Commentary: Climate Change - despair or repair - what can (and can’t) be done?


Dave Waters, Senior Geoscientist Paetoro Consulting UK Ltd

Melting and darkening of the Greenland Ice-cap - just one symptom. Credit: Los Alamos National Laboratory

What can be done? This discussion poses a personal reflection on climate change in an attempt to steer my own efforts as a geoscientist accordingly. I work in the energy industry, but I want my grandkids to have a hospitable planet to live on. What follows is necessarily a simplification, perhaps naïve at times, but the aim is to show potential for progress. In a word, hope - but we need to get cracking. We need a plan – both nationally and internationally, but nationally is a good start.


Some starting premises; Critical tools; The ugly sisters? Coal, Oil and Gas; A taxing question; A word on EV's; Reducing carbon emissions; Capturing carbon or cloaking carbon?; What role can alternatives to fossil fuels play now and in the future?; Who can steal the cookies from the cookie jar?; The timing thing; Tackling the deficit; The mining impacts; So, what to be done?; A personal view; What of the long term? Dreaming the dreams; Let’s do this; Transitions not amputations.

Some starting premises

To set the logic in flow, it’s necessary to start with a few ring-fenced premises. They may or may not be correct, and there will be levels of subtlety not treated here, but at least they allow discussion to advance.

The first premise is that climate change, and warming especially, is in part an effect of emissions from human activity including agriculture and fossil fuel emissions.

The second premise is that something can be done about that, and should be attempted, even if it’s not always clear exactly what.

A third premise is that there is a subdivision of energy sources with a hierarchy of least damaging to most damaging in terms of climate change causing emissions. There may be other issues to consider with some of them, but for now the focus is on impact for climate change.

1. Renewables (RN) subdivided into:

a. Core renewables of wind, solar, hydro (RNwsh) .
b. Other renewables, including biofuels, tidal, etc (RNoth) .

2. Geothermal (GEO), including:

a. Shallow ground sourced heating (actually a variation of earth stored solar energy rather than true geothermal) - GSH.
b. True earth heat-flow sourced geothermal, used for hot water & district heating: GEOwat.
c. As for b above, but hot enough to be used for steam and electricity generation: GEOstm.

3. Nuclear Energy (NUC) including:

a. The water (&graphite) moderated reactors most typical of use to date NUCwmr.
b. New generation fast breeder reactors with lesser waste issues NUCfbr.
c. Nuclear fusion reactors still at the R&D phase NUCfus.

4. Fossil fuels (OGC), in order of least to most damaging:

a. Gas, G.
b. Oil, O.
c. Coal, C.

Although for all intents and purposes geothermal is a renewable as well, it is possible in theory to degrade the resources with overuse, if extraction and heat supply are not balanced – especially in cooler temperature geothermal – so I have separated it out from other renewables.

A fourth premise I’m going to use is that the International Energy Agency (IEA) world outlook and associated statistics compilation is a reasonable look at the present trends in energy (the site is a great resource). That may or may not be the case of course, but we have to start discussions somewhere.

Finally, and perhaps most controversially, I’m going to assume that global energy demand will continue to increase fast, and that in general this is a good thing, given the role this will have in lifting various parts of the world out of energy poverty. Even in a situation where this wasn’t the case, it is very hard to imagine a scenario where energy demand from Asia, Africa, and Latin America, doesn’t increase rapidly, whether we like it or not. It would be rather callous of us in our first world OECD living rooms to deny them that option. 

Critical tools

In addition to these critical energy sources, there are some key technologies and tools that will be required. These don’t make energy themselves but they affect how easily and safely we can implement the ones we do have. They include:

