With political turmoil and a raging pandemic, why talk about climate change? Aside extreme weather popping up all over the world, Professor James Renwick says climate change is THE big threat for all humanity. As an organizer of the upcoming Intergovernmental Report on climate science, with a distinguished career, Renwick must be heard. Then a world expert on solar technology, Dr. Pierre Verlinden agrees we are on the road to climate disaster. He explains the way forward to new clean energy – enough to power the planet. Welcome to Radio Ecoshock.
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This is a long blog this week, loaded with quotes and links to learn a whole lot more. Take your time to upgrade your climate knowledge skills and consider your response as climate activism.
TO JUMP TO THE SOLAR DISCUSSION WITH PIERRE VERLINDEN CLICK HERE.
JAMES RENWICK: CLIMATE IS THE BIGGEST THREAT HUMANITY HAS EVER FACED
As a record number of hurricanes hit the U.S. Gulf Coast, storm surge captures the headlines But day in an day out, around the globe high tides are working their way into low-lying streets and bringing salt into rich agricultural deltas. Strangely, those waters could come from the other side of the Earth, from Antarctica.
Dr. James Renwick is a pre-eminent climate scientist in New Zealand, known for his work on weather and climate change in the Southern Hemisphere. Renwick is a Professor of Physical Geography at Victoria University, and recipient of the Science Prize for Communication by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. James leads reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, including as convening author for the latest, expected in 2021.
Right now the Coronavirus is running uncontrolled in the United States and Europe. People are afraid for their health, their jobs, even their lives. With all that, why should we still be talking about climate change?
Quotes from James Renwick in this interview:
“The devastation that can come from the effects of climate change are set to dwarf the effects of the pandemic if we don’t get on top of emissions and stop the warming pretty quickly. It’s much more immediate to see people dying on a daily basis from the virus, but on the longer run many more people are at risk from the effects of sea level rise and extreme events, food scarcity … in the long run, climate change is a much bigger threat than COVID-19.“
New Zealand climate scientist Dr. James Renwick
“The problem is that we’ve actually increased emissions year on year, every year for a very long time, to the point now that we have to take emergency action now to reverse the problem. The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has gone up almost 50% since the pre-industrial period and we will be at one and a half degree of warming, at this rate, within a decade or so – and 2 degrees of warming a decade after that, 3 degrees of warming a couple of decades after that. And once those warming levels start to get up, we get into some really catastrophic consequences for humanity.”
The UN 1.5 degree report a couple of years ago warned we had 12 years to cut our emissions by half. That means half current emissions by 2030. Instead, we continue to increase emissions, even with Coronavirus lockdowns in some countries for short periods.
RECORD WARMING AT THE SOUTH POLE
In this Radio Ecoshock interview, we discuss Renwick’s co-authored paper released last summer “Record Warming at the South Pole During the Last Three Decades” (published in Nature). Most of us had the idea that Antarctica was isolated from global warming. There was not much warming outside the West Antarctic Peninsula. But records show the whole continent is warming over the last few decades.
The article is behind a pay wall, but you can read a science press article about it here from ScienceDaily. Here is a quote summarizing the surprising results:
“They found that between 1989 and 2018, the South Pole had warmed by about 1.8 degrees Celsius over the past 30 years at a rate of +0.6 degrees Celsius per decade — three times the global average.”
The scientists discovered multiple causes for Antarctic warming: the background warming of the planet from human emissions of greenhouse gases; but also the effects of natural variations in the atmosphere and the weather. For example there have been increasing incursions of warm air coming in from the South Atlantic. Those warm winds managed to reach even the South Pole.
Though “natural variations” have brought a lot of warming to the southern continent, Renwick says they would not have happened without human-induced warming throughout the planet. Because there is so much natural variability in the polar climate, it has been hard to pick up trends of global warming there.
The link between warming ocean waters and atmosphere in the tropics to a warming at the south Pole is a case of teleconnection – “a connection at a distance”. During an El Nino, very large scale waves flow not just to the southern hemisphere, but across North America and into the Atlantic. There is a huge heat transmission system in the atmosphere.
