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Saturday, October 31, 2009

WWF Study Puts Global Warming Into Perspective

I put together a Microsoft Excel interactive pie chart that can be opened or downloaded (file downloaded from this link is guaranteed not to have a virus) that may help people to put into perspective various efforts (like doubling the efficiency of the US car fleet, or the elimination of coal for electricity generation) to reduce greenhouse gases.

I read the WWF study last night. At first I was a little shell-shocked, but as I read on I grew numb hopeful. At least now we have a decent study that clarifies what needs to be done, how fast it has to be done, and most importantly, when these efforts need to get started. It's now or never. There will be no going back and no way to fix this if we don't get started now.

Following are several highlights I took home from the study.

There are four main drivers: Clean energy generation, energy efficiency, low-carbon agriculture and sustainable forestry.

Bioenergy comes with the following caveats:
“ deforestation, no competition for land between bioenergy production and food production and protection of biodiversity and nature conservation.”
Bioenergy is potentially CO2 neutral. However, the expansion of palm oil and tropical crops, such as sugarcane, for biofuel production could become a significant driver of deforestation. Bioenergy developments must therefore be appropriately regulated to prevent further deforestation.

We will all have get to drive electric cars!

Since there are alternatives for land-based transport – but not for air and sea, as it stands today – the priority allocation of sustainable biofuels must be to the aviation and shipping sectors …energy demand from the land-based transport sector is met through grid-connected renewable sources…

They demonstrated that once renewable energy industries reach an economy of scale (a critical mass of sorts) they would from that point on become much cheaper than fossil fuels. Everything will cost less because energy will cost less. Investors are going to get their money back and then some. Fossil fuels will be left in the ground because they are no longer the cheapest option (or only option).

In the beginning, coal fired power plants must rapidly be retrofitted to burn natural gas. It produces about half of the CO2 as coal. Later, natural gas will have to be phased out as renewables come on line. We will have to limit other uses of natural gas to have enough to displace coal. Again, we will all have get to drive electric cars!

Growth of nuclear power was not assumed. They gave a few reasons for this. One is that the WWF has historically been opposed to it for all of the usual reasons. Another reason is that nuclear power can only grow fast enough to make a modest contribution in any case. They also noted that thanks to massive government meddling with subsidies, nobody has a clue what it really costs.

They mention the fact that a terrorist attack on some nuclear power plants could kill hundreds of thousands and cost hundreds of billions. After watching religious nutballs fly jets into the Twin Towers and Pentagon I don't know how anyone can still deny this possibility. [Update: This analysis indicates that a typical containment dome would protect a nuclear plant from an airliner attack. Also watch this video of a large fighter jet being crashed into a concrete block to see how an aluminum aircraft fairs against reinforced concrete.] By their calculations nuclear power is not a make-or-break part of the solution so why bother? These are all good arguments and if they are wrong on too many of their assumptions, well, we can build nuclear plants as well, accepting the risks as the lesser of two evils. A global warming tipping point trumps all.

Burning some fossil fuels but capturing the carbon (Carbon Capture and Sequestration) is one of the 24 main solutions although the authors acknowledge that this might not work and that there is a risk we will waste a lot of time and money to find that out.

They began by asking, "Is it is already too late to avert a catastrophic temperature rise? If the answer were yes I probably would not be doing this post. They concluded that it isn't too late but only if we land on our feet running within the next four years.

To figure out when we need to get started they looked at the history of free market industrial growth. By assuming industries like wind turbine manufacturing and efficient technology growth will grow at maximum known historical rates for industry, they could back off roughly when it will be too late to do anything. In other words, if we don't hit the ground running in the next four years, industries like wind turbine manufacturing will be incapable of growing fast enough to avert this coming train wreck.

There are a few graphs on the report that you might want to check out. See pages 13, 16 (return on investment), 36 (or 58), 105 (point of no return).

This scenario would take unprecedented political will. Political will is a function of what voters want. Politicians will not martyr themselves for the greater good if their ignorant constituency wants the opposite.

A recent poll has indicated that only 57% of Americans think there is solid evidence that the earth has been warming (down from 71% a year ago). Another poll taken on Darwin's anniversary earlier this year found that the majority of Americans (61%) don't buy the theory of evolution. On the other hand, we still teach the theory in our high schools.