  1. Energy storage (ESt) – i.e. batteries for electric vehicles (EV’s), national grid backup (NGr) and the like.
  2. Energy transfer (ETr) – i.e. transmission technologies for use in international super-connectors and so on. This reduces the energy lost in transmitting it long distance and makes energy exchanges between distant places more possible.
  3. Hydrogen fuel cells (HY) – it takes large amounts of energy to make hydrogen, so it falls in a similar bracket to electric vehicles – it is a way of storing potential energy. Hydrogen could be a by-product of new generation nuclear power stations though, so it may have an increasing role on top of the one it already has.
  4. Heat exchange (HTX) - there is nothing very new in this technology - it has existed in our fridges for a long time. Heat pumps and the like make use of even quite small temperature differences (e.g. sea-air differentials) to extract and store energy. While they use energy themselves, they open up possibilities to do new things with heat sources, and with new engineering they are being applied ever more cleverly in new situations, particularly for urban district heating.
  5. Carbon capture (CC) – the ability to capture carbon (and maybe other harmful gases) from the atmosphere and to store them in a way that doesn’t risk re-release.
  6. Solid waste disposal (WD) – mainly related to nuclear waste issues – the ability to safely store waste with geologically engineered burial.
  7. Emissions taxation (TX) – the ability to fairly track and tax emissions deemed hazardous in an internationally agreed standard manner.

The ugly sisters? Coal, Oil and Gas

Are renewables the Cinderella coming to the ball, despite being hounded by the three ugly sisters of the fossil fuels family? Certainly, many see it that way. There is a real cost to combustion of fossil fuels, which is becoming increasingly apparent. Not many still want to argue the case against that today. 

In terms of emissions, coal is by far the worst, oil in the middle and gas the “least worst” of the fossil fuel options. We may be tempted to call them the ugly sisters, but we shouldn’t forget the role they have had in lifting global standards of living in the 20th century. Our cars, our homes, our appliances, our holidays, anything made of metals, plastic, concrete or paper – all of these were unimaginable in the 20th century quantities that were obtained without the energy supplied by fossil fuels. Yet, yes, it is time to look elsewhere and stop the unrelenting emissions that combustion releases into the atmosphere. It can’t be healthy. The reality is that this is a juggernaut that will take some time to halt, but there is a need to apply the brakes.

It needs to be stressed though, that oil is a bit different to coal and gas in that it has many, many, uses in petrochemical industries, where its use does not involve combustion, and so does not contribute to carbon emissions and any related climate change. It us useful therefore to distinguish two types of oil use:

a) petrochemical oil demand (Opch)
b) energy & combustion driven oil demand (Ocmb).

Yes, some oil and gas companies are sleazier than others, and no doubt elements within some of them have occasionally tried to cover up things from greed driven motives. There are variations too within single companies in different countries and offices. It would be naïve to think otherwise, yet it is not accurate to paint every company in that negative light. Whatever the case, whatever the motivation, most companies are now waking up to the fact that they are not going to sell their products unless an increasingly climate conscious public and regulatory environment is satisfied with them. That said, on such a question, it would be foolish to rely on good will alone. A greater incentive is also required.

A taxing question

The global demand for petrochemical oil that is not used in combustion is about 25-30% of the total and set to continue increasing in absolute terms. Note then, that this by itself implies a need for continued oil exploration while at the same time finding a way to discourage its use for combustion.

The only real way to do this is to apply fair costs at the user end rather than at the supplier end, because a supplier can’t always guarantee how others will use their product. So, if there remains a need to continue searching for petrochemical oil, we must find other ways of fairly applying the true costs of carbon emissions other than banning supply of it. Realistically that means carbon tax. It imparts a true cost to emissions and steers use of oil into less damaging applications.

How do we agree a mechanism that accurately monitors emissions, and which applies a tax fairly - and which is more or less agreed across a large and diverse international community? That is not an easy question, but it seems a no-brainer that it needs to be a goal. Surely that goal has to increase in importance. The reality is that it will not be agreed universally to start off with. There is always bound to be several big players in domestic political turmoil of their own that smudges long term strategic vision. Too many stakeholders and vested interests are involved for it to happen easily. Yet even if there are a number of models that emerge at the start, it is a start, and incrementally the best ones will eventually emerge victorious. If we wait for all the laggards before making a start, there won’t be a start.

A consequence of this, let’s be clear, is that any product you use which depends on fossil fuel combustion will become more expensive. Your diesel or petrol car use. Your travel and holidays. Anything you use that arrives in your country by ship. Your gas heating. Any products you use made from metal, plastics, concrete, or paper, that use energy derived from fossil fuel combustion in their construction. These things will become more expensive. Are we up for that? Because if we are not, we can’t point a finger at coal, oil and gas companies without also pointing a finger at ourselves. Alternative sources may become cheaper eventually, but probably not immediately. If we want a transition, we will have to pay for it. 