Just recently we talked with another climate scientist returning from NCAR to New Zealand: Dr. Kevin Trenberth. He and others suggest warming from our greenhouse gases now make forces like El Nino and La Nina less significant for the world’s climate – that we have overwhelmed even those large natural cycles.
We are now, in the winter of 2020/21 (in the N. Hemisphere), in a La Nina period, Renwick says (after publishing on ENSO research for 30 years). Renwick gives us a remarkably clear explanation of what El Nino and La Nina (together known as the ENSO cycle) actually do. In the past, El Nino events lead to a hotter world, as happened in 1997/98 for example. La Nina actually moves to cool the world, absorbing more heat from the atmosphere into the sea. This year, a La Nina year, should be cooler, but remarkably, 2020 may be one of the hottest years ever recorded., even warmer than the El Nino year of 2016.
This further backs up what other scientists – like our recent guest NCAR expert Kevin Trenberth, have told us on Radio Ecoshock: human warming of the planet is over-powering even the largest natural cooling system! As the artificial future unrolls, the ENSO cycle will become less and less important compared to our heating of the planet as the major trend and driver. We don’t know how that will effect the large planetary waves of heat transmission in the atmosphere, or how weather may be further destabilized and unpredictable, being different from anything seen in past human history.
LOOK AT THE BOTTOM OF THIS POST FOR MY LISTING OF PREVIOUS RADIO ECOSHOCK SHOWS ABOUT MELTING AT THE SOUTH POLE. (lots more free audio from top world scientists).
LOADING THE OCEAN WITH ENERGY
In our new interview, Professor Renwick told us:
“We know that over the last 60 years, something like 350 zettajoules of energy has gone into the oceans.” A zettajoule is an astronomical number with a lot of zeros – 10to 21st power – “but it translates into roughly hundreds of years of human energy use today going into the oceans just in the last 60 years or so… What that means is it will take centuries for the oceans to adjust to this – the heating that is happening at the ocean surface has to percolate down to the depths of the ocean floor. Ocean currents will be adjusting for many decades and centuries into the future, and ocean waters will be expanding for hundreds of years.” That means hundreds of years of sea level rise! Plus, we don’t know how continually changing ocean currents will change our daily weather as well.
NEW BOOK: THE EYE OF THE STORM
Renwick tells us about a new book “The Eye of the Storm – Reflections from the Second Pacific Climate Change Conference“. It comes from the previous Pacific Climate Conference, finding “the Pacific region really is on the front lines of climate change”. Sea level in the Pacific is rising faster than the global average. This literally changes the geography of the Pacific, where there are so many low-lying atolls and countries going under with rising seas. Tropical cyclones (called hurricanes in N. Hemisphere) are becoming more intense (like Goni, the 195 mph monster that just hit the Philippines, the sixth named cyclone hitting there). Rainfall variability in the South Pacific is increasing and “extreme temperatures are definitely on the rise.”
“It just becomes harder to live you life the way you used to.”
Pacific Islanders depend on the fisheries and tropical crops for food. The fish are moving away from their traditional grounds as ocean temperatures change (and there has been massive overfishing). The crops are suffering from extreme rainfall events or in some places, drought when rain is needed. There is no large continental river system capable of compensating for any shortfall in these small island countries. Then in Tuvalu, the favorite crops cannot be grown in many places because with sea level rise, salt water has infiltrated the ground water, ruining crops. Some people are building raised beds for food to evade the encroaching saltier water below.
“Some of the countries in the Pacific will really be among the first where they have to consider whether they can continue living in the islands that they have lived in for thousands of years.” “There’s a lot of work going into ‘portable sovereignty’ and whether you can take a country’s people and move them somewhere else. Can you turn part of Australia or New Zealand into a new Tuvalu or Kiribati?”
Renwick recently Tweeted about the launch of the Pacific Climate Change book “In the Eye of the Storm”.
— James Renwick (@CubaRaglanGuy) October 29, 2020
“EMERGENCY OF TEMPERATURE EXTREMES”
(title of a graphic for Renwick’s recent keynote address at the Pacific Conference).
This graphic came from this video, Anderson’s Odyssey #16 – James Renwick on YouTube.