If you have quit worrying about global warming because your favorite lay media outlet told you that the Earth hasn't gotten warmer for the last ten years (global warming has taken a break), you need to start worrying again. Maybe the first step to fight global warming should be to get rid of TV news and printed newspapers. This would force people to read blogs for information. At least the opposing viewpoint is there if you choose to look for it.


  1. Hi,

    in my view, the WWF position on nuclear energy completely invalidates their contribution. They have gone as far as fabricating numbers in their G8 scorecards to make nuclear power look bad because they are so strongly opposed to it.

    Nuclear energy can be made clean, safe, proliferation-resistant, and unappealing for terrorists to attack (there will always be easier targets). Nor are they expensive compared to fossil fuels if they are built as an industry and not as a research project.

    Nuclear waste is not a problem either if we adopt technologies which have been proven to work, such as the Integral Fast Reactor which is so much more efficient than conventional nuclear power that the residual waste is safe after only 300 years.

    I would encourage anyone who wants to know what nuclear power can really achieve for us to visit Barry Brook goes into great detail about the operation, construction, and cost of nuclear power.

    Nuclear power can even displace fossil fuels directly, by replacing the heat-source in existing power stations and re-using the turbines, generators, and distribution networks. It's already been done, in the Elk River power station, back in 1963, as a proof-of-concept prototype. also has a very good series of articles on the true cost of 'renewables', such as wind and solar power. If you do the math right, you soon realise that these sources cannot displace fossil fuels on their own, simply because they're not reliable. All you need is a week of freezing cold weather in winter, with no wind and lots of cloud, and you soon wish you had some decent baseload power to back it up. Factor in the cost of that backup, and your renewables suddenly cost a lot more than you thought, and do a lot more damage in the process.

    So I'm very skeptical of anything the WWF say about energy policy. They're being guided by rhetoric, not science, and I don't trust that.

  2. I tend to agree with Monbiot:

    I'd choose nuclear power over a climate crash. But will the government grow up and clean its mess up?

    But, is it rational to throw out the entire report just because the researchers were asked to look for a solution that did not include increased nuclear growth? The nuclear wedge shown on the chart on page 36 would only get wider. It would remain just one of the 24 wedges, reducing the size of some of the other wedges. It does not make or break the solution. I suspect that if Russia manages to design some safe and affordable reactors to sell to the rest of the world, the nuclear wedge will get bigger, if not here but in other countries and remember, global warming is global.

    There is no doubt in my mind that if we start having power outages because renewable can't handles base load, people will start demanding reliable base load and nuclear is clearly a better option from a global warming perspective than coal or natural gas. Time will tell.

  3. Keep in mind, cost of construction here in the US is different from places like China (number one emitter) and Russia.

  4. Hi Russ,

    the WWF have so blatantly misled us all about nuclear power that I would not believe anything they say on alternative sources of power, not without verifying it first. They have destroyed their own credibility, which is a great shame.

    I would far rather get my information from sources that are open and fair with their calculations, such as Barry Brook's blog, or at Both those sites give well-sourced numbers that back up the claim that renewables are not an easy, if indeed at all viable, global solution.

    Construction costs need not be an issue either. Even if the US can't match China for keeping costs down,there are other ways. Many people are considering small nuclear reactors, 100MW or less. These can be made in assembly lines, shipped to their destination, and installed in a fraction of the time that it would take for a large, on-site construction. This will dramatically reduce costs.

  5. Have to admit, Tony, I was a bit disappointed to see that they had excluded growth of nuclear from the mix. On the other hand, they were just barely able get us down to a safe level without it. Look at it as a reserve option.

    One thing you can say with certainty, the predictions made in the study will bear little resemblance to what is actually going to happen. The future is hard to predict.

    Whoever calls the shots at WFF told the researchers to leave it out, and obviously they have lost some credibility for doing so. But, do you suppose the backlash would have been even greater had they included nuclear? How many of their donors are old-school anti-nuc die hards?

    I suspect it will find favor if it turns out that we need some nuclear basload after all, and I suspect we will.


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