Success at COP21! Now What?

Success at COP21! Now What? | by John Brian Shannon

Sincerest congratulations are due to COP21 (Conference of the Parties) for inking a remarkable agreement to limit global warming to 2 degrees by 2050/2100

It’s a global achievement, one that saw 200 countries come together in a unified purpose to protect our Commons

By agreeing to unprecedented GHG emission targets at COP21 in Paris, world leaders have shown the man-made problems that we alone have created are not above our ability to solve

Our leaders are bigger than our problems — and that is a very comforting sign indeed!

COP21 Paris logo
Following the successful COP21 event, what are the next steps, and which steps will give us the ‘most bang for the buck’ as we pursue our CO2 reductions?

We’ve Got Our CO2 Targets. Now What?

As laudatory as all of that sounds, it begs the question, “Now that we’ve agreed on strict GHG limits, how do we actually set about achieving those limits?”

Listed in the order of maximum effect, irrespective of convenience or cost, the following proposal must rank among the least costly ways to achieve our COP21 targets within the timeframe specified.

ONE: Eliminating coal-fired primary power generation by 2020

By far, coal-fired power generation is the largest single contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, and aside from the obvious heavy CO2 load, many toxic gases are produced due to the impurities found in raw coal.

Things like mercury, heavy metals, sulfur and nitrogen when burned, become very toxic and scatter soot and noxious gases over hundreds of square miles, downwind from each coal-fired power station. Gases such as sulfur dioxide, oxides of nitrogen, and particulate matter (soot) are incredibly damaging to human life, livestock and wildlife, and to agriculture.

Not only that, but billions of dollars of damage to exterior metal and concrete occurs every year due to the effects of coal-fired acid rain hitting everything from bridges to skyscrapers to outdoor art installations.

Read: Harvard Medicine | Full Lifecycle of Coal – Epstein et al

Almost worse, is the heavy water usage (to control coal dust migration and to lower the burn temperature at coal-fired power generation facilities) which average 1100 gallons per MegaWatt(MW) of electricity produced.

For the record, natural gas-fired power generation requires 300 gallons of water per MW, while nuclear power generation uses 800 gallons of water per MW and solar power and wind power generators use 0 gallons per MW.

Water used by power plants
Missed at COP21 — Water usage by power plants.

Another serious problem in regards to coal burning is the disposal of millions of tons of toxic fly ash, which is the ashes left over from burning millions of tons of coal annually.

Each year, millions of tons of toxic fly ash must be cooled, transported tens or hundreds of miles away, and then buried deep underground far from aquifers.

TWO: That’s not to say that the coal industry should die. Far from it. Some of the purest liquid fuels on the planet are already made from coal by employing the Fischer-Tropsch (catalytic) process. Such fuels are known as CTL fuels (Coal-to-Liquid) fuels and are noted for their almost clinical purity

Some countries, notably South Africa, have been blending the very clean-burning CTL fuel (30%) with conventional petroleum-sourced gasoline (70%) since the 1950′s in order to create an exceptionally clean burning gasoline (petrol) for use in cars and trucks. That mixture lowers CO2 and other GHG emissions by more than half with the potential for 50/50 CTL and gasoline blends in the future!

In addition to that, the aviation fuel ‘coal oil’ that is produced from South African coal — is purer and therefore, cleaner-burning than conventional petroleum-sourced ‘kerosene’ aviation fuel.

Over 2% of the world’s CO2 emissions are produced by general aviation. By switching to coal oil blended with conventional kerosene, global aviation emissions would drop by half, or better.

We could decrease our automotive and aviation emissions by half thanks to coal! and instead of witnessing the death of the coal industry, we would witness a coal renaissance!

THREE: All coal-fired power generation over 1MW should be switched to natural gas which upgrade is known as Coal to Gas (CTG). It’s already a mature business model in the U.S. where many coal-fired power plants have been converted to natural gas in order to meet increasingly stringent air quality standards

The benefits of this are quite obvious. All of the infrastructure is already in place to deliver the electricity from the existing power plant to demand centres.

Natural gas-fired power generation (thermal) operates similarly and can use the same facilities as coal-fired power generation.

Natural gas burns up to 1,000,000 times cleaner than lignite coal (brown coal) and up to 10,000 times cleaner than the highest quality black coal (anthracite coal).

The news gets even better for aquatic life as natural gas uses only 300 gallons per MW — and there is no dirty, black, coal-dust-laden water pouring into ditches, streams and rivers downstream from coal mines, coal-fired power stations, and along the thousands of miles of railway tracks that transport coal.

The bigger the natural gas market, the lower the per unit price for natural gas. Until now, natural gas-fired power generation has been used to add expensive ‘peaking power’ to the grid as it can ramp up quickly to provide additional power during peak demand sessions, such as happens when many air conditioning units suddenly switch on in the afternoon.

However, as more coal power stations have converted to natural gas, the (Henry Hub) spot price for natural gas has lowered accordingly. We’re now seeing natural gas prices falling to historic lows (under $2.00) due to increased baseload demand.

FOUR: As great as it is to add biofuel to transportation fuels in order to help them become (much) more clean-burning, all ethanol that is obtained *from corn* must be stopped by 2020

By a significant margin, corn is the worst plant to grow in order to produce biofuel due to the obscene water and pesticide use required to grow corn.

Corn must be replaced with a less demanding crop such as sugarcane. In Brazil, sugarcane is grown for sugar (primarily) and biofuel (secondarily) and the technology has advanced to the point where even the leaves and roots of the plant (the ‘stover’) are used to produce biofuel via the cellulosic biofuel method.

In Brazil, by law, a minimum of 24% of each gallon of gasoline must be bio-ethanol sourced. Costa Rica and some other Latin countries have advanced bio-ethanol programmes and likewise show corresponding drops in vehicle emissions.

Other crops, such as sweet sorghum are even more promising than sugarcane and are only a few years away from making a massive impact as an ethanol feedstock.

By banning corn for biofuel use and replacing it with sugarcane or sweet sorghum, water usage levels would fall by billions of gallons per state, annually. Pesticide use, land management and other environmentally costly processes would be dramatically minimized.

Every gallon of gasoline that is sold in the world should have a 50% biofuel or CTL component and it should be noted that CTL fuels are just as clean-burning as ethanol derived from biofuel crops such as sugarcane or sweet sorghum.

FIVE: The shipping industry produces over 2% of the world’s emissions only because old ships burn incredibly toxic bunker fuel — while newer ships burn clean natural gas. Regulating global shipping to upgrade to natural gas can dramatically lower emission levels across the industry

If these bunker-fuel-burning ships (‘old clunkers’) are no longer allowed in the world’s ports, they will be useless to their owners and will be sold for their scrap metal value.

By recognizing that our use of coal must change by 2020 we can employ natural gas in place of coal for our primary power generation — while adding CTL fuels and 2nd-generation biofuels to our transportation fuel — for a ‘cleaner burn’ to meet our electricity and transportation energy needs while easily meeting our GHG emission reduction goals.