Study: Eliminating Coal-Fired Power is Worth 0.2 Degrees in 100 Years

Who could have dreamed solving climate change would be so easy? A new paper in Environmental Research Letters called “Greenhouse gases, climate change and the transition from coal to low-carbon electricity” concludes that replacement of all of the world’s currently operating coal-fired power plants — which produce about 40% of the world’s electricity — and replacing them with renewable energy would have an impact of 0.2 degrees Celsius 100 years from now.

Cherry-Picking Conclusions According to One’s Viewpoint

However, a number of climate change websites took away a very different message than I took away from the paper. Here is Joe Romm’s view:

Bombshell: You Can’t Slow Projected Warming With Gas, You Need ‘Rapid and Massive Deployment’ of Zero-Carbon Power

I seem to recall another “bombshell” that he recently reported upon on the same theme: Natural Gas Bombshell: Switching From Coal to Gas Increases Warming for Decades, Has Minimal Benefit Even in 2100. I debunked that by showing that in that particular study, every possible alternative — including wind power, solar power, and even simply shutting down all of the coal plants — was projected to increase global warming in the short term: BOMBSHELL: Solar and Wind Power Would Speed Up, Not Reduce, Global Warming.

But Joe is back with the hyperbolic titles and exaggerations (which I get into below), and he missed the biggest story in the paper.

Coal and Sunlight-Reflecting Pollutants

The subject of Romm’s earlier “natural gas bombshell” was a paper written by Tom Wigley that concluded that shutting down coal-fired power plants would cause the global temperature to increase in the short term because of the loss of sunlight-reflecting pollutants.

In that particular paper, Dr. Wigley modeled what would happen if coal-fired power was replaced with natural gas. He did indeed project short-term warming in that scenario, yet it was a result of the air becoming cleaner and allowing sunlight through as the coal was phased out. Thus, the media really got that story wrong, which was not about a deficiency of natural gas, but rather about the peculiarity of burning coal — that the particulate emissions reflect sunlight. Those who fixated on natural gas as the culprit could have written the same story about solar power — which the study’s author confirmed for me. Hence, I made that my “Bombshell” to illustrate the point.

However, that particular study didn’t actually model the temperature impact of shutting down coal plants and replacing them with anything other than natural gas. So, I posed the following question to Dr. Wigley:

What does the graph look like in 2100 if all coal-fired plants were replaced with zero emission sources (as the idealized study)? I am just wondering what the potential actually is. Are we talking about 1 or 2 degrees lower? I just have no idea of the relative context.

We had several email exchanges over his paper, and he said that my questions were intriguing and he would look into them. I never heard back from him on that, but this new paper answers the question.

Shuttering All the World’s Coal Plants Wouldn’t Do Much

The authors of this newest study modeled the replacement of coal-fired power plants with either natural gas, coal with carbon capture and storage, hydropower, solar PV, solar thermal, wind power, or nuclear power.  You can see from Joe Romm’s headline how the story is being spun, but let’s break it down in a more objective fashion.

The following graphic from the paper tells the story. Pay particular attention to the temperature scale.

The graphic indicates — as Tom Wigley’s previous paper indicated but which was only reported relative to natural gas — that in every single case, it doesn’t matter what coal-fired power plants are replaced with, the temperature is projected to increase for almost the next 40 years. This is true even in the baseline “Conservation” case, which involves merely idling the coal-fired plants and not replacing them with anything.

The paper projects that if coal-fired power plants continue to operate, the expected temperature rise relative to the baseline (i.e., relative to the expected temperature increase from other sources) in 50 years is 0.15 degrees C, and in 100 years is about 0.33 degrees C. If coal is phased out and replaced with natural gas, the relative 50 and 100 year temperature rise is projected to be 0.14 degrees C and 0.24 degrees C, respectively. So the paper shows slightly less warming when natural gas is used, which Climate Progress Tweeted as “Switch from coal to natural gas would have zero effect on global temperatures by 2100” and included a link to Joe’s “bombshell.” That is obviously an exaggeration, as the graphic clearly shows that the effect is not zero. If it was, the natural gas line would overlay the coal line.

Shocking Implications

One shocking implication from the paper was the projection that hydropower would be worse than coal for the next 60 years. The study’s authors cited methane emissions from organic matter buried under water as the reason for this apparent anomaly. But that’s not the really shocking thing about the study for me.

