A Free-Market Energy Blog

Conference of the Century! (Fantasizing about a 350 ppm CO2 Cap)

By -- March 30, 2009

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.


  1. Eduardo Vargas  

    I completely disagree: a recent study shows that we can run on 100% renewables by 2050. and already some early sketches have been made to make wind turbines capture 10 times more energy than what they do today. And 4th generation nuclear reactors would be ready by then. So really, this challenge is entirely possible, and who the hell are you by the way Lewis, some kind of genius or something? WHERE DO YOU GET YOUR SOURCES!


  2. Eduardo Vargas  

    Besides, energy efficiency will make the world use less energy


  3. Eduardo Vargas  

    What about geothermal? Marine, tidal? you underestimate our capacity


  4. mlewis  

    Dear Mr. Vargas,

    Thanks for being the first person in more than two and a half years to comment on my blog post.

    My sources should be clear from the column. I linked to and quoted extensively from Cal Tech chemist Nathan Lewis (no relation), and linked to Hoffert et al. (2002), a study by 17 energy and climate experts published in Science Magazine.

    You write that energy efficiency will cut global energy use. Maybe relative to what energy use otherwise would be, but almost certainly not in absolute terms. Energy efficiency makes energy cheaper; and the lower the price of a good or service, the higher the demand (Econ 101). Also, as we learn to use energy more efficiently, we learn new ways of using energy. Energy efficiency has improved dramatically since the 1970s, for example, but we use all manner of electronic gadgetry now that did not exist then (lap tops, Xbox, iPods, DVD players, cell phones, etc.).

    Besides, as noted in my post, Lewis assumes the long-term rate of energy improvement accelerates by 500%. Nonetheless, the world would have to install 26.5 terawatts of zero carbon energy to stabilize emissions at 450 ppm by 2050. The scale of investment is mindboggling. Just getting 10 terawatts from zero-carbon energy would require installing 1 million solar rooftop units EVERY DAY or 1 new nuclear power plant EVERY OTHER DAY. There is no market demand for investments of such magnitude, and the Solyndra bankruptcy and Fukishima reactor disaster have put a damper on political demand as well.

    As for geothermal, Lewis estimates that the sustainable geothermal heat flux is 0.057 watts per square meter, which means that if you capture ALL heat flux from ALL the planet’s continents at 100% efficiency (impossible) “you might get 11 terawatts.” There’s also the problem that the heat from deep geothermal wells in hot rocks tends to “run out of steam” in five years. [http://portal.acs.org/preview/fileFetch/C/WPCP_012127/pdf/WPCP_012127.pdf]

    As for tidal energy, the Department of Energy writes: “For those tidal differences to be harnessed into electricity, the difference between high and low tides must be at least five meters, or more than 16 feet. There are only about 40 sites on the Earth with tidal ranges of this magnitude. Currently, there are no tidal power plants in the United States.”

    Why so? DOE explains: “It doesn’t cost much to operate tidal power plants, but their construction costs are high and lengthen payback periods. As a result, the cost per kilowatt-hour of tidal power is not competitive with conventional fossil fuel power.”

    I have no idea how many terawatts the world could obtain if all 40 sites were fully exploited. But the environmental impacts might be substantial. DOE writes: “Tidal power plants that dam estuaries can impede sea life migration, and silt build-ups behind such facilities can impact local ecosystems. Tidal fences may also disturb sea life migration.” [http://www.energysavers.gov/renewable_energy/ocean/index.cfm/mytopic=50008]

    I don’t claim to be a genius, but I do try to be a realist. You, however, seem to think you know which energy technologies are the next big thing. Which leads me to ask: Have you put your money where your mouth is? That is, do you invest in geothermal, tidal, 4th generation nuclear, and the other technologies you claim can practically and affordably reduce emissions to 350 ppm? Or are you one of those coercive utopians who thinks it’s his right to dictate how other people invest their resources?


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