## Energy and the Environment – What Physicists Can Do

The Perimeter Institute is a futuristic-looking place where over 250 physicists are thinking about quantum gravity, quantum information theory, cosmology and the like. Since I work on some of these things, I was recently invited to give the weekly colloquium there. But I took the opportunity to try to rally them into action:

Energy and the Environment: What Physicists Can Do. Watch the video or read the slides.

Abstract. The global warming crisis is part of a bigger transformation in which humanity realizes that the Earth is a finite system and that our population, energy usage, and the like cannot continue to grow exponentially. While politics and economics pose the biggest challenges, physicists are in a good position to help make this transition a bit easier. After a quick review of the problems, we discuss a few ways physicists can help.

On the video you can hear me say a lot of stuff that’s not on the slides: it’s more of a coherent story. The advantage of the slides is that anything in blue, you can click on to get more information. So for example, when I say that solar power capacity has been growing annually by 75% in recent years, you can see where I got that number.

I was pleased by the response to this talk. Naturally, it was not a case of physicists saying “okay, tomorrow I’ll quit working on the foundations of quantum mechanics and start trying to improve quantum dot solar cells.” It’s more about getting them to see that huge problems are looming ahead of us… and to see the huge opportunities for physicists who are willing to face these problems head-on, starting now. Work on energy technologies, the smart grid, and ‘ecotechnology’ is going to keep growing. I think a bunch of the younger folks, at least, could see this.

However, perhaps the best immediate outcome of this talk was that Lee Smolin introduced me to Manjana Milkoreit. She’s at the school of international affairs at Waterloo University, practically next door to the Perimeter Institute. She works on “climate change governance, cognition and belief systems, international security, complex systems approaches, especially threshold behavior, and the science-policy interface.”

So, she knows a lot about the all-important human and political side of climate change. Right now she’s interviewing diplomats involved in climate treaty negotiations, trying to see what they believe about climate change. And it’s very interesting!

In my next post, I’ll talk about something she pointed me to. Namely: what we can do to hold the temperature increase to 2 °C or less, given that the pledges made by various nations aren’t enough.

### 35 Responses to Energy and the Environment – What Physicists Can Do

1. Sounds encouraging and as does Manjana Milkoreit (will check her out, thanks, John!)

• Nathan Urban says:

I would also like to hear more about Manjana’s work, especially where it intersects quantitative modeling. (Her web site mentions agent-based neural networks, for example.) Perhaps a guest post?

2. Arrow says:

Hopefully physicists can eventually get those damn fusion reactors to work and flood our civilization with cheap and clean power.

Much more worthwhile goal then quantum gravity theory (although one cannot rule out such a theory showing us how to get there, but it might just as well prove completely useless from a practical pov).

• John Baez says:

I said that if they were ambitious they should work on fusion power.

I also pointed out that the global warming / energy production problem is just one of several ways in which we’re hitting the limits of what our planet can support. So, if we solve this one problem without recognizing that exponential growth is incompatible with life on a finite-sized planet, we’ll just hit the next problem, and the next, and the next.

• Arrow says:

But that is precisely why exponential growth is only temporary. Sooner or later an equilibrium will be reached. Yes, by the time it happens the population might be much higher still, putting even more strain on the environment. Sad as it may be I consider it an inevitable consequence of the way life functions.

Rational mind is simply nowhere near dominant enough to successfully impose global population limits. Basic human needs like food, shelter, reproduction or pursuit of happiness easily take precedence over esoteric worries about global warming or ocean neutralization (it’s basic after all). The biosphere (us included) will face the same old choice it always had – adapt or go extinct. And it will do just fine in the long term, even if the majority of present day species go extinct there will be survivors who will gladly repopulate any newly empty ecological niches. Perhaps some of them will even develop intelligence thanks to such opportunity in a parallel to how the extinction of dinosaurs likely helped make room for us.

