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Got the Time
Jamais Cascio   Feb 15, 2012   Open the Future  

I’ve been mulling something of late, and it hasn’t left me in a tremendously good mood. Take a look at these two sets of graphs.

The first one is from the US Energy Information Administration, a group within the US Department of Energy tasked with coming up with independent statistics and analysis on US and world energy use. This chart is from the “International Energy Outlook 2011” report, released last September. It shows the breakdown of fuels used to generate electricity, given fairly conservative projections of growth and changing energy mix.

It shows that, by 2025—a little over 10 years from now—coal will provide 10,200 terawatt-hours (TWh) out of a total of 28,700 TWh produced around the world, annually. By 2035, it’s up to 12,900 TWh out of 35,200 TWh.

The second graph is from an article by David Roberts in Grist last year, “The Brutal Logic of Climate Change.” Based on work done by leading energy/climate researcher Kevin Anderson (former head of the UK’s Tyndall Energy Program), it shows how soon we as a planet need to start reducing carbon emissions, and how rapidly they need to decline given different “peak emissions” points. That’s to avoid a 2 degree C increase in global temperatures, now understood to be a potentially catastrophic level of warming.

Here, we see that if we have peak emissions of around 65 gigatons of CO2 equivalent in 2025, we have to be down to under 20 GtCO2e by roughly 2035, and to zero GtCO2 shortly thereafter. In energy terms, we’d have to go from this:


to this:


Basically, we have to replace over 21,000 TWh of electricity generation from coal and natural gas (yes, natural gas is less-harmful than coal, but still has a greenhouse impact) with an equivalent amount from some mix of renewable, hydro, and nuclear. And do it in 10 years.

Except it will have to be more than that, at least another 15,000 TWh more, because we’ll have to replace all of the gasoline and diesel-powered vehicles on the roads around the world with alternative forms of transportation, all of which has to be electric (or human/animal-powered). And also add however much new power is required to run the various production lines day and night to make all of the needed photovoltaics, wind turbines, electric buses, and such.

For comparison, the world added… 15 TWh in solar in 2010.

Set aside issues of politics and economics, and simply look at raw logistics: is it even possible to undertake that kind of shift in 10 years?

As the second set of graphs above suggests, if we start before a 2025 peak, we’ll have somewhat less carbon-based energy production we’d have to replace, and somewhat more time in which to do it. Not much, though—even peaking in 2015 only pushes the deadline(!) out to 2050, if we’re lucky (the red & blue lines in the graphs show alternative scenarios from the IPCC, none of which are very pleasant).

But given the current global political environment, it’s difficult to imagine a real agreement to eliminate carbon emissions, taken seriously by all parties, showing up before the end of this decade.

So here are our three scenarios:

1) We manage to get a real global agreement in place within the next five-eight years, and spend the subsequent 25 or so years undertaking the largest industrial transformation imaginable. Politically implausible.

2) We don’t get a real global agreement in place before 2025, and have to cut emissions by 10% per year (as Roberts notes, the biggest drop we’ve seen is 5% after the USSR’s economy collapsed). Physically implausible.

3) Neither of those happen, and we start to see truly awful impacts, mostly in the developing world at first, all of which make the world politically more hostile and economically more fragile—and make it more difficult to cut carbon emissions effectively.

This is why I think geoengineering is going to happen. Desperate people do desperate things, and when you hear sober scientists say things like population “carrying capacity estimates [are] below 1 billion people” in a world of 4 degree warming, it’s hard to argue convincingly that the uncertainty and risks around geoengineering are worse.

Anyone who thinks that geoengineering is a way to avoid cutting carbon is an idiot. Geoengineering is a tourniquet, a desperate measure to stop the bleeding when nothing else can work in time. If Anderson’s analysis is accurate (and, if anything, it may be optimistic), it’s hard to see how we can avoid taking these desperate measures.

Jamais Cascio is a Senior Fellow of the IEET, and a professional futurist. He writes the popular blog Open the Future.


Nice article.  It’s truly sobering to see the data laid out so plainly.  If I believed in Kurzweil’s predictions and his Law of Accelerating Returns as it pertains to renewables I might be more optimistic about our chances of meeting this challenge.  Sadly, I do not.

“Anyone who thinks that geoengineering is a way to avoid cutting carbon is an idiot. Geoengineering is a tourniquet, a desperate measure to stop the bleeding when nothing else can work in time.”

That right there was worth the price of admission.  Well said sir.

Perhaps point 1 is not so politically implausible as it might at first seem. There are ways available. Check out

You cannot implement global policies without a single political authority over the world. Different political superpowers have different climatic interests. Many nations would greatly benefit from an increase of temperature - others would face immense problems. Who decides? I do not think we are going to agree on a democratic base - third world countries can outvote the rich fellows of the northern hemisphere, but then they don’t have enough muscles to enforce their decisions on US, Europe, Russia, and China. Carbon caps mean taxes, so governments love them, they all agree on that. But when you have your literally freeze your electoral base - things change.
Therefore, I believe that geoengineering actions with global implications are nothing less than an act of war. And we really do not want to see climatic fights - cause it would be worse than anything we have ever recorded historically.

