Dr. Hansen to Dr. Merkel: Carbon is forever — so ban new traditional coal plants now

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"Dr. Hansen to Dr. Merkel: Carbon is forever — so ban new traditional coal plants now"

Another clear statement from the nation’s top climate scientist of the scientific need for a dramatic change in global coal policy — this time addressed to the German Chancellor, a fellow physicist. He points out that:

The fact that energy and climate advisors, in Germany, the United States, and elsewhere, do not understand the problem is starkly illustrated by repetition of goals to reduce CO2 emissions by a percentage (say 40% by 2020, 80% by 2050, or other numbers), while at the same time allowing construction of new, more efficient, coal-fired power plants that do not capture and sequester CO2…. this approach spells doom for life on the planet.

Why are political leaders pursuing mutually contradictory policies? Well, we all know solid carbon diamonds are forever — the corollary is that much atmospheric carbon is, too:

Part of the difficulty in grasping the problem may be the common misstatement that the atmospheric lifetime of fossil fuel emissions is 50-200 years (Maiken finds this error in a current U.S. EPA document). In point of fact, a large fraction of the CO2 increment remains in the air for more than 1000 years, and the mean lifetime, dominated by this long tail, is about 30,000 years (D. Archer, “Fate of fossil fuel CO2 in geologic time,” J. Geophys. Res. 110, 2005).

To “preserve climate resembling that in which civilization developed” what must be done?

The upshot, which I am confident Dr. Merkel will understand, is that we must have a prompt moratorium on the construction of coal-fired power plants that do not capture CO2, and we must phase-out existing coal-fired power plants over the next two decades. It is foolish to build new plants with the knowledge that they will have to be bull-dozed in the near future.

Here! Here!

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3 Responses to Dr. Hansen to Dr. Merkel: Carbon is forever — so ban new traditional coal plants now

  1. tidal says:

    Hi Joe,

    Just in the context of Hansen’s points st, I wanted to recommend the following post from Celsias last week, particularly the two points I will paste here.
    http://www.celsias.com/2008/01/14/hot-air-and-snake-oil-carbon-offset-upsets/

    Regardless of one’s overall opinions on offsets, I think that there is great clarity in Kevin Smith’s points 2 and 5. Although I have long “known” these points, there is something in the way he articulates them… and adds urgency to Hansen’s points about not letting the carbon system enter the “active” pool in the first place…

    “2) Carbon is permanently locked up in the ‘inactive’ carbon pool in the form of fossil fuels until it is extracted and burnt, and then it is released into the ‘active carbon pool’, a complex and incessant interchange between the oceans, forests and atmosphere. The only, incontrovertible way of dealing with climate change is to severely limit the flow of carbon from the inactive pool into the active cycle. This flow is a one-way process, and no matter how many offset projects are carried out, you can not reverse the damage that is done when carbon is released from one cycle to the other. It cannot be ‘neutralised’…

    “5) Finally, there is the time lag issue. In fact there are two: First, when carbon is released into the atmosphere, it is part of the problem in terms of climate change, but the various carbon offset schemes are operating to supposedly neutralize these emissions over a much longer period of time, sometimes, as in the case of forestry offsets, over a period of a hundred years or more. If an individual or company keeps offsetting regularly, their rate of emissions increases rises at a much faster rate than the rate at which their activities are being ‘neutralised’ to the point at which, far from being ‘carbon neutral’, quite the opposite is true. The carbon in the atmosphere increases at a far greater rate than it’s supposed ‘neutralisation’…”

    (Me again… The one very minor quibble I have with Smith’s point is that if one of the schemes to efficiently remove GHG’s from ambient air (and then effectively sequester them) were to ever come to fruition, then we could conceivably ‘neutralize’ the original (and historical) emissions from fossil fuels. The outlook for such schemes on a meaningful scale and on the required timeline is poor, as I understand it. Furthermore, on geologic timescales, carbon can be removed from the active cycle – that’s how the fossil fuels came about, obviously! But for current purposes, Smith’s point clearly stands… )

  2. Ronald says:

    How we talk about something is important and may sometimes determine whether it gets done. Dr. Lutz and his near and double speak advice to the Republicans comes to mind.

    What needs to be added when talking about not building coal plants is what is to replace them, whether energy efficiency or some other peak power plants. Not building a plant is fine, but everybody sees the big hole left after you discuss it.

  3. Ronald said

    “What needs to be added when talking about not building coal plants is what is to replace them, whether energy efficiency or some other peak power plants. Not building a plant is fine, but everybody sees the big hole left after you discuss it.”

    Solar thermal with heat storage in the southwest.

    Much of the coal could be replaced with this by 2030.
    Quick to build, inexpensive power. The only renewable with current technology that can do this. A study by the Western Governors Association said there was enough suitable land near existing power lines for 300GW of generating capacity. With HVDC much more could be built. Coal is 313 GW capacity.
    Capacity factor for the solar thermal would probably be a little less than for coal, depending on how many plants had enough storage for all night power.