Another point altogether is that while it might seem it would be better if we could limit ourselves to say 1 billion there are clear advantages to much higher population count. From a biological perspective it leads to faster evolution (more combinations can be tested in a given time frame), higher genetic diversity, and all the benefits that go with it like higher population resilience. From scientific perspective it means more man-hours devoted to science annually and therefore faster scientific progress.

Both those benefits are very important for our overall chances of long-term survival as a species. They increase the chances of surviving random cataclysms like meteorite impacts, pandemics or nearby supernovas as well as rise our chances of developing interstellar travel in time to escape Sun’s demise.

• Nathan Urban says:

Fusion isn’t the energy technology I’d recommend an ambitious physicist work on if they want to see environmental benefits in their own lifetimes. I’d work on improving the energy efficiency of existing technologies first. Still, some people need to be playing the long game.

• John Baez says:

i guess ‘ambitious’ was the wrong word for what I meant. Something like ‘risk-seeking’ would be closer.

The big problem with ‘improving efficiency’ as a challenge for ambitious or risk-seeking physicists is that it sounds so unglamorous. It has all the appeal of ‘going on a diet’ or ‘belt-tightening’. It sounds like one is struggling for incremental improvements that will put off disaster for at most a decade or two. I agree that it’s important… but I think it needs to be ‘rebranded’ somehow, to get certain sorts of people interested!

I think something like ‘self-optimizing smart grid software’ could appeal to these people. More generally: don’t emphasize efficiency per se, emphasize some cool futuristic-sounding technology… that improves efficiency.

• Hopefully physicists can eventually get those damn fusion reactors to work and flood our civilization with cheap and clean power.

Research on nuclear fusion is an incredibly cool thing, so i believe it should be done just for the sake of it. However, if we want to be realistic, it does not really look like fusion as a viable source of energy it’s going to happen. See for example this essay.

If you read that piece you’ll see that so far the idea of nuclear fusion as a source of energy seems to rely on non existing technologies to solve impossible problems. The “most impossible” of all seems to be that a material that solves the requirements of a containment wall can’t possibly exist.

I have read somewhere about proposals of having a hybrid fusion-fission reactor obtained by building the containment wall out of fission waste, or something like that, but it sounds more like science fiction honestly.

We really need to invest in thorium reactors research, but i think that so far the only really feasible way out of a fossil fuel economy seems to keep on building a lot of wind turbines and hope that in the meantime we won’t burn all the oil so we can’ t make lubricant for them anymore :-).

• domenico says:

I don’t understand, theorically, the use of the gearbox in the wind turbine.
A simple high power rectifier, a battery (or a supecondenser), and an inverter can work for long time in the base of the pylon: the performance of an electric component is generally greater of a mechanical component (who require regular maintenance).

• The gearbox is needed to make the generator spin faster, so it can be made smaller and cheaper. See this for example.

However direct drive turbines are also making a lot of progress lately. This is of fundamental importance because at the scale for which we will need wind energy (million of turbines) we probably can’t afford to replace broken gearboxes every 10 year or so.

• Bruce Smith says:

Here’s an interesting alternative to wind turbines which I recently saw in the news — letting the wind push charged water droplets against an electric field, to directly generate electricity:

3. A very good talk, slanted well for the audience.

I’d like to use some of your slides. Can you send me the Powerpoint?

You didn’t mention geoengineering–too far afield? or controversial?

• John Baez says:

The slides were made using LaTeX — and in particular, Beamer. I can email you a file containing the LaTeX source and all the images if you want, or you can simply download the resulting PDF file here, and use Adobe Acrobat to slice and dice it.

I did mention geo-engineering; I think you can hear that if you listen to the talk. I mentioned putting sulfur in the stratosphere (and pointed out this sort of thing wouldn’t stop ocean acidification), and in the question-and-answer period listed several schemes for sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere, including your CROPS proposal. I unfortunately forgot to mention biochar, so someone came up afterwards and told me about that… too bad they didn’t raise it in the Q&A.

