Is 450 ppm politically possible? Part 4: The most urgent climate policy (and it isn’t a CO2 price)

A livable climate can (probably) survive the burning of almost all of the world’s conventional oil and gas — but not if we also burn even half the coal (see here and figure below).

So the top priority for any climate policy must be to stop the building of traditional coal plants — which is why that has become the top priority of NASA’s James Hansen (see here). The next priority is to replace existing coal plants with carbon free power, which could include coal with carbon capture and storage (CCS), as fast as possible. And that means a related priority is to encourage the introduction of CCS as quickly as possible, to see if that is a viable large-scale solution.

A climate policy that does not start by achieving at least the first goal, a moratorium on coal without CCS, must be labeled a failure. By that measure, the cap and trade system currently being employed by the Europeans looks to be a failure, as we’ll see.


So that means the first major climate policy we should adopt is not a cap & trade, but

Requiring all new coal power plants to meet an “emission performance” standard that limits CO2 emissions to levels achievable with CCS systems.

This is the 2007 recommendation of Ken Berlin and Robert M. Sussman in a Center for American Progress Report, Global Warming and the Future of Coal: The Path to Carbon Capture and Storage (summary here). It is also the goal of a bill introduced last month by Waxman and Markey, “Moratorium on Uncontrolled Power Plants Act” (see here).

[Yes, regular readers will note that this does represent a bit of a shift in my thinking — I once thought the most urgent climate policy was getting a price for carbon dioxide — but the recent news from Europe about the possible resurgence of coal power should change everyone’s thinking.]

NYT: “Despite Climate Worry, Europe Turns to Coal

The New York Times had a stunning report last week:

Over the next five years, Italy will increase its reliance on coal to 33 percent from 14 percent. Power generated by Enel from coal will rise to 50 percent.

And Italy is not alone in its return to coal. Driven by rising demand, record high oil and natural gas prices, concerns over energy security and an aversion to nuclear energy, European countries are slated to put into operation about 50 coal-fired plants over the next five years, plants that will be in use for the next five decades….

There have been protests here in Civitavecchia [Italy], at a new coal plant in Germany, and at one in the Czech Republic, as well as at the Kingsnorth power station in Kent, which is slated to become Britain’s first new coal-fired plant in more than a decade.

What is especially worrisome is that this is all happening at a time when Europe has capped its emissions and created a trading system for carbon dioxide resulting in a pretty serious price: ‚¬24.55 a ton (see here), which is $38/ton of CO2, or $140 a ton of carbon — real money!

And yet, as Berlin and Sussman assess US politics climate politics:

In the current U.S. political environment, a cap-and-trade system is unlikely to result in a sufficiently high market price for CO2 (around $30 per ton) in the early years of a carbon control regime to assure that all coal plant developers adopt CCS systems. At lower carbon prices, plant developers could well conclude that it is more economical to build uncontrolled SCPC [supercritical pulverized coal] plants and then purchase credits to offset their emissions. A carbon tax that is not set at a sufficiently high level likely would have the same consequences.

I certainly agree with that assessment — getting to $30 per ton of CO2 ($100/ton of carbon) in this country is not going to happen quickly. It could easily take a decade or more, a decade we simply don’t have. And, of course, now we know that $30 per ton seems unlikely to stop traditional coal.

According to the Times, the scenario Berlin and Sussman warned about is occurring in Europe:

The European Union, through its emissions trading scheme, has tried to make power plants consider the costs of carbon, forcing them to buy “permits” for emissions. But with the price of oil so high, coal is far cheaper, even with the cost of permits to pollute factored in, Enel has calculated.

Certainly Enel’s decision is incredibly shortsighted. The European permit price is obviously too low. Indeed, it is safe to say that the price must rise until building traditional coal plants is non-economic.


This could not, however, be a stand-alone policy. Obviously, this emissions standard would work only in the context of other policies — including a cap and trade plus other incentives to accelerate renewables like concentrated solar power into the marketplace and an aggressive push to redesign state utility regulations to encourage energy efficiency and, ideally, cogeneration. Those policies will be the subject of a later part of this series.

