January 18, 2020
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The Opportunities From Climate Change

From the 14th Darbari Seth Memorial Lecture

The Opportunities From Climate Change
AP Photo/Jacky Naegelen, Pool
The Opportunities From Climate Change

As the Paris climate summit draws to a close it is becoming apparent that if reducing CO2 emissions to slow down global warming and prevent abrupt, catastrophic climate change in the not too distant future was its goal then, like the Copenhagen summit of 2009, it too is going to fail.

The failure was pre-ordained because while the industrialized countries were making commitments to cut their total emissions, the developing countries were committing themselves only to reducing the emission-intensity of their growth and not their total emissions. It was therefore apparent even before the conference began that their emissions would continue to grow.

For instance, China, which is now far and away the largest producer of greenhouse gases has promised to bring down its emissions per dollar of GDP by two- thirds below where they were in 2005, by 2030. This is a huge commitment. But by then, even at its present, much slower, growth rate, its GDP will be eight times what it was in 2005. Its total emissions will therefore be 60 percent higher than they are today.

India’s commitment is a more modest 33 percent reduction over current levels. So if it grows at 7 percent for the next fifteen years its absolute emissions will be roughly double of what they are today. In fact all developing countries except for Brazil will have increased their emissions.

In its latest assessment report, which was released last year, the IPCC had calculated the amount of carbon – a shorthand for all greenhouse gases – that the world could afford to emit by the end of this century if it wished to limit global warming to 2o Celsius. It is now apparent that even if all countries meet their independently determined targets for emission reduction, we will still use up this carbon budget in just another 25 years, by 2040.

It is therefore not surprising that the Paris talks have become more and more acrimonious, with the large developing countries, notably China and India, coming under increasing pressure, and getting most of the blame in the international media, for leading the world to disaster.

My purpose today is to show you that neither the despair nor the desperation are warranted, and to explain why it is not only possible for the world to stay within the carbon budget for 2100 AD, but possibly record a ‘budget surplus’. I also will try to explain to you why for the developing countries, climate change is not so much a threat as an opportunity to arrest and reverse their marginalization in the global economy. I am profoundly grateful to TERI, and to Dr. Pachaury in particular, for giving me the opportunity to do so.

Let me digress a little and dwell on why the 2 degree limit is so important, and why desperation is seizing the climate change community. The short answer to the first question is to keep global warming from becoming self re-inforcing and go out of human control. In the past two decades, the study of ice –core samples going back 800,000 years has shown that climate change is not always gradual. On the contrary most shifts in and out of ice ages and hot periods have been sudden, and completed in a few decades.

Climate scientists have identified several Tipping Points, where the change acquires a momentum of its own. One is the melting of the polar ice caps; a second is the warming and acidification of the oceans. A third, and most dangerous, is the melting of the permafrost that stretches from Alaska to Siberia. Were that to happen it would release hundreds of billions of tonnes of methane gas trapped in decayed vegetation frozen by the last ice age. Methane is 24 times as potent a greenhouse gas as Carbon dioxide.

The two degree limit is important because the rise in surface air temperatures is up to 2.5 times as high in the arctic region – the region of the permafrost – as it is in the world as a whole. As a result although the average rise in temperature since the beginning of the industrial age has so far been only 0.8 degrees Celsius, it has already begun to soften and melt the permafrost in Alaska, Northern Canada and Siberia in summer.

A two-degree rise in the mean global surface temperature is likely to cause a 5 degree rise in the arctic region. That will almost certainly melt the permafrost, and quite possibly the uppermost layer of the arctic sea bed for large parts of the year. We will then have crossed the third and most dangerous of the three tipping points. This cannot be allowed to happen.

Growing desperation

It is not surprising therefore that an edge of desperation has crept into the search for solutions. The most recent manifestation is the concept of ‘negative emissions’. This has emerged as follows: The IPCC has estimated that to stay within the 2 degree limit Carbon emissions will have to be brought down by 40 to 70 percent below the 2010 level by 2050 AD. Since this no longer possible, we need to keep track of the ‘excess’ of carbon emissions till then and deduct them from the reduction of emissions that will become possible when the technology for extracting CO2 from the air has been perfected.

This is a seductive idea, but a closer look quickly reveals its pitfalls. First, it gives policy makers an excuse for failing to meet the target for 2050 AD by saying “we will make it up in the second half of the century when the technology becomes available”. Since political lives are short this will give every government an excuse for shifting the burden of compliance onto the shoulders of their successors.

