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Keeping you informed about TecEco sustainability projects.  Issue 75, Feb 24, 2008

Basic Fossil Fuel Facts

We have presented James Hansen's Basic Fossil Fuel Facts as a new web page under sustainability that summarises the impact of fossil fuels and the urgent actions required in the opinion of Prof. James Hansen.

The page is republished from a publically circulated letter by James Hansen as a private citizen to Chancellor Angela Merkel, Federal Republic of Germany dated 22 January 2008, with kind permission from James Hansen. Prof. Hansen is the director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Adjunct Professor at the Columbia University Earth Institute.

Unfortunately the use of man made carbonates to sequester atmospheric CO2 as advocated by TecEco is not mentioned.

Basic Fossil Fuel Facts[1][2]

The role of coal in global warming is clarified by a small number of well-documented facts. Figure 1 shows the fraction of fossil fuel carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions that remains in the air over time. One-third of the CO2 is still in the air after 100 years, and one-fifth is still in the air after 1000 years.

Figure 1. The fraction of CO2 remaining in the air, after emission by fossil fuel burning, declines rapidly at first, but 1/3 remains in the air after a century and 1/5 after a millennium [3]

Oil slightly exceeds coal as a source of CO2 emissions today, as shown in Figure 2a. [IPCC = Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change; WEC = World Energy Council] But, because of the long atmospheric lifetime of past emissions, fully half of the excess CO2 in the air today (from fossil fuels), relative to pre-industrial times, is from coal (Figure 2b). Moreover, coal use is now increasing, while oil production has stagnated. Oil production will peak and will be constrained by available resources earlier than will coal production.

Figure 2. Percent contributions of different fossil fuels to 2006 CO2 emissions (left side) and contributions to the excess CO2 in the air today relative to pre-industrial CO2 amount [4]

Figure 3. Estimated fossil fuel reserves; purple portions have already been used [3]

Figure 3 shows reported fossil fuel reserves and resources (estimated undiscovered deposits). Reserves are hotly debated and may be exaggerated, but we know that enough oil and gas remain to take global warming close to, if not into, the realm of dangerous climate effects. Coal and unconventional fossil fuels such as tar shale contain enough carbon to produce a vastly different planet, a more dangerous and desolate planet, from the one on which civilization developed, a planet without Arctic sea ice, with crumbling ice sheets that ensure sea level catastrophes for our children and grandchildren, with shifting climate zones that cause great hardship for the world’s poor and drive countless species to extinction, and with intensified hydrologic extremes that cause increased drought and wildfires but also stronger rain, floods, and storms.

Oil and coal uses differ fundamentally. Oil is burned primarily in small sources, in vehicles where it is impractical to capture the CO2 emissions. Available oil reserves will be exploited eventually, regardless of efficiency standards on vehicles, and the CO2 will be emitted to the atmosphere. The climate effect of oil is nearly independent of how fast we burn the oil, because much of the CO2 remains in the air for centuries. [It is nevertheless important to improve efficiency of oil use, because that buys us time to develop technologies and fuels for the post-oil era, and high efficiency surely will be needed in the post-oil era.] However, the point is this: oil will not determine future climate change. Coal will.

Avoiding dangerous atmospheric CO2 levels requires curtailment of CO2 emissions from coal. Atmospheric CO2 can be stabilized by phasing out coal use except where the CO2 is captured and sequestered, as is feasible at power plants. Indeed, agreement to phase out coal use except where the CO2 is captured is 80% of the solution to the global warming crisis. Of course, it is a tall order, as coal is now the world’s largest source of electrical energy. Over the next few decades those coal plants must be closed or made to capture their CO2 emissions. Yet it is a doable task. Compare that task, for example, with the efforts and sacrifices that went into World War II.

Responsibility for Global Warming

Responsibility for global warming is proportional to cumulative CO2 emissions, not to current emission rates [5]. This is physical fact, not an ethical statement. It is a consequence of the long lifetime of atmospheric CO2. Responsibility of the United States is more than three times larger than that of any other nation (Figure 4). Despite rapid growth of emissions from China, the United States will continue to be the nation most responsible for climate change for at least the next few decades.

