2006 was a year of both new climate science and climate anecdotes. The news that the Greenland ice sheet was melting much more quickly than expected startled many, as did Europe’s exceptionally warm fall and nearly snowless early winter.
The big year for Atlantic hurricanes that had been predicted did not, thankfully, come about, but, in fact, the total number of tropical storms, counting Pacific typhoons, was 42, just below 2005’s 47. It included four Category four and five typhoons with devastating effects in the Pacific.
There has never been more certainty that climate change is happening, and that it’s happening now. I urge you to look for the most significant reaffirmation of this consensus early this year, when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change releases its fourth assessment report.
People aren’t merely interested in what’s happening, but why. Cognizant of that, WRI publishes an annual summary of the year’s climate science findings, to help better explain the science behind the natural world’s single most significant natural phenomenon. This year’s edition, Climate Science 2006, will be featured on www.wri.org.
While there is consensus about the fact of human caused warming, scientists have been cautious about saying at what point the buildup of GHGs and the resulting warming become unacceptably dangerous. Now, that’s beginning to change. There is an emerging consensus – partly scientific, partly political – that two degrees centigrade warming is probably the threshold for extremely dangerous and troublingly unpredictable consequences.
You can see in the chart above that at one degree centigrade the consequences for different biological systems are all in the no significant effect (yellow) or small impact (orange) zone, and by two degrees centigrade almost all of the biological systems are in the severe impact (red) zone. That, along with a number of other factors, is driving an evolving consensus that a range of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, between 450 parts per million and 500 parts per million, is probably the limit of what we can accept. This is, by the way, the range that those GHG reduction bills we looked at earlier with the steepest reductions aim at.
We’re likely to see important technological announcements in the coming year.
- The most important is the superior alternative to corn based ethanol, cellulosic ethanol, which breaks down the basic cellulosic structure of any kind of plant matter to produce fuel. That can either be an enzyme-based process or a heat-based process. In the coming year, we’re very likely to see announcements of progress in that area.
- The second is with regard to nanotechnology and the storage of electrical energy. It is quite possible there will be announcements about new batteries with many times the capacity of the best existing chemical storage batteries. It looks like there may be breakthroughs on the cost of thin film solar cells that will make it possible to sell solar photovoltaic energy at prices below the prices of conventional fossil fuel energy.
- Finally, the Department of Energy is likely to announce the selection of three sites for experimental carbon capture and storage facilities. These are facilities that will capture the CO2 from coal combustion and inject it underground for permanent storage. This technology is the “polio vaccine” for coal. If proven, it could enable countries like the United States and China, who between them have 1,200 coal fired power plants planned to build, to use their coal without increasing global emissions.
Venture capitalists are watching all this with great attention. This is another place to heed the admonition to follow the money. Enormous amounts of money have begun flowing into green energy technologies in recent years. It’s an area that John Doerr, one of the founders of Kleiner Perkins, called “the mother of all investment opportunities – bigger than the information revolution.” Funds are being pumped into the technologies that I just discussed and many others.
On the other hand, if you were to follow the money in the U.S. federal budget, you would see no sign of increasing commitment to low carbon technologies. Research investments have been low and have stayed low. A change in this would be a good indicator of whether the U.S. is getting serious about addressing climate change.