The United Nations will issue yet another report this year claiming that deep greenhouse gas emission cuts are within reach. As reported by Reuters (emphasis mine):
It says existing national pledges to restrict greenhouse gas emissions are insufficient to limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial times, a U.N. ceiling set in 2010 to limit heatwaves, floods, storms and rising seas.
“Deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions to limit warming to 2 degrees C … remain possible, yet will entail substantial technological, economic, institutional, and behavioral challenges,” according to the draft due for publication in Copenhagen on Nov. 2 after rounds of editing.
Substantial is an understatement. To achieve a better than even chance at keeping global mean annual temperatures from rising less than 2 degrees C, emissions have to peak in 2020 and go negative by 2050. Technologies simply do not exist today that would achieve those difficult tasks while meeting today’s energy demand, let alone the energy demand of 2050.
The following quote points toward understanding the scale of the problem:
Such a shift would also require a tripling or a quadrupling of the share of low-carbon energies including solar, wind or nuclear power, it said.
That’s actually an underestimate of the required low-carbon energies. Because again, achieving <2C warming will require net-negative carbon, not just low carbon. But let’s stick with their estimate for argument’s sake. Low-carbon technologies currently provide 16% of the global energy portfolio. I’m not entirely certain the tripling quote refers to this 16% or not for the following reason: “traditional biomass” (wood and similar materials) represent 10% of the global energy portfolio, or 63% of the low-carbon energies. We’re obviously not going to use more of this material to provide energy to the global energy-poor or industrial nations. Wind, solar, biomass, and geothermal together account for 0.7% of the global energy portfolio. That is a key figure. How many news stories have you seen touting wind and solar deployment? All of those small utility-scale plants globally account for less than 1% of total global energy.
So perhaps the UN is referring to the 16% figure, not the 0.7% figure, because even quadrupling it yields 2.8% of total global energy. But what I just wrote is then even more valid: we need enough new solar, wind, and nuclear deployment have to not only match 15.3% of today’s global energy, but 45% of today’s global energy. How much new low-carbon energy is that? A lot of new low-carbon energy. The US alone would require either 1 million+ 2.5MW wind turbines or 300,000+ 10MW solar thermal plants or 1,000+ 1GW nuclear power plants (more than the total number of today’s nuclear plants – globally). And this doesn’t include any requirements to update national transmission grids or CCS deployment or sequestration topics. As I said, the scale of this problem is vast and is completely glossed over by previous and it looks like current UN reports.
Look, the reasons to decarbonize are valid and well-recognized. Emissions are driving planetary changes at rates that occur only very rarely in geologic history. Those changes will accelerate throughout the 21st century and beyond. Yet this remains the obsessive focus of most climate activists. The problem remains how to achieve deep decarbonization – what policies will facilitate that effort? The fact remains that no economy has decarbonized at requisite rates – and that includes economies that historically widely deployed nuclear and biomass energy. The UN continues to issue reports that are wildly out-of-date the day they’re issued. They do themselves and the world’s population no favors by doing so. We need new methods and new frameworks within which to define and evaluate problems.