Second, as more and more time goes by without a satisfactory replacement to fossil fuels the search for a quick solution will become more frantic. This will make future governments more and more dependent on the giant corporations that have the capital, the managerial skills and the research laboratories, to find the magic bullet.

Power will therefore shift inexorably from elected governments to unelected and intrinsically authoritarian trans-national organizations. Larger and larger subsidies will be extracted from the taxpayers to finance their research and development. And if these remedies don’t work still more money will be extracted from ever more desperate governments in search of ever more elusive magic bullets.

One idea that has gained a great deal of traction is to plant fast growing trees and shrubs to capture the excess carbon in the air. But the scale on which thus would have to be done is mind-boggling. For instance to extract one billion tons of carbon in this way would require an area the size of New York State to be planted with trees every year, and meeting the IPCC’s target wlll require planting an area one and a half times the size of India with fast growing trees.

Strangely, this is one of the more doable proposals. Then there are mind–boggling proposals like burying billions of tonnes of compressed CO2 three km beneath the sea every year and relying on the pressure of the water to keep it there; using quicklime or sodium hydroxide placed in scrubbing towers and artificial ‘trees’ to lock CO2 into chalk or sodium bicarbonate, or building giant chiller boxes in the Antarctic that will lower the air temperature by another 30o Celsius or more and make atmospheric CO2 freeze and fall out as dry ice which can then be collected and buried deep inside the ice sheet.

But the prize must go to a proposal to cool the earth directly by “geo-engineering” a succession of mild non-nuclear winters. This can be done by flooding the stratosphere with 20 million tonnes of sulphur dioxide every year through a thirty kilometre long pipe suspended from helium balloons, in order to reflect a part of the sun’s rays away before they hit the earth. This idea has germinated from the observation that when Mount Pinatubo spewed 20 million tonnes of sulphur compounds into the stratosphere in 1991, it lowered the average global air temperature by 0.5 degrees in the following year. Since cooling the earth in this way will cost a fraction of what it will cost to extract carbon from the air, this has gained the cautious backing of some of the biggest global corporations and foundations in the world.

Few of the proponents of these wild schemes have done their homework. Had they done so they would have come across a study by the Carnegie Institution for Science, in the USA, which has shown that even if all the CO2 added since 1900 is removed at one stroke, more than half will be replaced within five years by a decline in CO2 exhalation by plants at night (presumably to conserve carbon for growth) and by its release from the heavily carbonized oceans.

As for cooling the earth by creating a mount Pinatubo every year, the proponents have conveniently forgotten that 1992, the year after the eruption had seen a drought in the African Sahel and Australia, and a sharp reduction of the monsoon in India.

The inescapable truth is that there is one and only one way to reconcile the imperative to reduce greenhouse gas emissions with the imperative to sustain economic growth in the developing countries. This is to find another abundant and versatile source of energy to replace fossil fuels. Everyone, literally every one, on the planet knows that the only unexploited source of energy left is the Sun. But almost no one believes that this can be done in sufficient amounts, and at a sufficiently low cost, to make the replacement of fossil fuels with solar energy possible.

The Paris summit has failed to even broach this challenge because, like all the previous 20 meetings of the conference of parties to the UN’s Framework convention on climate change, all of its negotiations have been grounded in the firm belief that fossil fuels will remain the bedrock of the global economy in the foreseeable future.

This assumption is unfounded. For two, out of the plethora of renewable energy technologies that scientists have been exploring for the last four decades have succeeded in harnessing the sun, for they can produce not only electricity virtually on demand, day and night, but also all of the transport fuels that are currently being obtained from oil and natural gas. As a bonus, they can also produce the petro-chemicals that are currently being manufactured from natural gas. Between them, therefore, they can reduce anthropogenic CO2 emissions by 90 percent of what they are today.

The first is in the generation of electricity from the sun. The second is in the production of transport fuels from biomass. The breakthroughs that are making the energy shift possible have come not in solar photovoltaic but solar thermal power, and not in the production of ethanol through the fermentation of biomass, but of diesel, aviation turbine fuel and other transport fuels through, transport gasification – a thermo-chemical process that has been in industrial use for almost a century.

Solar photovoltaic power generation has been increasing by leaps and bounds in the last decade, propelled by dizzying improvements in conversion efficiency and reductions in the cost of PV panels. But it suffers from one drawback that will, in all probability, never be removed: This is its inability to supply power at night, or during spells of bad weather. Despite dramatic advances in battery technology, storing electricity remains prohibitively expensive. By the same token it is only in the past three or four years, after the failure to mass-produce cellulosic ethanol from non-food crops, that people have begun to accept that, as a replacement transport fuel, ethanol too is a blind alley.