Berlin and Sussman suggest that to give the new standard some flexibility, “all plants that begin construction after 2008 could be subject to the standard and would be required to implement carbon capture technology by 2013, and then to meet all sequestration requirements by 2016.” They also suggest that “while CCS technology is being perfected, plant developers during the first three years in which the new performance standard is in effect could have the option to construct traditional coal plants that do not capture and sequester CO2 if they offset on a one-to-one basis their CO2 emissions by taking one or more of the following steps:”

  • Improving efficiencies and lowering CO2 emissions at existing plants
  • Retiring existing coal or natural gas units that generate CO2 emissions
  • Constructing previously unplanned renewable fuel power plants representing up to 25 percent of the generation capacity of the new coal plant.

That simply goes too far for me. I don’t want some utility building a brand-new (traditional) coal plant that could last for 50 to 80 years and “offsetting” that by shutting down some decades old coal plant that wasn’t going to last many more decades anyway. No, if CCS takes a bit longer to develop than people hope, the country can certainly live without new coal plants for a few years — especially if we have an aggressive energy efficiency and renewable energy deployment strategy.

And yes, it is entirely possible that CCS simply does not prove practical on a large scale or does not turn out to be a low-cost option. If so, coal has little future in this country. My best projection today (and I’ll blog on this more later) is that CCS is going to be both less practical and more expensive than people think, that it certainly won’t be the low-cost option, but the jury is out on whether it will be an affordable option.

So far, neither the administration nor the coal industry has done a very good job of pursuing the one that technology that can keep coal from extinction, see “In seeming flipflop, Bush drops mismanaged ‘NeverGen’ clean coal project.” Relatedly, the centerpiece climate legislation in the Senate does not do a good job of promoting CCS cost-effectively — see” Maximizing Carbon Capture and Storage Under the Lieberman Warner Global Warming Bill.”

I certainly endorse a strong effort to find out as quickly as possible if coal with CCS can deliver significant quantities of affordable carbon-free power, such as Berlin and Sussman suggest:

  • An enhanced R&D program for capture technologies at both SCPC and IGCC [Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle] facilities to reduce the costs of capture as quickly as possible
  • An accelerated program to gain largescale experience with sequestration for a range of geologic formations
  • A comprehensive national inventory of potential storage reservoirs
  • A new regulatory framework for evaluating, permitting, monitoring, and remediating sequestration sites and allocating liability for long-term CO2 storage.

The bottom line is that we need an immediate moratorium on the construction of new traditional coal plants. That is a higher priority than a cap & trade bill, although such a bill is also a high priority. If the West cannot stop building such coal plants and quickly show the world that multiple alternatives — particularly efficiency and renewables — are practical and affordable, then how will we be able to convince the developing world, especially China and India, to stop building such coal plants within the decade?


Is such a moratorium politically possible right now? That is unclear — but it must be pointed out that Sen. Obama’s excellent climate plan (see here) says:

Obama believes that the imperative to confront climate change requires that we prevent a new wave of traditional coal facilities in the U.S. and work aggressively to transfer low-carbon coal technologies around the world….

Obama will use whatever policy tools are necessary, including standards that ban new traditional coal facilities, to ensure that we move quickly to commercialize and deploy low carbon coal technology. Obama’s stringent cap on carbon will also make it uneconomic to site traditional coal facilities and discourage the use of existing inefficient coal facilities.

Clinton’s excellent plan (here) aggressively pushes demonstration of CCS, but does not appear quite as strong as Obama’s: “She will require all new coal plants to be capable of adding capture and storage technology when it becomes commercially available.” That is not good enough, since it will be quite expensive for the vast majority of plants to make such retrofits if they don’t integrate actual CCS into their design and construction.

As for McCain, well, he has no plan yet, so he isn’t even at the table yet.

Finally, the failure to stop building coal without CCS over the next few years is not fatal to achieving 450 ppm — but it would mean that unless someone comes up with a practical and affordable post-combustion CCS technology, most of those coal plants plants will have to be shut down before the end of their normal lifetime, possibly much soooner. And would be not merely politically unpopular, but a tremendous waste of capital that should be avoided at all cost.

Related Posts:

36 Responses to Is 450 ppm politically possible? Part 4: The most urgent climate policy (and it isn’t a CO2 price)

  1. David B. Benson says:

    Ugh. Wave goodby to the future, methinks…

  2. Over the next five years, Italy will increase its reliance on coal to 33 percent from 14 percent. Power generated by Enel from coal will rise to 50 percent.

    You can thank the Italian moratorium on nuclear power for that one.