A word on EV’s

EV’s (electric vehicles) are a great invention. They remove any emissions from vehicles on the road, which is healthier for all who live next door to them. But electric vehicle batteries do not make energy, they just store energy taken from the grid. If that electricity is made from fossil fuel combustion, although there may be an efficiency improvement (i.e. less emission per amount of energy), there are still significant carbon emissions associated with their use, at the power station source. Hence while EV’s improve the situation in many ways locally, and make greater efficiencies possible, they do not by themselves remove all the transport related carbon emissions. To do that involves removal of all emissions from fossil fuel-based power stations. EV’s help, but fundamentally they only displace the problem. It is the power stations supplying the grid that we need to make emission free to have real impact. Can that be done?

There are only two ways of reducing carbon emissions: 

  1. The first is to replace emissions from coal, oil, and gas fired power stations with alternative sources. This takes time to implement. Power station funding, approval and construction doesn't happen overnight.
  2. The second is to use carbon capture technologies to actively remove carbon emissions from the atmosphere at or near to a power station source. EV’s enhance the options here as they help concentrate emissions at the power station as opposed to the current situation with millions of individual vehicle point-sources of emissions. 

Capturing carbon or cloaking carbon?

It’s probably fair to say carbon capture technologies have not been hugely successful to date and are still evolving, but it is way too early to write them off. Given the competition between many energy supply industries there is always a tendency for one to write the other off when one of them has some hiccups. The truth though is that technological advance in any field is always sporadic, and plateaus can give way to times of rapid advance very quickly. 

We may be very familiar with our own industry, but it is difficult to be fully aware of all the new technological innovations under way in other industries. We should therefore be very slow to knock down other technologies. At stake is world climate, a stake too high to deny the possibility of help from any source. The way to “win” is to make our own fields as efficient as they can be, not to knock down others who are trying - if at the end of the day, we don’t want our great grandkids to live in an increasingly barren sauna world.

Where people are suspicious though, is that some fossil fuel industries might want to use carbon capture as a cloak under which to continue business as normal. This is where the technologies of carbon emissions monitoring and associated taxation must come into play, to ensure only genuine externally verified carbon capture is perpetuated. 

What role can alternatives to fossil fuels play now and in the future?

Total Primary Energy Supply (TPES) by Source

*TPES here excludes electricity and heat trade

The IEA chart above gives us context. Look at the increase in energy demand & supply over the last 25 years alone – it’s about 65%. Look at the tiny amount that is supplied by all the renewables. Geothermal, solar, wind, hydro, haven’t even compensated for a decent fraction of the increase over that time, let alone eaten into the original 1990 level of demand. There is reason to believe things are getting better and their role will of course increase, but let’s be clear, that is a huge amount of energy they have to supply to make an impact, and they show no signs of doing that very soon, even with exponential rates of increase. 

Who can steal the cookies from the cookie jar?

So where lies the hope? Who will replace those fossil fuel cookies? Well, many new technologies now emerging are going to help boost renewable outputs. Some renewables like wind and solar can be sporadic in their output, and the industrial processes forging materials at the heart of our societies demand huge amounts of energy constantly 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Processes that make paper, cement, aluminium, and other metals -for example copper – these take vast amounts of energy, and if there is one thing a renewable age will need lots of – it's copper wire to transmit all that clean electrical energy. 

Sporadic supplies of energy can’t keep those fundamental processes going on their own. That is why energy storage and battery technologies make a difference. They allow storage of energy produced by renewable sources to be distributed when the need arises, not just when the wind blows or the sun shines. Advances in energy transmission will allow new possibilities too, so that electricity from the African Sahara might be supplied more efficiently to paying customers in Europe, or geothermal hot spots like Iceland can supply customers across oceans. These are not necessarily things that are possible, or at least economic now, but they will become more so.  

Newly versatile renewables

Renewables also have an advantage in that they are so beautifully scale-able to big or small. This makes the potential for huge growth in small communities worldwide possible. The ability to make small solar installations, small scale wind turbines, small scale hydro in rivers (without dams) - these things can be multiplied in places they have barely begun to scratch. A huge growth in their application is to be expected and welcomed.

