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Disruptive Climate Technology Doesn't Just Fall Out of a Tree

The 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference agreed to set a goal of limiting global warming to less than 2°C compared to the pre-industrial level and to “pursue efforts to” limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C.

The World Resource Institute (WRI) infographic for a low emissions pathway to 2°C shows CO2 emissions have to peak by 2020 and then drop by 66% below 2010 levels by 2050.


The WRI medium, high and highest emissions scenarios result in temperature increases of 2.9, 3.7 and 4.8°C respectively.

In his book, Energy Transitions: History, Requirements, Prospects, Vaclav Smil explained energy transition, as would be required to produce the kinds of emissions decreases required to meet existing climate goals, is a gradual process.  In a 2014 Scientific American article, A Global Transition to Renewable Energy Will Take Many Decades, he said, “each energy source that has dominated world supply has taken 50 to 60 years to rise to the top spot” – which in the case of coal attained a 50% market share after 60 years but for every other source the level of market penetration never got that high. In the case of natural gas, after 50 years, starting in 1930, the market share grew to just 25%.

In the case of renewables, which have only been considered a significant energy source for less than a decade, market penetration is currently less than 5%.

Smil points out, “unless a disruptive technology or revolutionary policy speeds up change,” renewables too are destined for a long transition, in which case there is little  hope for a 2°C limit.

For the Rex Tillerson’s of the world this is good news because as the ExxonMobil CEO claims, “The reality is there is no alternative energy source known on the planet or available to us today to replace the pervasiveness of fossil fuel in our global economy and in our very quality of life, and I would go beyond that and say our very survival.”

Bill Gates on the other hand has called for an ‘Energy Miracle’. “We need a massive amount of innovation in research and development on clean energy: new ways to stabilize the intermittent flows from wind and solar; cheaper, more efficient solar panels; better equipment for transmitting and managing energy; next-generation nuclear plants that are even safer than today’s; and more,” he says.

Splitting the difference Cambridge professor M.J. Kelly says in an article, Lessons from technology development for energy and sustainability, “ An examination of successful and failed introductions of technology over the last 200 years generates several lessons that should be kept in mind as we proceed to 80% decarbonize the world economy by 2050. I will argue that all the actions taken together until now to reduce our emissions of carbon dioxide will not achieve a serious reduction, and in some cases, they will actually make matters worse.”

In that category he concludes wind, solar and other forms of green energy like biofuels that don’t justify the massive costs of the subsidies required to support them and cites the case of Germany, which has invested $200B investment in wind and solar energy which contributes only 8% each of the country’s electricity demand leaving fossil fuels and nuclear energy to provide the other 84%.

Kelly however glosses over the solution.

Climate models have now been shown conclusively to be continuing to overheat the earth as 17 years of real world data now show no increase in the globally averaged surface temperature, the original talisman of global warming. The comment that many of the warmest years in the directly recorded history have been in the last decade is not inconsistent with the observed hiatus. If that hiatus in temperature should continue until the next IPCC assessment in 2021, any scientist respecting the canons of Newton, Rutherford or Einstein would expect to see a further significant further reduction of the predictions of dangerous future climates,” he says.

David Hone however has undercut any expectation of a continuation of the hiatus through 2021 by his extrapolating of the inexorable warming trend shown through the very strong El Nino events of 1972-73, 1982-83, 1997-98 and 2015-16.

The canons of Newton, Rutherford and Einstein remain intake.

The law of conservation of energy states that energy can be neither created nor destroyed but can change forms and can flow from one place to another without changing the total energy of the system.

Climate change is energy trapped by greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and this change in total heat content from 1960 to 2012 measured in 1022Joules was modelled by Nuccitelli et al in 2012.

Land, atmosphere, and ice heating (red), 0-700 meter OHC increase (light blue), 700-2,000 meter OHC increase (dark blue)

As much as 93% of the total heat content goes into the ocean, which is delineated by a thermocline in the following graphic from a depth of about 200 meters where the temperature declines rapidly from an average of about 13°C down to about 4°C at a depth of 1000 meters.

In latitudes less than 20 degrees surface ocean temperatures can reach as high at 30°C but are consistently higher than 24°C and in such conditions heat can be moved from a hot region to a cold region through a heat engine to convert about 5% of the energy to productive work.

In fact, about as much as energy as is currently derived from fossil fuel can be produced in this process without producing greenhouse gas emissions or the addition of extra heat to the system.

The following diagram shows how the thermohaline circulation moves surface ocean heat from the tropics to where some of the intermediate water is mixed and work is produced, while at the poles heat is radiated to space and the chilled water sinks to produce North Atlantic Deep Water (NADW) and Antarctic Bottom Water (AABW). In this process about 1.2% of the heat of global warming is lost to melting Arctic, Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets and 93% – less the 5% that can be converted to work – is sequestered and the heating and cooling cycle of the ocean is perpetuated.


The intermediate water moved in this process ultimately diffuses back to the surface at a rate at about 4 meters/year where it can be recycled again to produce an other increment of work. The ultimate objective however is for the ocean and atmosphere to come into equilibrium once emissions stop and radiative forcing is brought down through natural or artificial means.

As Kelly suggests, current CO2 emissions aren’t falling rapidly enough to slow global warming largely because most public policy has focused almost exclusively on developing wind and solar power, which may actually increase emissions. Continued support for wind, solar and other forms of green energy like biofuel “represents total madness” as these energy systems don’t justify the massive costs of the subsidies required to support them,” he says.

As the Economists points out, “The sweltering temperatures in recent months may help settle debates over a supposed “pause” in global warming that occurred between 1998 and 2013. During that period the Earth’s surface temperature rose at a rate of 0.04°C a decade, rather than the 0.18°C increase of the 1990s.”

Technology that can maintain the temperature rise of the Earth’s surface to 0.04°C or less a decade throughout this century is the only way we can meet our climate goals and ultimately bring the atmosphere and the oceans into thermal equilibrium. This requires the movement of surface ocean heat into the thermocline rather than seeing large quantities of it returned to the atmosphere as is the case with  strong El Ninos.

As things stand, unless we adopt disruptive technology and policy that speeds up the change needed to relocate ocean surface heat we will never meet the climate goals the politicians and policy makers have set out.

Disruptive technology doesn’t grow on trees. As Kelly acknowledges, the private risk of initial small scale deployment to test the effectiveness of a new technology is often too high for a single company or consortium to bear. As he says, the virtuous role of government funding in R&D is to be contrast with the litany of failure in recent times of subsidies in support of the premature rollout of technologies that are uneconomic and/or immature, which is where we are at now, which is to say is to be in a pickle.

Visionaries too have to survive the innovation valley of death even though mass extension may lay on the other side of that valley.

Our only salvation will be only assured when we focus on energy that can produce water, negative emissions, reduces ocean surface heat load, reduces thermal ocean expansion and sea level rise, produces a vast natural marine carbon storage reservoir and mitigates ocean acidification concurrently.

To continue to do what we have been doing is not only an act of insanity, it is  a commission of mass infanticide.

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