Renewable Energy: The Time for Greater Ambition is Now

by John Brian Shannon.

Just as some in the renewable energy world were beginning to imagine that the battle against fossil fuel was largely won and that it was only a matter of time before we achieved 100% renewable energy globally, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has issued a warning informing us that now more than ever, the push for renewable energy must not lose momentum.

That’s on account of our cumulative CO2 additions to the atmosphere which are in the billions of tonnes annually. It’s one thing to add gigatonnes of carbon dioxide and other gases to the atmosphere, but it’s quite another for the Earth’s natural systems to process and absorb those gases out of the atmosphere at the same rate as they are added.

The planet’s natural systems are capable of absorbing up to 40 gigatonnes of CO2 per year which is produced by decaying organic matter and such natural phenomena as forest fires and volcanoes, but it’s not capable of handling an additional 15 gigatonnes of anthropogenic (man-made) carbon dioxide annually.

As the (IPCC) AR5 report has recently said, “the time for greater ambition is now.”

The report concludes that responding to climate change involves making choices about risks in a changing world. The nature of the risks of climate change is increasingly clear, though climate change will also continue to produce surprises. The report identifies vulnerable people, industries, and ecosystems around the world. It finds that risk from a changing climate comes from vulnerability (lack of preparedness) and exposure (people or assets in harm’s way) overlapping with hazards (triggering climate events or trends). Each of these three components can be a target for smart actions to decrease risk.

“We live in an era of man-made climate change,” said Vicente Barros, Co-Chair of Working Group II. “In many cases, we are not prepared for the climate-related risks that we already face. Investments in better preparation can pay dividends both for the present and for the future.”

Why we have Global Warming

It has also been proven that as many gigatonnes of CO2 as cannot be processed annually by natural Earth systems, will linger in the atmosphere for up to 200 years. That means that the present unabsorbed accumulation is an extremely large amount of carbon dioxide which would take 40 years for the planet’s natural systems to process and absorb, if we permanently stopped every internal combustion engine and every man-made combustion source on the planet. We know that’s not going to happen.

This extra 600 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide is the ‘carbon hangover’ which began during the industrial revolution causing the atmosphere to retain more of the Sun’s heat as compared to the benchmark pre-industrial-era atmosphere. Accumulations of CO2 in the planet’s airmass have already increased the global mean temperature by nearly 2º C since the beginning of the industrial revolution in 1760.

There are other greenhouse gases more potent than CO2 which have even more Global Warming Potential (GWP). For instance, sulfur hexafluoride stays in the atmosphere for 3200 years and causes 23,900 times more global warming per tonne, as compared to carbon dioxide.

See a partial list of these gases below:

Global Warming Potentials chart
Global Warming Potentials chart shows different pollutants and their effects

If we had planted an extra 600 million trees forty years ago, we wouldn’t be facing an extra 600 gigatonnes of CO2 now, as a typical large tree can absorb 1 tonne of carbon dioxide per year converting much of it into life-giving oxygen in the process.

As per the IPCC AR5 update of March 31, while a number of things are going right in the energy sector in terms of advancing renewable energy, the lowering of pollution levels in many cities and adding green jobs to the economy, now is not the time to reduce our efforts thereby shirking our responsibilities to future generations.

What happens if we just ignore the problem?

Of course, we could just ignore the entire problem and spend more money on increasing health care costs, non-stop rebuilding of coastal shorelines, and the dual but related costs of severe weather and increasing food prices.

But here is what that looks like.

Climate Action vs. Inaction
The cost of Climate Action vs. Climate Inaction

Scientists have concluded that for each 1º C increase in the global mean temperature, the cost to the world economy is roughly $1 trillion dollars per year.

It’s already a foregone conclusion that we will see a global mean temperature increase of 2º C (minimum) 2001-2100 due to ever-increasing 21st-century accumulations of CO2. That future temperature increase will be in addition to the previous ~2º C increase which took place during the 240 years between 1760-2000.

What the discussion is all about these days, is capping the second global mean temperature increase to 2º C — instead of ‘policy drift’ allowing an even higher level of climate change to occur.

The energy status quo is no longer affordable

The energy status quo is simply no longer an option as we now discover that the cost of climate inaction is higher than the cost of climate action. Switching out of coal via renewable energy and increasing the energy efficiency of buildings and electrical grids might cost us $500 billion globally — but could cap our generation’s contribution to global warming at 2º C.

Interestingly, $500 billion is roughly equal to the annual subsidy paid to the global oil and gas industry, which totalled $550 billion last year.