    Much like corn ethanol, Europe is discovering the law of unintended consequences.

  3. Joe says:

    There It is little doubt that a moratorium on coal makes more sense than a moratorium on nuclear power. That said, given the current cost and bottlenecks in the nuclear industry, I doubt that could have substituted for much of this.

  4. OregonJ says:

    Here is the scorecard on this among the 3 candidates:

    H. Clinton – Yes, I support a moratorium
    B. Obama – Yes, I support a moratorium ‘if necessary’
    J. McCain – I support a moratorium only if we build enough nuclear plants in exchange, and give the nuclear power industry $100s of billions in pork

  5. Joe, just a note: as I read Obama’s plan, it falls short of a moratorium on uncontrolled coal plants. “Standards that ban new traditional coal facilities” could just mean banning new pulverized coal plants and requiring “CCS-ready” coal gasification (IGCC) plants, but not necessarily plants that start with CCS installed. I assume that’s what he means. Even John Edwards, who took the strongest stance against coal in the primary (among the top three candidates) stopped short of a total ban on unsequested plants, and clarified that he meant CCS-ready plants only.

    While a ban on pulverized coal plants would go a long way, it falls short of what you are advocating in this post I think.

  6. Paul K says:

    450 ppm is necessary to prevent the end of creation, out of control feedback Hansen-Romm hyper warming projection. This projection is far greater than the IPCC and the consensus view in climate science. Since global governments are enjoined to use the IPCC as the basis for policy, the answer is 450 is not politically possible. Governments should not base their policies on the worst case scenario. Banning coal plants without something in place to to take their place is pie in the sky.

  7. Joe,

    Thanks for this thoughtful post. I’m impressed by your honesty about the limitations of what cap and trade, and a price for carbon, can achieve.

    In the next day or two we’ll be posting a long-ish essay of the politics of dealing with global warming, both in light of the McCain-Clinton calls for a tax holiday, your essay, and the potential cap and trade Senate vote next month.


  8. Joe says:

    Michael — I appreciate your comment.

    But don’t take what I think is pretty clear evidence that only a direct government regulation — an emissions standard — can stop new coal plants fast enough, to mean that a cap is pointless. Far from it — the cap/trade allows the market to figure out the most cost-effective substitute for coal.

    And remember, since we both want an 80% reduction by 2050, we’re ultimately going to have to shut down a lot of coal plants.

    And what I urge you to think hard about it is the fact there is no technology, existing or breakthrough, that has any chance whatsoever of causing somebody to shut down an existing coal plant down — in the absence of a strong cap/price.

  9. Joe,

    Nice post, I fully agree, with two notes:

    1) We need to hear people calling as loudly for a moratorium on tar sands and other unconventional oil development as we are for coal. Hansen’s recent paper that suggested we could continue to burn oil if we had a moratorium on coal also assumed no significant exploitation of tar sands (I think he used 2001 production numbers). We are significantly above that now, and investment is streaming into Alberta. Meanwhile pipelines and new refineries are being built south of the border that will lock in this carbon intensive option for a long time. Those fights are now.

    2) As you know, its not so much that we can afford to burn all or most of the remaining oil and gas, as its that we can afford (in theory) to emit as much CO2 as is currently in those reserves. But there are values inherent in how we frame that choice. In the US, and in the OECD overall, the dominant source of emissions is oil from transport, and that will likely continue. In many (most) developing countries, its coal, in theory for electrification and energy for many who don’t have it (I say in theory only because too often the reality is new coal plants to power factories manufacturing goods for export…).

    So, isn’t it just a bit uncomfortable for us in the North to be insisting on a coal moratorium while we are doing little about our own dominant source of emissions?

    None of this should be construed to say we don’t need a moratorium on new coal, particularly in the US and industrialized nations. We absolutely do. But I am concerned that the framing of we can “survive the burning of almost all of the world’s conventional oil and gas” ignores the equity aspect of this argument.

  10. Joe says:

    Paul K — I am quite confused by your post.

    The IPCC clearly calls for limiting carbon dioxide concentrations to below 450 ppm. If you missed that, you haven’t been reading this blog or their reports.

    Start here:

    This is not just the whim of me and Hansen. Please!