Figure 4. Annual and cumulative fossil fuel CO2 emissions by country of emission [4]

It is also useful to examine per capita fossil fuel CO2 emissions. Figure 5a shows per capita emissions for the eight nations with largest total emissions, in order of decreasing total emissions. The United States and Canada have the largest per capita emissions, while emissions of Japan, Germany and the United Kingdom are half as large per capita.

Figure 5. Per capita fossil fuel emissions (a) in order of national emissions today, (b) per capita cumulative emission (2006 population) in order of national cumulative emissions [4]

Per capita responsibility for climate change, however, must be based on cumulative national emissions. The United Kingdom has the highest cumulative emissions per capita (2006 population), as shown in Figure 5b. The United States is second in per capita emissions and Germany is third. Increased per capita responsibility of the United Kingdom and Germany is a consequence of their early entries into the industrial era. Recognition of these facts is not an attempt to cast blame. Early emissions of CO2 occurred before the climate problem was recognized and well before it was proven. Yet these facts are worth bearing in mind.


Human-made climate change is unambiguously underway. Yet the urgency of the situation is not readily apparent to everybody. Chaotic weather fluctuations mask climate trends, even as climate change alters the nature of weather. Urgency is created by the very inertia of the climate system that delays the effects of gases already added to the air.

This delay means that there is additional global warming “in the pipeline” due to human-produced gases already in the air. Climate system inertia is due in part to the massive oceans, four kilometers deep on average, which are slow to warm in response to increasing greenhouse gases. The effect of this inertia is compounded by positive (amplifying) feedbacks, such as melting of ice and snow, which increases absorption of sunlight, engendering more melting. Such feedbacks are not “runaway” processes, but they make climate sensitive to even moderate climate forcings. [A climate forcing, natural or human-made, is an imposed perturbation of the planet’s energy balance. Examples include a change of the sun’s brightness or an increase of long-lived greenhouse gases, which trap the Earth’s heat radiation.]

Climate inertia and positive feedbacks together create the danger of passing climate “tipping points”. A tipping point exists when the climate reaches a point such that no additional forcing is needed to instigate large, relatively rapid climate change and impacts. Impacts of these large climate changes tend to be, overall, detrimental to humans, because civilization is adapted to the relatively stable interglacial period that has existed on our planet for about ten thousand years, and we have settled the land and built great infrastructure within and upon these relatively stable climate zones and coastlines.

Based on current information, we now realize that we have passed or are on the verge of passing several tipping points that pose grave risks for humanity and especially for a large fraction of our fellow species on the planet. This information is gleaned primarily from the Earth’s history and ongoing global observations of rapid climate changes, and to a lesser extent from climate models that help us interpret observed changes.

Potential consequences of passing these tipping points include:

(1) loss of warm season sea ice in the Arctic and thus increased stress on many polar species, possibly leading to extinctions,

(2) increasing rates of disintegration of the West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, and thus more rapidly rising sea levels in coming decades,

(3) expansion of sub-tropical climates adversely affecting water availability and human livability in regions such as the American West, the Mediterranean, and large areas in Africa and Australia,

(4) reduction of alpine snowpack and water run-off that provides fresh water supplies for hundreds of millions of people in many regions around the world, and

(5) increased intensity of the extremes of the hydrologic cycle, including more intense droughts and forest fires, on the one hand, but also heavier rains and greater floods, as well as stronger storms driven by latent heat, including tropical storms, tornados and thunderstorms.

The nearness of these climate tipping points is no cause for despair. On the contrary, the actions that are needed to avert the tipping point problems are not only feasible, they have side benefits that point to a brighter future for life on the planet, with cleaner air and cleaner water. It will be necessary to roll back the airborne amounts of several air pollutants, but that is plausible, given appropriate attention. Already all pollutants except CO2 are falling at or below the lowest IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) scenarios, and there is much potential for further reductions.