In that podcast, Renwick says:
“If we do nothing with emissions, we just keep pumping it out as per the last two or three years, then there will be enough carbon dioxide in the air to get us to two degrees [C of] warming within a couple of decades, by the 2040’s.” He also said with 2 degrees C of warming, or a little more, up to 30% of natural land species could go extinct.
You might expect a map of the new temperature extremes to show North America or maybe Siberia – but no, the growing extremes are in Brazil, the Congo, Tanzania, Southeast Asia, Indonesia. This part of Renwick’s presentation was based on work done by his colleague Dave Frame, also from Victoria the University. In more temperate countries, like America, Europe or even New Zealand, there is already a lot of natural variation of temperatures (think winter to summer for example). But the Tropics do not get as much temperature change, so when they do – that is abnormal and a signal of human-induced climate change.
A change of 1 or even 2 degrees in annual temperature might not mean that much in the Eastern U.S., where you get those kind of changes even year to year. But just one degree of annual warming in the Tropics is a big deal, because that is not the range vegetation and animals expect.
“The expectation is that by the middle of century, in just 20 or 30 years, a lot of the tropical regions will just be in a totally different climate in terms of temperatures. Both the lows and the highs will be beyond anything that has been observed before.”
The Arctic is warming fastest, Renwick says, but the Arctic also has a lot of year to year variability.
REACHING TWO DEGREES C OF WARMING BY THE 2040’s
“This is the urgency, this is the idea of climate emergency.” If we can act decisively and quickly to slash emissions we can at least postpone date of arriving at 2 degrees of warming, and if we really move off fossil fuels, we may never reach two degrees of warming. Otherwise, as we are going, we hit a dangerous two degrees by 2040, Renwick says. And he is a Convening Author for the next IPCC report (due out in 2021).
THE GOOD NEWS
“We are the ones in control of this problem. We know exactly why it is happening and we know what we have to do.”
So global warming is not, yet, a natural monster churning toward a hothouse world. We literally have our foot on the gas, instead of the brakes. There is no great mystery and we have some starting solutions. “If the world really tried hard, as some countries have done in response the pandemic, then we could still stop it at 1.5 degrees.”
PANDEMIC DELAYS CLIMATE SCIENCE REPORTING
The Working Group One of the IPCC report was supposed to come out in April 2021, with the Mitigation Report (what to do) coming out later next year. “That’s all been delayed by a few months”. Working Group One (the science) is now set for release in July of next year. Due to pandemic delay, it will now be early 2022 before all three Working Group reports are out for a final synthesis (likely in summer 2022).
The scientists are having to adjust their work to Zoom meetings and emails instead of face-to-face groups assimilating mountains of fresh new science. The authors – spread all over the world – are in different time zones, so somebody gets the sunrise meeting or night-time session.
ART FOR CLIMATE
Story telling is how we understand the world and respond, Renwick says. Science is aimed at the head, whereas artistic expression is aimed at the heart and the gut. When James Renwick won the Prime Minister’s Award for Communication, he took the prize money into a private charitable Trust to help fund more expression of climate change by artists. This developed into a tour of artists and their work around New Zealand. That is the “Track Zero Trust”. It funds dance projects, music, theater and other arts to express climate – and hopefully a positive vision for the future. Find out more on Track Zero here.
A FINAL RENWICK QUOTE FROM THIS INTERVIEW
“You can become very gloomy about climate change and how bad it can be. Really what we need to be thinking about is ‘how good can the future be’ and what can we do to make that future as good as we would like it to be. If we can’t imagine a good future we are probably not going to get to it.”
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PIERRE VERLINDEN – VETERAN SOLAR EXPERT ON TERAWATTS OF POWER
Can solar energy power life as we know it – without fossil fuels? Pierre J. Verlinden has published research on advances in solar technology for decades. Well-recognized in his field, Pierre now heads the solar consulting company AMROCK.
There are books and bloggers pushing solar power. But our next guest is veteran with real world experience that is hard to match. After 40 years of publishing on solar tech, and heading up research and development for a big panel producer in China (Trina), Pierre Verlinden sees the climate cliff, and a way out.