The most shocking conclusion was the magnitude of the numbers we are talking about. Even if you could in theory shut down all of the coal-fired power plants in the world and replace them with wind, solar, and hydropower — in 50 years the projected temperature is only one-twentieth of a degree C cooler than the base case of continuing to use coal. In 100 years, if I could replace all global coal-fired power plants with firm, renewable power — the temperature is only projected to be about 0.2 degrees cooler than under the coal base case. And the way this is being spun is that the 0.09 degree reduction from switching to natural gas is equivalent to an effect of “zero”, but the 0.2 degree reduction in hypothetically replacing everything with wind and solar power 100 years from now is significant. About the natural gas case, Romm literally said the 0.09 degree lower temperature in switching to natural gas means that “natural gas is a bridge fuel to nowhere”, but the 0.2 degree lower temperature in switching to renewables is “the world’s only plausible hope to avert catastrophic temperature rise.”

I saw comments from some climate change advocates who expressed shock at how small the numbers were, but then they were reassured that this was for only a small portion of the world’s coal usage. So let’s debunk that argument in a crystal clear fashion. From the paper:

To illustrate the consequences of rapid deployments of new energy systems, we considered emissions from a variety of linear energy system transitions, each of which replaces 1 TWe of coal-based electricity by bringing new LGE power plants online at a constant rate over a 40 yr period. (1 TWe is the order of magnitude of the global electrical output currently generated from coal.)

So the paper is suggesting that their projections are if all of the presently running coal-fired power plants were shut down and replaced. In fact, I doubled checked this. Per the BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2011, global electricity production in 2010 was 21,325 terawatt-hours (TWh). About 40% of global electricity production comes from coal power, so that makes 8530 TWh from coal. There are 8760 hours in a year, so it will require (8530 TWh/8760 hours) = 0.97 terawatts of power (TWe) to replace all of the world’s coal production. Thus, the 1 TWe used in the paper is consistent with a total replacement of current (but not planned) coal power. Even if this were possible, the study projects a mere 0.2 degree C lower temperature in 100 years relative to producing electricity from coal at current rates.

Nuclear & Natural Gas to the Rescue — But Most Environmentalists Hate Them

A big irony here is that there are only two power sources that are today capable of achieving the study’s conclusion that we must rapidly replace coal-fired power plants: Nuclear power and natural gas. If people really believe that we must urgently address this issue — and they don’t believe that the change from going to natural gas is enough — that leaves nuclear power as the only option capable of achieving a rapid replacement.

Bear in mind that this is for a global replacement of coal — most of which is used in Asia. Good luck trying to sell China and India on a 0.2 degree temperature difference in 100 years if they quickly abandon their coal-fired power plants and replace them with wind power.

Conclusion: Study is a Major Downer for Activists Battling Climate Change

To be honest, if I was devoting my life to fighting against the threat of climate change, this would be one of the most depressing papers I have ever read. If we could convince everyone in the world to shut down their coal-fired power plants — which we can’t — and replace them with renewable power — which isn’t available in quantities sufficient to replace coal-fired power — then by the end of my life there would still be no statistically significant temperature change to even be able to tell if my life’s work was successful.

But let’s be realistic, shall we? The people who are concerned about global warming have dug in their heels over natural gas, and they are generally opposed to nuclear power. Because of the sheer impossibility that we will rapidly replace coal with wind and solar power (especially since “we” is the world), then we will in all likelihood be left with the status quo. As I have said before, emissions are much higher in Asia Pacific than they are in the U.S. and Europe combined, and they are rising rapidly. Unless we can figure out a way to convince them to develop without fossil fuels — something no country has done — then global carbon emissions will continue to rise. This is why — even though I accept the science behind climate change — it isn’ t my focus. I just don’t see how the West can possibly do anything about it.

One final note about the temperature change reported upon here. I am honestly shocked at the very small difference between the coal status quo and a replacement with renewables. However, one thing to keep in mind is that this is based on current production of coal-based power (and is relative to some underlying projected level of temperature increase that is larger than the 0.2 degrees discussed here). So this temperature difference is reflective of a baseline of keeping coal-based electricity production at the current level for 100 years. If Asia Pacific continues to ramp up their production of power from coal, this will obviously have a larger impact on the expected temperature rise in 100 years. But this ramp-up is likely to run head-on into resource shortages before it gets too far along.