    Second — we have a clear substitute for new coal here in the states: efficiency plus concentrated solar thermal. New coal is absurdly expensive now. If we had a sensible set of utility regulations, nobody would build a new coal plant simply as a matter of cost- ineffectiveness.

  11. Joe says:


    Your points are well taken, which is why I was saying at the end that the West has no credibility to tell others not to use coal until we stop using it. If Paul K were right — if there were not a bunch of plausible affordable alternatives — then it would be game over. Fortunately he isn’t right.

    I will be blogging on this later in the series, but clearly we’re going to use all of the natural gas. Peak oil is really the only thing that is going to slow down oil consumption. Yes, the world will have to be adult enough to ban most forms of unconventional oil by, say, 2020.

    But everything starts with the moratorium on traditional coal.

  12. Joe:

    I guess what I’m saying is we might find we gain even more credibility by tackling our own biggest source of emissions – oil.

    And by 2020, I doubt we’re going to be able to have an adult conversation about the billions in tar sands infrastructure that is being built now that needs to be stranded…”a tremendous waste of capital that should be avoided at all cost.”

  13. Joe, You write:

    Finally, the failure to stop building coal without CCS over the next few years is not fatal to achieving 450 ppm — but it would mean that unless someone comes up with a practical and affordable post-combustion CCS technology, most of those coal plants plants will have to be shut down before the end of their normal lifetime, possibly much soooner.

    I’m hearing that the cost of capture for the air capture technologies could be feasible at $50 and maybe even $30/ ton of CO2. Where does air capture fit into your analysis?

  14. David B. Benson says:

    $140 per ton of carbon is about $126 per tonne of carbon. That’s enough money, I believe, to produce carbonaceous materials from biomass via pyrolysis or torrification (and maybe even hydrothermal carbonization) and then deeply burying the stuff in abandoned mines or carbon landfills.

    If utilities actually had to pay that as a price of emitting CO2, that looks like about enough $$ to put the equivalent amount of carbon back underground.d

    Altrnatively, the utilities could just burn the carbonaceous materials produced from biomass and forget about burning coal.

  15. Kirk, the Italian nuclear moratorium was a smart and progressive policy enacted at a time when Italians still had some sense. As Joe recently posted (, Italy is already in deep trouble trying to get rid of its nuclear waste accumulated over less than 30 years of operation, just imagine where we would be (speaking as an Italian) had we continued the nuclear program.

    The current coal resurgence is more of a function of the conservative turn in Italian politics and the shamefully short-sighted world-view of most Italians. Climate change is barely discussed in the American presidential race, but in Italy it was a non-issue altogether. Just to give you an idea of how desperate the environmental scene is in Italy, the Greens decided to form a coalition with the communist party and ended up losing more votes than ever, with the neo-fascist and bigoted Lega Nord winning over all of their former populist base.

  16. tidal says:

    Michael Schellenberger writes: “I’m hearing that the cost of capture for the air capture technologies could be feasible at $50 and maybe even $30/ ton of CO2. Where does air capture fit into your analysis?”

    Where are you hearing that? This would certainly be a welcome “breakthrough” but I find it difficult to fathom that this could be done at scale for that cost. I note that you referring strictly to the “capture” aspect, and not the all-in cost including storage… Obviously capture from ambient air has theoretical advantages, such as the ability to locate the capture points nearby the storage points. But even given that, I still find it hard to believe that we are near achieving those capture costs for ambient air – it’s inevitably much more expensive than capture of removing concentrated carbon emissions at point sources…

    Anyhow, I am sure we’d all like to hear more from your sources… it would be a welcome development for sure… it would surprise the hell out of me, but I would love that kind of surprise…

  17. Italy is already in deep trouble trying to get rid of its nuclear waste accumulated over less than 30 years of operation, just imagine where we would be (speaking as an Italian) had we continued the nuclear program.

    Wow, at this point you might have enough to cover a basketball court.

    Congratulations on all your new coal. Sounds like a “smart and progressive policy” to me.

  18. Joe says:

    Michael: I have one wedge of coal with CCS — and that is probably optimistic. As I wrote in Part 2, “Why not more than 1 wedge of CCS? That one wedge represents a flow of CO2 into the ground equal to the current flow of oil out of the ground. It would require, by itself, re-creating the equivalent of the planet’s entire oil delivery infrastructure.”

