Climate Change

Published on April 17th, 2014 | by Shrink That Footprint


Let’s Use Fossil Fuels To Make Stuff, But Let’s Not Cook The Planet

April 17th, 2014 by  

Originally published on Shrink That Footprint.
By Lindsay Wilson

The IPCC just released its third assessment report on mitigating climate change. I’ve spent the morning reading the full summary, and to help you save a little time I’ve whittled it down to a six word summary.

Fossils fuels are for making stuff

When you strip away all the technical language about ‘stock and flows of greenhouse gases’, ‘mitigation pathways’ and ‘mitigation costs’ climate mitigation is pretty simple. To limit warming to 2°C above the pre-industrial level we need to start limiting our use of fossil fuels to only processes that we can’t effectively substitute with a form of low carbon energy.

Of course we’ll continue to use fossils fuels for making stuff where absolutely necessary (steel, plastic, fertilizer…) but we need to stop using them as our go to energy source for doing things (power, transport, heating and cooling). This of course is a simplification, with obvious exceptions like heavy transport, but it’s a pretty solid way to think about the challenge.

If that sounds radical that is simply because it is. According to the IPCC, limiting warming to 2°C means increasing the world’s low carbon energy share from 15% in 2010, to 60% by 2050 and to 90% by 2100. And just to be very clear here when the IPCC says ‘energy’ they don’t mean electricity. They are talking about all the energy we use in industry, transport, buildings and agriculture.

The next few graphs explain a little about how the IPCC sees climate mitigation. If they are a little hard to read click on them and they should expand.

The Need to Slash Emissions

Cutting Emissions

The graph above shows greenhouse gas emissions pathways between 2000 and 2100. The four black lines are the IPCC’s five representative concentration pathways (RCPs) which come from the science working group. Colored in light blue you can see the low pathway for 430-480ppm CO2eq. This is the 450ppm scenario which is likely to keep warming below 2°C in 2100. It involves reducing total greenhouse gas emissions from around 49 Gt CO2eq/yr in 2010 down to about 20 Gt in 2050, and to slightly negative net emissions in 2100.

Upscaling Low Carbon Energy

Upscaling Low Carbon

This graph shows just how rapid the coming deployment of low carbon energy will need to be in order to mitigate the worst of climate change. If we look at the blue section to the right we can see that low carbon energy needs to soar from about 15% of total primary energy in 2010 to 60% of the total by 2050 in the 450 ppm scenario. By 2100 this figure would need to reach 90%.

Reducing Energy Demand

Cutting Energy UseOn top of a revolutionary increase in the use of low carbon energy, a 450ppm scenario would require significant reductions in energy demand through efficiency, planning and behaviour. In each of the blue columns above you can see how final energy demand is reduced through 2030 and 2050 in the transport, buildings and industry. These reductions are over and above the normal efficiency gains built into the baseline.

Trying to Capture Carbon

Capturing carbon

This last graph shows which sectors need to provide the heavy lifting and highlights how important carbon capture and storage (CCS) is for reaching 450 ppm by the end of the century. Without any viable CCS 450ppm looks even more unlikely and is dependent on huge emissions reductions in Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use (AFOLU). If you want some context for just how colossal the challenge is compare the yellow electricity emissions for 2100 in the baseline and to the 450 ppm with CSS scenario. In the former electricity emissions are +30 Gt each year while in the latter they are -12 Gt/yr.

Mitigating Climate Change

So there you have it. I hope that was a vaguely intelligible summary of the IPCC new report. If you are really interested I highly suggest having a go at reading the summary yourself. It’s not an easy read due to the need for constant qualification and referencing, but hey, it’s pretty damn important stuff. If you are looking to do some mitigation a bit closer to home then check out our free eBook with 13 tips for cutting your own carbon emissions.

Check out our new 93-page EV report, based on over 2,000 surveys collected from EV drivers in 49 of 50 US states, 26 European countries, and 9 Canadian provinces.

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Shrink That Footprint is a resource for squeezing more life out of less carbon. We are an independent research group that provides information to people interested in reducing their climate impact. Our core focus is understanding, calculating, and reducing personal carbon footprints.

  • Peter Gray

    My dad, a geologist, made the same kind of observation as Michael’s chemistry teacher, in the same era. It’s appealing, but I’m not convinced it’s right. It doesn’t look impossible to synthesize all sorts of products from plant oils and other plant constituents, or even from ultra-simple methane. The reason we mostly use oil instead of bio feedstocks is the same reason we burn oil – it’s cheaper, including subsidies and leaving out huge external costs.

    Sorry to sound like a broken record, but we could avoid all this micromanagement and carbon footprint calculation, and get better results much cheaper, by charging an environment users’ fee (sometimes less accurately called a carbon tax) for burning fossil fuels. If fossil carbon-based products can be shown not to eventually be oxidized, they would be exempt from the fee. This would promote a shift to renewables, and divert a lot of that precious oil to its true higher-value uses.

  • Will E

    dig for coal in Colombia, Canada, Australia,
    than transport it to the harbour by train
    than pile it up and cargo a big ship
    sail the coal by ship to Rotterdam
    unload the ship in Rotterdam
    and sail the ship back to
    Colombia, Canada, Australia
    transport the coal to the coal utility in Rotterdam
    and than
    after paying the bill
    to make electricity
    transport the electricity on the grid to your house
    and than after paying the bill
    use it

    Put Solar Panel System
    on your roof
    and use it.
    no bill to pay

    • Peter Gray

      Coal is horrible, filthy, dangerous stuff, no question. However, it would be silly to deny that it has a high energy density, it’s fairly convenient to extract, and it’s quite cheap to ship on rail or water.

