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9781847559715-00001

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Comparative Impacts of Fossil Fuels andAlternative Energy Sources
KLAUS S. LACKNER
1 Introduction
Growing concerns over the consequences of climate change may severely limitfuture access to fossil fuels. A forced choice between energy and environmentcould precipitate a major economic crisis, an environmental crisis, or both.Averting such a crisis will be difficult, because fossil energy resources are anessential part of the world’s energy supply and climate change is mainly drivenby the build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide (CO
2
) isthe unavoidable product of fossil fuel consumption. Therefore, the use of fossilfuels collides directly with global environmental concerns. Unfortunately, fossilfuels are difficult to replace, but stabilising the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide requires a nearly complete transition to a carbon-neutraleconomy. This implies either the abandonment of fossil fuels or the introduc-tion of carbon capture and storage, whereby for every ton of carbon extractedfrom the ground another ton of carbon is put back.This chapter discusses the scope of the required reduction in carbon dioxideemissions and the options available for achieving such reductions. It puts thecontinued use of fossil fuels, with carbon capture and storage, in context withother approaches toward achieving a carbon-neutral energy infrastructure orotherwise avoiding serious climate change impacts.The vast scale of energy infrastructures emerges as the central theme. Thereare very few energy resources that are large enough to cope with modern globalenergy demand. Any technology that will be able to satisfy these demands willunavoidably interfere with natural dynamic systems. Just like some of the large
1
Issues in Environmental Science and Technology, 29Carbon Capture: Sequestration and StorageEdited by R.E. Hester and R.M. Harrison
r
Royal Society of Chemistry 2010Published by the Royal Society of Chemistry, www.rsc.org
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natural cycles, human energy systems are operating on a global scale. It is thevast scale of human energy demand that shapes the available options.
2 Climate Change
The idea that greenhouse gases in the atmosphere control climate is not new.While travelling with Napoleon through Egypt, Fourier was the first torecognise that the composition of a planetary atmosphere regulates a planet’ssurface temperature.
1–3
Some sixty years later, Tyndall measured the absorp-tion spectrum of CO
2
in the infrared region. His laboratory measurementsshowed that carbon dioxide is a powerful greenhouse gas, which is largelyresponsible for the habitable temperature range on Earth.
4
In 1898, Arrheniuswas the first to quantify the greenhouse effect and estimate the impact of anthropogenic emissions of CO
2
.
5
While extensive research and numericalstudies have added much detail to our understanding, his initial ideas remainunchanged.
6
Computer models and observations corroborate the basic insightsdeveloped in the nineteenth century.Fossil fuels provide 81% of the world’s commercial energy supply.
7
Consump-tion of fossil fuels produces nearly 30 Pg (petagram)
i
of carbon dioxide annually.Until now, nearly all of this carbon dioxide has been released to the atmosphere.In the past, the atmospheric sink was considered large enough to accommodateany additional carbon dioxide, but the carbon dioxide content of the atmospherehas now risen by more than a third since the beginning of the industrial revolu-tion, from 280 parts per million by volume (ppm) to 385 ppm today.Fossil fuel combustion is the single most important contributor to thischange. The total carbon dioxide produced in the combustion of fossil fuelsince the beginning of the industrial revolution actually exceeds the observedincrease in the atmosphere.
8
At present, the carbon dioxide content of theatmosphere is rising by 2 ppm per year,
ii
suggesting that more than a third of the fossil carbon dioxide produced does not stay in the atmosphere.