Dr. Pierre Verlinden, solar expert
SOME DIRE NEWS
Verlinden tells us some experts think we will reach 4 degrees C by 2100. Only 1 billion people could find habitable paces to live, which means for our grandchildren, only 1 person out of 10 will survive, unless we take drastic action to prevent the most serious climate change. By the calculations on emissions required to keep us under 2 degrees, he says we only have 2 years of our current emissions left. Beyond that, if we continue as we are, we are committed to at least 2 degrees of warming, and likely much more.
In this interview, we focus on a Pierre’s co-authored paper “Terawatt-scale photovoltaics: Transform global energy” (2019) and his latest paper “Future challenges for photovoltaic manufacturing at the terawatt level” published October 27, 2020 in the Journal of Renewable and Sustainable Energy.
THE REAL HISTORY OF SOLAR POWER PRODUCTION
The development of the solar industry did not come from our expectations today. When Verlinden began as a European technology student in the 1970’s, solar was envisioned as an energy source for developing countries, to give them electricity. The whole field got a boost from research and development of solar power for space, particularly to power satellites. Only later in the late 1980’s did solar farms arise in developed countries as an alternative to fossil fuels, and moved into a product for consumers to mount on their homes.
He tracks the history of solar development from the U.S., where it began for space use, then to Japan, where the first residential products came out, and then to Germany when the government funded installation and guaranteed power prices for solar energy. Australia played a role when telecommunications needed solar power to span vast distances beyond the grid lines.
Consumers had to wait for research to bring down the cost of panels, which are now many times cheaper than in 1990. Verlinden says the world benefited by development of solar production in China, where the cost of production dropped 90% in the last 10 years!
Verlinden tells us: not only is building new solar generation cheaper than building any new fossil facility, like coal plants – in many parts of the world building new solar is cheaper than continuing to operate coal power plants. There is no further point to operating coal power. My own guess (Verlinden does not discuss this) – is that fracked gas, where regulations are loose and investment capital is cheap and plentiful, might still be cheaper to operate than building a similar size solar installation. But that is an unstable subsidy of give-away prices meant to stall off bankruptcy, especially in the U.S. market. Verlinden does tell us solar generation is cheaper than operating gas turbines or other gas power technology.
He tells us 70% of new energy capacity are renewables now (which includes wind, geothermal and hydroelectric). Fossil fuels and nuclear are reduced to 30% of new power plant builds. But we have to accelerate renewables Verlinden warns. Installations in the next few years will be decisive for the energy market, the solar industry, and preventing a climate catastrophe. I presume that is partly due to the long life expected of any new power plant. For example, a new oil thermal plant might have a life expectancy of 40 years or more. But the atmosphere cannot tolerate 40 years of those emissions, without making parts of Earth uninhabitable.
Even more, Verlinden sees that if we wait until the 2040’s to fully build out solar, there will be an intense demand peak for production. But companies who gear up for that late rush to solar would likely collapse after the peak, because solar panels last so long, typically 30 or 40 years according to our expert guest. Just from an industry standpoint, we would have a far better chance if we rush to solar starting now.
Verlinden tells us:
“We need to grow it today at 25% per year, and reach a level of about 3 terawatts per year – which is about 30 times what we have today. Well 20 to 30 times what we have today, and then stabilize at that level and that will be totally sustainable. If we grow too slowly today, then we have to reach production capacity to more than 10 terawatts per year and that’s not good for the industry.”
He is telling us how to get to the actual climate goal developing a sustainable solar industry. In my view, the need to switch off fossil fuels may be so acute we bypass the model of commercial production and build out solar production as America did with arms during World War Two. In a sense, we could say the Chinese government is in that process, although still stimulating nominal private industry with massive government investments or cheap loans to fulfill energy goals. After all, China needs massive amounts of electricity, and now solar and wind are the cheapest way to provide it.
“We have to completely transform the energy economy over the next ten years” Verlinden says, because of the threat of global warming. We have to do it in one generation – “an enormous challenge”. So the strange problem of solar is not as we thought. Verlinden does not see barriers to accomplishing massive solar replacement for fossil fuels (other than public apathy). The problem might be that we can produce multi-terawatts of power in a sudden rush, but then that productive capacity must drop almost as quickly, because all that is left is producing a few replacement panels over time.
“Over the last 40 years, the industry has doubled on average every three years”. That is an average of 25% growth per year, but in some years Verlinden says the solar industry has grown up to 100% (in a single year).