Concentrated Solar power stations, however, have broken the day-night barrier by storing the sun’s heat in a mixture of molten salts. This technology has now been perfected to the point where the heat loss during storage is barely one percent in a day. Solar thermal plants made a slow start, but in the last five years the number under construction, and their heat storage capacity, has grown rapidly. As of early this year, there were 61 operational solar thermal power plants in the world, with a generating capacity of 4,228 MW.

The crucial breakthrough came in 2011, when Gemasolar, a 20 MW Solar thermal power plant, began delivering 6,500 hours of power a year to a small city in Seville, Spain, for the past three years. This is 10 per cent more than what the coal-fired power plants have been delivering in India in recent years. Gemasolar has provided for a 15 percent fossil fuel backup to deal with prolonged bad weather, but it has been able to provide uninterrupted power for long periods in summer without having to use it. In 2013 it celebrated its second anniversary by doing this for 36 days in September and October.

The production of transport fuels through gasification involves two distinct processes. The first yields carbon monoxide and hydrogen, jointly considered the basic building blocks of organic chemistry, which can easily be synthesized into any petro-chemical or transport fuel that we now produce from crude oil. The second is the synthesis of the two gases through a process known as the Fischer –Tropsch synthesis.

Industry has been doing this, using coal or natural gas as the feedstock since the early twentieth century. But technologies for efficiently gasifying biomass have been perfected only in the last decade. One in particular is capable of doing this with any type of biomass, from wood waste to crop residues to sewage sludge and municipal solid waste, and it too is coming rapidly into commercial use. This is plasma gasification.

Producing transport fuels by this route had become commercially viable when the price of crude oil was $60 to $80. In 2012 British Airways entered into a partnership with a US firm, signing an 11 year power purchase agreement with a US based company named Solena fuels to buy Aviation Turbine fuel produced from London’s garbage, at market prices. The significant feature of the agreement was that other than providing a site for the location of the project, named the the Greensky Project the two companies had not asked for any subsidies. Three other airlines – Quantas, SAS and Lufthansa -- have also signed memoranda of intent with Solena. With the price of oil having been driven down to below $40, the economics of the project is being reappraised.

Much will depend on how long this price is sustained. Significantly, notwithstanding the pious statements made by the heads of some of the largest corporations in the world, neither they nor the Cameron government have come forward with any offer of financial support till oil prices recover once again.

Solar thermal and Photovoltaic power have also become competitive with coal-fired power in most parts of the world. An auction of the power purchase agreement for a 500 MW solar photovoltaic power plant in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh was won by the US-based company SunEdison, at Rs 4.63 – 7 US cents – a unit. Large solar thermal power plants have yet to be set up in India, but a calculation of their production cost, using the technical specifications of the Gemasolar plant, shows that despite India’s prohibitively high interest rates, a clone of the plant set up in the Rajasthan desert would be able to provide power at about the same price.

Not only do solar thermal power plants not damage the environment, but they take only two to three years to build. Coal fired plants take a minimum of five, nuclear eight, and large hydro between ten and 12 years. The saving in time cuts down their true cost to society to a fraction of the cost of conventional power.

Another critically important advantage that both technologies share is the ease with which they will slip into the existing energy infrastructure of the world. Solar thermal power stations require the same super-critical steam turbines that modern coal-based plants use and can be fed into existing power grids at no extra cost.

Fischer-Tropsch transport fuels enjoy a similar advantage over ethanol and Palm-diesel oil, because they can be produced from crop wastes such as wheat and rice straw, bagasse and sugarcane leaf and stumps, cotton stalks and crushed seed and black liquor, a toxic effluent from the paper industry that is currently dried and briquetted for use as boiler fuel.

Producing biofuels by this route will therefore, at one stroke double, or even treble, the productivity of agro-based industries, and increase farm incomes by three to four times. In developing countries it will, very largely, mitigate the impact of drought because when farmers lose their food crop, the will still have immensely valuable crop residues to sell to the biofuels industry.

These two technologies can therefore not only make the transition from coal to solar power painless, but transform the future of the world.

The principal beneficiaries will be precisely the desperately poor states in the arid and semi arid regions of the world that are now on the verge of failing. Harnessing solar energy for the domestic and export markets will give them an enduring source of income. The King of Morocco has already understood this. His government is even now setting up a 540 megawatt solar thermal plant at Ouarzazate --– the largest in the world—in three phases. When it is completed, in six to nine years, it will generate electricity at 7 cents a unit or less, store sufficient heat to generate 15 hours of electricity without sunlight, and virtually dispense with a fossil fuel backup. The European Union has a project to meet fully 20 percent of its total electricity needs from solar power plants set up in six locations on the North African coast. The only hurdle to its implementation, at present, is the turmoil that has been unleashed by the rise of Al Shabab, Boko Haram, Al Qaeda and ISIS.