4. Thanks for sharing this talk, I learned a lot from it.

There seems to be a lot of overlap between you approach and what Ramez Naam has written in is recently-published book, “The Infinite Resource”. That book is essentially built around what you said near the end of your talk: while physical resources cannot grow exponentially, virtual ones (like knowledge and innovation) possibly can.

It struck me when you mentioned your difficulties to reach people outside your circles. I hope that voices like yours and Naam’s are the beginning of a wider movement.

$\lambda$

• John Baez says:

Thanks for the reference and the encouragement! Yes, we need lots of people tackling this stuff from many different angles.

5. Giampiero Campa says:

John, it is probably just my perception but at times it sounds like you think governments are main entities responsible for the increase of GDP, and i don’t think you really believe or mean that.

Many economists are advocating for governments to try to stimulate growth further, in order to reduce unemployment, but the fact is that businesses are still the primary force behind the GDP growth (by about 70%). They (businesses) produce and sell things of value and they use the money to pay for the energy/materials they buy and for the workers they hire, and part of that is profit for the shareholders (people that want to make money, e.g. for retirement). In turn businesses are driven mainly by demand for goods, that is us wanting and buying stuff.

So really GDP tends to grow because people want to buy stuff and make more money. In addition they like to have jobs too. Businesses are machines that make all this happen, while optimizing some kind of utility function, and governments mostly only only try to regulate the growth rate (by the way, right now in the US the government is not touching the accelerator and in Europe the ECB has a in fact a foot on the brake).

Now, since energy has a price, and the price of energy derived by burning fossil fuels it’s going to increase (and it has been increasing for a while), this will (slowly ?) affect the prices of the stuff we pay, the profit of businesses, the GDP, the employment and so on.

So i guess my point is that in principle we already have an human-made feedback mechanism in place that reduces growth as things gets harder to do in the usual ways (and also tries to find alternative ways to keep things running), therefore preventing us to “slamming into a wall”, at least to some extent.

Now, is this mechanism enough ? it is NOT enough ? is it fast enough for the changes ahead ? is it forward looking enough ? do we need to complement/adjust it in some ways ? or even replace it completely ?

I would guess that a tax on fossil fuels to collect money towards research into wind energy and thorium reactors wouldn’t hurt but I really don’t know the answer to the above questions. At least not yet. In any case I believe we do need more accurate models of these things to attempt any answer.

Sorry, this is more me “thinking out loud” than a coherent post, but nevertheless that’s all i have and hopefully it’s worth sharing.

• John Baez says:

Giampiero wrote:

John, it is probably just my perception but at times it sounds like you think governments are main entities responsible for the increase of GDP, and i don’t think you really believe or mean that.

I didn’t mean to say that. I was trying to say that economic theories as taught in business schools and economics departments are messed up in ways that exacerbate our problems when people in business, finance and government start applying those theories. One of them is that governments are too interested in GDP as an economic indicator. Since increasing GDP is not always a good thing, this warps their decisions in many ways. To take an extreme example, we could increase the GDP by all going out, buying sheets of paper, and burning it in heaps in our front yards!

There are some interesting attempts to deal with this. The (somewhat tendentiously named) genuine progress indicator or GPI is actually a class of indicators. The GDP is the market value of all final goods and services produced within a country in a given period. The GPI subtracts from this various costs, such as:

• costs of resource depletion
• cost of air pollution, water pollution and other forms of pollution
• loss of farmland
• loss of wetlands

and so on.

Here are some attempts to apply the GPI concept to legislative decisions:

• The GPI Atlantic indicator pioneered by Ronald Colman for Atlantic Canada.

• The Alberta GPI pioneered by ecological economist Mark Anielski to measure the long-term economic, social and environmental sustainability of the province of Alberta.

• The metrics used by Environment and Sustainable Development Indicators Initiative of Canada to measure its progress to achieving well-being goals. These are being organized by the Canadian Sustainability Indicators Network.

