As unlikely as the title of this post seems, there may actually be come good news regarding the use of coal and climate change. The first part of this news is something that is mostly obvious, and at first brush doesn’t seem like good news at all.
New climate change scenarios quantify the idea that oil is only a small component of the total global warming problem — the real problem is coal.
If the world replaced all of its oil usage with carbon-neutral energy sources, ecologist Kenneth Caldeira of Stanford University calculated that it would only buy us about 10 years before coal emissions warmed the planet to what many scientists consider dangerous levels.
“There’s an order of magnitude more coal than oil. So, whether there is a little more oil or a little less oil will change the details in, say, when we reach two degrees warming, but it doesn’t change the overall picture,” Caldeira said Wednesday at the American Geophysical Union annual meeting.
This isn’t really that surprising. While much of the public focus on climate change policy focuses on oil usage coal is really far more damaging to the climate and environment. So how is this good news? Simple, take a look at this:
Governments and organizations around the world may be significantly overestimating just how much coal is available, the new study says. Such fallacious reporting is nothing new—the United States government happily overestimated oil reserves in the 1950s and 1960s until peak oil hit the lower 48. David Rutledge, professor of engineering and applied sciences at the California Institute of Technology, claims the same mistakes are being repeated with coal. His results, reported in a panel discussion at this year’s American Geophysical Union meeting, state the world only has 662 billion tons of coal, including reserves already exploited. The estimate is well short of the 1,027 billion tons remaining in proven and projected reserves, according to the World Energy Council.
This new lower number, Rutledge says, also means fewer fossil fuels to burn and less carbon dioxide to pump into the atmosphere. The net result? He predicts atmospheric carbon dioxide will peak at 460 parts per million before 2100, nearly 100ppm lower than the best-case scenario put forth by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
See what I mean? Coals days are numbered… even if we do nothing. Problem solved!
… err not quite:
Limited coal resources are certainly good news in the battle against global warming. But Rutledge warns the revised estimate is still far enough above pre-industrial levels to cause a planet-wide warming of 2-3° C. Many climate experts now believe the best way to avoid the worst effects of climate change would be to trim atmospheric carbon dioxide to 350ppm, an eight percent drop below 2007 levels.
That’s right even the seeming low level of 460 ppm is still high enough to hit some tipping points that will ultimately drive the climate to much warmer temperatures. Oh well it was almost good news.