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Its been said that it takes miles for a fully-loaded super-tanker to come to a stop, because an ordinary stop takes 20 minutes, and even an emergency, or "crash", stop takes 14 minutes. But that is less than the blink of an eye compared to the time it will take to bring the emissions of CO2 to a stop.

As Do the Math reminds us, in order to have some plausible chance (far short of certainty, by the way) of leaving global warming at under the 3.6°F that implies that the already ongoing climate catastrophe tips over into the super-catastrophe range, we need to keep additional CO2 emissions at under 565 gigatons. And we have computed reserves equivalent to 2,795 gigatons. So we must, by hook or by crook, find a way to refrain from consuming 80% of our CO2.

For the US, our main focus has to be on our energy emissions due to petroleum, coal, and natural gas, since 85.7% of our total CO2 emissions are due to energy production. As of 2011 41% of our emissions from energy production comes from petroleum emissions, 34% from coal, and 24% from natural gas. Of that 41% due to petroleum, 15% is from domestic petroleum production, and 26% from petroleum imports. So if the United States were to today achieve petroleum independence from carbon-neutral energy sources and energy savings, and totally replace coal combustion with carbon-neutral energy sources and energy savings, that would save 60% of the 86% of emissions from energy production, or 52% of the total. We would "only" have to cut the remaining energy-related emissions and the 14% from other sources by 60% to get to an equal proportional share of an 80% reduction.

However, the target we have to aim at is more ambitious than this. First, fossil fuels are non-renewable, and our timeline for the persistence of CO2 in the atmosphere is around a century. We don't have a century's worth of fossil fuels at the current rate of global consumption, so cutting back our consumption by 80% of the present rate is not enough.

And second, because of the time that it will take to switch to a low carbon emissions society, it is highly likely that by the time that a low carbon emissions society is within reach, we will have already emitted close to 565 gigatons.

This is why our target is no longer a "low net carbon emissions" society, but a "zero net carbon emissions" society, since we've likely already passed the "ordinary stop" stopping distance, and are coming up upon the "crash stop" stopping distance.

The Natural Gas Bridge To Nowhere

We are a carbon fuel consuming society, and since the rules that make up social institutions are organized around past solutions to past conflicts, it is surely politically impossible to make the transition to the the carbon-neutral energy system that we require. However, since physical reality is not going to change in response to the rules we use to organize society, it is going to have to be the rules that we use to organize society giving way. And while we may be able to engaged in some real sequestration, via, for example, the burying of biocoal, that is only going to be able to compensate for a small portion of our current CO2 emissions. So, politically impossible or not, we must take all of these, and bring them all down to very close to zero:

Our biggest CO2 emission source above is electricity. And looking at changes in emissions since 2000, it would seem that we are making progress, because of our reduced reliance on coal for electricity generation. However, the progress is substantially illusory, since it is primarily due to cheap natural gas prices, driven by the fracking of "wet" natural gas reserves in tight rock formations, which yield not only methane but also natural gas liquids. The market value of the natural gas liquids drive exploitation of the resource to the point where of depressing the price of methane, which then drives the replacement of coal-fired electricity production with natural gas fired electricity production.

As I discussed this past August, it is possible to tap our abundant resource of wind and solar power, as well as efficiency gains in major existing consumers of electricity, to establish a 100% carbon neutral electricity generation system, provided we have a sufficient share of the renewable energy production coming from sources that can be dispatched on demand, as opposed to harvested on availability. These include Concentrated Solar Thermal power, where a medium is heated that can then tapped over a substantial portion of the following day, biocoal from sustainable source (See note 1) (where the biocoal can be produced on a carbon-neutral basis and then either burned or converted into electricity using Direct Carbon Fuel Cells on demand, or else buried to sequester the carbon), and/or electro-fuels such as sustainable ammonia and sustainable methane, generated by "over-installing" wind and solar capacity and using the excess in the generation of sustainable hydrogen, which is then converted into a form more suited to real world applications than pure hydrogen gas.

A first simple index of whether our political system is still engaged in fantastical wishful thinking about climate change is whether we adopt, as a policy, a path toward an entirely carbon neutral electricity supply. As is obvious from the above flow chart, without a push toward a carbon neutral energy supply, we are heading over the cliff with our foot on the accelerator.

What we need to is to throw the wheel over hard, get the car pointed in the opposite direction from the cliff, and then hit the gas going in the opposite direction. That is the Pedal to the Metal approach that we will have to adopt if we can wrest control of our energy policy from those whose financial wealth requires the sacrifice of our national industrial society.

Now, it is "better" when a coal fired power plant is replaced by a natural gas fired power plant. But it is not progress, it is slower suicide: it is still going over the cliff with our foot on the accelerator, just not pressing down quite so hard. The real sense in which it is better is that natural gas peaker plants can be profitable at a much smaller level of capacity utilization, so an electrical utility that owns a lot of natural gas peaker plant capacity is not subject to the same financial stresses as a heavily coal-dependent electrical utility, and therefore it is easier to make new rules in which they are better off switching to carbon-neutral power sources.

But we already have sufficient natural gas capacity to "bridge" the gap between the amount of sustainable, renewable and dispatchable energy sources that we require to go along with the wind and solar power energy we would have if we pursued wind and solar energy roll-out on a pedal to the metal basis. So additional natural gas capacity at this point is a bridge to nowhere. We need to start driving mineral coal power plants out of business with wind and solar power, as is already occurring in many European nations.

