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Net-Zero Carbon Dioxide Emissions By 2050 Requires A New Nuclear Power Plant Every Day

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More than a decade ago, Gwyn Prins and Steve Rayner characterized climate policy as an “auction of promises” in which politicians “vied to outbid each other with proposed emissions targets that were simply not achievable.” For instance, among Democrats competing for the presidency in 2020, several, including Joe Biden, have committed to achieving net-zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050. Candidate Andrew Yang bid 2049, and Cory Booker topped that by offering 2045. Bernie Sanders has offered a 71% reduction by 2030.

One reason that we see this “auction of promises” is that the targets and timetables for emissions reductions are easy to state but difficult to comprehend. Here I’ll present what net-zero carbon dioxide emissions for 2050 actually means in terms of the rate of deployment of carbon-free energy and the coincident decommissioning of fossil fuel infrastructure.

To conduct this analysis I use the BP Statistical Review of World Energy, which presents data on global and national fossil fuel consumption in units called “million tons of oil equivalent” or mtoe. In 2018 the world consumed 11,743 mtoe in the form of coal, natural gas and petroleum. The combustion of these fossil fuels resulted in 33.7 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions. In order for those emissions to reach net-zero, we will have to replace about 12,000 mtoe of energy consumption expected for 2019. (I ignore so-called negative emissions technologies, which do not presently exist at scale.)

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Bob Meinetz's picture

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Richard Brooks's picture
Richard Brooks on Oct 2, 2019 1:39 pm GMT

Bob, nuclear power is indeed a key to eliminating harmful air pollutants that are affecting our atmosphere and climate. However, new nuclear power plants require enormous up front capital investments and can take several years to construct and reach an operational state, which IMO is a barrier to their adoption, along with some other harmful events in history.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Oct 2, 2019 2:53 pm GMT

Richard, understood. But before we decide whether up front capital investments are prohibitive, that it's impossible to build nuclear plants faster, whether other events in history were really that harmful - we have to consider the only alternative (see my reply to Matt). It leaves us with only one choice.

Richard Brooks's picture
Richard Brooks on Oct 2, 2019 5:07 pm GMT

I don't know Bob - I've had some involvement in the design and development of software used to solve optimization problems. The constraints with nuclear, given an objective function to reduce carbon by 2050, seem beyond reach, IMO.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Oct 2, 2019 6:58 pm GMT

And you believe carbon can be reduced by intermittent wind & solar alone? If you've created a model for that one, I've got to see it.

Mark Jacobson at Stanford claimed he had one until it was decimated by Clack et al.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Oct 2, 2019 1:47 pm GMT

Taking your math at face value, Bob, I want to ask about the implications of your findings. What do you think we should do about this, or what candidates / other leaders should position themselves behind?

Obviously a new nuclear plant everyday is beyond the scale of capabilities-- so should we set targets that are further out in the future so as to be more realistic? Should we give up on net zero carbon and focus on mitigation of the negative impacts of climate change? Should those carbon negative technologies be getting more of our focus so we can deploy them as soon as possible (even if still years away)? 

What are your thoughts as a result of these calculations we've done?

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Oct 2, 2019 4:58 pm GMT

Matt, these aren't my calculations, they're taken from an article in Forbes written by Roger Pielke (I apparently neglected to link to the original article in my post).

I'd urge you to read it for context. Though Pielke has not been a nuclear advocate in the past, from his background in mathematics he's apparently gained an appreciation for statistics. From the article:

"I’ve found that some people don’t like the use of a nuclear power plant as a measuring stick. So we can substitute wind energy as a measuring stick. Net-zero carbon dioxide by 2050 would require the deployment of ~1500 wind turbines (2.5 MW) over ~300 square miles, every day starting tomorrow and continuing to 2050."

Is it more practical to cover 300 sq/mi with 1,500 wind turbines every day for the next 31 years? Of course not - so we have the best shot at limiting the effects of climate change by building out nuclear. If not at the rate of one reactor/day, as quickly as humanly possible.

Everyone should consider what is, quite literally, the only alternative: dramatic changes to the Earth's climate which will last at least 100,000 years; the extinction of one-fourth of all species alive on Earth today (including Homo Sapiens) within the next ~500 years; the dieoff of ~90% of marine vertebrates in the next 80 years from ocean acidification - and the armed conflict which inevitably results from dwindling food supplies.

Anyone who thinks this dystopian hellscape couldn't possibly happen without nuclear energy doesn't know enough about climate change. Or nuclear energy.

Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet

 

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Oct 2, 2019 8:58 pm GMT

Ah sorry, I read this as it was coming from you and not quoting elsewhere.

The question remains though-- accepting these numbers and progressing to the next logical step, it sounds like you're saying that building out nuclear at breakneck speed is the only option to try to make a dent in the problem, but it also sounds like that won't be practical which is why I was trying to find out what the 'next step' is if our 'best option' still isn't enough. I hope these conversations aren't one that become critical, but they're probably worth starting to have

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Oct 8, 2019 8:52 pm GMT

Fundamental to the topic is the assumption that (a) CO2 will wreck the climate and (b) if it is a problem we can do something about it. Both are essentially religious beliefs that cannot be proved.

