Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Using geoengineering to save us from climate change

My evaluation (for the Global Climate Change Situation Room, GCCSR)

of a proposal to handle climate change..

First, the proposal:

On Oct 19, 2010, at 10:44 PM, Jerome C. Glenn wrote:

Check out Solutions' new feature article: "Geoengineering: The Inescapable

Truth of Getting to 350" by Charles H. Greene, Bruce C. Monger, and Mark



While geoengineering may be one of the most controversial solutions

proposed for getting to 350ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere, the authors argue

that it will be essential to reaching this goal by the end of this


The authors believe that one technology in particular has great promise,


paired with an aggressive emissions-reduction plan.

Read it here:


My evaluation:


Most of us would be very interested in the important question this article


what does it take to keep CO2 from rising above 350 ppm?

Systems people might prefer a slightly sharper version of the question: how

can we minimize the cost and maximize the probability

of CO2 not rising above 350 OR of getting the environmental damage which a

CO2 above 350 would imply?

Real optimizers usually would want to fine tune almost any strategy, to try

to do a little

better. In that spirit, here are some comments on how to tune or interpret

(or implement) what this article offers...

in addressing that question.


First two sections:

The article begins by discussing how serious the problem may be. I won't

focus on that, since that's not the question

posed above. But it's interesting that they discuss the risk that sea level

might rise by EIGHTY meters. Peter Ward

of U. Washington will be discussing similar issues at NSF in a few days. (I

can't go due to other commitments.) IPCC

people were estimating a 5-20% probability of a 20 meter sea level rise,

under business as usual and what was known a few years ago.

That's already risky to human species survival, if one accounts for all the

downstream things which might follow.

When I tracked these issues last year from an office in the Senate, this

flooding risk was by far the most important

worst-case risk from rising CO2 levels.

"Averting Catastrophic Climate change."

The authors say that there is little chance that we could reduce CO2 enough

in time by emission reductions alone.

That's only a half truth. In the US, at least, petroleum is the fuel which

accounts for the most emissions.

On a technology level, best guess is that it would only take 20 to 25 years

for the US to become

100% independent from fossil oil, at little or no net overall cost to the


**IF** we took the right action. (In all fairness, I would claim to know the

integrated picture of this better than anyone else on earth. See For example, IEEE has gotten me access to the

engineers on the front lines

of this technology, to the folks at Toyota leading their efforts, and to key

battery manufacturers in China. NSF efforts on nonfuel biofuels have also


a crucial start.) The biggest single emissions SECTOR is electric power

(which I now handle at NSF).

There have been impressive breakthroughs in Carbon Capture and Reuse (CCR)

which could be deployed rather widely

within 20 years, with the right incentives, and CO2 prices no greater than

$30/ton at most.

HOWEVER -- due to lack of will and action (and coherent thinking in the

policy world), I have to agree that the chances are looking pretty dismal.

Thus as a matter of rationality, and of hedging our bets, it is very

sensible for folks at the R&D level to find ways to

prepare for a high probability of continued failure to deploy emission

reduction technology fast enough. The kinds of actions endorsed in the

article are important

at this point.

"Geoengineering Options"

The article recommends a mixed portfolio, a combination of two kinds of

action, above and beyond continued efforts

aimed at emissions control:

1. Solar Radiation Management (SRM)

2. Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR)

I agree with that.

1. SRM

With SRM they mention three key options -- sulfate aerosols, seawater

droplets or other cloud condensation nuclei, and mirrors in space.

The article does not sound so excited about exploring these three, because

they are unproven and because costs may be high.

But I would not be so negative. The whole point of the geoengineering

options is to try use R&D (a mostly lower cost activity)

to hedge our bets against the failure of policy by the folks who dispose of

bigger sums of money. And the whole point of R&D is to explore what we do

not yet know. Some of that is positive and some of that is negative. (I

actually have a book chapter in press on strategic thinking for

leadership in S&T which elaborates on such things.) The risk of

acidification of the ocean is not nearly so great as I would have thought

before studying it more closely last year. The worst case risk they are

talking about (according to a deep balanced assessment report from the

Congressional Research Service) is that ocean pH might go down from 8.0 to

7.7 by 2100. That's not nice, but it's nowhere near as large as

other risks we are trading off here. Still, the sulfate cycle can become

lethal under some circumstances (see Ward's book, Under a Green Sky);

we really need to know a lot more about that cycle, and about the ecology

and potential variability of archaea in general,

from atmosphere to deep under the ocean floor and to deep reservoirs under

the land. With water and nucleation, we need to follow up on recent

breakthrough discoveries at NASA regarding the rapid movement of water

vapor. (From the folks watching asteroids, not from the climate models!)

The cost of large space based mirrors might well be made much lower than it

is today; if only I could find a way to get key decision makers to follow up


unmet technical opportunities to get access to space about three orders of

magnitude cheaper than its present cost,

and an order of magnitude cheaper than what I'd expect form the new X37B

technology!! The option is there, and is economically justified by

other benefits ... but no one is doing the key enabling work, which could be

done at a cost as low as $35 million! Would be happy to say more.

ALL of these things really ought to be pushed as hard as we can, to minimize

the chances of catastrophe. Life itself is worth the investment.

It's all about RISK REDUCTION... and that does require doing some high risk

stuff at times. When the bullets are flying at us, we can't afford to wait

for certainty.

2. CDR

For CDR, they rightly stress the great potential of algae as a way to get

low cost removal of CO2 from the atmosphere.

Having 10 minutes left right now, before my next meeting (ironically on

climate satellites under our GEO people)... must be too brief. is one of many good sources. They say they could

convert CO2 to 60% fish food and 40% liquid fuel,

at $60 per barrel crude oil price, if environment permits... after some

demos. The bill I posted at

would provide an effective mechanism to move this along faster. Not only

algae but other microbes would qualify,

and have promise. Sustainability rules are part of the proposed legislation.

But R&D on cutting the cost of

other approaches is also indicated. The long-term economics of extracting

CO2 form flue gas versus atmosphere are

simply not known, and policy should not assume that it is known. The

challenges are to improve the economics of BOTH routes

(especially by more effective R&D) and make sure there are correct

incentives (and kill the market failures) which inhibit both.

This is, again, an urgent matter of life and death, and I thank Jerry for

moving us ahead on it...

Best of luck to us all,


No comments:

Post a Comment