For more, see:

• International Institute for Sustainable Development, A global directory to indicator initiatives.

However, I agree with you that companies are extremely powerful in some ways that governments are not, so figuring out ways to make companies more quick to respond to the global warming problem would be tremendously valuable.

Companies are somewhat limited by the ‘tragedy of the commons / prisoner’s dilemma’ problem: they behave in a self-centered way, so they can get stuck in locally optimal behavior that’s far from a global optimum. Also, corporations are to some extent limited in their foresight by the foresight of the people who invest in them. But maybe we can figure out ways to help them behave better.

Ideas?

• ideas ?

For starters I would remove an extra ending parenthesis in the Alberta GPI link, since it does not work as it is right now :-)

Other than that, i would guess that we should try to build a simple model to illustrate where and how the system as it is right now fails, in order to propose a better one. If this becomes common knowledge then we have a chance to better educate the people in general (which includes corporation shareholders).

No company or corporation really wants to be seen as “the bad guy”, (especially if there are viable alternatives), if anything because it makes their life a little harder.

• John Baez says:

Giampiero wrote:

For starters I would remove an extra ending parenthesis in the Alberta GPI link, since it does not work as it is right now :-)

Now that’s what I call a practical suggestion that can be implemented right away.

Other than that, i would guess that we should try to build a simple model to illustrate where and how the system as it is right now fails, in order to propose a better one.

Maybe some sort of variant of the Prisoner’s Dilemma game, featuring lots of companies that have some choices about how much carbon to emit… so that if everyone pollutes more, global warming wrecks the economy?

By the way: when I gave my Milankovitch cycle talk at Cal State Northridge, a guy asked if there were a simple linear model he could play around with, and I told him you had studied a ‘best linear fit’ (in some sense) and shown that it didn’t fit too well:

So, I said one interesting thing would be to look at simple nonlinear models, or figure out ways to quantify the failure of a linear model to fit well. Later he said his name is Boris Babic and he works at Mathworks! He knew about you. So I told him about you and urged him to contact you, and maybe work on this stuff (for fun) together, and blog about anything you find.

• Ha! We just met in the kitchen and talked about this 5 min ago! He is more involved in energy problems in general, and he came up with an idea of a toolbox for weather and climate …

We’ll definitely let you know if we come up with anything. Thanks.

• Maybe some sort of variant of the Prisoner’s Dilemma game, featuring lots of companies that have some choices about how much carbon to emit… so that if everyone pollutes more, global warming wrecks the economy?

Yes, something like that might work if it shows that the economy “gets wrecked” at the end.

In general getting close to (or surpassing) the planetary boundaries involves a loss of value that can be expressed in monetary terms. Some of this loss of value will necessarily affect the economy. The whole system can react by slowing down (e.g. a prolonged recession following a general increase in the prices of goods) and adjusting, or by collapsing, oscillating and eventually breaking up, depending on the relative speed of the different involved dynamics, and on a few other things.

I don’t think we know the answer yet, this paper on the limits to growth is the only attempt that i know of so far. But any attempted answer, never mind how wrong, would be a good starting point towards a better – quantitative – understanding of the problems, i think.

• I think that the projections of economic impacts as a result of climate change are pretty solid. I have references if people care to see them. There is the Stern Review, but Lord Stern has said since that the projected damage from these is a severe underestimate.

There are four kinds of problems envisioned.

First, there is direct damage and disruption to human and economic infrastructure. This will demand government expenditures to re-create roads and other facilities upon which the public depends, and expenditures to clean up, e.g., sewage spills such as were seen with Hurricane Sandy. This will increase tax burdens at all levels, federal, state, municipal, and local. Corporations will need to replace infrastructure, and they will rely upon insurance to compensate them, although such compensation may not cover full costs.