The nuclear buttons

The only other player on the field with any real chance of replacing this huge fossil fuel supply is nuclear energy. The rapid evolutions that are occurring in nuclear technology at the minute are worthy of an article in itself, but suffice to say these are all features of a coming “4th” generation of reactors:

  • smaller and more versatile,
  • walkaway passively safe,
  • modular cheaper design,
  •  less vulnerable to weapons material extraction,
  • less waste production.

Fast breeder reactors in particular have an ability to fire “fast” neutrons into reactor materials and “transmutate” isotopes of elements that would ordinarily be regarded as waste, into new elements that are themselves fissile and can provide more energy before producing waste products that are less hazardous (shorter half-lives) than the original ones. The high temperatures involved with such reactors can also be used to produce hydrogen as a by-product, for use in hydrogen fuel cells etc.

There are all sorts of technical issues involved in maintaining the efficiency of reactions and removing things that hinder the desired reactions, but progress is being made, and this opens up very new options for nuclear energy. This includes productive use of existing plutonium stockpiles - sufficient to fuel countries like the UK that have them, for centuries, and the use of the much more abundant natural thorium as a primary fuel as well as uranium. There will still be waste, but the technology to bury things safely exists, and is a highly engineered science of canister & chamber design, and host geology. Again, that’s a whole other subject, but ways forward are possible.

Waste disposal will always be the elephant in the room with nuclear and needs to be talked about more, but new reactor technologies do reduce the amount of waste produced, and the half lives of the elements involved, turning it into a question of thousands of years rather than hundreds of thousands. While the former is still a very long time, it poses much less of a problem in terms of changes on a geological time scale than the latter does. 

There may be a shift required in the attitudes to moving waste around the world. While it should always be the aim of a country producing nuclear waste to be able to dispose of it itself domestically, those countries that have geological sites particularly suited to safe storage should perhaps be freer to volunteer themselves, but under the auspices of internationally agreed suitability, and not under circumstances of quick cash benefit to a kleptocratic elite a safe distance away in their palaces. 

Nuclear fusion is of course a dark horse, and very real advances are being made at the moment, thanks to an increasing number of experimental reactors, and advances in materials science, including super conductors. If safe commercial fusion can be achieved, it changes everything. For now, though, let’s assume a worst-case scenario where it doesn’t have a major role in the next fifty years.  I suspect that in the next ten to twenty years the key players will get much closer to a commercial demonstration reactor, but getting new technologies deployed in a large scale will take some time even in the best case scenario.

The timing thing

It seems likely, that between advances in renewables technology, energy storage & transmission, nuclear technologies, and better use of geothermal, these things will be able in the future, to supply the world’s energy requirements. This should therefore be the goal. When though, is a big question. It seems unlikely on data so far available, that renewables alone will be sufficient to produce enough energy to do that - not for the foreseeable future anyway. Things may change but is not just the amount of energy that is at stake, but the rate and constancy of its delivery. 

Nuclear therefore is the ideal partner to renewables, delivering most of the things renewables can’t. It seems the only power source we know about that has any potential to totally replace energy supply from fossil fuels. Yet deployment of nuclear takes time. Many of the new generation of reactors that are the greatest hope are still at a prototype stage and won’t be ready for mass commercial deployment for some time. The proof of technology and supply chain & material science details, social licence at the designated sites, and new regulatory environments will all take time too. There would seem to be a period of at least 50 years, where the deployment of nuclear and renewables won’t feasibly be able to replace existing fossil fuel supply.

Tackling the deficit

It’s this energy demand hole that can’t realistically be filled by the cleanest renewable and nuclear options that poses the biggest problem to us today – it suggests that we can’t keep the lights on without retaining some temporary dependence on hydrocarbons. That being the case, there is an imperative to shift any fossil fuel combustion from the worst offender (coal), to the best (gas). This seems to be the verdict that most big energy companies have made, and which is driving a major world-wide investment in gas exploration and LNG technologies as we speak.

If we accept the premise that we want to maintain standards of living, not just for ourselves, but in poorer parts of the world, then it is hard to avoid concluding that the shortfall in supply is best met by gas until such time as renewables and nuclear can fill the hole by themselves. The best place to get that gas is a whole separate question, but there is no shortage of options. While it takes some geoscience effort to find exactly where it is, it is present in many places around the world, and the technology to extract it exists now. The challenge is to ensure that any gas combustion is just used in this interim role, and not persisted any longer than it needs to be. Carbon emissions, although less for gas, are still carbon emissions. This is why an effective carbon-tax regimen is needed to drive power supply away from combustion as soon as it is feasible. 

