Conference of the Century! (Fantasizing about a 350 ppm CO2 Cap)
Well, how else should we describe a conference addressing “The Greatest Challenge in History”? That’s what the 350 Climate Conference, to be held May 2 at Columbia University, calls global warming, which it also asserts is ”likely the greatest threat humanity has ever faced.”
The number “350? refers to the “safe upper limit” of carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations in the atmosphere–350 parts per million (ppm)–according to NASA scientist and Columbia University professor James Hansen, who will keynote the conference. Atmospheric CO2 levels today are roughly 385 ppm.
The online conference flyer explains:
While the exact limit–whether it be 550, 450, 350, or even lower–is subject to debate, the need for proactive strategies to climate change is clear. Vital issues directly relating to climate change, such as alternative energy and carbon sequestration, are likely to drive domestic and international policies for the decades and centuries to come. This conference will discuss the scientific, political, social and economic challenges and opportunities associated [with] reducing emissions and lowering atmospheric carbon levels.
Notice what’s missing from the program. There are “challenges and opportunities” associated wtih reducing emissions and lowering CO2 levels, but, apparently, no risks, no perils, no threats to humanity. That’s dishonest, daffy, or both.
For several years, the UN, the European Union, and numerous environmental groups have said that the world must reduce CO2 emissions 50% below 1990 levels by 2050 in order to “stabilize” atmospheric CO2 concentrations at 450 ppm by 2100.
Newsweek science reporter Sharon Begley (no skeptic she) interviewed Cal Tech chemist Nathan Lewis (no skeptic either) on what it would take just to keep atmospheric CO2 levels from reaching 450 ppm:
Lewis’s numbers show the enormous challenge we face. The world used 14 trillion watts (14 terawatts) of power in 2006. Assuming minimal population growth (to 9 billion people), slow economic growth (1.6 percent a year, practically recession level) and—this is key—unprecedented energy efficiency (improvements of 500 percent relative to current U.S. levels, worldwide), it will use 28 terawatts in 2050. (In a business-as-usual scenario, we would need 45 terawatts.) Simple physics shows that in order to keep CO2 to 450 ppm, 26.5 of those terawatts must be zero-carbon. That’s a lot of solar, wind, hydro, biofuels and nuclear, especially since renewables kicked in a measly 0.2 terawatts in 2006 and nuclear provided 0.9 terawatts. Are you a fan of nuclear? To get 10 terawatts, less than half of what we’ll need in 2050, Lewis calculates, we’d have to build 10,000 reactors, or one every other day starting now. Do you like wind? If you use every single breeze that blows on land, you’ll get 10 or 15 terawatts. Since it’s impossible to capture all the wind, a more realistic number is 3 terawatts, or 1 million state-of-the art turbines, and even that requires storing the energy—something we don’t know how to do—for when the wind doesn’t blow. Solar? To get 10 terawatts by 2050, Lewis calculates, we’d need to cover 1 million roofs with panels every day from now until then. “It would take an army,” he says. Obama promised green jobs, but still.*
The point? In Begley’s words, “We can’t get there from here: Political will and a price on CO2 won’t be enough” to stabilize emissions at 450 ppm. The UN/EU emission reduction target is unattainable absent “Nobel caliber breakthroughs.” Meeting the target will require “revolutionary changes in the technology of energy production, distribution, storage, and conversion,” as one group of energy experts wrote back in 2002.
Now, if those breakthroughs do not occur, then the only way to bring the world into compliance with the UN/EU goal envisioned for Kyoto II would be to deny large segments of humanity the blessings of affordable energy. As I observed in an earlier post, there is nothing quite like economic collapse to cut emissions.
Now recall that the emission stabilization goal of the 350 Climate Conference is 100 ppm lower than the EU/UN goal. In a paper on his Web page, Lewis says that achieving 350 ppm by mid-century would require world CO2 emissions to drop to zero by that date.
There is no known way to get there except draconian cutbacks in economic output, population, or both. Poverty is of course a perenniel source of conflict within and among nations as well as the leading cause of preventable disease and premature death. Moreover, climate policies punitive enough to induce negative economic and population growth are likely to meet with resistance and promote conflict rather than peace.
Will any of the invited speakers at the 350 Conference address these risks in a serious ways? Not unless he (or she) is brave enough to be the skunk at the garden party and endure abuse from those who denounce dissent as villainy and treason.
* See also my colleague Iain Murray’s blog on Begley’s column.