Carbon Fork

Carbon Fork

Part 3 of a 10-part series on how energy, technology, sunshine, carbon, grass, soil, cows, birds and the prosperity of all life on Earth are connected.

In Part 1, I shared my personal obsession with energy, and in Part 2, about how revolutionary change, including in our energy systems, comes by way of evolution. Today in Part 3, we’re going to talk about a coming fork in the road having to do with carbon.

Our fossil energy age brought tremendous prosperity to the planet. There are billions of people alive, clothed and fed today only because we discovered vast resources captured from ancient sunlight in liquid and gaseous form and conveniently gathered in accessible pools economically within reach from the surface of the planet. We developed myriad technologies to tap that plentiful resource to power getting around, turn the lights on, stay warm (or cool) and even make new forms of useful materials called “plastics.”

Some people may think that’s a bad thing, but not me. Still, it’s got big problems. Although we’ve always known these petroleum products had drawbacks, few of us (including myself) fully appreciated the significant downside in warming the planet. 

The basic physics of that part of the problem was understood a long time ago. In 1856, Eunice Foote discovered that the sun’s rays would heat up a jar filled with CO2 more than one filled with air, oxygen, or hydrogen. It’s interesting to note that that’s 2 years before Colonel Drake drilled his first oil well.

But let’s admit that the planet is not a ball in a jar, so how all of the many complex variables interrelated for net effect planetary surface temperature was much less than clear – at least back then. Although we still don’t understand it perfectly today, we do understand it well enough. The bottom line: for every doubling of atmospheric CO2 from pre-industrial levels, the average temperature on the surface of the Earth goes up by about 3 °C (~5 °F).

Although even larger swings have happened in Earth’s deep past, none have happened so fast as the current human-induced effect of rapidly re-releasing carbon into the atmosphere.  Those prior swings had very significant impact on the conditions for life on the surface of the planet, so we have good reason to be concerned.

So here we are – only beginning to live the side-effects of injecting CO2 into the atmosphere as part of the price of our prosperity enabled by cheap, abundant energy.  Although it’s a bit arbitrary, scientists and policy makers think in terms of how to limit the warming effects of our energy system to staying under an maximum increase of 1.5 °C (~2.5 °F).  There’s not just one way to do this, so different scientists create “scenarios” about CO2 emission “pathways” that would allow us to stay under that ceiling. Here is what the average of 78 of those scenarios looks like:

That’s quite a u-turn in our aggregate global emissions! Note that these scenarios are anchored in an assumption that we peak emissions now, and then find a way to drive their decline faster than they went up. The astute among you may also notice that they end up going negative – meaning we need to take carbon out of the air that’s already there. That’s because accumulated carbon will keep things warming even after we stop emitting, so at some point, the carbon literally needs to come back down.

So now let’s go back to the energy trends and projections I showed in Part 2, but now look at them in terms to total energy production, not just percentages. For simplicity, I’m going to assume that the highly linear 50-year trend of absolute energy consumption just keeps going – a very plausible assumption, in my opinion, as more and more of the world’s people’s work to join the modern age of technology, mobility and comfort.

So now here’s that chart with the renewables in green and everything else in gray, and the same dashed blue line from Part 2 added for clarity:

If we can do anything close to that profile, I would consider it a remarkable human achievement and would already reflect a nearly wonderous story of the successful integration of technology, policy and business.

Unfortunately, there’s more to the story. Using the historical average unit CO2e emissions associated with non-renewable energy consumption, I can then make a forecast of the implied emissions associated with the above wonderous success story (black dashed line):

It, too, is pretty impressive in terms of turning emissions around and getting them back to zero. But note that it a) rolls over more slowly than the previously shown 1.5C scenario lines, and b) doesn’t go negative. It can’t go negative because solar panels and wind turbines avoid new emissions, they don’t remove old ones.

I’ve now also included the difference between the 1.5C average scenario line and the optimistic projection line and shaded that area orange. That’s how much carbon we would have to take out of the atmosphere above-and-beyond how much we avoid emitting in order to keep temperature under the 1.5 °C ceiling. Academics might quibble with the simplicity of some of my assumptions, but I feel comforted that we get much the same answer as those who put much more time into such an exercise.

Bottom line: we need at least 10-20 GtCO2e per year of additional carbon sinks on top of eliminating successfully eliminating emissions along such a pathway. That’s 10 to 20 billion metric tons of CO2 each year - an amount that would fit in 100-200 million rail cars in a train wrapping around the Earth 50-100 times! However, that same mass of CO2 would leave less than a 0.5 millimeter-thick dusting each year if spread as organic matter across all of the agricultural land on Earth!

Regardless of how we do it, those sinks in my model are front-end loaded so we really don’t have time to waste to start loading the train. To be clear, removing carbon from the atmosphere is not an alternative to emission reduction, but is an absolute requirement in addition to it. The best time to start taking carbon out of the air was 20 years ago, but the second-best time is right now.

We are thus at a proverbial fork in the road in how to remove a whole lot of carbon from the air – a carbon fork. In my view, one way leads to another bad Hollywood movie, and the other to hopeful prosperity. Good people might disagree which is which, but I’m sure you can guess which one I think is most attractive. In future posts I will explain why.

In part 4, I will give you a peak at how my energy-obsessed mind sees some barriers ahead on the old and comforting road made of concrete and steel. In Part 5, I’ll return to share my view on the possibilities of an alternative road - a path, made not of gold, but of grass and trees and birds and bees where all life thrives because that’s how the energy system of Earth works.

Until next time…

Russ Conser

Co-Founder & CEO of Blue Nest Beef

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