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A global low-carbon energy economy is not only feasible, it could double electricity supply by 2050 while actually reducing air and water pollution, according to new research.
Photo credit: Shutterstock
Even though photovoltaic power requires up to 40 times more copper than conventional power plants, and wind power uses up to 14 times more iron, the world wins on a switch to low-carbon energy.
These positive findings are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Edgar Hertwich and Thomas Gibon, of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology Department of Energy and Process Engineering.
They and international research colleagues report that they have made—as far as they know—the first global life-cycle assessment of the economic and environmental costs of renewable and other clean sources of energy in a world that responds to the threat of climate change.
Other studies have looked at the costs in terms of health, pollutant emissions, land use change or the consumption of metals. The Norwegian team set out to consider the lot.
There were some things they had to leave out: for instance, bioenergy, the conversion of corn, sugar cane or other crops to ethanol for fuel, because that would also require a comprehensive assessment of the food system; and nuclear energy, because they could not reconcile what they called “conflicting results of competing assessment approaches.”
But they tried to consider the whole-life costs of solar power, wind power, hydropower and gas and coal generators that used carbon capture and storage to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
They took into account the demand for aluminium, copper, nickel and steel, metallurgical grade silicon, flat glass, zinc and clinker. They thought about the comparative costs of “clean” and “dirty” power generation, and they considered the impact of greenhouse gases, particulate matter, toxicity in ecosystems, and the eutrophication—the overwhelming blooms of plankton—of the rivers and lakes.
They also assessed the impact of such future power plants on the use of land, and they made allowances for the economic benefits of increasing amounts of renewable power in the extraction and refinement of minerals needed to make yet more renewable power.
Then they contemplated two scenarios: one in which global electricity production rose by 134 percent by 2050, with fossil fuels accounting for two-thirds of the total; and one in which electricity demand in 2050 rises by 13 percent less because energy use becomes more efficient.
They found that to generate new sources of power, demand for iron and steel might increase by only 10 percent. Photovoltaic systems would require between 11 and 40 times the amount of copper that is needed for conventional generators, but even so, the demand by 2050 would add up to just two years’ worth of current copper production.
Their conclusion? Energy production-related climate change mitigation targets are achievable, given a slight increase in the demand for iron and cement, and will reduce the current emission rates of air pollutants.
“Only two years of current global copper and one year of iron will suffice to build a low-carbon energy system capable of supplying the world’s electricity needs by 2050,” the authors say.
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Colorado River Has Lost 1.5 Billion Tons of Water to the Climate Crisis, 'Severe Water Shortages' May Follow
California is headed toward drought conditions as February, typically the state's wettest month, passes without a drop of rain. The lack of rainfall could lead to early fire conditions. With no rain predicted for the next week, it looks as if this month will be only the second time in 170 years that San Francisco has not had a drop of rain in February, according to The Weather Channel.
The last time San Francisco did not record a drop of rain in February was in 1864 as the Civil War raged.
"This hasn't happened in 150 years or more," said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA's Institute of the Environment and Sustainability to The Guardian. "There have even been a couple [of] wildfires – which is definitely not something you typically hear about in the middle of winter."
While the Pacific Northwest has flooded from heavy rains, the southern part of the West Coast has seen one storm after another pass by. Last week, the U.S. Drought Monitor said more Californians are in drought conditions than at any time during 2019, as The Weather Channel reported.
The dry winter has included areas that have seen devastating fires recently, including Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties. If the dry conditions continue, those areas will once again have dangerously high fire conditions, according to The Mercury News.
"Given what we've seen so far this year and the forecast for the next few weeks, I do think it's pretty likely we'll end up in some degree of drought by this summer," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported.
Another alarming sign of an impending drought is the decreased snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. The National Weather Service posted to Twitter a side-by-side comparison of snowpack from February 2019 and from this year, illustrating the puny snowpack this year. The snow accumulated in the Sierra Nevadas provides water to roughly 30 percent of the state, according to NBC Los Angeles.
Right now, the snowpack is at 53 percent of its normal volume after two warm and dry months to start the year. It is a remarkable decline, considering that the snowpack started 2020 at 90 percent of its historical average, as The Guardian reported.
"Those numbers are going to continue to go down," said Swain. "I would guess that the 1 March number is going to be less than 50 percent."
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center forecast that the drier-than-average conditions may last through April.
NOAA said Northern California will continue deeper into drought through the end of April, citing that the "persistent high pressure over the North Pacific Ocean is expected to continue, diverting storm systems to the north and south and away from California and parts of the Southwest," as The Weather Channel reported.
As the climate crisis escalates and the world continues to heat up, California should expect to see water drawn out of its ecosystem, making the state warmer and drier. Increased heat will lead to further loss of snow, both as less falls and as more of it melts quickly, according to The Guardian.
"We aren't going to necessarily see less rain, it's just that that rain goes less far. That's a future where the flood risk extends, with bigger wetter storms in a warming world," said Swain, as The Guardian reported.
The Guardian noted that while California's reservoirs are currently near capacity, the more immediate impact of the warm, dry winter will be how it raises the fire danger as trees and grasslands dry out.
"The plants and the forests don't benefit from the water storage reservoirs," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported. "If conditions remain very dry heading into summer, the landscape and vegetation is definitely going to feel it this year. From a wildfire perspective, the dry years do tend to be the bad fire years, especially in Northern California."
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A warm day in winter used to be a rare and uplifting relief.
Now such days are routine reminders of climate change – all the more foreboding when they coincide with news stories about unprecedented wildfires, record-breaking "rain bombs," or the accelerated melting of polar ice sheets.
Where, then, can one turn for hope in these dark months of the year?