Our guest retired as head of research and development for the major Chinese solar firm Trina in 2018. Does it matter if most of the world’s solar panels come from China? Does that introduce geopolitical risks, especially if nations on less friendly terms with China experience supply difficulties, compared to Chinese client states? But Verlinden says the drive by Chinese firms to reduce the cost of solar production has great benefits for all of us.
HOW TO THINK ABOUT A TERAWATT
“One terawatt is roughly about the equivalent of 1,000 nuclear power plants.”
“It’s a thousand gigawatts. It’s a million megawatts, and it’s a billion kilowatts” Verlinden explains.
“Our vision is that we need to dramatically increase the electrification of the planet” he says. Not all environmentalists would agree. But consider those night satellite shows showing rich countries shining bright lights, while parts of Africa, India, and other large parts of humanity are still in the dark. Those billions of people also want access to the global marketplace, including information and entertainment. As India and China demonstrate, that demand will be filled by something and historically that something was coal. For the future of the planet, new power must be solar, wind, or hydro.
Plus, we need to expand renewable power beyond lights and appliances to: transportation, and creating base power for industry, from steel making (very heavy emissions currently) to chemical plants. Verlinden gives us ideas of how that can happen. We also need to replace heat in colder climates, from oil, gas or coal to heat pumps driven by renewable electricity. That requires a lot of solar and wind power.
Things like airplanes will need “green fossil fuels” like hydrogen or ammonia generated by renewable power. Bottom line: “electricity must become the primary source of energy.” Everything runs from that. Recall my early recording of “Transpo Revolution” book launch talk in Vancouver. The authors Gilbert and Perl said just that. You can listen to that 48 minute book launch presentation right here.
The amount of energy required to power the planet, Verlinden says, is roughly 6 kilowatts of power per person. By that calculation, a couple could put twelve thousand watts of solar panels on the home roof and be energy neutral. I could add that depends on latitude for solar – people at higher latitudes might need more per capita because solar power is reduce there.
But Verlinden is talking in much larger terms, meaning all kind of renewable power, not just solar, adding up to 6 kilowatts per person. Consider what that means for a city of a million people. That figure does include charging a car and all the extra energy we require for other industries, like steel or chemicals. Then think of 6 kilowatts per person, for 8 billion people on Earth, and we can see the huge amounts of new clean power this vision of the future requires eventually, if we hope for energy equality.
THE SILVER CHALLENGE
While I still worry about the rare minerals required for battery storage, Pierre Verlinden says the concern about massive production of solar panels is actually silver. Ninety five percent of solar panels installed in the world are currently made with some silver. The contacts to transmit power from the silicon cells are made from silver.
“Currently we use about 20 milligrams of silver per watt, which means that today we roughly use about 3,000 tons of silver per year just for photovoltaics. The actual production of silver in the world is about ten times that value. Which means that when we reach roughly about a terawatt per year of annual production – photovoltaics will use about 100% of the silver production in the world.”
We could increase silver production, but silver is still a rare material (which is why it has been used in coins and as a substitute for money). Plus, if there is a rush to solar, that will push up the price of silver, which would increase the cost of solar panels, at a time when we need even cheaper photovoltaics. There is always speculation in silver, and its price goes up and down. But currently, Verlinden says, silver represents 8 to 10% of the production cost of a solar panel.
To be sustainable, at the three terawatt level of production the world needs and the industry can maintain, the amount of silver needs to be reduced below 5 milligrams per watt, meaning 1/4 of current requirements. That is a production challenge still needing solutions.
Another major challenge to steadily increasing solar production to the terawatt level is recycling the panel materials (30 or more years later). Currently it costs too much, for too little metals regained, to fully recycling solar panels. I do not know what will happen, or currently happens, to those panels from earlier solar power farms. Are they going into landfills?
MASS DISTRIBUTION OF SOLAR POWER
Verlinden outlines why we need big interconnection to share energy not just during day or night, but between seasons. For one thing, that means North to South power connections, so solar in Southern Europe, for example, can flow north in summer, but wind power can flow from north to south in the winter. We also need East-West transmission lines to provide an even supply for countries like the United States or Australia, also taking into account different uses across multiple time zones.
