Carbon Emissions Highest Since Demise of Dinosaurs

Shanghai_Smog1
A not-so-unusual day in smog-shrouded Shanghai. Coal is widely used in China as a source of cheap, abundant energy.

In a study published yesterday in Nature Geoscience by researchers from the University of Hawaii, as reported by Reuters, it has emerged in an unprecedented claim that global carbon emissions are at their highest level in 66 million years!

Given currently available records, the present anthropogenic carbon release rate is unprecedented during the past 66 million years

Methane as an Existential Threat
According to the study, the release rate of anthropogenic carbon today and the subsequent warming eclipses all such warming events dating back to the end of the Cretaceous, even the greatest of them present in the fossil record 56 million years ago, warming brought on by the thawing of Methane Hydrate present on the ancient seabeds of the early Paleogene. It could be said that the release of methane remains today as an existential threat to the entire planet as the efficiency of methane as a greenhouse gas is thirty (30) times that of CO2. Said differently, if only 3% of the methane that is today locked up as Methane Hydrate on the seabed is released, the current rate of warming would double. If methane is such a threat, then why all the fuss about CO2? If the current warming continues unabated, and it appears it will since the collective will to halt it has not been mustered, the CO2 will essentially act as a catalyst, warming the seas and causing the subsequent release of the trapped methane. A runaway greenhouse will ensue and civilization as we know it will change forever.

chicxulub
The Chicxulub impact 65 million years ago in what is today the Gulf of Mexico

Such planet-wide changes occurred 65 million years ago. One of the deciding factors was the Chicxulub impact, an extinction-level event that occurred amid other significant changes such as increased volcanism. Both the asteroid impact and the increased volcanism contributed significantly to increased atmospheric particulates, reducing the incident sunlight and thus resulting in long-term cooling, a change long thought to be the death knell for the dinosaurs. Brought about by the release of methane into the oceans ten million years later (56 million years ago), the temperatures sharply increased by an estimated 5 degrees Celsius, increasing ocean acidity and thus causing serious harm to marine life. This is seen as a parallel to the current threat from atmospheric carbon build-up and the alarming rise in average global sea-surface temperatures, all brought on by the burning of fossil fuels.

Warming Reversal
In terms of reversing the warming, that ship sailed at least 30 years ago. The best we can hope for is to slow it down. Events such as last year’s Paris accords are as farcical as they are useless. Benchmarks and goals set in terms of decades are meaningless and, to the extent we still continue to debate the urgency of the matter, to that same extent we seal our fate and that of our progeny. Those benchmarks may as well be set in terms of centuries for all the good they’ll do. Significant reductions in CO2 have to occur now, not in ten or twenty years. That these benchmarks are set in terms of decades speaks to the lack of urgency in the minds of the various governments’ representatives and heads of state. Examples of political games and infighting are also indicative of a general lack of concern for climate change. Recent polls have shown that Chinese and Americans demonstrate the least concern for climate change and, not surprisingly, that the magnitude of that indifference is directly proportional to their contribution of excess carbon.

Ivanpah_Solar_Power_Facility_Online
The brilliance of the sun can be seen focused on one of the three CSP (Concentrated Solar Power) towers of the Ivanpah Solar Power station, located in California’s Mojave Desert

Ivanpah
From the inverted logic department comes this rather curious development involving the recently commissioned and operating Ivanpah Solar Power station

In a bizarre and ongoing case of inverted logic and serving as another example of just how inane and vacuous some individuals can be when it comes to the importance of alternative energy, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) threatened to shut down the recently commissioned and operating Ivanpah Solar-thermal power stations because they were “unable to meet current production targets of 448,000 MWh annually“. Located in California’s Mojave desert, Ivanpah is the largest CSP (Concentrated Solar Power) station in the world and only came online in November of 2014. That such a draconian remedy was suggested for what amounts to a minor detail, for a plant that has scarcely been online a year, speaks to the scope and breadth of the problem. This detail was put in place no doubt by attorneys and politicians who don’t understand science and technology and who are indifferent to the outcome of their remedies or decisions.

CPUC’s logic: “No power [from Ivanpah] is better than most of the 390 MW.

In response to a June 12, 2015 piece in the WSJ regarding CPUC’s concerns, Ivanpah’s operator quite succinctly put the benefits in perspective as well as pointing out inaccuracies and omissions in the original story. It should be noted here that the 12 June, 2015 piece was just one of several stories on Ivanpah the paper has published, all in a diminutive light. In her March 16th, 2016 piece, the author closes the story with this rather unnecessary and irrelevant comment

To be sure, birds also fall prey to other renewable-energy projects: Wind turbines kill between 140,000 and 328,000 birds in the U.S. every year, according to a 2013 study by researchers at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.

