Tough Climate Math in the Face of CO2 and Energy Forecasts

It’s hard to find projections for both global energy demand and emissions of carbon dioxide from fuel burning that don’t have a sustained upward trajectory for decades to come. The latest such forecasts were issued on Wednesday by Exxon Mobil, at the  World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi, and by BP. I’ll focus more on the BP report because  it’s posted online, while Exxon’s is still awaiting publication.

Here’s a core graph from the BP analysis, which the company says is not the result of a scenario, but of its judgment based on history, trends in energy and environmental policies (or the lack thereof), markets and supplies:

The moral of the story, in essence, is that “future energy” — at least through the next couple of decades — is largely the same as current energy, with gains in efficiency and growth in adoption of renewable sources and nuclear power still not substantially blunting growth in the combustion of fossil fuels.

Among those who care about cutting the chances that humans will propel sustained and disruptive changes in the climate and oceans, this reality still tends to result in two mindsets: Raise public will to accelerate deployment of today’s relatively costly non-polluting energy choices (both renewable and nuclear) or press for intensified and sustained investments and policies that can spur energy innovation.

Of course this  isn’t an either-or issue, although it’s often portrayed that way.

I’ve been pushing hard for more focus on  the longstanding lag in basic energy inquiry and innovation because there’s clearly a powerful bias toward ribbon-cutting  actions that have a political or feel-good payoff now, even if they would do little to limit the buildup of carbon dioxide given those daunting trajectories for fuel burning.

In both cases, if you really care about cutting risks of the kind of human-driven warming that could last centuries, if not millennia, you also would do well to support research in technologies or practices that could suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere (See Cao and Caldeira’s paper for relevant background).

To many climate scientists who’ve also tracked emissions trends, circling toward this kind of geo-engineering is almost unavoidable given the scope of the physical challenge of reducing the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide concentration in the wake of humanity’s 21st-century crest in fossil fuel use.

I had a recent phone chat with Susan Solomon of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration about the CO2 challenge in the face of emissions trajectories like those in the oil companies’ reports. She said that the analysis she and co-authors did for a paper on “ irreversible climate change” helped lead her, as a non-expert citizen when considering energy technology, to conclude that such research is vital, even as efforts are made to find successors to fossil fuels.

Overall, Solomon said she wasn’t despairing, labeling herself “a technological optimist at heart.” Many scientists and energy analysts are not nearly as optimistic.

I’ll be writing more on the scope of what would have to happen to stop the buildup of carbon dioxide at just about any of the concentration peaks that have been tossed around lately as either “safe” or not totally calamitous. Whether your preferred number is 350, 450 or 550 parts per million, or you just prefer to burn baby burn, the world is not even close to pursuing  an energy menu that works for the long haul.

By ANDREW C. REVKIN/NYT

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