Plan C: Destroy the Sun

LiveScience posted a short article the other day on potential schemes for dealing with extreme climate change, and the list of possibilities is a wonderful primer on how wild eyed people can be about this issue. The article reported on testimony from climatologist Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution in Washington, D.C., following a report Dr. Caldiera gave to the British Parliament.

Climate change is a big issue, to say the least. In the last 150 years humanity has managed to bootstrap itself from an agrarian species to a technological one, principally through exploiting the stored chemical energy in fossil carbon compounds. The Earth’s carbon cycle laid away a small buried surplus of reduced carbon compounds over the last 350 million years (give or take), and we’ve used that geologic nest egg to prodigious benefit. In the last few decades we’ve also come to realize that there is no free lunch, and the waste generated from burning megatons of fossil hydrocarbons – specifically carbon dioxide waste – has ratcheted up the size of our planet’s atmospheric infrared-radiation buffer. Result: a warming climate.

I’m a pretty strong environmentalist. I might as well get that out of the way, in the name of full disclosure. But I’m also an environmental scientist, and I value an evidence-based approach to problems. Anthropogenic climate change is now unequivocal, after decades of slow and steady data accumulation. In fact not only is it clear that humans have changed the climate, it has become increasingly clear that climate is an amazingly complex machine governed by different control systems operating on wildly different scales of space and time. Before people started examining climate with a careful eye, no one understood (for example) that tectonics + plankton + erosion could function as a planetary thermostat on multi-million year timescales. But they do. Studying climate empirically – as opposed to the arch-conservative approach of ignoring reality in favor of reading the memoirs of pre-soap goat herders – has taught us a great deal.

But apparently one of the things studying the planet has not taught us is humility. In Dr. Caldeira’s report to Parliament, a number of alternate ideas were floated for dealing with climate if it starts to get too weird in the next century. Ideas for dealing with potential runaway greenhouse warming might be:

To his credit, these are not Dr. Caldeira’s ideas. He was just reporting on their existence. But that list reveals something interesting about peoples’ response to the threat of a planetary climate out of control. When faced with a looming Earth-sized problem, people badly want quick dramatic fixes, as if life is a science fiction movie. When in doubt, build a giant machine.

Take dust/sulfur injection. The idea here is to somehow (the method isn’t clear) pollute the Earth’s lower atmosphere with megatons of dust or sulfate aerosol particles, more or less as a volcano does… or perhaps a Chinese coal-burning power plant. Reflective dust scatters sunlight back to space, and cools the planet’s surface. It also returns to Earth as acid rain, in the case of sulfur. It’s also difficult to get dust to shroud the entire planet evenly, unless we resort to globally democratic means of dispersal, such as a thermonuclear war. Next idea?

A sun shade. To make that work, you’d need to construct a device in space, and that device would need to be tens of thousands of kilometers across, in a synced orbit between the Earth and the Sun. If built correctly, it would undoubtedly cost several trillion dollars, and would give whoever controls it absolute power over the Earth’s fate. If built incorrectly, it would either 1) bankrupt the world, 2) cause the planet to freeze, or 3) both. Next?

Inject iron into the oceans. The idea here is that iron is a limiting planktonic nutrient, which it is, and that seeding the oceans with iron wholesale would result in a bloom of planktonic activity that would send a torrent of organic carbon to the seafloor as generation after generation of plankton use up CO2 to make themselves. One problem with this is cost, as in the cost of sending megatons of iron powder to Davy Jones’ locker. Another problem is anoxia. When one over-fertilizes a water body, what typically happens is an algal bloom, followed by oxygen starvation as waves of senescent algae decompose. Without oxygen every fish, crustacean, mammal and sea slug dies. Then they decompose, making matters worse. Result: an oceanic dead zone, a lifeless black void in the water, from which issues a lethal miasma of hydrogen sulfide and other toxic gases. Next?

Carbon sequestration. This is the idea of taking CO2 from the exhaust of a coal-burning power plant and capturing it, then sending it down into the Earth, where it will remain. I actually know geologists who are working on this, mostly through Congressional earmark funding because the idea is too harebrained to pass peer review at NSF. Injecting CO2 into the ground isn’t harebrained in itself. Oil companies do it from time to time, as a technique to expand cracks in deep rock and force out more oily dregs. But the scale of trying to sequester all the CO2 from all the coal plants in the country (or the world) is another thing altogether. How much will it cost to pay all those workers to build the CO2 sequestration apparatus, to keep it running, to truck the CO2 from the plants to the injection sites, and to monitor the injection sites for leakage? How much will a kilowatt of electricity cost after all that laborious Rube-Goldberging? If it’s more than the cost of a kilowatt of solar or wind electricity, it’s not worth the trouble. And in case you think that only nuclear plants can have accidents that kill thousands overnight, imagine what would happen if a wellhead breaks and billions of cubic feet of CO2 escape from an injection well, blasting up and out under geologic pressure to blanket the ground with heavy, suffocating gas. Actually you don’t have to imagine. A natural version of exactly that happened one night in 1986, at Lake Nyos in Cameroon. Seventeen hundred people died in seconds.

