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Setting the climate record straight


The car-friendly guide to fixing human-made greenhouse emissions.

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Setting the climate record straight

Science writer David Biello has totally stuffed an opportunity to clarify what needs to be done about emissions of geological carbon.

Writing in Scientific American (July 2013) he introduces the cumulative limit discovered by Myles Allen, Dave Frame, and several of their colleagues. Allen and his co-workers confirmed what many scientists and commentators had long suspected. The only way to stabilise atmospheric carbon dioxide is to completely phase out emissions from burning fossil fuels. One trillion tonnes of extra carbon in the atmosphere and oceans, would warm the climate by two degrees Celsius, based on our current understanding of the climate system's sensitivity to atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Biello did a pretty good job of explaining that. Then he screwed up. Mightily. He wrote: "Their one-trillion-metric-ton budget encompasses all the carbon that human activity can safely generate between now and the year 2050."

Er... No.

Biello makes two serious mistakes. First, the limit is forever. Second, the limit
applies only to extra carbon added to the atmosphere and oceans.

After Bowerman, 2011, Fig 3The limit is forever because geological carbon is expected to persist in the atmosphere and oceans for tens of thousands of years. Scientists are still arguing about how long it would take for this extra carbon to go back to carbonate rocks or fossils. But they are arguing about whether it will take tens of thousands of years, or hundreds of thousands of years. In human terms, they are arguing about whether man-made global warming is permanent, or whether it is permanent. We know that's right because atmospheric carbon dioxide has increased steadily since direct measurements started in the 1950s. That would not be happening unless carbon dioxide persists for a very long time. Biello wrongly implies that the limit applies to emissions up to the year 2050. Nope.

The second mistake is just as bad. Biello's article implies that carbon dioxide from burning wood boosts atmospheric carbon dioxide. That's not true if the woood comes from sustainably managed forests. Energy forestry is one of the largest potential sources of carbon-neutral crude oil. Burning petrol or diesel made from carbon-neutral crude oil doesn't affect total atmospheric carbon dioxide, because growing energy crops absorb carbon dioxide, balancing tailpipe emissions. NZ could be totally self-sufficient for carbon neutral crude oil, based purely on energy forestry. I suspect the USA and Canada, working together, could achieve the same goal. Australia's potential is so vast that it could become one of the world's largest exporters of crude oil.

The trillion tonne limit has a profound effect on humanity's response to climate change. Most, probably all, of the pathetic nonsense promoted by the greenies is either wrong or stupid. You cannot totally eliminate fossil fuel emissions by building trains, or trams. Battery-powered cars might find a few niche markets, but the technology is nowhere near capable of challenging petrol or diesel cars and trucks.

Back in February I showed that the world can produce more than enough carbon-neutral crude oil to fully satisfy demand. The energy resource is not a constraint. It is not necessary for energy companies to optimise their operations for maximum energy efficiency. I suspect the most important constraint affecting energy companies in a carbon-neutral world will be the availability of capital. However, if people (wrongly) think that reducing annual emissions will make the problem go away, then they will try to maximise energy efficiency. That's totally and completely and utterly pointless. Slowing emissions cannot stabilise atmopsheric carbon dioxide. It merely gives people an excuse to ignore the problem. ("I'm green. Check out my Prius.") If you are aiming at the wrong target, you can't expect to get the outcome you're looking for.

As I said in my June 2013 NZ Trucking article, nothing will happen until governments impose and enforce a total ban on fossil carbon emissions. There is no reason to think such a policy will make petrol, diesel, or jet fuel any less affordable than they are right now.

It's not my job to explain climate science. People like Dave Frame and Myles Allen are paid to do that. I forwarded the Scientific American article to them. It'll be interesting to see what happens next.

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