The tendency of the media to continually report bad news on climate change and the human-made factors that drive climate change sometimes paints a picture that is bleaker than that shown by careful analysis. Such information is often misleading about the true status of the Earth, and the impression created may be harmful if it leads to despair about the prospects for achieving a relatively stable climate with a cleaner atmosphere and ocean. I illustrate with data for CO2, the most important climate forcing.

Figure 6 is the “airborne.fraction” of fossil fuel CO2 emissions. This is the ratio: the annual increase of CO2 that appears in the Earth’s atmosphere (well measured) divided by the annual human emission of fossil fuel CO2 into the air (also well known). On average, the increase of CO2 in the air is 57% of the fossil fuel emissions. Although this is a large amount, the 43% taken up by the ocean, soil and biosphere is also large. The uptake is large despite the fact that humans are also causing extensive, mostly unwise, deforestation, which adds CO2 to the air. In addition our agricultural practices typically do not encourage storage of carbon in the soil.

Figure 6. Ratio of observed atmospheric CO2 increase to fossil fuel CO2 emissions [6]

There is tremendous potential for reducing atmospheric CO2 via reduction of deforestation, improved forestry practices, and improved agricultural practices that increase carbon storage in the soil. If governments were to encourage such practices, rather than the converse, and if coal use were phased out except where the CO2 is captured, it would be possible to literally roll back the net human-made climate forcing to levels below those defining critical tipping points.

We must remember, at the same time, that the ability of the principal CO2 sink, the ocean, to soak up human-made emissions is limited and slow (Figure 1). If we burn most of the available coal (Figure 3) without CO2 capture, even with the lowest estimates of available coal reserves, it will be impractical if not impossible to avoid passing climate tipping points with disastrous consequences.

Summary: The Need for Leadership

I am optimistic that greenhouse gas emissions can be reduced and atmospheric composition stabilized at a level avoiding disastrous climate effects. My optimism is based in part on the fact that young people are beginning to make their voices heard. They have a powerful effect on our consciences, with an ability to influence policy makers and the captains of industry.

Many individuals are beginning to recognize and appreciate the nature of the climate problem. People want to take actions and they are willing to make sacrifices. However, individual actions cannot solve the problem by themselves.

Based on fossil fuel and carbon cycle facts summarized above, we cannot continue to burn the coal reserves without CO2 capture and sequestration. Solution of this problem can be achieved only via strong government leadership.

Governments must recognize the relative magnitudes of fossil fuel resources, i.e., oil, gas, coal, and unconventional fossil fuels, and they must establish policies that influence consumption in ways consistent with preservation of our climate and life on Earth. The fossil fuel facts dictate essential actions [7]:

(1) Phase-out of coal use that does not capture CO2. This is 80% of the solution, creating a situation in which CO2 emissions are declining sharply. (Coal use will also be affected by the second essential action. Indeed, it is likely that much of the coal will be left in the ground, as economic incentives spark innovations and positive feedbacks, accelerating progress to the cleaner world beyond fossil fuels.)

(2) A gradually but continually rising price on carbon emissions. This will ensure that, as oil production inevitably declines, humanity does not behave as a desperate addict, seeking every last drop of oil in the most extreme pristine environments and squeezing oil from tar shale, coal, and other high-carbon sources that would ensure destruction of our climate and most species on the planet. Recognition by industry of a continually rising carbon price (and elimination of fossil fuel subsidies) would drive innovations in energy efficiency, renewable energies, and other energy sources that do not produce greenhouse gases.

These are the two fundamental actions that must occur if we are to roll back the net climate forcing and avoid the dangerous climate tipping points, with their foreseeable consequences. Both of these actions are essential.

We can make a long list of supplementary actions that will be needed to avoid hardships and minimize dislocations as we phase into a cleaner world beyond fossil fuels. However, the two essential actions must be given priority and governments must explain the situation to the public.

Supplementary actions include improved efficiency standards on buildings, vehicles, appliances, etc. Rules must be changed so that utilities profit by encouraging efficiency, rather than selling more energy. These changes are necessary for success, and there are many economic opportunities associated with them. Yet governments must realize the essential actions dictated by the physics of the carbon cycle. Specifically, release of CO2 to the air from the large carbon reservoirs, coal and unconventional fossil fuels, must be curtailed.

