It seems to me more important than ever that we think about real scenarios for dealing with climate change. There’s so much religion here that we can be missing the boat. I’m going to take an extreme position in this piece, both because I think it should be on the table and because I think it’s more likely than a lot of what is taken for granted.
I believe that fusion is going to work and be deployable in about the next ten years. We’re going to know quite soon where that stands. Both the Commonwealth Fusion people and Helion (among others) plan to generate net positive energy by 2025. There are also regularly new developments: more powerful magnets, longer plasma retension times, higher energies attained, even AI-based methods for controlling stability of reactor plasmas. Higher temperature superconductors have been game-changers. It is time to be serious about fusion.
The consequence is that we are entering (in the relatively near term) into an era not of energy scarcity but of energy abundance. That’s not just a matter of fusion—solar, wind, and better in-network storage also contribute—but fusion represents real abundance. That’s a different mindset with different conclusions than most of what gets discussed. I’ve argued earlier that it’s the proper mindset for the long-term, because it is the only serious way to address our worldwide problems. The difference is that progress in fusion has been such that we can move that indefinite future to the nearer term.
With that point of view, we can view the response to climate change as two distinct issues:
– Keeping things from getting too bad in the interim while the new energy sources get up to speed.
– Deploying abundant energy to combat climate change.
It’s important to look at the second issue first, because the first (assuming we can solve it) is temporary. The architecture for the second issue is relatively straightforward. We’re going to have generation stations of significant size with high-capacity interconnection for distribution to users. Electricity will be the basic form in which energy is delivered, but we’re going to have to deal with significant applications (industrial processes, air travel) where electricity itself is not the answer. For such applications we’ll need ways to convert electricity to other forms of energy. That may involve using electricity to make hydrogen or using electricity to achieve climate neutrality by pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere for synthetic fuels. (It’s interesting that carbon capture has value even without large-scale CO2 storage.)
The most important conclusion is straightforward: we’re going to have to vastly increase and improve the facilities to generate and distribute electricity! That is job number one and the most essential thing to be spending money on. Existing technology will contribute to but not solve that problem. We also need to figure out how to move everything that isn’t currently electric onto that network. Note that ultimately it is much less important how efficiently we use electricity than that electricity is what’s used. We’re not getting rid of air conditioners, and we’re not making sure that every electric hot water heater has a heat pump.
As to how we’re going to survive until then, the most important message is that survival means focusing on heavy hitters. It is not the case that every little bit helps. I’ve given this chart before for energy use in the US:
The key sectors are transportation, industrial, and electric power—not residential. Electric cars are clearly an important contributing technology, but even they are only an infrastructure investment until the underlying power plants are converted.
For the rest of the world, the corresponding charts can be quite different, often tilted toward industrial uses. Focusing exclusively on the US distorts the issue. We have to get world CO2 emissions down overall, regardless of where it comes from. This is not a question of “every country needs to do its part”. It’s a question of the most effective way to get the CO2 total down fast.
We have to think about where all the sources are and how to get at them. Carbon pricing schemes such as CCL are particularly helpful because of their wide impact. In this country a simple calculation tells you that the current annual subsidy to fossil fuel interests is about a trillion dollars, so we’re a long way from a rational economy. Putting solar panels on suburban roof tops—however useful—is not commensurate with the problem. Furthermore, as the following chart indicates, we rich countries need to get used to the idea of helping the others in a big way or the job will never get done!
As the latest IPCC report (2/28/2022) put it: “Rich governments must quickly and dramatically scale up the level of adaptation finance for low-income countries.”
Or else—there’s no getting around it—we’ll end up stuck with geoengineering and hope for the best. Simply stated (for those who haven’t heard) geoengineering delays global warming by filling the atmosphere with chemicals that put the whole world in shade. That can stop most (but not all) aspects of climate change, but with many known and unknown risks.
It’s hard to come to a proper judgment of geoengineering. On one hand, it’s exceedingly scary to start messing with the whole world’s atmosphere, but on the other hand we don’t yet have all the technologies we need and we’ve been slow to deploy the ones we do have, so we may well need to be buying time. One can argue that geoengineering reduces the motivation for alternative energy progress, but that work today seems to have its own motivation. So in the end there is nothing immoral about geoengineering, and we may have to use it. But given the risks and the fact that all that extra CO2 has to come out before we can quit, we had better do as little of it as possible. (These systems require regular replenishing, so turning them off isn’t a big issue; getting rid of the extra carbon dioxide is.)
You might wonder at this point why we brought up geoenginerring instead of the much-discussed topic of carbon capture? There’s a good reason. Despite all of the publicity around it, there’s no near-term silver bullet with carbon capture. For the yearly CO2 production in the US we would need huge infrastructure of processing plants full of giant fans—a multi-trillion dollar project using enormous amounts of energy to build and run it. And that’s before you even start to talk about where to put the output. The main reason carbon capture has such prominence is that it plays to the fossil fuel companies’ delaying tactics—if we can get rid of the carbon dioxide later, why worry about creating it now? Carbon capture is a project of energy abundance, AFTER we have somehow managed to survive. Going forward, unburning everything you burn is only sensible in particular application areas (e.g. air travel) where there is nothing else to be done.
Climate change unavoidably means a huge, expensive project—which is why it is important to be clear about what we’re doing. As general principles, conservation for conservation’s sake is wrong, a focus on local issues is wrong, and an exclusive focus on current technology is wrong. What’s right is to recognize that the future requires an electrical infrastructure capable of driving everything and that in the near-term we have to avoid distractions and focus on heavy hitters—worldwide—to keep from going over the edge. Near-term and long-term projects are not necessarily the same. Finally we should realize that despite our current concerns, we are actually moving toward a period of abundant energy with enormous benefits for all—if we can stop fighting over the pieces of a pie that will become much bigger.
As an analogy I remember the early days of voice over IP networks, where the whole focus was how we would ever meet the realtime performance needs of speech. It wasn’t so many years later that those same networks were handling realtime video to hundreds of millions of people worldwide—and voice was an almost invisible blip. That’s the kind of transformation we’re talking about. Limitless clean energy will change the world.