The WSJ’s bias against anything that isn’t linked to Big Oil and Big Coal, not surprisingly, is quite obvious. If one follows their logic, they would delight in the demise of Ivanpah and would rather see it scuttled completely, generating no power rather than some (“some” here is measured in the mega (millions of) watts range). The question begs asking

Why would you shut down a brand-new, functioning, multi-billion-dollar plant funded, in part, by grants from the DOE, that hasn’t even been operating a year, with such promise as a new technology and at such a cost in labor and sweat, without redress?

Another objection (from the science illiteracy department) is that the facility has been using its Natural Gas backup – at night and during periods of cloud cover! Question: why does a solar plant need a fossil-fuel backup? Easy Answer (surprise, surprise!): To maintain a consistent, dependable power flow. That [legal] requirement is (should be) outside the scope of any generating facility’s mandate, where certain significant variabilities (like cloud cover or lack of generating ability at night for a solar plant!) are outside the operator’s scope of control. I have to believe that this last point was evident to all involved, even the attornies and politicians. Ivanpah is using a relatively new energy storage technology where the sun’s energy is stored in form of molten salt. The facility can continue to provide energy for at least 5 hours after sunset by extracting the heat from the hot, molten salt to drive the turbines – at night! The good news is that the CPUC has given Ivanpah a temporary stay of execution since the operators, having learned the new technology and how to fine-tune it, have significantly increased the plant’s output to within 98% of its rated capacity! In all likelihood, it will continue providing clean, carbon-free energy for decades to come.

Climate Change Denial
The problem is further exacerbated by the rising cacophony of conflicting or contrarian voices, voices often based on opinions, not empirical science and whose origins are politically motivated or have a specific agenda. Further adding to the problem is widespread science illiteracy by a majority of the electorate and, regrettably, by their elected officials and those seeking high public office. Some currently seeking public office are noteworthy in their ignorance and science illiteracy with that ignorance often presented in a positive light or as something praiseworthy or to be admired. In a recent article, I discuss a particular individual seeking the US Presidency who, in my view, is unfit for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is his ignorance and science illiteracy.

The development and widespread deployment of active green technology (hydro, wind, solarPV and thermal-solar) has to occur now along with the significant and concurrent increase in the number of nuclear plants brought online to meet the growing demand for power. Gimmicks such as carbon credits or cap-and-trade do little except to assuage the consciences of politicians. Real reductions in actual CO2 emitted have to be made immediately. To realize this, energy replacement should be the order of the day; when a green source comes on line, that energy should not be considered as padding but as actual replacement energy with the concurrent throttling down of the turbine in the same measure by the legacy generating operator. For example, if 1 MW of solar is brought online, 1 MW of legacy power has to be reduced. Local and regional governments have to have the political will to implement strong building codes, requiring active green power solutions in any new construction. All energy providers offer free, energy saving guidelines. Check with yours to find out what you can do to reduce your carbon footprint. For starters, swap out legacy, tungsten-filament light bulbs (5% visible light efficiency) for new technology LED replacements or, as a second choice, Compact Florescent Lamps (CFLs). The old idiom from the 1970s now takes on a new significance: “think globally, act locally” when it comes to individual responsibility for the environment.

Clean Coal?
There is no such thing as “Clean Coal“; in fact the term is an oxymoron and a contradiction in terms. The deployment of carbon scrubbers and carbon sequestration as policy with the deployment of new coal-fired power plants have been touted as solutions. This term is part of a broad marketing strategy widely used by the coal industry and it is as misleading as it is contradictory. While you may be able to partially scrub out and/or sequester the CO2, with a significant impact to the plant’s overall production efficiency, you cannot eliminate the sulfur dioxides, nitrous oxides and radionuclides, to say nothing of coal being the leading cause of smog, acid rain and toxic air pollution.

Lest we resign ourselves to live as cave dwellers, we have to act now because, at the end of the day, all non-renewable energy sources (oil, coal and natural gas) will ultimately be depleted and the necessity to implement alternative energy sources will be rendered academic.

Related article: Ivanpah, Solar Power and Inverted Logic

Imagination is more important than knowledge 585px-Albert_Einstein_signature_1934(invert)
An index of all articles in this blog can be found here.

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