Producing transport fuels from biomass will banish the spectre of famine that hovers perpetually over the countries of the African Sahel. This is because when food and cash crops fail, unless the drought is extremely severe the stalks, and other residues like leaves and roots, will survive and retain much of their value as a feedstock for bio-fuels. Throughout the world, therefore, the new technologies will create millions of jobs, provide a strong financial incentive to reforest denuded land, hugely reduce air and water pollution and radically improve health.

Implications for India

I will close this talk by describing in brief how these two technologies can transform India’s future. Let me start with Prime Minister Modi’s commitment to install 100,000 MW of solar power plants by 2022. This will require setting up an average of 14,000 MW of generating capacity per year. At present, according to Mr Piyush Goel, our power minister solar PV plants are providing power for 1600 hours a year all these plants are likely to be solar photovoltaic plants, that will produce a maximum of 2,000 hours of power a year.

The same amount of power can be therefore be delivered at more or less the same price per unit by less than 25,000 MW of solar thermal generating capacity, and will therefore require setting up around 3,600 MW of CSP plants. This is not only a more manageable proposition, but CSP power will be able to meet both base load and peak power requirements with equal facility.

India’s potential for producing solar energy is virtually unlimited. The UPA government had designated 35,000 km of desert in Rajasthan as a solar reserve. If every inch of this land were to come under solar power plants it would create 35 million MW of generating capacity. Our present installed capacity from coal –fired plants is 170,000 MW.

Solar thermal plants can also replace both nuclear and hydro-power plants. These would not only be far cheaper and save up to a decade of time on each project , but allow us to avoid the horrific risks we take by building dams in the seismically unstable Himalayas. The most dangerous region is the northeast, where most of our largest hydro - projects are concentrated. This area experienced four giant earthquakes measuring 7.8 to 8.7 on the Richter scale in the 20th century. It is here that we are building, or planning to build, 150 large and medium sized hydro-power dams to generate 32,000 MW of power, in the next decade.

The benefits from producing transport fuels from biomass dwarf even those from solar thermal power. In a nutshell, over the next three or four decades they can replace all but a small portion of the crude oil and gas we consume, whether as transport fuels, petrochemical feedstock, or fuel to run diesel power generators in mobile telephone towers. Di-Methyl-Ether, DME, is not only an excellent replacement for diesel fuel that emits virtually no particulate matter, but has the same density, and can therefore replace cooking gas.

India spends half of its export earnings on importing oil. These imports can be virtually eliminated, making India a trade surplus country with mounting sovereign reserves for the first time in its history. But what is still better domestic production of biofuels will insulate it from future oil price shocks that its economy could find difficult to absorb.

Where, you might ask, will the biomass come from? That is where the real benefits will kick in. One source will be refuse derived fuel from municipal solid waste. India could easily establish waste to transport fuels plants on the model of British Airways’ Greensky project in London. By giving garbage immense value, it will clean up the cities of India in a way that we cannot even imagine today.

A second even better and more profitable source will be India’s much stressed sugar industry.

This industry is one of India’s three largest, and the second largest of its kind in the world. It is also full of entrepreneurs who have stayed ahead of the state governments’ relentless annual increases in the minimum sale price of cane through equally relentless modernization. So they are a pretty tech-savvy bunch. Despite this today the industry is in a crisis and headed for sickness because world sugar prices have plummeted but MSPs keep being raised; because bankrupt power distribution companies in the states hold up payment of the electricity they buy from the industry for as long as two years at a time, and interest rates on the loans they are forced to take from the banks to meet their dues are cripplingly high.

If sugar mills are financially assisted to replace their boilers with gasifiers, they can gasify not only the bagasse they now burn as fuel, but also the sugar cane waste that is now burned either by the farmers or the mills.

I will not go into the details of the processes involved, but suffice it to say that India produces close to 350 million tonnes of sugar cane and an equal weight of cane waste. If all of its residues are converted into transport fuels, This single industry can produce more than 200 million tonnes of jet fuel, diesel and other transport fuels. Its total consumption of all oil products today amounts to 180 million tonnes!

Add to this the 350 million tonnes of rice, wheat and maize straw and husk that is being burned in the paddy fields of north India and imagine what it will mean to farmers if they can sell all of this, in addition to their grain, not only their grain and we begin to get an idea of the future that is now within our grasp. 

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