@Andre - there are a couple of points I would like to raise regarding your above post:

1) Global Policies are indeed possible without a single political authority. Global governance does not necessarily equate to global government.

2) Whilst some nations may benefit in the short term from climate change, from what I have seen I understand I doubt this would last. There seems to be an increasing amount of evidence of the interdependence of all parts of the biosphere. As such, significant degradation of some environments/ecosystems etc will almost inevitably impact in all sorts of unexpected ways on others. It is unlikely that the results will be beneficial to anyone, not least because - if nothing else - our current systems are based on (the illusion of?) stability and known factors. In the human world at least, chaos is rarely the bearer of good news.


It’s time and opportunity for the big oil giants to reinvent themselves, transform business futures, invest in innovation, and help guide transition towards cleaner, greener energy? And who else better placed logistically?

The persuasions for impotent global governance would be assisted by both supply side and demand side consumer philosophies?

I still have faith in the power of an informed democracy and global collective. A directive that requires great inertia, (global awareness), yet once mass momentum is achieved, change in energy philosophy will be unstoppable and enduring?

Yet, why do I still feel indifferent towards these graphs and stats? Seems we humans may need a catastrophe to awake from this slumber?


I agree, global governance can exist - and indeed do exist - without a global government. Yet, I do not think that is a practical solution, especially on the long run, on certain matters. Particular interests always play a role, and without a strong electoral support, certain actions inevitably lead to riots, or - worse - to the formation of dangerous populist political movements.

Imagine, somehow, to counterbalance global warming by lowering STABLY the regional temperature of the Mediterranean zone and Saharan Africa by 2°-3° centigrades. This would mean the complete destructions of a number of European crops, while the the Shara desert would likely become the widest fertile field on earth. Overall, it would mean more cheap food for everyone, in the end. But do you think that people in Europe are just going to sit back and relax while they plain lose their agricultural sector and see their winter bills doubled or tripled? This year, for approx a week, in Europe the temperature was “only” 2.5° below the 30yrs moving average - yet, it was enough to bring entire countries to their knees, while Russian suppliers of natural gas, literally ran out of gas. Think about what would happen if people “knew” it was a deliberate policy of some global authority.

I agree with you also on the interconnection of all the elements in the biosphere. Nevertheless, I do not think that adjusting our climate in some region would necessarily have catastrophic global effects. We might just find a new equilibrium - and a better one too. My point is that we just cannot bypass democratic approval to such interventions - without causing really nasty reactions in the population. And of course we need also to have reliable physical models to predict accurately the outcomes of our actions (and now we do not have such models yet), before messing up the climate.

Recently I’ve been focusing a lot on the eurocrisis, partly for personal reasons and partly because this is a train wreck that is happening now but could still, I believe, he prevented from leading to complete catastrophe.

The relevance to this thread is that somewhat similar considerations seem to apply in both cases. In bo cases, business as usual no longer seems tenable or sustainable. In both cases, decisions need to be taken that are likely to be deeply unpopular. In both cases, consderable anger and hostility already exist, and the issue has the potential to become dangerously divisive. In both cases, a radical change in governance models seems necessary in order to square the circle. But how to achieve this?

There are some very good comments in the article, to which this article links, about the psychological defence mechanisms that “inconvenient truths” about climate change tend to provoke. Paradoxically, I think it is the emotional energy behind precisely these neurotic reactions that needs to be harnessed in order to bring about the change we need. People react with denial and anger because recognising the truth would take them too far outside their comfort zone. But that very anger and non-acceptance is what will propel people to take or accept the radical and painful measures that will be needed, and also to come up with creative solutions that help us to do this less radically and less painfully.

For example, Greece needs extreme austerity no more than a drug addict needs to be deprived of methadone. What needs to happen is for Germans and others to get off their moral bandwagon, rediscover some solidarity and largesse, and take steps to calm their fear of inflation. At least that’s what I think (but then I would, I have a Greek wife). What I KNOW is that the situation is dangerous and we are in danger of heading off a cliff. I feel about that roughly the same way that James feels about climate change, and it is precisely that _emotional_ energy that we need to harness.

@Andre - I agree that particular interests play a role. Specifically, the fear of competitive disdvantage prevents national governments from taking action on global issues. The only answer to my mind is simultaneous implementation, driven from below by the power of the people.

On the issue of interconnectedness, it is my understanding that new equilibria are usual reached after periods of instability (of varying severity). Nevertheless, I most certainly agree that bypassing democracy is not, by any means, an acceptable way to deal with the problem.

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