Reasons to be climate cheerful (ish)

The International Energy Agency published its annual World Energy Outlook ten days ago. In this era of climate crisis, that outlook includes, as you would expect, stern warnings of catastrophic warming. But it also includes interesting nuggets of hope and optimism — and they aren’t alone. Global warming is a slow-motion in-progress planetary train-wreck, true; but you don’t have to look too hard to find evidence that new technology might yet, eventually, after enormous expense and had work, get us halfway back on non-catastrophic rails.

Consider the dreaded coal mine. Coal mines are really, really bad. How bad? New research suggests that methane leakage from coal mines, alone — without even considering burning the coal after it’s mined! — has “a greater warming impact than aviation and shipping combined.” (Italics mine.) Fly less and drink from paper straws if it makes you feel better, but if you really want to fight global warming, help close coal mines and/or prevent new ones from opening.

The WEO projects a long plateau in our collective reliance on coal over the next decades. That may seem surprising, but: “rising demand in India is one of the key factors holding global coal use steady, despite rapid falls in developed economies.” However, in India, “510GW of new coal has been cancelled since 2010 due to competition from cheaper renewables, financial distress at utility firms and public opposition” while Indian “coal power generation shows a declining trend since August 2019.” (Again, italics mine.) This is because of a decrease in demand, but it’s one that’s especially well-timed …

…because at the same time, renewables are on a tear in India, and around the world. They just keep getting cheaper. The IEA is infamous for drastically, comically underestimating how fast solar power capacity will grow around the world. (Here’s a paper which tries to explain why.) Bewilderingly, they are sticking to this, despite having been proven spectacularly wrong every year for the last decade.

It’s very easy to envision a scenario in which solar continues to skyrocket, coal diminishes faster than the IEA currently projects, and we emit significantly less methane and carbon dioxide than expected. (Oh, and reap massive public health benefits, too.) Yes, renewables will eventually run into significant unsolved intermittency problems, but as Ramez Naam puts it, “these problems are distant.”

In the shorter term, even if the IEA’s impressively pessimistic projections are correct, they are still reason for relative optimism. The famous IPCC Fifth Assessment report on climate change gave us four scenarios. The worst case is known as RPC8.5 (RPC for Representative Concentration Pathway, a name only a bureaucrat could love, and 8.5 for the watts/square meter of radiative forcing, i.e. the difference between energy received from the sun and that radiated back out to space.) The second-worse is RPC6.0. Well, the IEA’s World Energy Outlook indicates that we’re currently tracking better than either of those cases;

Again, this is relative optimism: it’s by no means “everything is going to be fine,” but it is “thanks to the spectacular growth of renewable energy, we do not seem to be on course for the IPCC’s worst or even second-worst projection.” Of course this is all estimation. Models are complex and comparisons are hard. For instance, the IEA projections do not include cement:

But speaking of cement, there’s a recent potential breakthrough there, too. Cement is responsible for some 8% of global carbon emissions, and 40% of those come from simply heating limestone to over 1,000 degrees. Heliogen’s new solar thermal plant can do that with sunlight, using machine learning.

Of course what we ultimately want is carbon capture. But wait! There’s a recent potential breakthrough there, as well. A few years ago the cost of capturing carbon from the air was estimated at hundreds of dollars per ton. But that is on a steep decline, with estimates for new technologies now as low as $50/ton. (A typical car releases about 5 tons per year.)

Hockey-sticking renewable energies. Solar thermal cement. Cheaper carbon capture. In what may often seem like the forthcoming wasteland of the climate crisis, there are a surprising number of green shoots. Of course not all of them may grow. There’s many a slip ‘twixt breakthrough proof-of-concept and actual production at scale. And there’s always the chance that better data and models may undercut apparent (relatively) good news.

But at the same time, in addition to the apocalypticists who seem to take a grim glee in oncoming catastrophe, and the hairshirt moralizers who seem to believe that suggesting anything other than “we’re all doomed, unless we go back to living in carbon-neutral caves!” is dangerous, there is another narrative. One which says “we, as a species, have a huge amount of incredibly expensive work to do, yes, but despair is not the only thing on the menu.” It’s true that politicians seem unlikely to save us from a climate disaster. Technology, however, still might.