And Then Transport

Those are 60 Teramoles of carbon out of 170 Teramoles, or 35%. And then looking at the rest of the carbon flux, relative to the 170 Teramoles of Carbon that we emit, you see "cars / light transport 27.8 ", and "heavy transport 11.8", for a total of 38.9 Teramoles, or 22% of the total. We also have to adopt a policy to drive that to carbon neutral if we are going to be serious about seeing to the survival of the American industrial society. I have discussed many dimensions of this in Sunday Train over the years, but under a pedal to the metal policy, we should pick the most promising projects for getting people from one place to another in a carbon neutral way and study the effectiveness of each and decide on which ones to put more investment of real resources of material, energy, labor and productive equipment, and which ones to put less, as we go. But we have to shake the habit of viewing sustainable transport as a policy area where we quibble about which specific mode of transport used in which specific way is the optimal solution, and establish the mentality of a "crash stop" to reliance on carbon emitting modes of transport. So for passengers:

  • Build sidewalks to walk on, and change rules to enable and encourage walking;
  • Build cycleways to ride on, and change rules to enable and encourage cycling;
  • Establish arterial networks of 35mph and below public right of way for neighborhood electric vehicles and ebikes;
  • Establish recharging stations  for highway capable conventional electric cars and two-place electric three wheelers, and establish Connie Mae financial arrangements to speed their roll-out;
  • Establish electro-fueled and/or sustainable bio-fueled local bus routes;
  • Convert bus routes to trolley bus routes, with intersection priority and upgraded bus stops
  • Establish electric light rail transit, electric streetcar transit, and other specialized light rail modes such as aerbous and suspended cable cars;
  • Establish electric mass transit heavy rail corridors, on both dedicated corridors and freight rail corridors equipped with Positive Train Control;
  • Establish electro-fueled and/or sustainable bio-fueled intercity bus services;
  • Establish electro-fueled and/or sustainable bio-fueled intercity Rapid Passenger Rail services;
  • Establish electric intercity Rapid Passenger Rail services;
  • Establish electric intercity High Speed Rail services;
  • Conversion of all remaining passenger air flights to electro-fuel or sustainable bio-fuel; and
  • Re-organization of our residential, commercial and professional distributions of population to require fewer total miles of transport to accomplish what we need to get done.

Given that it is suicide as an industrial society to continue with our current passenger transport system, the normal answer which sustainable transport alternative we ought to pursue is "all of the above.

Similarly for freight rail transport. We need:

  • A national network of Rapid Freight Rail "Steel Interstates";
  • Conversion of the balance of long haul truck freight to sustainable electro-fuels or bio-fuels;
  • Establishment of local electric freight/passenger rail corridors;
  • Sustainably power ship and barge freight;
  • Conversion of short-haul heavy and light trucking to hybrid electric trucks powered by battery-electric and sustainable electro-fuel / bio-fuel recharging generators;
  • Re-organization of our material flows to require fewer total miles of transport between original source and final consumer.

Again, given that it is suicide as an industrial society to continue with our current passenger transport system, the normal answer which sustainable transport alternative we ought to pursue is "all of the above.

THAT is an "All of the Above" policy to get behind

All too often, "All of the Above" means pursuing all suicidal options and some non-suicidal options. A serious, pedal to the metal policy to address the climate crisis, already in progress, will flip that around to all the non-suicidal options and none of the suicidal options.

That is what we should be looking for now, as we are in the middle of the process of trying to tilt the primary selection process in our rigged two-party electoral system away from "a choice between methods of suicide", to try to get one non-suicide candidate available in the general election. That is what we should be looking for in 2014 when deciding which candidates to reward with our time, energy and (for those fortunate members of the contributing classes) money. That is what we should be looking for in 2015 as the fight begins over whether there will be any non-suicide candidates available in the 2016 general election. And that is what we should be looking for in 2016, when deciding whether there is any point in investing any time, energy or attention into the Presidential election, or whether to instead focus all of our time, energy and attention on those local, state, and Congressional races where there may be non-suicide candidates available to support.


{Note 1 for sustainable biocoal, a simple carbon balance accounting demonstrates that this must involve feedstocks like prairie perrennials and coppiced wood, since harvesting forestry products on a production cycle of twenty decades or more entails first emitting carbon that has been sequestered over a period of decades, and then requires additional time to arrive at a steady state, and getting to carbon neutrality "in three to five decades" is much too slow for the progress we must make under a "crash stop" program.}

Conclusions & Considerations

Now, that is what I am looking for. What are you looking for?

As always, rather looking for a more ringing conclusion that that, I now open the floor to the comments of those reading.

If you have an issue on some other area of sustainable transport or sustainable energy production, please feel free to start a new main comment. To avoid confusing me, given my tendency to filter comments through the topic of this week's Sunday Train, feel free to use the shorthand "NT:" in the subject line when introducing this kind of new topic.

If you have a topic in sustainable transport or energy that you want me to take a look at in the coming month, be sure to include that as well.

And no need to introduce yourself or justify your participation first: just jump right in and start participating. Your presence here is sufficient justification.

Originally posted to Sunday Train on Sun Dec 22, 2013 at 06:00 PM PST.

Also republished by Climate Hawks.

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