The last anthropogenic ~2º C temperature increase took place over 240 years, from 1760-2000. The best-case scenario for us 2001-2100 is to hold the next anthropogenic temperature increase to no more than ~2º C (for a grand total increase of ~4º C increase over the 340 year period from 1760-2100). If all the stars were to align perfectly this goal is just barely possible.

But that shouldn’t stop us from trying. As the IPCC has said, “the time for greater ambition is now.”

Clean Energy Ministerial (CEM5) theme: Act Together, Think Creative

Next-up on the agenda for people who care about our planet, the health of our citizens, and the high costs to consumers — who are, after all, the ones footing the climate bill via higher taxes and higher food and health care costs — is the fifth Clean Energy Ministerial (CEM5) meet-up in South Korea May 12-13, 2014.

CEM5 Seoul, South Korea May 12-13, 2014

Clean Energy Ministerial (CEM5) group government ministers and representatives will meet May 12-13, 2014 in Seoul, South Korea, under the theme of “Act Together, Think Creative” which suggests increased collaboration and innovation by the 23 participating governments as the preferred way to achieve real climate action, culminating in a new international climate agreement in 2015.

From the CEM5 website:

With four years of work behind the CEM, this year’s gathering presents an opportunity to evaluate how the CEM has performed to date and plan for how this global forum can be more effective and ambitious going forward. As in years past, CEM5 will provide ministers with an opportunity to be briefed on the latest Tracking Clean Energy Progress report from the International Energy Agency, hear the status of global clean energy investment from Bloomberg New Energy Finance, participate in public-private roundtables on key crosscutting clean energy topics, and assess progress made through the 13 CEM initiatives. 

Most importantly, CEM5 will offer ministers an opportunity to discuss ways to increase collaboration and action for greater impact—to generate more rapid progress toward CEM’s overall goal of accelerating the transition to a global clean energy economy. The discussions will focus on identifying smart policies, programs, and innovative strategies to increase energy efficiency, enhance clean energy supply, and expand energy access.

CEM5 will feature six public-private roundtables on the following crosscutting clean energy topics:

Follow John Brian Shannon on Twitter at: @EVcentral

World Health Organization Air Pollution Report | One in Eight deaths from Air Pollution

by John Brian Shannon.

Seven million premature air pollution related deaths — World Health Organization Air Pollution Report

A March 25 report from the World Health Organization (WHO) says that 7 million premature deaths were caused by air pollution in 2012. That’s one of every eight deaths worldwide. “This finding more than doubles previous estimates and confirms that air pollution is now the world’s largest single environmental health risk.” — WHO report

Air pollution is contamination of the indoor or outdoor environment by any chemical, physical or biological agent that modifies the natural characteristics of the atmosphere. Household combustion devices, motor vehicles, industrial facilities and forest fires are common sources of air pollution. Pollutants of major public health concern include particulate matter, carbon monoxide, ozone, nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide. Outdoor and indoor air pollution cause respiratory and other diseases, which can be fatal. — World Health Organization

The report clearly delineates between indoor and outdoor air pollution. A large percentage of deaths occur as wood, coal, or kerosene are used as fuel for indoor stoves in the developing world. These rudimentary cooking and heating stoves emit relatively large quantities of soot, particulates and toxic gases. Not to mention comparatively large quantities of CO2 — and while carbon dioxide itself is not a toxic gas it can displace oxygen in enclosed areas within a house for example, causing death by asphyxiation.

Women and Children at highest risk

Women and children tend to suffer most and levels are often significantly higher than outdoor pollution measurements. Indoor air pollution is responsible for 2 million deaths per year, according to the report.

Air pollution is a major environment-related health threat to children and a risk factor for both acute and chronic respiratory disease. While second-hand tobacco smoke and certain outdoor pollutants are known risk factors for respiratory infections, indoor air pollution from solid fuels is one of the major contributors to the global burden of disease. In poorly ventilated dwellings, indoor smoke can be 100 times higher than acceptable levels for small particles. Exposure is particularly high among women and young children, who spend the most time near the domestic hearth.

“Cleaning up the air we breathe prevents noncommunicable diseases as well as reduces disease risks among women and vulnerable groups, including children and the elderly. Poor women and children pay a heavy price from indoor air pollution since they spend more time at home breathing in smoke and soot from leaky coal and wood cook stoves.” — Dr Flavia Bustreo, WHO Assistant Director-General Family, Women and Children’s Health

A solution to the millions of deaths in recent decades caused by indoor pollution is the replacement of inefficient wood-burning, coal-burning and kerosene stoves, with electric stoves. For that, 1.3 billion people living in remote regions unserviced by electrical grids in Africa, Asia, and parts of South America will need either standalone energy power plants in the form of Solar Home Systems (SHS) or microgrids to generate and deliver clean electricity for electric stoves and heaters.

