes too low to afford the fuel.

Q How would the market deal with price fluctuations that are on a small time scale compared to the investment horizon?

A High prices can be afforded. What is more, the control that has swung back to government as a result of the global financial meltdown should give policymakers courage. One mechanism would be to keep fuel tax as high as can be afforded, then tax the windfall profits. The fuel tax should be made flexible so that as the price of crude drops, the pump price is kept level. Apart from the social considerations, steady fuel prices are an essential part of corporate and even household planning.

Q If consumption levels off, how can CO2 reductions be achieved?

A There is an achievable consumption level that does the job, preserves resources and encourages the necessary CO2 response.

Alternative sources

Q Can we expect a technology breakthrough any time soon in alternative energy sources?

A True breakthroughs are very, very rare. Nuclear fusion is the only truly new technology that has appeared on the horizon, but it will take 30 years at least to come anywhere near fruition. The most likely course is slow incremental change – that is the reality.

Q The role of academic and professional institutions – how should they best use their expertise?

A Technologists on the whole do not come forward and issue warnings. Engineers typically do not take a position, rather they react to what is required of them by society. It would probably be helpful if technologists as a body were to reverse that tendency, to take a position of scientific principle and sideline politicians in the way that other professionalss such as doctors and lawyers already do.

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