Second, there is the diversion of financial resources from elective discretionary spending, to restoring necessities of life and food. This has a knock-on effect, for a lot of economic activity is produced to support markets discretionary spending. If people do not do such spending, inevitably there will be layoffs since demand will shrink. No doubt there will be jobs available in reconstruction and related activities, but people cannot change fields to support such on short notice, and the need for such efforts will be great. For example, restoring electric power taps a nationwide labor source, and this labor migrates long distances to fix outages. If there are very large regional or national impacts, there won’t be enough of this labor to fix all outages. As it is, on the East Coast, many people with discretionary income are installing home generators as a precaution against this kind of disruption (including us), although it isn’t clear how this will work out if, say, propane supply chains are also disrupted.

Third, there are dislocations: It may be that some regions will no longer be suitable for either living or economic activity, and people and businesses will simply need to relocate to other regions, probably at great financial loss not completely covered by insurances.

Fourth and finally, if circumstances get truly severe in a short time, the public may demand rapid government action to counter climate change, however unlikely such actions are to have an immediate benefit, and push burdensome taxation or even confiscation upon corporations who have contributed to climate disruption. Under these circumstances, substantial assets on the books of these corporations may become stranded, and collapse in value, causing the values of these corporations to plummet. Because of the historical success and profits these corporations have enjoyed, they are widely held in mutual funds, ETFs, and pension funds, and the collapse of such a “carbon bubble” may be felt well beyond the corporations themselves. Thus, there would be a financial collapse, adding to the problems, one created because the risks of holding these assets are not properly priced into their shares. This is why, in part, the SEC is requiring companies to assess and declare their exposure to climate change in their annual reports and 10Ks.

• I have references if people care to see them.

Yes, i’d love to see references and quantitative models of all this.

My reasoning that a slowdown of the economy would be a good thing for global warming and the other boundaries, so if the involved dynamics are sufficiently slow we could in principle just adapt and slowly converge towards a new situation in which we don’t harm the environment as we are doing now (especially given that we’ll run out of easy oil and carbon at some point, which again will force us to slow down and find a better source of energy). But i don’t know. That’s why i’d like to see quantitative studies and models. Of course these will be all wrong at the end, i have no doubt, but that’s beyond the point.

• Slowdowns of economies help greenhouse gas emissions some, but it is not definitive. See Dr Emily Shuckburgh’s lecture, in part, at https://www.msri.org/general_events/19901/schedules/16868

• @Giampiero Campa,

While businesses may well be the “machines of GDP growth” they are motivated and constrained by forces peripheral of primary GDP enlargement, such as availability of capital and labor and their costs. If interest rates are near zero or below, businesses are loathe to spend because that cash will buy more tomorrow if they sit on it, with little risk. If interest rates are bit higher, they’ll invest to earn, since inflation will eat away at principal. Businesses cannot really affect money or credit supply on a macro scale.

6. Great talk, Professor Baez. Disruptive technologies would be ideal, but they are difficult to predict when they might be available. Conservation measures so energy demand doesn’t need to be so high might help a lot, when used in combination with a migration to extremely low carbon energy production. There is a heartening assessment from McKinsey and Company looking at GHG cost abatement curves that shows how it could be done, if only we could motivate people to change their behaviors. See http://www.mckinsey.com/client_service/sustainability/latest_thinking/greenhouse_gas_abatement_cost_curves for their work on that. I’ve set a goal to try to understand the works by Kahneman, Tversky, Thaler, Knetsch, Weber, et al, per http://www.dangoldstein.com/papers/WeberJohnsonMilchChangBrodschollGoldstein_AsymDiscIntrtmpChoice_PsychSci07.pdf. These are about why people are terrible investors, even when their own self-interest is at stake, per E. Chancellor, “Humans are naturally bad investors”, 8th January 2012, Financial Times, http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/ec067aec-3844-11e1-9d07-00144feabdc0.html#axzz2RsDZVr7M