Instead of crazy schemes, perhaps we ought to consider that climate is a tricky thing that is very large. Unlike getting to the Moon, manipulating climate is not a simple matter of calculating where to shoot a missile and having it land on target. Climate change is now a fact of life, and the most direct thing we can do to stop it from getting out of hand is to try and produce less CO2. Instead of gigantic Wile E. Coyote schemes, perhaps we should first concentrate on straightforward aims, such as greater energy efficiency, and better ways of getting at renewable energy sources such as wind, solar and biomass. Right now we don’t need to waste energy on grandiose scenarios from the mind of a James Bond villain.


~ by Planetologist on November 13, 2008.

5 Responses to “Plan C: Destroy the Sun”

  1. Which studies, specifically? Can you provide a reference on that 5% number? I’ve seen numbers come and go about projected costs for CCS, but to my knowledge they’re all projections based on different assumptions, and nearly always biased in favor of whoever is funding the study. Hard line anti-coal groups come up with gigantic cost figures, while the coal companies guarantee CCS will be trivially cheap.

    Maybe CCS will end up being cheap in the long run, maybe it won’t. I tend to expect it won’t, or at least it will add enough cost to make coal increasingly less competitive against renewable energy options, such as wind, which is growing in the marketplace today because of a proven record of cost-competitive energy delivery.

    Of course the world will keep using coal. There’s lots of coal in the ground. Our energy needs are so great that coal *must* be used… there’s no real choice. We’re stuck with coal, for now. But I’m more interested in figuring out how to unstick ourselves.

    I will not pretend to authoritatively predict X% of world energy will come from X sources by X year. I’d be pulling a number out of thin air, as would be anyone else making a similar prediction. But I do tend to think nations will start closing in on maximizing their use of renewables a lot sooner than 2050. The automobile, the internet, hydroelectricity… the list goes on, of cost-effective technologies that were adopted quickly and globally once they were available. We’re seeing the start of that transition now, with renewables.

    I guess to me, CCS is putting a lot of money into engineering a better buggy whip, when we’d be a lot better off ditching the buggy and buying a new Prius. If private companies want to spend their own money on CCS research, more power to them. But I’d rather my tax dollars go for more practical, forward-looking and truly innovative energy options.

  2. I have to disagree with a few points.

    Geophysicists approximate the CO2 storage potential of developed countries on the scale of hundreds of gigatonns… Meaning that there is plenty of storage potential where the industry is. Sure, you will need to build several 100km long pipelines, sure actual trucking would be plain stupid (did you actually read that somehwere?), but what’s that compared to the length of a Caucasian – Western European gas pipeline.

    Also, I don’t see how CO2 capture with membrane technology requires major multiple-time investments. What does this have to do with right wing ideologues?

    Studies show that if all coal energy power plant CO2 exhaust was sequestred it would increase eletricity costs by max. 5%. Do you have any other data or calculation? That does not sound so bad, compared to e.g. periods of skyrocketing gas prices.

    Covering energy demand with solar and wind energy from one day to another is irrational. We are happy if by 2050% renewables will make up 50% of energy production. You can’t avoid coal energy for a long long time, and while you doing that CCS can reduce its negative effects.

  3. I think the correct solution is to get every robot on earth to belch and once, pushing the planet to a slightly more distant orbit.

  4. Except it’s not a one-time investment in capture, transport and sequestration infrastructure. The cost to maintain CO2 capture would be ongoing, just like the ongoing cost of sulfur and particulate capture from existing coal plants with scrubbers. Nothing is for free. There is a large and substantial trucking/transport cost, because the siting of coal plants is almost never coincident with subsurface geologic conditions most suitable to CO2 deep injection. You can’t just bury it anywhere; you have to choose deep stratified rock with high porosity, beneath unfractured low-porosity strata, among many other considerations. Coal plants are sited near concentrations of population that use the electricity, to minimize current loss through power lines.

    Actual costs from CO2 sequestration will be huge starting out, but of course would come down through economies of scale if the technology is widely adopted. That said, it is far more difficult to capture a gas phase than to simply remove particulate ash and dust, or sulfur that can be chemically captured into sludge. This is not trivial, no matter what the ideologues on the right would have you believe. Coal companies want this for obvious reasons, and they are willing to say anything to make it happen. But in the end, economics will out.

    Using CO2 sequestration is like adjusting the temperature in your house by turning up the air conditioning all the way, then turning up the heat until you get the temp just right. It’s a gigantic waste of effort and energy, to little benefit. I seriously doubt that CO2 sequestration will ever be feasible in practice. I don’t know about Hungary, but in Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany, and increasingly in the US, wind energy is cheaper than coal, and much cheaper than natural gas for electricity production.

    CO2 sequestration is at best a niche technology, and at worst a scam against the public.

  5. Very well written, smart post. Congratulations.
    However, I would like to encourage you to do the math again regarding CCS. Calculate with a one-time big investment to the capture, transport and sequestration infrastructure, moderate to negligeble operational and maintenance, no transportation and trucking cost, actual income from emission quote trading (may not apply to the US) and less spending due to lower environmental fees. Now, I don’t know about the US, but in countries like Hungary wind energy costs 2.2 times the cost of brown coal energy…go ahead and finish the equation. Just wanted to say that there are many correct approaches to GHG emission reduction that can contribute to climate protection if efforts are combined, and I believe CCS will be one. Anyway, keep up the good work fighting pseudo science.

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