The Runway to Hell

Even four years after the Paris climate agreement, politicians, businesses and consumers are still in denial what this means for our future and what we must do today. At best, we’re all paying lip service while trying to postpone making real changes.

Two examples: Narita airport is planning for a major expansion in flight capacity in the 2020s and Tepco and Chubu Electric Power are trying to open a new coal fired power station in 2023.

One of the greatest concerns behind climate change goals are climate feedback loops, where any amount of additional global warming triggers new causes of global warming. A few examples:

  • If summer air temperatures on the Greenland ice sheet rise enough to melt snow during daytime before freezing again, it changes the albedo of the frozen surface to absorb more sunlight and melt again more easily.
  • If arctic temperatures rise enough for the ground in permafrost regions to thaw in the summer this will lead to CO2 and methane releases from frozen ancient organic matter that starts to rot and decay.
  • Warming oceans may release methane trapped in icy slush as methane clathrate on the sea bed.

So if we want to avoid runaway global warming, we have a very tight CO2 budget that we can still release before the world has to run on 100% non-fossil energy sources.

What we would need is a moonshot-like project, with our brightest minds and financial resources focused on switching all power generation to non-fossil energy, expanding it to take over from other uses of oil and gas such as transport while minimizing release of CO2 outside of power generation. That means not just electric cars and trucks but also fewer cars, less air travel, no more deforestation, minimal consumption of cement and steel and more recycling.

While the Japanese government has formally committed itself to fighting climate change, the reality looks different. Last year the Narita International Airport Corp., government ministries and local government agreed to a plan to increase annual takeoff and landing slots from 300,000 to 500,000. To this purpose, a 2,500 m runway will be extended to 3,500 m to handle bigger planes and a third runway of 3,500 m will be built in the 2020s. Currently, there is no practical alternative to kerosene-based jet fuel. More flights and bigger aircraft mean more CO2 emissions from fossil fuel. Instead of making it possible for more people to fly more often, we should be looking for ways to discourage and avoid flying wherever possible.

JERA, a joint venture between Tepco and Chubu Electric Power is trying to build a coal-fired power station at Kurihama near Yokosuka, with plans to start operating in 2023. Coal is the most carbon-intensive of all fossil fuels. One kWh generated by burning coal even in the most advanced thermal power stations releases about twice as much CO2 as the same amount of electricity generated from a combined cycle gas turbine (CCGT) power station running on natural gas. With a limited carbon budget it makes no sense to burn any coal if we still have gas. If we really still must expand fossil fuel power generation (and we probably don’t in Japan), coal is by far the worst choice of all fossil fuels available!

Instead of expanding airports and building coal power stations, we should expand offshore wind power and geothermal energy while raising taxes on air travel, for example by taxes on jet fuel. A recent International Energy Agency report estimated the worldwide potential for wind energy production at 11 times the annual electricity consumption of the world. Japan has almost completely blocked offshore wind power. It has a huge Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), yet in 2018 Britain’s installed offshore wind power base was over 120 times that of Japan, Germany’s about 100 times and China 70 times. Even Belgium which controls only 0.5% of the North Sea had 20 times more installed offshore wind power capacity than Japan in 2018.

Some air travel can be shifted to trains or to less energy intensive ships. Eventually we will develop technology to fly airplanes with non-fossil fuel, such as methane produced from CO2 with renewable electricity in reverse fuel cells though that won’t be cheap. But until then we need hard choices that take us closer to our goals, not further away from them.

Future generations will struggle as coastal land where hundreds of millions of people worldwide currently live or where they grow food will disappear in the sea as warming oceans expand and glaciers melt. They will have to deal with it.

Whole countries will disappear in the next couple of centuries, including the Netherlands and Bangladesh. The same will happen to most of the ten largest cities in the world. The sea level rises projected until 2100 are by no means the end of the story: Sea level rises for several centuries to come are already locked in with the emissions of the last 200 years. The last time this planet had more than 400 ppm of CO2 in its atmosphere (as opposed to 280 ppm before the industrial revolution) was 3 million years ago, when sea levels where 20 m higher than today. So that’s going to happen again, even if we stopped burning all coal, oil and gas today. But because we are still going to keep doing that for a number of years or decades, the ultimate sea levels will be even higher than they were then.

Maybe in some ways it’s easier to speak truth if you’re a 16 year old school kid, not a politician who wants to get campaign finance from friendly businesses or to get reelected by voters who still want to fly on vacation to Thailand, or a business leader trying to please shareholders instead of saving the planet. But reality is reality, even if we look away. We, or our children and their children, will have to face it eventually and it will be what we make it today.

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