I’m frequently asked similar questions in my classes, at seminars, on the Smart Energy website and facebook page, or at the coffee shop. Below are some of my answers. If you don’t see the answer to a question you have, leave a comment at the end of the post.
Do you believe in global warming?
A better question would be: do you believe that human activities have the potential to affect global climate? The answer to that is yes. Let’s discuss.
Three important observations have been made. First, the scale at which we are emitting green house gases is large enough to affect atmospheric concentrations. For example, there is a very strong correlation between atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations and the level of human carbon dioxide emissions. So, no question there. Second, there is clear and mounting evidence that the averaged global temperature is rising. Third, comparing carbon dioxide concentrations over many thousands of years to global averaged temperatures, it appears that temperatures increase at the same time as carbon dioxide concentrations increase.
Looking at these observations, it is not a far stretch to conclude that carbon dioxide emissions are affecting global warming, and that the globe will continue to warm if carbon dioxide emissions continue to grow. Most leading global climate models predict a temperature increase for increasing carbon dioxide emissions. Now, it is true that these models are not guaranteed to be 100% accurate. Global climate prediction involves many physical processes that have complex interactions, and not all of these are fully understood. But, what they do show is that there is a strong likelihood that increased GHG emissions affect global climate. That together with the observations made, convinces me that our behavior impacts global climate. And the consequences of this impact can be severe. If there is a risk, with potentially severe consequences, we should insure ourselves against it. No question.
By how much will global temperature increase over the next 30 years or so?
We can not say. Maybe a lot, maybe not that much. The physics is too complex to make accurate predictions. But, that does not mean we can just forget about it all together. As I argue above, the risk that global temperatures will rise is high. We can not afford that risk.
Is there anything we can do? Are we not too far down this path to change anything?
The worst we can do is nothing. And yes, I do believe that we can make a difference. There is no immediate silver bullet, but there are various ways to reduce emissions and change behavior: first and foremost efficiency, then renewables such as wind and solar with electric transport, carbon capture and storage, cleaner fossil-fuel production, cleaner coal burning. We need a portfolio of actions. But most of all we need to stop arguing about who is right and who is wrong and accept that there is a risk, and that we should to our utmost to mitigate it.
Are we running out of oil anytime soon?
Nope, we are not. The easy-to-produce oil reserves are declining, but there is plenty of oil to be found that is non-conventional, including heavy oil, shale oil, tar sands. Estimated resources are a couple of trillion barrels total: enough to last us for quite a few decades. This is also a frightening thought: there is oil, it will likely be produced unless we wean ourselves off oil by moving to alternative transport, but both production and consumption of this oil is damaging to the environment.
Can the US become energy independent any time soon?
No, we cannot. I know this is claimed by many a politician, but it is impossible. We currently import over 10 million barrels of oil per day, more than half of our consumption, and mostly used for transport. I’m not a fan of biomass production for ethanol, but even if we did go that way, there is not a chance we can replace our imports with nationally produced ethanol, not in the next few years and not in the next few decades. The only way to make an immediate impact on imports, and reduce our oil dependency is to consume less. High mpg cars, fewer car trips.
Is it true that we are importing most of our oil from the Middle East?
No. Here are approximate import numbers: almost 20% from Canada (!), around 12% each from Mexico, Saudi-Arabia and Nigeria, 10% from Venezuela and the rest from a list of other countries, all supplying 6% or less. Total imports from OPEC countries are around 40%. Surprised that Canada is our biggest exporter?
Why are you such a strong proponent of solar energy?
Because solar energy is the most abundant resource, far exceeding any other renewable energy resource we know of. If we develop technologies to capture this energy effectively, we are in good shape.
Is wind cost-competitive?
Yes, now it is, on good sites onshore. Off-shore wind is still more expensive in terms of costs per kilowatthour of energy produced as compared to coal-fired, gas-fired or nuclear power plants. But that is also only if external costs (health effects, pollution) are not taken into account. It’s frequently claimed that without tax incentives, wind would not be economical. This is a bit unfair, as every energy resource is subsidized, one way or another.