    You write: “I’m hearing that the cost of capture for the air capture technologies could be feasible at $50 and maybe even $30/ ton of CO2. Where does air capture fit into your analysis?”

    The price you are talking about is what people are putting in PPT projections, nothing more. Yes, it is a technology worth pursuing.

    But it is hard to see how pulling CO2 out of the air when it is in concentrations of 385 parts per million could possibly be cheaper than capturing it from a very concentrated 100,000 pppm stream post-combustion, or even higher precombustion.

    And where will you put it? One wedge is 3.67 billion tons of CO2 — even liquefied (which takes a lot of energy) it equals, as I noted, the current flow of oil out of the ground.

    So one wedge of captured CO2 — no matter how is captured — by 2050 is probably very optimistic. I see air capture as a post-2050 strategy, possibly post-2100. If CO2 storage on a wide scale proves practical and affordable, then IGCC with CCS, or even post-combustion capture at coal plants seems likelier to me.

  19. Eli Rabett says:

    An interesting place to grab the CO2 from would be cement kilns. OTOH Michael Schellenberger is probably hearing that from Roger Pielke Jr. who is a great fan of CO2 air capture and cheerleads newspaper articles on it. It never made any sense.

  20. Peter Wood says:

    It is not surprising that generation using oil is being replaced with generation using coal. The Stern review estimates that a US$100 price for crude oil compared to the 2003 price is equivalent to a price of $196 per tonne of CO2 (p257). If the EU can build more non-CCS coal fired power plants and reduce emissions by 20% by 2020, then perhaps this cap is far too weak. If the emissions cap at present so weak enough that more coal fired plants are built which lock in more emissions or are expensive to replace at a later date then perhaps this is not optimal. If the cap in a cap and trade system was chosen correctly then there would not be a need for policies like regulations banning non CCS coal fired power. If the cap is too weak then perhaps there is merit in redundancy.

    I am somewhat concerned that some of the technology policy related to CCS is ‘picking winners’. By all means fund RD&D in CCS technologies, but don’t do so at the expense of other technologies. If CCS turns out to be significantly deployable (I personally have my doubts), then coal miners are likely to be significant beneficiaries. Some CCS RD&D should be funded by a levy on coal mined.

  21. Thom says:

    Gee, I wonder where Shellenberger is “hearing that the cost of capture for the air capture technologies could be feasible.” Sounds like a Pielke Jr. meme.

    By the way, Eli Rabett has a post up noting that yet another Breakthrough Institute scholar has links back to a denialist think tank.

    This time, it’s the Marshall Institute. Who would have ever guessed?

  22. Eli Rabett says:

    Let me add, that I think the question that Joe Romm put is the most important one, but even before that, there is the issue of whether we can immediately start down the path toward reducing emissions. I would hate to get caught in the trap of why do anything if we can’t right away get to the ideal set of actions.

    For example, improving coal power plant efficiency by 20-30% with cogeneration would be something worth thinking about, especially if the plant could later be retrofitted for capture.

  23. For example, improving coal power plant efficiency by 20-30% with cogeneration would be something worth thinking about, especially if the plant could later be retrofitted for capture.

    How would this work? Would you move whole towns right next to the coal plant so that they could use waste heat from the plant for hot water and home heating?

    With the added benefit that they could breathe the filth of the coal plant up-close-and-personal.

  24. Paul K says:

    I’m actually glad to hear 450 ppm is not tied directly to the worst case scenario, but is, apparently also necessary for the midrange IPCC 3C warming. I still think it is politically impossible to get a global moratorium of new coal plants. It is highly unlikely in the U.S. in any time soon. The improbability of a moratorium, oddly enough, strengthens your call for maximized deployment. How many wedges does it take to replace the energy produced by coal? Can CSP do it alone?

  25. Can CSP stop coal alone? First of all, CSP would have to be baseload, and it’s not, at least not without super-TES.

    Next you have to build the HVDC network to get the juice from all the CSP plants in the Southwest to the rest of the country where the people are. That’s not going to be cheap or easy. People hate transmission lines.

    All said, however, I would greatly favor a ban on new coal plants. Worldwide would be even better, but I’d settle for just the US.

  26. Eli Rabett says:

    Kirk, a lot of heat is used for industrial processing. Of course, all the industry is in China now. . . .