9
The rapid increase in the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide hasraised the spectre of severe climate change, and much effort has gone intounderstanding the likely scale and the implications of global warming. Today itis generally accepted that doubling of the carbon dioxide in the atmospherewould create serious harm and an often-cited goal for stabilising carbondioxide in the atmosphere is 450ppm, which at current rates of increase wouldbe breached in about 30 years.Carbon dioxide is an important greenhouse gas and the most obvious impactof CO
2
release is global warming. However, CO
2
is also physiologically activein plants and animals, it is of great importance to ecological systems and it is anacid that critically affects the chemistry of ocean water.
i
We chose the petagram (Pg) rather than the Gigaton as a unit of mass, because it is the appropriateSI unit and eliminates all ambiguities over metric
vs.
non-metric tons. One metric Gigaton is equalto 1 Pg.
ii
1 ppm of CO
2
in the atmosphere amounts to 2 Pg of carbon or 3.7 Pg of CO
2
.
2
Klaus S. Lackner
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While the focus of the climate scientist is on the impact of CO
2
on globalwarming, an important focus for the engineer developing a sustainable energyinfrastructure is to eliminate the environmental impacts that arise from therelease of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. Even more broadly, the energyengineer has to consider the environmental consequences of generating power.In this context, it is the unintentional mobilisation of large quantities of carbonthat needs to be eliminated. With a fossil energy infrastructure, the productionof large quantities of oxidised carbon is unavoidable; their release into theatmosphere can and must be avoided.The climate scientist will lump CO
2
together with other greenhouse gases; theengineer of a sustainable energy infrastructure must find ways of stopping CO
2
emissions. This will eliminate the climate change impact of carbon dioxide, aswell as other impacts of excess carbon. The control or elimination of othergreenhouse gases may also be necessary for stabilising climate. However, thecontrol of these other greenhouse gases raises rather different issues and mayoccur outside of the energy sector. Thus, their management should be con-sidered separately.Unlike other emissions, carbon dioxide is not a problem at the point of emission. Carbon dioxide rarely reaches concentrations that constitute a localhazard. The ambient background level of CO
2
is so high that mixing of CO
2
-rich plumes with the atmosphere reduces excess concentrations to a smallfraction of the background already in the vicinity of the source.
iii
Carbondioxide differs from other power-plant emissions like sulfur dioxide (SO
2
),because it is not the local impact of CO
2
emissions, but the impacts arising fromthe accumulation of CO
2
in the environment that need to be controlled. In thepast, when the local impact of other sour gases was recognised as a serioushazard, dilution of CO
2
still provided an adequate solution. Today, the CO
2
emissions from power plants have become so large that their impact on theentire mobile carbon pool can no longer be ignored.Conceptually it is useful to consider the various carbon pools on earth andseparate them into stable pools that are isolated from other pools, and mobilepools that interact rapidly. Carbon is either tied up in permanent and stablecarbon pools, like carbonate rocks or coal seams deep underground, or it is partof the mobile carbon pools on the surface of the Earth. The stable pools are muchlarger than the mobile pools. The mobile carbon pools consist of the atmosphere,the biosphere carbon and the ocean. These three reservoirs are in rapid exchangewith each other, but are essentially decoupled from the other carbon pools.Before the industrial revolution, the atmosphere contributed less than 600 Pg(
i.e.
600 x 10
15
g) to this pool, today it is 800Pg. The biomass contribution is
iii
As an example, consider traffic on a freeway releasing CO
2
in the wind blowing across the road.Let us assume a high traffic density of 10 cars per second passing a stationary observer, anemission rate of 2
Â
10
À
4
kgm
À
1
of CO
2
per car (roughly 0.087lkm
À
1
of gasoline or 27 miles tothe gallon), a slow breeze at a wind speed of 2ms
À
1
and mixing depth of about 50m which, giventhe turbulence created by the freeway, should be achieved within a few hundred meters of thefreeway. This leads to a total emission rate of 2
Â
10
À
3
kgm
À
1
s
À
1
, which is diluted into 100 m
3
(acolumn 50 m tall and 1 m
Â
2 m wide) of air, raising the CO
2
content by 2
Â
10
À
5
kgm
À
3
ascompared to a background concentration of 7
Â
10
À
4
kgm
À
3
.
3
Comparative Impacts of Fossil Fuels and Alternative Energy Sources
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