More of NASA’s James Hansen on Old King Coal

hansenpic.jpgOur top climate scientist has sent out a really, really long email (where does he find the time?), mostly discussing comments on his recent email essay on coal. I think Hansen is the clearest thinker on climate among the top scientists in the field, so I will reprint the email, breaking it up into several postings. The first one addresses “Coal-CO2 versus Oil-CO2” (a query that was also raised by a commenter here)

My statement that releasing a coal-CO2 molecule into the air is more harmful than setting free an oil-CO2 molecule caused puzzlement. Of course the molecules are identical. What I want people to recognize is a way of framing the climate problem that makes clear what action is required to avert disaster. Only two aspects of the physics must be understood:

(1) CO2 “lifetime”. A substantial fraction of the CO2 released to the air in burning fossil fuels will stay there for a very long time (about one-quarter is still there after 500 years).

(2) Fossil fuel reservoir sizes. There is enough CO2 in readily accessible oil and gas reserves to take atmospheric CO2 close to, and probably somewhat beyond, the “dangerous” level. The coal reservoir, not to mention unconventional fossil fuels such as tar shale, can take CO2 far beyond the dangerous level, producing, indeed, “a different planet”.

One other reality, albeit not physics, must be recognized: we can not (successfully) demand that countries such as Saudi Arabia and Russia not mine and sell their oil. And it hardly matters how fast they mine it. We can conserve energy and oil to beat the band, but the readily available oil is still going to be mined in coming decades, not 500 years from now. So, there is just one way we can keep CO2 within, or at least within hailing distance of, the dangerous limit. Indeed, it is a sensible, doable proposition: we must agree to use coal only in (truly) clean-coal power plants at which the CO2 is captured and sequestered. By phasing out existing old-fashioned dirty coal plants over the next few decades, we can keep CO2 below 450 ppm, cf. our “peak oil” paper:

Would other countries agree to this? It is the only way to avoid mutual self destruction. Developing countries have the most to lose by failing to halt coal pollution and the most to gain by succeeding. Present dirty-coal uses are, among other things, polluting world oceans with mercury and other bad stuff, making the air in some countries almost unbreathable (killing more than one million people per year), and damaging crops (reducing agricultural productivity in India and China by about 30%). Surely developing countries can be convinced to phase out dirty-coal power, but not while the West is still building dirty-coal plants. And developed countries will need to help developing countries with the technology for carbon sequestration.
Is this “no-CO2-from-coal” strategy (phase out of coal use, except at power plants that capture CO2) so difficult to accomplish? Compare it to the effort and cost that went into World War II. Yet this simple “coal” strategy is the primary action needed to solve the purportedly “unsolvable” global warming problem. As described below (“Two Plus Two Solution” [I will post this later]), only one other significant action is needed, plus two rather easy “tweaks”.

In summary, there is a difference between coal-CO2 molecules and oil-CO2 molecules. The oil-CO2 molecules, at least those in large readily extractable deposits, will get into the air anyhow. The coal-CO2 molecules need not get into the air. Once CO2 molecules get into the air, they are practically beyond our reach; they will stay there “an eternity”. It is a tragedy if we continue to release coal-CO2 molecules prior to development of capture and sequestration technology, because these CO2 molecules are the ones that will push climate change into the “dangerous” range. (Refinements to this overview, discussed below [which I’ll post later], e.g., actions to “draw down” atmospheric CO2 and the effects of a rising carbon price on the economics of mining fossil fuels in remote locations or extreme environments, do not alter the essence of this story.

6 Responses to More of NASA’s James Hansen on Old King Coal

  1. Lou Grinzo says:

    The most troubling aspect of this situation is the difficulty of finding the economic and political capital to convert enough of the 1,522 existing coal plants in the US to use CCS.

    Even passing a law that requires new coal plants to be acceptably “clean” will be extremely difficult; addressing the existing plants will be a nightmare.

    I’ve been predicting for some time now we’re likely to see a considerable stretch of time where countries claim to have emitted only X tons of CO2, collectively, and the scientists find through measurements that the actual emissions were clearly much larger. How the world addresses such circumstances will be one of the nastier problems in coming years.

  2. Steve says:

    This type of theoretical rambling by Mr. Hansen, though interesting, cannot be taken out of context. It inappropriately has the tendency to take pressure off fossil fuel C02 emissions and methane emissions from agriculture.