  27. Not the low-grade heat you’re talking about using through cogeneration. There’s a reason it’s called “waste heat”…because it’s hardly good for anything. The only way to use it is to literally live right next door to it, because its value is so low that transporting it loses whatever it’s worth.

  28. hapa says:

    looks like coal’s heading past 4 wedges now with china making up all the growth. the answer to that is no one wedge. combinations of small solar (PV and home thermal), big wind, and vehicle, building, and process efficiency, can cover that in the short term, if we don’t try to fossil-fuel our way out of the money mess.

  29. The fact that Roger and I are interested in air capture doesn’t mean we’re advocates of it. Air capture is a technology that we should take seriously.

    In a recent post, Roger lays out some concerns about it, arguing that bio-char may be more cost effective and easy to implement:

  30. Eli Rabett says:

    Air capture is the Nigerian scam letter of climate policy and about the last thing to invest anything but the buck you buy the odd lottery ticket with. As Joe and others said anyone who understands about entropy knows that you want to extract CO2 from places where it is a lot more concentrated. This leaves us with the question of why would anyone push this obvious loser.

    There is a simple answer, CO2 capture at the source (fossil fuel power plants, cement kilns) imposes a cost on the fossil fuel industry. Air capture is another Treasury raid (as well as silly, work out the energy and materials cost).

  31. Eli Rabett says:

    Sorry to double post, but it struck me that without worrying whether air capture was feasible, if you postulate that it is, by definition capture at power plants is easier hand you get a zillion wedges. Air capture as a policy objective is either silly, or unnecessary. Pick one. (and yes I know about cars)

  32. David Lewis says:

    Reading about air capture of CO2 as described by Los Alamos was interesting as they described their technique of carbon dioxide capture that was more efficient than anything I’ve heard from the coal industry touts talking up their CCS. Otherwise it did seem ludicrous that they would be considering using air rather than the emissions from a coal plant or some other high CO2 source. You’d think they’d look into making gasoline out of the CO2 someone else extracted for them from a coal plant that was just going to cost the coal plant money to pipe over to a sequestration site – they could be paid to “dispose” of the CO2 by making gasoline out of it. Its only two scientists and they haven’t built anything: still it is interesting that they thought it could be done for $4.50 a gallon. I think there was an element of let’s show them how preposterous these coal people are when they dither over carbon capture and say they can only do 90% to this research.

    Coal industry CCS seems preposterous to me. The trillion dollar worldwide coal industry can’t come up with one full scale demonstration plant at any level of CO2 removal anywhere in the world so far even with various levels of government assistance. Obviously, they feel that there will be no real threat to the plants they build in the meantime in the way of forced expensive retrofit at their own expense so they are putting them in as fast as they can, and the endless delay and cancellation of the proposed full scale CCS plants is a shell game that will end only with the election of more convinced governments, especially in the US.

    Proof of how entrenched these interests feel is Bush’s performance on the last day he was in Japan for the G8 meeting where, once he thought there were no press present and he wouldn’t be reported, he pumped his fist into the air with a big grin saying “goodbye from the world’s biggest polluter” as if he was proud of it, to the shock and dismay of the Prime Minister of the UK and the President of France who were nearby.

    Policy discussion ought to include statements that coal plants with no greenhouse gas emission controls built since, say, 1988, or some date in the 1990s, are subject to forced retrofit or closure if they can’t meet whatever minimal standard, say 100% emission reduction, is decided on, because the people building them had to know there would be a price on carbon emissions soon, that they were busy opposing in any way they could all this time.

    I’m with Hansen on this point, the fossil fuel industry knew twenty years ago there would come a time, soon if they didn’t do everything they could to oppose it which they did, or later, when greenhouse gas emissions would be taxed. It may well be that Hansen will be testifying at the trials of some of these CEOs when an aroused and enraged human population, at last awake to their peril decides to bring some of the main people responsible for the long delay in taking action to trial.

    I don’t follow all this concern about whether it is most important to implement an effective carbon price or that it would be better to stop coal fired power plant construction. Either would take more political will than is available anywhere in the world now, and either could be chosen as part of an overall plan aimed at achieving a stable atmosphere at some reasonable level of greenhouse gas, say 350 ppm equivalent, if sufficient political will were to develop. It isn’t an argument to me that a given level of carbon price has not been effective: jack it up and up and up until it is effective. The theory is sound. If you say there isn’t political will to make it effective but there is enough political will to achieve the same target ppm in some other way I’d say you were smoking something a lot stronger than anything anyone else has on hand.

