Professor Ray Pierrehumbert’s “Open Letter to Steve Levitt” has to be my favorite post on RealClimate. Not only does it do “Consider a spherical cow” kinds of quick calculation, in a Socratic manner it exposes the manipulation which climate deniers or, if you will, opposers to any kind of action on climate change, will descend to make their cases appear to be correct before the general public.
I applaud it, and raise a full glass! Brilliance.
With just a little more calculation, it’s possible to do a more precise and informative comparison. For coal-fired generation,each kilowatt-hour produced results in emissions of about a quarter kilogram of carbon into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide. For our 16.83 trillion kilowatt-hours of electricity produced each year, we then would emit 4.2 trillion kilograms of carbon, i.e. 4.2 gigatonnes each year. Unlike energy, carbon dioxide accumulates in the atmosphere, and builds up year after year. It is only slowly removed by absorption into the ocean, over hundreds to thousands of years. After a hundred years, 420 gigatonnes will have been emitted, and if half that remains in the atmosphere (remember, rough estimates suffice to make the point here) the atmospheric stock of CO2 carbon will increase by 210 gigatonnes, or 30% of the pre-industrial atmospheric stock of about 700 gigatonnes of carbon. To get the heat trapped by CO2 from that amount of increase, we need to reach all the way back into middle-school math and use the awesome tool of logarithms; the number is(4 Watts per square meter) X log2(1.3)
or 1.5 Watts per square meter. In other words, by the time a hundred years have passed, the heat trapped each year from the CO2 emitted by using coal instead of solar energy to produce electricity is 125 times the effect of the fossil fuel waste heat. And remember that the incremental waste heat from switching to solar cells is even smaller than the fossil fuel waste heat. What’s more, because each passing year sees more CO2 accumulate in the atmosphere, the heat trapping by CO2 continues to go up, while the effect of the waste heat from the fossil fuels or solar cells needed to produce a given amount of electricity stays fixed. Another way of putting it is that the climate effect from the waste heat produced by any kind of power plant is a one-off thing that you incur when you build the plant, whereas the warming effect of the CO2 produced by fossil fuel plants continues to accumulate year after year. The warming effect of the CO2 is a legacy that will continue for many centuries after the coal has run out and the ruins of the power plant are moldering away.