World Health Organization Air Pollution report. Chart shows the causes and effects of airborne pollution. Image courtesy of WHO
World Health Organization Air Pollution report. Chart shows the causes and effects of airborne pollution. Image courtesy of WHO

Outdoor air pollution levels continue to increase

The growing outdoor air pollution problem is also a contributor to the millions of premature deaths from outdoor airborne emissions. Urban outdoor air pollution alone is estimated to cause 1.3 million deaths annually.

Outdoor air pollution is large and increasing a consequence of the inefficient combustion of fuels for transport, power generation and other human activities like home heating and cooking. Combustion processes produce a complex mixture of pollutants that comprises of both primary emissions, such as diesel soot particles and lead, and the products of atmospheric transformation, such as ozone and sulfate particles. — WHO

Transportation Sector must reduce emissions, now

To reduce the millions of premature deaths caused by outdoor emissions, doubling the automobile fleet miles per gallon, per country, would halve the amount of outdoor emissions emitted by the land transportation segment. Switching from diesel to algae biodiesel (which can emit up to 80% fewer toxic pollutants) can dramatically improve the air quality in cities. And both gasoline vehicles and diesel vehicles can be manufactured or converted to run on Compressed Natural Gas (CNG). New, CNG-burning Honda cars are available for sale in the U.S. and Japan, while many truck fleets in the U.S. and Europe are switching to CNG or CNG+diesel power in an effort to lower costs, extend engine life, and reduce emissions.

The global shipping segment also emits large amounts of CO2, toxic gases and particulates. Emissions from ships may be especially harmful to human health due to the high levels of toxic gases, soot, and particulate matter which are a byproduct of burning so-called ‘bunker fuel’. Biofuel development is underway to help mitigate the damage caused by the world’s shipping lines to the atmosphere. Commercial aviation adds a similar total amount of CO2 to the atmosphere, but soot and particulates are less concerning with aviation fuels as much cleaner fuels are used for aviation. Increasingly, commercial airlines and the U.S. military are switching to biofuel+conventional petroleum blended fuels. Boeing reported that it’s jets produced 80% lower emissions when blended biofuels were used in test flights.

Electric Vehicles emit zero emissions

Cars like the Nissan LEAF and the Tesla Model S are stunning the world with their sales and performance — and their zero emissions for the life of the car. In North America and Europe, Tesla provides free charging for the life of the car via a growing network of charging stations which are often solar powered. Which means zero ‘fuel’ cost for the life of the car, if the owner chooses to recharge at one of the free Tesla ‘SuperCharger’ charging locations. Both the LEAF and the Tesla Model S boast a >95% recyclability rate.

The Nissan LEAF has sold over 100,000 units since it’s introduction, while the Model S is limited to only 30,000 per year (for now) due to a lack of manufacturing capacity. The latest Tesla vehicle, the Tesla Model X has a growing ‘waiting list’ of 12,000 people, and each one of them have paid a minimum deposit of $5,000. as far back as 2013 and are prepared to wait until 2015 if necessary, for their new Tesla electric vehicle.

It will get worse, before it gets better

For now, the annual death toll due to airborne emissions will continue to rise. By 2017, the yearly premature death toll will become a staggering number, much worse than 2012’s one-in-eight and will be a set of statistics difficult for many to comprehend.

Our health is in our hands

Many of us have the opportunity to become part of a better future by the choices we make now. Gas-guzzler, or economy car? Burning fossil fuels indoors, or switching to electric heaters and electric stoves? Burning plastic rubbish, or taking it and other recyclables to the recycling station? The choice is ours!

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A list of specific diseases caused by indoor and outdoor air emissions from the report:

Outdoor air pollution-caused deaths – breakdown by disease:

  • 40% — ischaemic heart disease;
  • 40% — stroke;
  • 11% — chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD);
  • 6% —- lung cancer; and
  • 3% —- acute lower respiratory infections in children.

Indoor air pollution-caused deaths – breakdown by disease:

  • 34% — stroke;
  • 26% — ischaemic heart disease;
  • 22% — COPD;
  • 12% — acute lower respiratory infections in children; and
  • 6% —- lung cancer.

Related links provided by the World Health Organization