The mining impacts

While we have focussed on emissions to produce a hierarchy of the most desirable energy sources, we also need to take into account the fact that other environmental costs are involved. The most important of these is the increased amounts of mining required. A wind turbine or a solar panel doesn’t just appear magically on site. It is manufactured from a large variety of raw materials, many of which have to be mined and refined. Rare earth elements (REE), on which China currently has a near monopoly on global supply, are an important component of many renewable technologies. They are a rare and not inexhaustible resource. True, the technologies are evolving to rely on them less, but it is still an important constraint. 

Likewise, we have already discussed why battery driven energy storage is necessary to truly empower renewables, by providing a constant evenly timed supply regardless of weather fluctuations. Yet batteries rely on an array of materials that must be mined – cobalt, nickel, copper, lithium, vanadium, to name a few. Demand for these is set to increase hugely. Already there have been outcries about the child labour being used, often in very dangerous conditions, to extract cobalt from mines in Congo – currently the world’s largest supplier. Already there have been some suggestions that deep sea mining will be required to supply the amounts of cobalt required by the battery industry, if renewables are to be viable as a significant global energy supply. These are real human and environmental costs that need to be considered when balancing the merits of different energy sources.

Mining impact is one area where nuclear has a great strength. Although mining of uranium (and thorium) is still required, and not without hazards of its own, the nature of nuclear energy is that a small amount of mass supplies a vast amount of energy. We witness this from the sad destruction possible at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, achieved by devices that fitted into a 1940’s propeller aircraft. A large power station (1000 MWe) fuelled by coal needs a mass of coal fuel 90000 times more than the mass of uranium oxide fuel a nuclear power plant needs to make the equivalent energy.  Even accounting for fuel production from the ore, that’s a truly vast difference in mining impact. Added to that is a vast amount of potential fuel plutonium already stockpiled in some countries as the products of older nuclear reactor technologies, and additional material that is a product of ongoing nuclear weapons decommissioning – further reducing mining impact.

This question of which is best - nuclear or renewables - in terms of overall benefits if mining impact is included – is a complex question. It's one I don’t presume to address here, but it’s worth noting the advantages nuclear has in this regard. 

So, what to be done?

The proliferation of emerging new technologies for energy, far from being a negative picture is one of great hope. None of the options are without environmental cost, yet clear paths for encouraging research exist, and many technologies deserving of continued attention are already clear. All those that promise some potential benefit should be encouraged and may the best technique win. That said, it's likely that multiple solutions are needed, and that different technologies will work best in different places, with their different local constraints and resources.

It is of course important to draw attention to the possible catastrophic impact of climate change, yet there also comes a time for a halting the shrieked screams of doom, and for knuckling down with plans. That time is now. It would be foolish to invest in any one technology - advance on all fronts is needed to maximise chances of success. We can do this. Making that investment is a do-able problem. The real issue is less a lack of technologies to tackle climate change, than one of how to achieve sustained government policies that encourage development and deployment of the new technologies required. For any such policy to be wholly agreed across multiple parties in a democracy is perhaps too much to ask, but some drive towards consensus on core elements has to be achieved for it to have any worth. No easy task, but nobody is promising a rose-garden here. There is no excuse not to start trying. Brexit or no Brexit. Trump or no Trump.

A personal view

One of the benefits of becoming a consultant geologist is the opportunity to really sit back and think about what it all means energy big-picture wise, and where the long term is heading. I advance the following just as one permutation of what one person can imagine and come up with.  If that is possible then surely as a planet we can bang our heads together and do much better than we appear to be doing right now.

1.      Renewables (RN)

  • An ongoing no-brainer: advance all technologies as fast as we can, but doing so with eyes wide open – aware that they have associated environmental and human impacts of their own. 
  • Don’t put all the eggs in one basket, advance many.
  • Advance energy storage and energy transfer technologies to make renewable supplied energy more constantly accessible.
  • Monitor increasing mining impacts of renewables supply.
  • Encourage greater global use of small-scale renewable energy installations, reaching places that other options can’t.