    By treating different C02 molecules differently — depending upon their origin — it plays into the hands of the so-called Delayers, as distinguished from the Denyers. It lets the US, Russia, and the Middle Eastern countries point the blame at China and India on the argument that if they do nothing, then we’re doomed anyway.

    As I understand the issue from Joe’s book and some very recent alarming studies on rates of glacier/snow cap/ice sheet melting being faster than expected and accelerating, and on permafrost thawing creating a feedback loop which may get beyond our control to influence, then immediate, cooperative action needs to be taken on every front available to us in order to buy time to implement clean coal-burning technologies and all other conversions to technology and consumer/industrial practices which will slow down greenhouse gas build-up.

    My son has my copy of Joe’s book at the moment, but weren’t there also some serious challenges involved in so-called “sequestration” of CO2?

    I’ll say it again: Here and elsewhere (especially in American consumer habits and voting patterns), this debate needs to go beyond theoretical musings and talk about the question of imminency. Do we fully understand the tipping points and feedback loops at work? Are the public and policy-makers fully informed on these issues. And as Lou says, can we realistically expect and afford a “clean coal strategy” to be fully implemented within the time we have to work with?

    This does not mean we do not put on a full-court press on the dirty coal issue, but everyone needs to be engaged in some way in making a difference. You tell my relatively sophisticated neighbor that it’s up to China and India to clean up their act, and for the US electrical companies just to be smarter when they build their next power plant, and you just ensured yourself that this becomes a second priority issue in his or her life.

  3. Steve says:

    To clarify, when I said “fossil fuel CO2 emissions” a moment ago, I meant to refer to oil-originating molecules, as it were… such as that from burning motor fuel and other petroleum-derived fuels. The transportation sector. The everyday motorist.

  4. Cliff says:

    Hansen’s approach is interesting and informative, but I’m with Steve here. We can all buy in to a Best Case Scenario where humanity survives this crisis, but by the skin of its teeth. As long as the major governments and industry leaders change their ways, we can continue on with life as normal. The lights will stay on. Of course, few people want to hear Worst Case Scenarios because they demand that we change our habits and demand – DEMAND – that governments and industry change theirs, too.

    But still I’m interested to read the next installments of Hansen’s message. As a scientist, he knows of what he speaks. It’s just that the question has gone beyond science and is now a politico-economic one.

  5. Joe says:

    Remember, too, that Hansen has published more scientific works arguing for urgent action than any other major climate scientist (just search “Hansen” on this website for about 5 of them) — these email ramblings are hardly meant to be rigorous, but I still felt they should be shared with a wider audience. One thing I admire about Hansen is that he is taken the trouble to educate himself on energy issues — most climate scientists are far too reticent to talk about things outside of their narrow area of expertise.

  6. Steve says:

    And having searched this website — thank you, Joe — we had it right here, underscoring my initial reaction that these comments should not be taken out of context. Here are comments and the context which Hansen himself has provided:

    I’m certainly aware of Mr. Hansen’s very important contributions, and I don’t intend in any way to criticize his work. But I am concerned as to how certain comments, taken out of context, can be misused by Delayers while also neglecting the realpolitik of this situation.

    China and India need indications that Americans individually and their government are also prepared to act aggressively and make sacrifices… And, even then, these emerging industrial powerhouses still may elevate short-term economic objectives over “our” urgings to reduce dirty-coal energy.

    As an aside, America needs to get ready for a new reality with China and Japan holding a very large percentage of our federal, corporate, and consumer debt instruments, as yet again the dollar hits another new low… As they may soon be saying, “And who again are you telling us what to do exactly?”

    It’s great to protest the building of new coal-burning power plants, but not to the neglect of reducing and postponing, even if unable to forever prevent, the release of oil-originating CO2. Most importantly, people engaged in some activity tend to want to learn more and do more, cultivating the political awareness and motivation to challenge these other events far removed from their everyday lives… such as the regulatory authorization to build US, let alone foreign, dirty coal-burning facilities.

    Finally, returning to Hansen’s point, this comes back to a very elementary concept which, you might be surprised to know, many people don’t understand: In the global warming context, electrical energy conservation should be as habit-forming an activity as cutting back on gasoline consumption. It is actually easier to do most of the time, and word needs to get out on how it helps.