Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Scope of the Carbon Problem

The Worldwatch Institute has a report out that helps illustrate the scope of the world's energy & climate problem.

1.3 billion people in the world still have no electricity.

Another 1 billion lack reliable access.

Can you imagine trying to live without electricity? I only sort-of can because I once spent 5 months on a long-distance backpacking trip, and even then we took into a motel or lodge when the weather was nasty or we really needed a shower and real food. Life without electricity is completely different than life without it (obviously). The Worldwatch Institute also says

At least 2.7 billion people lack access to 
modern fuels for cooking and heating.

In good news, about 2 billion people gained electricity between 1990 and 2008.

So here's a better presentation of the point I clumsily tried to make a while back about how the energy problems and carbon problems are inversely related. This is an extremely simple model, but quickly illustrates the problem.

1) Assume that the world is divided into two groups: the OECD nations and the non-OECD nations, and that all future population growth occurs in the non-OECD sector.

2) Assume non-OECD nations ultimately live at some level proportional to OECD-nations, as measured by their carbon emissions.

3) Assume energy efficiency and/or renewable energy sources allow a reduction of carbon emissions for OECD-nations by some factor.

Then future carbon emissions will be, relative to today's emissions

r = A(1-e)(1 + Fp)


r = future emissions relative to today's
A = today's ratio of OECD carbon emissions relative to that of the world
e = the energy efficiency of the future, so per-capita emissions are (1-e) times that of today's.
F = ratio of the future non-OECD per-capita carbon emissions to the OECD's -- which is assumed to be the standard of living
p = the future ratio of non-OECD population to OECD-population

Today (from EIA data for 2009):

Population(OECD) = 1.225 billion
Population(non-OECD) = 5.536 billion

OECD emissions = 12.0 Bt CO2
World emission = 29.0 Bt CO2

(Emissions are for fuel consumption only.) So A = 0.42.

There may not be much choice about "p," but let's assume the world population tops out at 10 billion people -- remember, all population growth is assumed to be in the non-OECD countries. Then p = 7.16 . (Today p = 4.52)

You get to choose e and F, and you want r < 1. In fact, you want r ~ 0.2 if we need to drastically cut CO2 emissions as much as some say we need to. Ideally you want F=1 -- you want everyone in the world to live at the same (high and equal) standard of living. That will require

F=1 =>     e = 94%

You somehow need to reduce per-capita carbon emissions by 94%, through a combination of energy efficiency and renewable technologies. It's almost impossible to imagine that happening.

Today F = 0.29 -- the average non-OECD resident emits only 29% of the CO2 of an OECD resident. Let's say you hope to double that to 0.58 . That requires

F doubled from today =>     e = 91%

Which is still very difficult to see happening.

So I don't see how we can cut carbon emissions, while increasing affluence, through just efficiency and renewables. We have to have new technologies to fully solve the carbon problem (which might include geoengineering).

And until then, we better get busy on adaptation.

(If I made any mistakes here, please let me know.)


Anonymous said...

Uhh...lol. Carbon isn't a pollutant because...we are made of carbon. We better ban oxygen, too because at certain levels oxygen is toxic!

Geoengineering won't work. We can't control the weather, and we can't control climate, either.

Also, can you tell me the difference between "mad-made" Co2 and natural emittors of Co2? Should we put corks in volcanoes? What about dead plants?

Carbon isn't a problem. But this popular delusion is.

David Appell said...

Anon: manmade vs natural CO2 can be distinguished by its carbon isotopes:

There are many compounds that are present in the human body but are also pollutants in other contexts, such as arsenic, selenium, zinc, and many more. So your extremely simplistic argument fails (obviously). It's like saying because there is carbon in both your body and in gasoline, it's OK to dump gasoline in drinking water.