Similarly, some countries may become solar exporters using highly efficient transmission lines. Australia could power Singapore (which does not have geographic room to mount mass solar farms.
There have already been detailed proposals to mount big solar installations in North Africa to send power to Europe. But I think we can see that power would soon be needed to turn on electricity badly needed by Africa itself. The North African solar idea also supposes political stability, which does not currently exist in Libya for example.
But then we need energy storage, especially for transportation, including cars. If all transportation was electric, Pierre says, that alone “would represent a storage of about 100 terawatt hours by itself.”
But storage is not just batteries. We can store energy by using any excess to pump water uphill, say into a dam, and then recapture that energy as needed by generating power as water is released from the dam. Studies show huge opportunities to store power as “pumped hydro” all over the world. But pumped hydro only works for massive power production. Smaller installation, possibly including home use, and certainly cars, need batteries. There are still other ways to store energy, including producing hydrogen or ammonia.
GOVERNMENT BAILOUTS FOR FOSSIL INVESTORS?
Verlinden asks: what will we do as utilities realize it is cheaper to produce power with renewables than continue with current fossil fuel plants? Will governments pay off some shareholders whole to speed the transition? What happens to those “stranded assets”, like the rosy “reserves” all major multinationals and oil producing companies claim to have in the ground, and use to bolster share prices? Will a fear of losing money stop the speed of change to renewables needed to save a livable climate? Instead of giving incentives to install renewables, will governments give incentives to close polluting power plants? That is a growing political issue.
Although our telephone line from Canada to Australia was not the greatest, I think you will find this is an interview worth listening more than once. Pierre Verlinden has a rare lifetime of experience in real-world solar production as well as the science.
PREVIOUS RADIO ECOSHOCK COVERAGE OF THE MELTING SOUTH POLE:
Melting Antarctica Will Shake the World
Posted on April 16, 2015, by Radio Ecoshock
SUMMARY: New science on melting Antarctica. From Tasmania, polar expert Dr. Roland C. Warner.
The Third Rail: Radical Climate Change During It All
Posted on June 10, 2020,
New science shows the big ice sheets of Antarctica melted six times faster than now, just a few thousand years ago. Could sea level be pushed higher in just a few years? Back from his expedition, our guest is Professor Julian Dowdeswell, Director of the Scott Polar Research Institute at Cambridge.
Listen to or download this 28 minute interview with Julian Dowdeswell
ANTARCTICA MELTING 6 TIMES FASTER! – ERIC RIGNOT
Here is the latest shocking headline in this age of climate change: “Antarctica losing six times more ice mass annually now, than 40 years ago”. To explain the breaking science we are joined by Dr. Eric Rignot, Chair of Earth System Science at University of California, Irvine, and Senior Research Scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.
Dr. Eric Rignot
Listen to or download this 14 minute interview with Eric Rignot
In 2014, Eric and his team shocked the world when they reported melting in a section of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is “unstoppable”. In this paper, and in this interview, we discover it is not just the Western part going. East Antarctica, which holds enough ice to completely rewrite world coastlines, is also losing ice.
Big Trouble at the Poles
Posted on January 31, 2019
Veteran Antarctic scientist Richard Levy tells about the double threat driving Antarctic ice into the sea – to flood coastlines around the world.
Dr. Richard Levy here to help. Dr. Levy is a Paleoclimate Scientist and Programme Leader at New Zealand’s GNS Science, a government Crown Corporation. Levy is a veteran of scientific expeditions to Antarctica, with many papers about the coldest continent on Earth. He is the co-author of the paper “Antarctic ice-sheet sensitivity to obliquity forcing enhanced through ocean connections” as published in Nature Geoscience 2019.
Listen to or download this 29 minute interview with Dr. Richard Levy
I think you should start with a great summary published at phys.org: “Antarctic ice sheet could suffer a one-two climate punch” published January 14, 2019 by Terry Devitt, University of Wisconsin-Madison.
There should be some sort of award if you made it all the way to the bottom of this epic blog post. What can I tell you! It was a busy week on Radio Ecoshock. Thank you for being a listener and a blog reader. You are the reason I keep on trying.