7. Iuval Clejan says:

Dear John,
I haven’t watched the video, just read the slides. Which of your proposals for physicists to work on–fun technologies, teaching methods, or modeling is :”Stopping them entirely” (them being CO2 emissions)? This seems like a much simpler question to answer than most questions in quantum gravity. The manufacturing of quantum dots and their integration into solar panel technology will take much energy and produce much emissions. Wind turbines also take much energy and emissions to manufacture. Neither of these lasts forever once made. And they require much other infrastructure in the form of electronics which also take energy and produce emissions in their manufacturing process. Nuclear is not exempt from the same problem, and has the other major problems of catastrophic accidents and waste disposal. See:
http://www.penguinbooksindia.com/en/content/power-promise
by my former colleague from grad school, M.V. Ramana.

And all these don’t really address the problem of transportation (you did say fly less, but the cars will keep needing petroleum, and the planes would probably keep flying even if physicists boycotted them). Electric cars are probably a red herring, unless electricity can be generated without coal or petroleum in large enough quantities to feed the hungry planes and automobiles.

As far as the current levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, can you provide references which say that they are already too high or on the brink? The following website:
http://www.communitysolution.org/
claims we can still dump 10.5 billion tonnes of CO2 (1.5/person * 7 billion people) per year into the tragic commons known as the atmosphere. If that is the case, then there is still hope that a technological solution would help mitigate the effects of climate change. The website above also disagrees with you about what the average emissions per person is: he claims 4.3 tonnes vs your 1.5 tonnes. And you didn’t mention how much each US citizen “produces”: 19.1 tonnes, which is 6.5 times what the rest of the world produces, according to this website (why not mention that?).

• John Baez says:

Iuval wrote:

I haven’t watched the video, just read the slides. Which of your proposals for physicists to work on–fun technologies, teaching methods, or modeling is: ”Stopping them entirely” (them being CO2 emissions)?

Of course none of those things will, by themselves, entirely stop CO2 emissions. These proposals were things physicists at the Perimeter Institute might do to help, not things that will be sufficient to solve the problem!

The only proposal that might be sufficient is the last one I listed: “Think outside the box”. I think nuclear power also has a hugely important role to play.

Your mention of “stopping CO2 emissions entirely” is presumably based on this passage from my talk:

So, to a good approximation, to stop rising CO2 concentrations:

• Holding emissions constant is not good enough.

• Cutting them by 80% is not good enough.

• Stopping them entirely is good enough.

I believe this. I don’t believe stopping CO2 emissions entirely is the only option that would be good enough. I think we will do a mixture of:

• cutting carbon emissions,

• removing CO2 from the atmosphere,

• reducing the amount of sunlight absorbed by the Earth,

• adapting to a changing climate, and

• suffering.

I suspect we’ll do quite a bit of the last.

• John Baez says:

As far as the current levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, can you provide references which say that they are already too high or on the brink?

You should look at the Azimuth Wiki list of reports, and especially look at the 2007 IPCC report, the National Research Council report Climate Stabilization Targets: Emissions, Concentrations, and Impacts over Decades to Millennia, and the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change. They’re all free online

One shorter paper that’s very interesting is Reframing the climate change challenge in light of post-2000 emission trends, by K. Anderson and A. Bows.

It’s a widespread consensus among climate scientists that keeping global warming below 2 °C would be a very desirable thing. (The above reports discuss this in more depth.) The authors argue that that even assuming the IPCC’s estimate that keeping CO2 equivalent levels below 450 ppm will suffice to accomplish this goal, the necessary 4% per year reductions in CO2 emissions beginning by 2018 are “unlikely to be politically acceptable without a sea change in the economic orthodoxy”.