Further actions will be needed to achieve a rollback of the net climate forcing. These actions [7] include reduction of non-CO2 climate forcings and improved agricultural and forestry practices. These actions are important and have multiple benefits, especially in developing countries, but they do not have the great urgency of halting construction of new coal plants without carbon capture. Power plants have long lifetimes, and once their CO2 is released to the air, it is impractical to recover it.

Energy departments, influenced by fossil fuel interests, take it as a God-given fact that we will extract all fossil fuels from the ground and burn them before we move on to other ways of producing usable energy. The public is capable of changing this course dictated by fossil fuel interests, but clear-sighted leadership is needed now if the actions are to be achieved in time.

Tipping points and positive feedbacks exist among people, as well as in the climate system. I believe that the action with the greatest potential to initiate positive feedbacks, and lead to the benefits that will accompany a clean energy future, is a moratorium in the West on new coal-fired power plants unless and until CO2 capture and sequestration technology is available. Such a moratorium would provide the West with sufficient moral authority to sit down with China and other developing countries to find ways, likely including technological assistance, for developing countries to also phase out coal use that does not capture CO2.

Perhaps the most important question is this: can we find the leadership to initiate the tipping point among nations? Can we find a country that will place a moratorium on any new coal-fired power plants unless they capture and store the CO2? Unless this happens soon, there is little hope of avoiding the climate tipping points, with all that implies for life on this planet.

New Book - Plan B 3.0

Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute - one of the world's formost eco-ecologists

John Harrison has just purchased the newly released book "Plan B 3.0" and because he admires the work of people like Lester Brown, reprinted below is a recent press release about the book.

Press Release

“In late summer 2007, reports of ice melting were coming at a frenetic pace. Experts were ‘stunned’ when an area of Arctic sea ice almost twice the size of Britain disappeared in a single week,” writes Lester R. Brown in his new book, Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization (W.W. Norton & Company).

“Nearby, the Greenland ice sheet was melting so fast that huge chunks of ice weighing several billion tons were breaking off and sliding into the sea, triggering minor earthquakes,” notes Brown, President and Founder of the Earth Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based independent environmental research organization.

These recent developments are alarming scientists. If we cannot stop this melting of the Greenland ice sheet, sea level will eventually rise 23 feet, inundating many of the world’s coastal cities and the rice-growing river deltas of Asia. It will force several hundred million people from their homes, generating an unimaginable flood of rising-sea refugees.

 “We need not go beyond ice melting to see that civilization is in trouble. Business-as-usual is no longer a viable option. It is time for Plan B,” Brown says in Plan B 3.0, which was produced with major funding from the Farview, Lannan, Summit, and Wallace Genetic foundations, the U.N. Population Fund, Fred and Alice Stanback, and Andrew Stevenson.

“Plan B 3.0 is a comprehensive plan for reversing the trends that are fast undermining our future. Its four overriding goals are to stabilize climate, stabilize population, eradicate poverty, and restore the earth’s damaged ecosystems,” says Brown. “Failure to reach any one of these goals will likely mean failure to reach the others as well.”

Continuing rapid population growth is weakening governments in scores of countries. The annual addition of 70 million people to world population is concentrated in countries where water tables are falling and wells are going dry, forests are shrinking, soils are eroding, and grasslands are turning into desert. As this backlog of unresolved problems grows, stresses mount and weaker governments begin to break down.

The defining characteristic of a failing state is the inability of a government to provide security for its people. Somalia, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Haiti, and Pakistan are among the better known examples. Each year the number of failing states increases. “Failing states,” notes Brown, “are an early sign of a failing civilization.”

“Even as the accumulating backlog of unresolved problems is leading to a breakdown of governments in weaker states, new stresses are emerging. Among these are rising oil prices as the world approaches peak oil, rising food prices as an ever larger share of the U.S. grain harvest is converted into fuel for cars, and the spreading fallout from climate change.”