2.      Geothermal (GEO)

  • As above, make much greater use of this resource, and advance technologies that empower exploration for and development of geothermal resource.

3.      Nuclear Energy (NUC)

  • Sustain existing reactors as long as they are deemed safe.
  • Encourage all research directed at a new generation of fast breeder reactors, designed to be walkaway safe, smaller, cheaper, more versatile nuclear-fuel wise, and less waste producing.
  • Encourage nuclear fusion research.

4.      Fossil fuels (OGC)

  • Advance agreed international carbon emissions monitoring and taxation standards, to increasingly ensure fossil fuel combustion is only used when there is no alternative.
  • In general, aim to phase out fossil fuel use for combustion as fast as possible, accepting that timescales involved in the alternatives may necessitate some interim transition to the least offending fossil fuel - gas.
  • Continue to advance carbon capture technologies. In individual site circumstances if carbon capture can demonstrably be shown to be producing energy for zero net carbon emissions, allow it.
  • Coal: move to phase out use for combustion except in those circumstances where carbon capture is removing emissions to a level equivalent to gas (until gas itself can be phased out).
  • Oil, as above, but continue exploring for oil for the non-combustive petrochemical and other uses that constitute about 25%-30% of current demand, and which do not contribute to climate change.
  • Gas: those economies most dependent on coal and oil for energy to be encouraged to shift to gas as an interim measure, until such time as renewables, geothermal and nuclear can fully replace them.

What of the long term? Dreaming the dreams 

The discussion above is focussed on what is possible in the next 50 years or so, based on technologies we can foresee relatively easily, but what of the long-term future? We have already talked a bit of fusion, which although it is no easy panacea, does have the potential to unlock a huge resource of energy, the same one which powers the sun, from fuels that can be extracted from seawater. The wastes that are produced are very short lived, so while still hazards exist that need to be closely monitored, they pose no long-term threat. There are all sorts of complex physical problems that need to be solved before even a demonstration commercial prototype is achieved, let alone supply chains and regulatory environments, but progress is sustained, and accelerating.

What of space? It is an ironic conundrum that nestled between a molten furnace below and a seething multi-billion year sustained thermonuclear explosion above, we find ourselves scratching our heads to find enough energy. In space, in our solar system, there is ample solar energy potential. Could it be that some century or so hence, we will have technologies to extract materials from asteroids indigenously and produce floating space-solar plants? The supply would be virtually endless. The difficult question is how to transmit any energy so acquired back to earth in a safe and energy efficient manner. That may be a key technological question to consider for the far thinkers in decades ahead.

Let’s do this

There is no guarantee that mankind will win this battle. There is a chance that earth has some plans of its own of which we know nothing, and that could drastically render anything we do futile. Such is the nature of the planet’s geological evolution. Yet it is our obligation to future generations to have a go. To at least try correcting what appears to be an increasingly big man-made problem. 

My perspective though, amidst all the concern, is that this is an exciting time. While none of the options open to us are without costs, both financial and environmental, there is an increasing number of them. Adversity has driven a plethora of ongoing innovations. These hold a real hope, of together being able to sustain improving standards of living for all the world’s population through new and/or improved methods of energy supply. The challenge is less the technologies than an ability to agree and implement plans that deploy them in a logical thought-out manner, and to fairly apply the real costs of emissions to the end users that produce them.  

It can be done, but it does require large numbers of politicians that are willing to see beyond one electoral term and agree a cross-party strategy, and not only that but leaders able to forge a measure of international consistency in strategy. These problems, sadly, are the arguably the most difficult problems of them all. 

Transitions not amputations

Amidst all this, there does have to be an element of empathy, understanding that real livelihoods are involved in the old ways of doing things, and that a transition period allowing people to adjust is better than overnight changes. Overnight changes in strategy are fine, but their implementation needs to be timed, be it with two years, five, or ten, to also address the needs of real people, real families, involved in the shifting priorities of energy supply. To do that while also addressing a need to get moving quickly, is a tricky tightrope requiring bold leadership. Having a clearly researched and logical plan that informs people where future focus will be, is a crucial part of that. It’s hard, yet we are up to the task, if we put our minds to it. 

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