They say:

While this analysis suggests stabilizing at 450 ppm is theoretically possible, in the absence of an unprecedented change in the global economic model and the rapid deployment of successful CO2 scrubbing technologies, 450 ppm is no longer a viable stabilization concentration. The implications of this for climate change policy, particularly adaptation, are profound. The framing of climate change policy is typically informed by the 2°C threshold; however, even stabilizing at 450 ppmv CO2e offers only a 46 per cent chance of not exceeding 2°C (Meinshausen 2006). As a consequence, any further delay in global society beginning down a pathway towards 450 ppmv leaves 2°C as an inappropriate and dangerously misleading mitigation and adaptation target.

According to the analysis in this paper, stabilizing at 450 ppm requires, at least, global energy related emissions to peak by 2015, rapidly decline at 6–8% per year between 2020 and 2040, and for full decarbonization sometime soon after 2050.

The total CO2 emissions in this scenario, over the whole history of humanity, would be about 860 gigatonnes. So far emissions have been about 570 gigatonnes. That leaves us roughly 200 more gigatonnes. The problem is that fossil fuel reserves are already big enough to create about 2800 more gigatonnes!

Bill McKibben dramatized this very vividly. His numbers on how much carbon we can safely burn are more optimistic, but the overall point is the same:

Think of two degrees Celsius as the legal drinking limit – equivalent to the 0.08 blood-alcohol level below which you might get away with driving home. The 565 gigatons is how many drinks you could have and still stay below that limit – the six beers, say, you might consume in an evening. And the 2,795 gigatons? That’s the three 12-packs the fossil-fuel industry has on the table, already opened and ready to pour.

8. Iuval Clejan says:

I see part of the issue is you report C and he reports CO2,

• John Baez says:

Yes, the mass of CO2 is 3.666… times the mass of carbon it contains, so 4.3 tonnes of CO2 contains 1.13 tonnes of carbon. Any remaining discrepancy is likely to be explained by different years at which the data were collected, and/or different methodologies. You can click on my slides to see where I got my data.

And you didn’t mention how much each US citizen “produces”: 19.1 tonnes, which is 6.5 times what the rest of the world produces, according to this website (why not mention that?).

I gave this version of my talk in Canada, so I said how much carbon Canadians are putting into the air: 4.2 tonnes of carbon per citizen per year, or 16 tonnes of CO2. In the US, I say how much US citizens are putting into the air. But I don’t want Canadians thinking it’s all a US problem.

There’s more to say about your other questions, but right now it’s my bedtime!

9. Iuval Clejan says:

So even if it were theoretically possible to get to a self-sustaining energy production system that generates no emissions and keeps the industrial global paradigm, has anyone calculated the tonnes of C that would be dumped into the atmosphere in order to get there? Is there even enough economically viable petroleum and coal to do that?

• John Baez says:

Iuval wrote:

So even if it were theoretically possible to get to a self-sustaining energy production system that generates no emissions and keeps the industrial global paradigm, has anyone calculated the tonnes of C that would be dumped into the atmosphere in order to get there?

I don’t know of sufficiently detailed attempts to do calculations like this. It’s obviously incredibly important. All the interesting attempts I know have been put onto the Azimuth Wiki at Plans of action. Unfortunately, some of these attempts, like Jacobson and Delucchi’s A path to sustainable energy: how to get all energy from wind, water and solar power by 2030, are highly unrealistic and don’t address the issue you raise.

If anyone finds more information on this sort of question, let me know! Or just add it to the wiki!

Is there even enough economically viable petroleum and coal to do that?

My guess is that there is—at least if you also include natural gas and other fossil fuels. There’s quite a lot: about 5 times as much as has been burnt by humanity so far. The problem is that burning all these fossil fuels would probably ruin the planet.

10. […] I hadn’t had a chance to listen to Professor Baez’s talk until now, having learned about it from his blog which is really excellent. (I don’t know how he manages to write so much good stuff per week […]

11. domenico says:

I am thinking (i don’t know if it is a trivial idea) that an energy saving can be obtained with the request, from some great nations, to removal the stand-by in the new electronic devices (there is no cost, and a little savings in electronics and design).
If the remote control physically off the device, then there is not consumption.