“At the heart of the climate-stabilizing initiative cited above is a detailed plan to cut carbon dioxide emissions 80 percent by 2020 in order to hold the future temperature rise to a minimum. This initiative has three major components—raising energy efficiency, developing renewable sources of energy, and expanding the earth’s tree cover. Reaching these goals,” says Brown, “will mean the world can phase out all coal-fired power plants.”

In setting the carbon reduction goals for Plan B, we did not ask “What do politicians think is politically feasible?” but rather “What do we think is needed to prevent irreversible climate change?” This is not Plan A: business-as-usual. This is Plan B: an all-out response at wartime speed proportionate to the magnitude of the threats facing civilization.

“We are in a race between tipping points in natural and political systems,” says Brown. “Which will come first? Can we mobilize the political will to phase out coal-fired power plants before the melting of the Greenland ice sheet becomes irreversible? Can we halt deforestation in the Amazon basin before it so weakens the forest that it becomes vulnerable to fire and is destroyed? Can we cut carbon emissions fast enough to save the Himalayan glaciers that feed the major rivers of Asia?”

Although efforts have been made in recent decades to raise the efficiency of energy use, the potential is still largely untapped. For example, one easy and profitable way to cut carbon emissions worldwide is simply to replace incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs that use only a fourth as much electricity. Turning to more efficient lighting can reduce world electricity use by 12 percent—enough to close 705 of the world’s 2,370 coal-fired power plants.

In the United States, buildings—commercial and residential—account for close to 40 percent of carbon emissions. Retrofitting an existing building typically can cut energy use by 20–50 percent. The next step, shifting to carbon-free electricity to heat, cool, and light the building completes the transformation to a zero-carbon emissions building.

We can also reduce carbon emissions by moving down the food chain. The energy used to provide the typical American diet and that used for personal transportation are roughly equal. A plant-based diet requires about one fourth as much energy as a diet rich in red meat. The reduction in carbon emissions in shifting from a red meat–rich diet to a plant-based diet is about the same as that in shifting from a Chevrolet Suburban SUV to a Toyota Prius hybrid car.

In the Plan B energy economy, wind is the centerpiece. It is abundant, low cost, and widely distributed; it scales easily and can be developed quickly. The goal is to develop at wartime speed 3 million megawatts of wind-generating capacity by 2020, enough to meet 40 percent of the world’s electricity needs. This would require 1.5 million wind turbines of 2 megawatts each. These turbines could be produced on assembly lines by reopening closed automobile plants, much as bombers were assembled in auto plants during World War II.

In the development of renewable energy resources, Brown notes, we are seeing the emergence of some big-time thinking—thinking that recognizes the urgency of moving away from fossil fuels. Nowhere is this more evident than in Texas, where the state government is coordinating an effort to build 23,000 megawatts of wind-generating capacity (the equivalent of 23 coal-fired power plants). This will supply enough electricity to satisfy the residential needs of over 11 million Texans—half the state’s population. Oil wells go dry and coal seams run out, but the earth’s wind resources cannot be depleted.

Solar technologies also provide exciting opportunities for getting us off the carbon treadmill. Sales of solar-electric panels are doubling every two years. Rooftop solar water heaters are spreading fast in Europe and China. In China, some 40 million homes now get their hot water from rooftop solar heaters. The plan is to nearly triple this to 110 million homes by 2020, supplying hot water to 380 million Chinese.

Large-scale solar thermal power plants are under construction or planned in California, Florida, Spain, and Algeria. Algeria, a leading world oil exporter, is planning to develop 6,000 megawatts of solar-thermal electric-generating capacity, which it will feed into the European grid via an undersea cable. The electricity generated from this single project is enough to supply the residential needs of a country the size of Switzerland.

Investment in geothermal energy for both heating and power generation is also growing fast, notes Brown. Iceland now heats nearly 90 percent of its homes with geothermal energy, virtually eliminating the use of coal for home heating. The Philippines gets 25 percent of its electricity from geothermal power plants. The United States has 61 geothermal projects under way in the geothermally rich western states.

