The Earth is getting warmer. Greenhouse gases increase temperatures. These are simple facts. The question is, can we (as a species) reduce the impact of our actions to the point where we can keep the increase in temperature at a manageable level?
Surprisingly, all the models agree. We can keep the global temperatuure rise to a painful, but not massively dangerous 2°C. The real question is… can we do this?
The International Energy Agency has released a report (large PDF) giving the status of the efforts to keep the global temperature increase to 2°C instead of four degree or six degree or even more. The agency has constructed models of various scenarios and has presented this as a map to keeping the temperature rise as low as possible. This graph is the result of those models.
Sector Contributions to Energy Reductions (IEA, 2013)
If we keep on our current track, then we can expect a greater than 6°C increase in temperature. To keep the increase reasonable, then we are going to have to start reducing carbon emissions significantly by 2015.
Are we on the right track?
Short answer is ‘no’. Not even close. The longer answer is that there are some bright spots in the otherwise dim picture that is our global future.
First, renewable energy generation is at an all-time high and increasing significantly. In 2011, the amount of solar photovoltaics (PV) increased by almost 50% and wind generation increased by almost 20%. This is especially prevalent in developing countries (such as China and India) which makes sense. Capital expenditures for the classic picture of electricity generation is expensive. Many, large powerplants connected by a large, complex grid of wires. It’s a lot easier for communities to build their own local systems and integrate the community, rather than the entire country.
Developed countries are actually scaling back implementation of renewable power sources. This is the wrong direction.
The other bright spot is that sales of pure electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles are increasing enormously. The end of 2012 saw about 1.2 million of these vehicles on the road. Production, variety, and efficiency of these vehicles is increasing. This is another area that is potentially useful for emerging economies. Cars are status symbols, but they require a large infrastructure.
Pure electric vehicles are generally simpler than internal combustion cars and can be recharged just about anywhere instead of having to build a network of gas stations.
Most of the rest of the indicators, however, aren’t looking so bright.
Nuclear power is basically dead in the water. Nuclear plants must be built and existing reactors upgraded to meet the requirements. They are not. People are still shell-shocked from the Fukushima incident and no one wants to hear the words ‘nuclear reactor’. Of course, we won’t get into the fact that no one has died from the Fukushima incident and millions of people have died from coal related incidents.
Natural gas use is improving. Natural gas has less pollution. I don’t like it for other reasons, but we need something to cover the lack of movement in nuclear power.
Coal-fired power is a huge problem. There are many areas that are attempting to increase the use of coal-based power plants. Even though coal plants are not the cheapest system, they are highly polluting, and very dangerous in other ways (mine collapses).
The technology for carbon capture technologies is also falling behind and not being implemented. Right now, everyone is talking about it, but there are no large-scale projects in the power sector and not very many in industry.
Industry and construction are making some progress in improving energy efficiency (LEEDS homes for example). That being said, there are major improvements that can be made. Investment in industrial systems is not at the level they need to be.*
Fuel economy remains a spotty area. Some countries/regions are increasing their fuel economy on target, but some countries are not. There is a 55% difference between countries fuel economy standards.
The smart grid is a big deal, but there is little effort being made in that direction. The efficiency increases in a smart grid would help with global power carbon levels.
A recent survey of Americans indicates that infrastructure is dead last on their list of important issues to deal with. Meanwhile jobs creation is number one. Someone might need to remind the US population that infrastructure improvements are job creators.
So that’s the results. It’s not the worst possible results, but it could be a lot better.
We can do this, both technically and the ability to do so. Will we do so?
* As an aside, one example that I just read about was the use of LED based-lights in corporate buildings. GE claims that if every building in the world adopted their new LED light that fits in a standard fluorescent tube socket, it would reduce the global power requirements by 7%. I have no way to judge the truth of this, but it is a claim.