TCS Daily

Hard Science

By Paul J. Georgia - November 29, 2002 12:00 AM

In 1897, at the behest of a crank mathematician, the Indiana House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill proclaiming that the value of pi was 9.2376 rather than the true value of 3.14159. In the face-off between man's laws and nature's laws, nature won. Pi's true value, the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter, remained unchanged.

Surely, more than 100 years later we are much too sophisticated to believe that man's laws can override physical laws. Then again, maybe not!

In 1996, the Clinton administration signed the Kyoto Protocol to prevent global warming. Although the catastrophic global warming hypothesis is far from being an established fact, it isn't out of the realm of possibility so one may forgive hand-wringing over the fear, however unfounded, of being burned to a crisp.

The point at which advocates of global warming policies cross the line from the realm of the possible to pure science fiction is when they claim that implementing such policies would be nearly painless or even beneficial. They also claim that the technologies necessary to comply with Kyoto are already available and awaiting deployment.

In a major challenge to the preventing-global-warming-is-cheap crowd, a team of scientists has published a major review of energy technologies in the November issue of Science magazine. Notable among the authors is Tom Wigley of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, a long-time promoter of climate alarmism.

The review, which takes catastrophic global warming claims at face value, argues that our fossil fuel-dominated energy system "cannot be regulated away." Indeed, the only real solution is "the development within the coming decades of primary energy sources that do not emit carbon dioxide to the atmosphere."

The challenge is presented in stark terms. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change calls for a stabilization of greenhouse gases at levels that avoid "dangerous anthropogenic (man-made) interference with the climate system." The authors argue that stabilization at levels as low as 450 parts per million (ppm) may be necessary to do this. "Targets of cutting to 450 ppm...could require a Herculean effort," says the report. "Even holding at 550 ppm is a major challenge."

Currently, the world's power consumption is about 12 trillion watts, 85 percent of which is supplied with fossil fuels. By 2050, total energy consumption will be as much as three times the amount currently produced by fossil fuels. "Energy sources that can produce 100 to 300 percent of present world power consumption without greenhouse emissions do not exist operationally or as pilot plants," according to the review.

The authors assessed various possible methods to reduce greenhouse gas concentrations, such as efficiency improvements, decarbonization and sequestration, renewables, nuclear power and geoengineering. The only promising option identified by the authors is nuclear fusion, but there are still "enormous hurdles" to overcome before it can become a long-term energy source.

Decarbonization, one solution promoted by environmental activists and alternative energy gurus like Amory Lovins, would move the economy from high carbon fuels such as coal to low carbon fuels such as natural gas, and eventually to a carbon neutral fuel such as hydrogen. But hydrogen does not exist in geological reservoirs and must be extracted from fossil fuel feedstocks or water. "Per unit of heat generated, more CO2 is produced by making H2 [hydrogen] from fossil fuel than by burning the fossil fuel directly," says the review. Getting the hydrogen from water is even more energy intensive.

Renewable energy, such as solar or wind power, is not a viable solution either. "Renewables are intermittent dispersed sources unsuited to baseload without transmission, storage, and power conditioning." And because they are low density energy sources they also require enormous amounts of land.

The bottom line, say the authors, is that the ability to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions without seriously damaging the economy is not possible at this time. "CO2 is a combustion product vital to how civilization is powered." All of the approaches discussed in the paper to replace fossil fuels "have serious deficiencies that limit their ability to stabilize global climate." What we are left with is the hope that we can "develop revolutionary changes in the technology of energy production, distribution, storage, and conversion." Hope may warm the heart, but it isn't going to warm your home.

Paul Georgia is an environmental policy analyst with the Competitive Enterprise Institute. CEI recently published a book on environmental issues, Global Warming and Other Eco-Myths.

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