The combination of gas-electric hybrid cars and advanced-design wind turbines has set the stage for the evolution of an entirely new automotive fuel economy. If the battery storage of the typical hybrid car is doubled and a plug-in capacity is added so that batteries can be recharged at night, then we could do our short-distance driving—commuting to work, grocery shopping, and so on—almost entirely with cheap, wind-generated electricity.

This would permit us to run our cars largely on renewable electricity—and at the gasoline-equivalent cost of less than $1 per gallon. Several major automakers are coming to market with plug-in hybrids or electric cars.

With business as usual (Plan A), the environmental trends that are undermining our future will continue. More and more states will fail until civilization itself begins to unravel. “Time is our scarcest resource. We are crossing natural thresholds that we cannot see and violating deadlines that we do not recognize,” says Brown. “These deadlines are set by nature. Nature is the timekeeper, but we cannot see the clock.”

The key to restructuring the world energy economy is to get the market to tell the environmental truth by incorporating into prices the indirect costs of burning fossil fuels, such as climate disruption and air pollution. To do this, we propose adopting a carbon tax that will reflect these indirect costs and offsetting it by lowering income taxes. We propose a worldwide carbon tax to be phased in at $20 per ton each year between 2008 and 2020, stabilizing at $240 per ton. This initiative, which would be offset at every step with a reduction in income taxes, would simultaneously discourage fossil fuel use and encourage investment in renewable sources of energy.

“Saving civilization is not a spectator sport,” says Brown. “We have reached a point in the deteriorating relationship between us and the earth’s natural systems where we all have to become political activists. Every day counts. We all have a stake in civilization’s survival.”

“We can all make lifestyle changes, but unless we restructure the economy and do it quickly we will almost certainly fail. We need to persuade our elected representatives and national leaders to support the environmental tax restructuring and other changes outlined in Plan B. Beyond this, each of us can pick an issue that is important to us at the local level, such as phasing out coal-fired power plants, shifting to more-efficient light bulbs, or developing a comprehensive local recycling program, and get to work on it.”

We all need to educate ourselves on environmental issues. For its part, the Earth Policy Institute is making Plan B 3.0 available for downloading free of charge from their Web site. TecEco will be doing all it can to get the Worldwatch Institue

“It is decision time,” says Brown. “Like earlier civilizations that got into environmental trouble, we have to make a choice. We can stay with business as usual and watch our economy decline and our civilization unravel, or we can adopt Plan B and be the generation that mobilizes to save civilization. Our generation will make the decision, but it will affect life on earth for all generations to come.”

Earth Policy Institute Contacts


Lester R. Brown, Author & President (202) 496.9290 x 11
Janet Larsen, Director of Research (202) 496.9290 x 14
Media Contact: Reah Janise Kauffman (202) 496.9290 x 12

World Business Council for Sustainable Development and the International Chamber of Commerce Communique from Bali

The World Business Council for Sustainable Development and the International Chamber of Commerce put on a Global Business Day at which some 300 companies met to consider climate change challenges. We thought readers may be interested in a summary of the communiqué issued by that forum. For detail go to the WBCSD web site

1.       Business has a clear sense of urgency that society has to address climate change in a meaningful way. Business wants more clarity on the future policy framework for its investments in technology and infrastructure.

2.       Business strongly supports a new public private partnership between Governments and Business. Climate change cannot be solved without the active involvement of Business, but we need new platforms for interaction. Opportunities within the intergovernmental negotiations are not enough.

3.       Business recognizes the link between climate, development, finance and technology. These competing goals must be balanced if we want the developing countries on board a new global climate regime. Technology cooperation is an important element in this.

4.       Technology is key, for addressing the climate challenges. There is a need for scaling up of R&D jointly between Governments and Business as well as accelerating the deployment of technologies.

5.       Focus on energy efficiency improvements, which have huge potential. These are not explored strongly enough, especially for buildings.

6.       There is support from Business for “carbon control” via forests and CCS. This requires a partnership between Governments and Business for R&D,

7.       policy development and risk sharing (risk governance).

8.       Business supports the interest in exploring the potential of sector approaches.

9.       Well functioning markets are key, but have their limitations. We need both market mechanisms and regulations.

10.   “ I3 “ Implementation, Implementation, Implementation.