      All of that means coal-fired electricity is still cheaper than solar for most consumers (ignoring, as we do, the enviro costs).

      Some people may be too lazy, risk-averse, or poorly informed to take advantage of cheaper energy when it’s offered. But it’s misleading to imply that many are going to all that trouble for coal, and ignoring cheaper options, out of pure stupidity.

      When you say at the end “no bill to pay,” that implies you got the PV system for free. Where does that happen?

      • tmac1

        I cannot speak for Will but I assume “no bill to pay” means after XX years , (your mileage may vary) , the fuel is free and the total capital outlay is equal to what we would pay say for $90 a month for 10 years.
        That is he assumes you are in it for the long term

  • Michael Berndtson

    Good stuff. My organic chemistry teacher said back in 1982, “oil is to precious to burn.” Meaning there is so many things we should be doing with hydrocarbons of all sizes and shapes instead of burning. Especially since internal combustion only gets about what, 25 percent useful work out of molecules’ potential?

    Here’s what comes out of the refinery (per EIA and MJB rounding – should be 100%), indicating that most products are burned quickly

    Liquid Refinery Gases: 12% – products and burned
    Gasoline: 49% – burned
    Distillates (diesel/jet fuel): 27% – burned
    Residual Fuels: 2% – burned
    Petrochemical feedstock: 2% – products
    Waxes/lubes: 1% – products
    Pet coke: 2% – burned
    Asphalt: 2% – products
    Still gas: 3% – burned

    • Rick Kargaard

      Have you a link? These figures are considerably different from what I have found. One problem is that oil and natural gas are often lumped together under petroleum products. I am finding it difficult to get consistent results and am looking for something I could consider reliable.

      • Michael Berndtson

        Here you go:

        It’s a table of ins and outs for US refining. This EIA data is awesome to play with. You can download the information in an excel file and calculate percentages to get the mass balance. I did that, but I’m too lazy to figure out how to link a google sheets file. This cloud thing still freaks me out. I’ll get use to it some day.

        • Michael Berndtson

          Oh, I get your question. The EIA refinery data looks at what goes into and out of petroleum refineries. Some of the natural gas liquids from well fields will go to refineries and some directly to petrochemical plants. There’s also data on petrochemical feed stocks directly from natural gas. Mostly natural gas liquids like ethane, propane and butane. Given the increase of NGL from shale gas to petrochemical – this stream is becoming more significant. Search the EIA website – I believe gas processing and petrochem is also in there.

        • Bob_Wallace

          Hit the “Share” button in the upper right.

          You’ll see the link already selected (blue character stream). Copy to post.
          After Private – “Only you can access” click on “Change” and select “Anyone with link” or “Public on the web”.

        • Rick Kargaard

          A pie chart on this site

          shows gasoline use of crude oil as 44.9% in 2006. This is apparrently also sourced from EIA. This may be older data, but my understanding is that U.S. gasoline demand has been declining. Other data is also much different.

          At this point I would consider EIA data as being unreliable
          I don,t know where else to look. Industry sources may be more reliable
          Variations of conclusions of 1 or 2 percent I can understand, but these are huge discrepancies

          • Bob_Wallace

            Why do you doubt EIA data?

            I totally understand their prediction division. Those people are so far off base that it’s not funny. But I’ve read nothing about problems with EIA historical data.

          • Rick Kargaard

            It is perhaps the best we have got. It is probably mostly sourced from industry with the usual problems of non responders and different accounting or estimating systems.
            The discrepancies in the gasoline figure is not so important in itself until it is used as a percentage. Then it can drastically effect the percentage use of oil for other purposes.
            A pie chart always totals 100% and inaccuracies in the input of the larger slices can skew perceptions.

          • Michael Berndtson

            44.9 and 49 are in the same decade. I thought you were talking an order or magnitude of something. I’d say for two numbers representing 2006 and 2012, respectively – that comparison is pretty much nuts on. Given the increase of light sweet crude from Bakken and Texas shale and possible changes in product consumption, the difference can be explained away. We’ll see what happens when Alberta tar sands increase by a factor of 2 or more over the next several years. EIA is probably the best and only publicly available data on historical production for fossil fuel. Its projects may be suspect – given enthusiasm and other reasons.

          • Rick Kargaard

            that is about a 10% difference

          • Michael Berndtson

            If you trying to be a stickler with numbers – it’s really only a 5.1% difference. And as I said – we’re talking 6 years between production data sets. Things change Rick. I have no idea what your point is. You can go through the EIA data year by year. Couple that information with changes in API gravity averages of crude feedstock and consumption preferences. Also imports and exports matter. There’s been a lot more exporting of raw materials and intermediates to Asia over the past ten years.

          • Rick Kargaard

            I meant it is about a 10% difference between 44.9 an 49. Sorry if I was not clear.
            I have seen no figures as to exports of gasoline and you are right that this might explain some difference if no crude was exported. What I was really trying to determine was what percentage of crude oil is used for the different purposes. Perhaps I am looking at the wrong data.

  • JamesWimberley

    Brazil and Indonesia will not only have to stop deforestation but reverse it. This is compatible with managed commercial forestry on a longish horizon, so it’s not an impracticably call for restoring lost virgin forests.

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