At the start of last month, I wrote about the need for national plans to ween us from our addiction to fossil fuels [see ‘Bringing an end to thermodynamic whoopee‘ on December 8th, 2021]. If we are to reduce carbon emissions to the levels agreed in Paris at COP 21 then the majority of the population as well as organisations in a country will need to engage with and support the national plan which implies that it must transcend party politics. This level of engagement will likely require us to have a well-informed public debate in which we listen to diverse perspectives and consider multifarious solutions that address all of the issues, including the interests of a fossil fuel industry that employs tens of millions of people worldwide [see EU JRC Science for Policy report on Employment in the Energy Sector] and makes annual profits measured in hundreds of billions of dollars [see article in Guardian newspaper about $174 billion profit of 24 largest oil companies]. Perhaps, learned societies nationally and universities regionally could collate and corroborate evidence, host public debates, and develop plans. This process is starting to happen organically [for example, see Climate Futures: Developing Net Zero Solutions Using Research and Innovation]; however, the urgency is such that a larger, more focussed and coordinated effort is required if we are to bring about the changes required to avoid the existential threat [see ‘Disruptive change required to avoid existential threats‘ on December 1st, 2021].
Two weeks ago I used two infographics to illustrate the dominant role of energy use in generating greenhouse gas emissions and the disportionate production of greenhouse gas emission by the rich [see ‘Where we are and what we have‘ on November 24th, 2021]. Energy use is responsible for 73% of global greenhouse gas emissions and 16% of the world’s population are responsible for 38% of global CO2 emissions. Today’s infographics illustrate the energy flows from source to consumption for the USA (above), UK and Europe (thumbnails below). In the USA fossil fuels (coal, natural gas and petroleum) are the source of nearly 80% of their energy, in the UK it is a little more than 80% and the chart for Europe is less detailed but the proportion looks similar. COP 26 committed countries to ending ‘support for the international unabated fossil fuel energy sector by the end of 2022’ and recognised ‘investing in unabated fossil-related energy projects increasingly entails both social and economic risks, especially through the form of stranded assets, and has ensuing negative impacts on government revenue, local employment, taxpayers, utility ratepayers and public health.’ However, to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels we need a strategy, a plan of action for a fundamental change in how we power industry, heat our homes and propel our vehicles. A hydrogen economy requires the production of hydrogen without using fossil fuels, electric cars and electric domestic heating requires our electricity generating capacity to be at least trebled by 2050 in order to hit the net zero target. This scale and speed of transition to zero-carbon sources is such that it will have to be achieved using an integrated blend of green energy sources, including solar, wind and nuclear energy. For example, in the UK our current electricity generating capacity is about 76 GW and 1 GW is equivalent to 3.1 million photovoltaic (PV) panels, or 364 utility scale wind turbines [www.energy.gov/eere/articles/how-much-power-1-gigawatt] so trebling capacity from one of these sources alone would imply more than 700 million PV panels, or one wind turbine every square mile. It is easy to write policies but it is much harder to implement them and make things happen especially when transformational change is required. We cannot expect things to happen simply because our leaders have signed agreements and made statements. Now, national plans are required to ween us from our addiction to fossil fuels – it will be difficult but the alternative is that global warming might cause the planet to become uninhabitable for us. It is time to stop ‘making thermodynamic whoopee with fossil fuels’ to quote Kurt Vonnegut [see ‘And then we discovered thermodynamics‘ on February 3rd, 2016].
Kurt Vonnegut, A Man without a Country, New York: Seven Stories Press, 2005. He wrote ‘we have now all but destroyed this once salubrious planet as a life-support system in fewer than two hundred years, mainly by making thermodynamic whoopee with fossil fuels’.
US Energy flow chart: https://flowcharts.llnl.gov/commodities/energy
EU Energy flow chart: https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/web/energy/energy-flow-diagrams
UK Energy flow chart: https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/energy-flow-charts#2020
In his closing statement at COP26 in Glasgow earlier this month, António Guterres, the Secretary-General of the UN stated that ‘Science tells us that the absolute priority must be rapid, deep and sustained emissions reductions in this decade. Specifically – a 45% cut by 2030 compared to 2010 levels.’ About three-quarters of global green house gas emissions are carbon dioxide (30.4 billions tons in 2010 according to the IEA). A reduction in carbon emissions of 45% by 2030 would reduce this to 16.7 billion tons or an average of about 2 tons per person per year (tCO2/person/yr) allowing for the predicted 9% growth in the global population to 8.5 billion people by 2030. This requires the average resident of Asia, Europe and North America to reduce their carbon emissions to about a half, a quarter and a tenth respectively of their current levels (3.8, 7.6 & 17.6 tCO2/person/yr respectively, see the graphic below and ‘Two Earths‘ on August 13th, 2012). These are massive reductions to achieve in a very short timescale, less than a decade. Lots of people are talking about global and national targets; however, very few people have any idea at all about how to achieve the massive reductions in emissions being talked about at COP26 and elsewhere. The graphic above shows global greenhouse gas emissions by sector with almost three-quarters arising from our use of energy to make stuff (energy use in industry: 24%), to move stuff and us (transport: 16%), and to use stuff and keep us comfortable (energy use in building: 17.5%). Hence, to achieve the target reductions in emissions and prevent the temperature of the planet rising more than 1.5 degrees compared to pre-industrial levels, we need to stop making, buying, moving and consuming stuff. We need to learn to live with our local climate because cooling and heating buildings consumes energy and heats the planet. And, we need to use public transport, a bicycle or walk. By the way, for stuff read all matter, materials, articles, i.e., everything! We will need to be satisfied with where we are and what we have, to learn to love old but serviceable belongings [see ‘Loving the daily current of existence‘ on August 11th, 2021 and ‘Old is beautiful‘ on May 1st, 2013].
Is a coconut an isolated thermodynamic system? This is a question that I have been thinking about this week. A coconut appears to be impermeable to matter since its milk does not leak out and it might be insulated against heat transfer because its husk is used for insulation in some building products. If you are wondering why I am pondering such matters, then it is because, once again, I am teaching thermodynamics to our first year students (see ‘Pluralistic Ignorance‘ on May 1st, 2019). It is a class of more than 200 students and I am using a blended learning environment (post on 14th November 2018) that combines lectures with the units of the massive open online course (MOOC) that I developed some years ago (see ‘Engaging learners on-line‘ on May 25th, 2016). However, before devotees of MOOCs get excited, I should add that the online course is neither massive nor open because we have restricted it to our university students. In my first lecture, I talked about the concept of defining the system of interest for thermodynamic analysis by drawing boundaries (see ‘Drawing boundaries‘ on December 19th, 2012). The choice of the system boundary has a strong influence on the answers we will obtain and the simplicity of the analysis we will need to perform. For instance, drawing the system boundary around an electric car makes it appear carbon neutral and very efficient but including the fossil fuel power station that provides the electricity reveals substantial carbon emissions and significant reductions in efficiency. I also talked about different types of system, for example: open systems across whose boundaries both matter and energy can move; closed systems that do not allow matter to flow across their boundaries but allow energy transfers; and, isolated systems that do not permit energy or matter to transfer across their boundaries. It is difficult to identify closed systems in nature (see ‘Revisiting closed systems in nature‘ on October 5th, 2016); and so, once again I asked the students to suggest candidates but then I started to think about examples of isolated systems. I suspect that completely isolated systems do not exist; however, some systems can be approximated to the concept and considering them to be so, simplifies their analysis. However, I am happy to be corrected if anyone can think of one!
Image: https://www.flickr.com/photos/yimhafiz/4031507140 CC BY 2.0