Monday, November 6, 2017

The Path to Greenhouse Gas Emission Reduction (Part 2)

It's been nearly a year and a half since I wrote Part 1 on this topic. At that time, the global community had finally reached a strong consensus on the need for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and the overarching goals as outlined in the Paris Agreement of December, 2015. The forward focus was on defining objectives and strategies that each country needed to pursue in order to meet those goals.

Global Temperature Change (source: U.S. Global Change Research Program)

As the rest of the world has continued down this existentially critical path together, the United States has withdrawn from the Paris Agreement to plumb the depths of incompetence and hypocrisy in energy policy. A case in point is the sycophantic embrace of high carbon emission energy sources, and proposals to prop up noncompetitive power plants with involuntary subsidies from energy consumers and taxpayers. It's interesting to note that competitive pricing was used for decades as a weapon to hamstring the development and adoption of renewable energy. Now the sword is cutting the other way, and some vested interests in legacy systems are crying foul.

Recent changes in U.S. environmental and natural resources policies are equally alarming. Many emerging countries have quickly learned (relative to developed nations' historical timelines) the high intrinsic and extrinsic costs of ignoring the environmental impacts of industrialization, and have adapted their policies accordingly. Meanwhile, the U.S. appears to be on a nihilistic path to unwind decades of environmental protections and return to the era of poisoned water sources, dangerous air quality, and the destruction of irreplaceable resources.

Against this political backdrop, the recent release of the Climate Science Special Report by the U.S. federal government may seem implausibly ironic. Authors of the report include experts from NOAA, NASA, DOE, leading scientific agencies, and academia. A few selected highlights from the report [1]:
  • Global annually averaged surface air temperature has increased by about 1.8°F (1.0°C) over the last 115 years (1901–2016). The last few years have also seen record-breaking, climate-related weather extremes, and the last three years have been the warmest years on record for the globe.
  • Over the next few decades (2021–2050), annual average temperatures are expected to rise by about 2.5°F for the United States under all plausible future climate scenarios.
  • Thousands of studies conducted by researchers around the world have documented changes in surface, atmospheric, and oceanic temperatures; melting glaciers; diminishing snow cover; shrinking sea ice; rising sea levels; ocean acidification; and increasing atmospheric water vapor.

  • Global average sea level has risen by about 7–8 inches since 1900, with almost half (about 3 inches) of that rise occurring since 1993, and are expected to continue to rise by at least several inches in the next 15 years and by 1–4 feet by 2100. A rise of as much as 8 feet by 2100 cannot be ruled out.

  • Heavy rainfall is increasing in intensity and frequency across the United States and globally and is expected to continue to increase. Heatwaves have become more frequent in the United States since the 1960s, while extreme cold temperatures and cold waves are less frequent.
  • The incidence of large forest fires in the western United States and Alaska has increased since the early 1980s and is projected to further increase in those regions as the climate changes, with profound changes to regional ecosystems.
  • Annual trends toward earlier spring melt and reduced snowpack are already affecting water resources in the western United States and these trends are expected to continue.
  • The magnitude of climate change beyond the next few decades will depend primarily on the amount of greenhouse gases (especially carbon dioxide) emitted globally. Without major reductions in emissions, the increase in annual average global temperature relative to preindustrial times could reach 9°F (5°C) or more by the end of this century

  • The global atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration has now passed 400 parts per million (ppm), a level that last occurred about 3 million years ago, when both global average temperature and sea level were significantly higher than today.
  • Continued growth in CO2 emissions over this century and beyond would lead to an atmospheric concentration not experienced in tens to hundreds of millions of years.

So what is (or should be) the path forward for the U.S. now? For the individuals and organizations across many sectors - along with some state and local governments - that are continuing to advance sustainability policies in step with the rest of the global community? Or for that matter, those that are waiting to see how the tragedy unfolds before making any commitments? And what about the organizations and individuals that will never support anything that challenges their position of market dominance, political leverage, perceived status, or personal identity and beliefs?

One can envision a spectrum anchored at one end by facts and data ("truth"), and anchored at the opposite end by deliberate manipulation ("doublespeak"). In the middle of the spectrum, closer to truth, is reasoned interpretation ("informed opinion"). It's mirror opposite, closer to manipulation, is self-serving propaganda ("baseless opinion"). At the present time in the U.S., we seem to be fighting a pitched battle on many fronts in the fog at the doublespeak end of this spectrum.

If we are to make critically important progress on energy and environment - and many other vital areas of national policy - we need to ground ourselves in the facts and data end of the spectrum. Then our debates can evolve around the reasoned interpretation of those truths to arrive at a consensus strategy. Above all else, we must move away from the doublespeak end of the spectrum and refuse to engage with the manipulators who thrive there. The alternative is to continue arguing in the fog until we forget which direction the truth lies in, or worse, lose the will to find our way back to it.

[1] "Climate Science Special Report: Fourth National Climate Assessment", U.S. Global Change Research Program, Washington, DC, USA, 2017.

Matt Moran is the Managing Member at Moran Innovation, and previous Managing Partner at Isotherm Energy. He's been developing power and propulsion systems since 1982. Matt was also the Sector Manager for Energy & Materials in his last position at NASA where he worked for 31 years. He's been involved in seven technology based start-ups; and provided R&D and engineering support to many industrial, government and research organizations.  More about Matt here