    Bloggers are simply not going to be the ones making the decisions when the time comes: why is it so important for many who educate themselves about climate to take on this task of coming up with a solution that makes sense to them given that no one can predict what technology will be developed by an aroused civilization taking on a threat to its existence or how fast and how many resources will be or can be applied by that civilization at that time? At least we can use very broad stokes when thinking up possible solutions.

    Hansen is circulating a paper where he talks about the ideas of an engineer Tom Blees, whose “Prescription for the Planet” is or is about to be published. Hansen says Blees says its possible to build nuclear reactors that run on the high level wastes produced by the past generations of reactors that produce far less waste themselves which decays in shorter time frames. Why store it in Yucca Mountain or anywhere else when you can burn it? More than 95% of the potentially extractable energy is still in the waste, and Blees says almost all of it can be utilized in his proposed design. In any case I think it is a mistake to reject nuclear as if it were worse than global climate change or as if we don’t need anything we can get, or as if the delays in construction caused by a public that does not understand the climate threat will continue once it does. If a nuclear plant can be designed to burn the wastes of the old plants without fear of melting down why not crank them out on an assembly line and put them in as fast as required? A country awake to a threat as great as WWII was to the US could do it.

  33. G.R.L. Cowan says:

    “… anyone who understands about entropy knows that you want to extract CO2 from places where it is a lot more concentrated. This leaves us with the question of why would anyone push this obvious loser”, says Eli Rabett of “air capture”, the capture of CO2 from air.

    But CO2 capture by pulverized alkaline earth silicates increases entropy. It occurs spontaneously, and has spontaneously demonstrated itself in mine tailings. It is a winner.

  34. Bruce says:


    Thanks for the words of wisdom! I agree with your conclusions and think they are important.

    I just have one little query about your bar graph. Is it possible you have left out the fraction of the emitted CO2 that is absorbed by the environment rather than staying in the atmosphere? I believe that is roughly around half of the CO2 at present.

    To see this, add up the “Emissions (1751-2006)”, i.e. the black parts of the bars. They seem to add up to something over 200 ppm whereas the known rise in CO2 in that time is around 100 ppm – from ~280 ppm to ~380 ppm.

    Thus the bar graph would tend to over-estimate the predicted rise in atmospheric CO2 by, naively, around a factor of 2.

    (I also did a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation of the expected CO2 rise from known coal reserves and it seemed to confirm this.)

    In reality, the oceans’ uptake of some of the CO2 excess may well saturate when the excess gets large. Also, any feedback mechanisms are left out. So the naive calculation does not illustrate the full potential danger of dumping so much excess CO2 in the atmosphere.

    Just to repeat that I appreciate your articles and absolutely agree with your qualitative analysis and conclusions.


  35. Bruce says:

    EDIT: …To see this, add up the “Emissions (1751-2006)”, i.e. the black parts of the bars. They seem to add up to something [s]over 200 ppm[/s] around 160 ppm (by eye) …

  36. Bruce says:

    Apologies for posting this over 3 entries but here is a slightly more rigorous reasoning of my comment immediately above.

    The following quotes are from the IPCC Fourth Assessment, Working Group 1 Report “The Physical Science Basis”, Technical Summary, link:

    (page 25)
    “The concentration of atmospheric CO2 has increased from a pre-industrial value of about 280 ppm to 379 ppm in 2005.”

    “Since 1750, it is estimated that about 2/3rds of anthropogenic CO2 emissions have come from fossil fuel burning and about 1/3rd from land use change. About 45% of this CO2 has remained in the atmosphere, while about 30% has been taken up by the oceans and the remainder
    has been taken up by the terrestrial biosphere.”

    So the rise in atmospheric CO2 from fossil fuel burning was (379 ppm-280 ppm) x 2/3 = 66 ppm.

    This number would be in reasonable agreement with your graph only after multiplying the latter by the above-stated ‘airborne fraction’ of 45%:

    ~160 ppm x 0.45 = ~72 ppm.

    So the respectful suggestion is that you might want to mention and clarify the treatment of this airborne fraction in your graph, and perhaps change the graph if this is an issue. This would tidy up your otherwise excellent article in an excellent series of articles.

    Thanks again,