Rather than spend trillions of dollars impoverishing everyone on the planet, concentrate on what can be done. Namely, wisely use energy with the fundamental objective of reasonably affordable and reasonably clean energy. Technology and innovation will find a way, just like it always has throughout history. Panicking and chasing dumb ideas only serves to enrich the few at the expense of the many. Mass deployment of green energy and/or nuclear power is a dumb idea.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Oct 9, 2019 7:27 pm GMT

Michael, CO2 has already "wrecked the climate" for 15-27% of the species alive today on Earth, doomed to extinction by 2050. From 2004:

"Climate change over the past approximately 30 years has produced numerous shifts in the distributions and abundances of species and has been implicated in one species-level extinction. Using projections of species' distributions for future climate scenarios, we assess extinction risks for sample regions that cover some 20% of the Earth's terrestrial surface. Exploring three approaches in which the estimated probability of extinction shows a power-law relationship with geographical range size, we predict, on the basis of mid-range climate-warming scenarios for 2050, that 15-37% of species in our sample of regions and taxa will be 'committed to extinction'."

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/8928870_Extinction_risk_from_climate_change

No religion involved, just the most accurate scientific models yet available.

Nuclear energy is the only way to prevent the worst effects of climate change, but fossil fuel interests and their best friends, renewables, are enriching a few at the expense of many by shutting nuclear plants down.

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Oct 11, 2019 4:22 pm GMT

Natural events and destruction of habitat by man have caused the die-off of species, not the trace gas CO2. Fact.
The climate models are not fit for the purposes of predicting the planet's distant future. Fact. The climate's complexity vastly exceeds the ability of the simulations to calculate what may or may not occur in the distant future. Attempting to solve the highly non-linear partial differential equations is a futile exercise, as meaningful solutions cannot be proven. This is quite unlike complex simulations where the solutions can be cross-checked by actual events.

Catastrophic impacts caused by man created CO2 cannot be proven as an existential threat. Believing dire predictions involving CO2 is an act of faith. That is religious approach to establishing policy.

Nuclear energy needs to rise or fall based primarily on economic merits. Trotting out scare tactics is a hallmark of technologies (or idealologies) that cannot compete.

Advanced nuclear technologies may be cost effective, but it is too early to make a call one way or the other. Conventional nuclear plants are unquestionably not cost effective.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Oct 11, 2019 8:00 pm GMT

Michael, it takes a special breed of arrogance to declare a claim "Fact" with no evidence in support (I provided evidence, you provided religion. Fact.) 

Though reading the first two sentences of your comment occupied six seconds of my life I'll never get back, it could have been more.

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Oct 13, 2019 5:13 pm GMT

Item #1 is painfully obvious to anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of the planet and man's impact on the environment. Item #2 is painfully obvious to those of us familiar with solving complex systems using computer simulations.

Takes a special breed of ignorance and dishonesty to simply ignore the facts in pursuit of a political agenda. Therein lies a major problem with the green energy movement.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Oct 14, 2019 11:17 pm GMT

Politics? They have nothing to do with it for me, Michael, and they have nothing to do with geophysics either. It's a shame you believe politics tell scientists what to think - therein lies a major problem with reactionary conservative "thought".

PS the Earth is round, and the Moon landing actually happened. 
 

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Oct 15, 2019 7:09 pm GMT

... seriously ???

Your absolute faith in "scientists" is scary.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Oct 17, 2019 12:03 am GMT

I have absolute faith in science to deliver the best possible solutions to the most pressing problems of humankind. People who practice science are, by definition, scientists.

Maybe you're not familiar with science, or "the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment."

Scary is the alternative: faith in the non-intellectual, non-systematic explanation of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through acceptance of ideological dogma and sophistry.

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Oct 18, 2019 12:23 am GMT

Wow, you really need to get out more. Scientists are like the rest of us. They possess no inherent moral superiority.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Oct 18, 2019 3:06 am GMT

No, they have nothing to do with superiority either. They fully support your right to be wrong.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Oct 15, 2019 1:54 pm GMT

The climate's complexity vastly exceeds the ability of the simulations to calculate what may or may not occur in the distant future. Attempting to solve the highly non-linear partial differential equations is a futile exercise, as meaningful solutions cannot be proven. This is quite unlike complex simulations where the solutions can be cross-checked by actual events.

No doubt the reality is much more complex than our models can match-- but there's a reason the models have become more accurate as we've learned more: we're seeing the science happen in front of our eyes. The inability to perfectly model every aspect should not be a reason to ignore what the models are saying-- it's lazy to be apathetic and 'hope' our models were dead wrong, especially when the consequences of the models being right are existential in nature. 

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Oct 15, 2019 7:06 pm GMT

The models are intrinsically unable to produce meaningful solutions. This is a fundamental mathematical flaw that exceeds our current capabilities to fix. Believing and acting on the results of the simulations is just plain irresponsible. Unless the objective is to create hysteria and fear in order to make a lot of money. 

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Oct 15, 2019 10:07 pm GMT

So the responsible action is to do...nothing? Throw our hands up in the air because it's too complex to model and hope that we don't create unlivable conditions and/or set off dangerous climatic feedback loops?

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Oct 17, 2019 12:20 am GMT

"Unless the objective is to create hysteria and fear in order to make a lot of money."

All of your rich climatologists, Michael, must inhabit the same alternative universe where you don't act on the results of simulations every day of your life - whether you know it, or not.

In my universe, it's vendors of oil and natural gas who are making all the money. They're making it by spoon-feeding fake science to those who want to be scientists, but aren't willing to take the time and effort to learn how.

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Oct 18, 2019 12:27 am GMT

Really? Seems to me the fake science is the green movement. Further, they require subsidies and mandates because they cannot compete.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Oct 18, 2019 12:55 pm GMT

@Michael-- what of the fossil fuel subsidies that have been pouring trillions of dollars into those industries for years and years?

https://www.vox.com/2019/5/17/18624740/fossil-fuel-subsidies-climate-imf

https://www.eesi.org/papers/view/fact-sheet-fossil-fuel-subsidies-a-closer-look-at-tax-breaks-and-societal-costs

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