Last edited 03 Oct 2018

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The Institution of Civil Engineers Institute / association Website

Global warming and the tipping point precipice

Energy specialist, Stan Ridley questions whether globally we have any bridging fuels to ‘bridge’ our civilisation to a green non-fossil fuelled world in the coming decades? Alternatively, do we have any effective renewable energy solutions to make a significant dent in our global 85% consumption of primary fossil fuel energy?


[The global primary energy consumption in 2017]


[edit] Introduction

Today everyone is surely conscious of global warming and climate change (GW&CC). However, with effectively no real solutions to fossil fuels (85% of world total), in most jurisdictions across the planet, governments, major private sector companies and even much of the media, have become purveyors of obfuscated and sometimes fallacious information on GW&CC.

[edit] Some major realities

We have a GW&CC crisis, caused mainly by man-made greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, that will have a major effect on the people and habitats of our planet. This is compounded by the fact that:

  • The world will not wean itself off of fossil fuels without cost effective, efficient, convenient and planet-friendly alternatives.
  • Without our present very high level of total primary energy consumption (TPEC) of fossil fuels (85%), we could not hydrate, feed, medicate, clothe and/or house our present 7.5 billion global human population, that is predicted to reach 11 billion before 2100.
  • At the same time the majority (the 'Have Nots') in the developing world, presently about 5 billion and expected to number about 8 billion by 2100, are determined to double, treble or possibly quadruple their per capita TPEC before 2100, mostly with fossil fuels.
  • The world has been in the Fossil Fuel Age since the early 1800s, and it is clear that we will not end the Fossil Fuel Age until and unless we find cost-effective, efficient, convenient and human-friendly and planet-friendly alternate sources of power abd energy, or until we derail our civilisation or until we exhaust the economically reachable fossil fuels.
  • Presently and without real technological 'breakthroughs', we effectively have no viable solutions to make a significant difference.

[edit] GW&CC challenges

The reality is that we will eventually have to rely almost entirely on renewable energy (from hydroelectric, wind and solar, etc.), a new breed of 'walk-away' safe nuclear power plant, a little bit of CCS and hopefully new and presently unproven 'green' energy sources, for almost all of our global TPEC.

However, as presently configured and without major technological 'breakthroughs', none of the existing relatively 'clean' renewable energy technologies can be 'scaled-up' globally to make significant inroads into our present massive consumption of fossil fuels at 85% of TPEC in 2017.

[edit] Has methane become the 20-year critical GHG?

The factual bad news is that methane, as a major GHG and a 95% component of conventional natural gas (CNG) fracked shale gas (FSG) and LNG from FSG, is 86 times more potent than straight CO2, in a 20-year atmospheric ‘Horizon’, but deteriorates relatively quickly to mainly CO2; however, even over a 100-year ‘Horizon’ its global warming potential (GWP) only reduces to 34 times that of straight CO2 (IPCC AR5, 2013).

What is very clear is that, in making their current estimates and forecasts to 2040, most major governments and their agencies continue to use a methane to CO2(e) conversion factor of 25 (times), that is more closely associated with a 150-year atmospheric ‘Horizon’ than a 20-year ‘Horizon’.

Most of the data and analyses for CNG and FSG are not contentious except the actual amount of anthropogenic (human-made) fugitive emissions of methane (FEM) under lifecycle assessments. On the issue and outcome of the actual average FEM %, balance hundreds of billions of US$s and major National Energy Policy decisions in many countries.

Since 2011, there has been a great deal of investigations and research trying to tie down the actual average FEM in the US and elsewhere. However, it is unlikely that the ‘dust’ from these investigations, analyses and papers will settle soon, while the total CO2(e) emissions from the use of CNG & FSG continue to be assessed. There is just too much money and major national energy security risks riding on the outcome.

What is very clear and not in dispute is the fact that CO2 and methane atmospheric concentrations, as measured reliably and responsibly by NASA and NOAA, are rising uncontrollably.

[edit] Tackling GW&CC challenges

It is clear that we are spending relatively small amounts on doing the desperately needed power and energy research and development (R&D) to find the real technical breakthrough solutions for storage and efficient use of intermittent energy (e.g. from wind and solar sources), a new breed of safe and efficient nuclear plants and CCS, to name just three items on a short GW&CC 'wish list'.

Without these types of technological breakthroughs, we will not decrease but indeed increase our use of fossil fuels. Consequently, we have very limited options. We need to learn how to live with the growing severity of GW&CC (i.e. 'adaptation'). However, adaptation will not stop our GW&CC 'truck' from heading to the 'tipping point' precipice.

We must spend a substantial amount of money and resources starting NOW, on doing the urgently needed R&D to find real, cost effective, efficient, convenient and planet-friendly solutions.

This article was originally published here by ICE on 1 Oct 2018. It was written by Stan Ridley, President, West (2012) Energy Management Inc.

--The Institution of Civil Engineers

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