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Thursday, 1 February 2018
Global Warming Convert Sees Natural Gas Bonanza As Climate Cure
By: Maurice Smith
Physicist and self-described converted skeptic on climate change Richard Muller says the shale gas revolution has arrived just in time to offer a solution to the climate crisis.
And an associated pollution calamity unfolding in China could be the catalyst to spread the shale gale there and elsewhere to buy time to deal with the larger crisis, he told a Calgary audience.
“The number of people who die every year in China from air pollution is 1.6 million. That’s 17 per cent of their mortality. They know this — the world is ignoring it. This is the greatest environmental catastrophe in the world today and we more or less ignore it,” Muller said.
“If you are an environmentalist, this is the greatest environmental catastrophe in the world today. Global warming may be the world’s greatest environmental catastrophe of all time, but this is the catastrophe today. And the good news is, if we solve this, we solve global warming.”
Muller was speaking as part of the Pat Carlson Lecture Series, which included talks in Lethbridge and Medicine Hat last week. Pat Carlson retired as Seven Generations Energy Ltd.’s founding CEO and director in 2017. Of the lecture series, which is mainly focused on smaller cities in Alberta and B.C., Carlson said: “the idea is that when people understand climate change they we will [be] able to better participate in the public dialogue that is required in order to inform public policy, so that we set up our country to win in the evolving business environment.”
Muller is the author of a number of books, including Physics for Future Presidents and Energy for Future Presidents.The University of California, Berkeley professor penned an op-ed in The New York Times in 2012 headlined The Conversion of a Climate-Change Skeptic.
Initially unconvinced of the evidence, Muller launched a research project, Berkeley Earth, to determine for himself if human-caused climate change was occurring. After years of data gathering and analysis, the dozen or so researchers involved concluded that global warming was real, that prior estimates of the rate of warming were correct and that “humans are almost entirely the cause” — and setting Muller off on a mission to prevent it.
Claims of an unexpected “pause” in global warming have proven to be false, he noted, pointing out that natural variations caused by occurrences like El Niño account for small deviations in the unceasingly upward climb in temperatures. “If there was a pause, it wasn’t really a pause, it was just a stair step. The last two years were the warmest years ever [recorded].”
The exercise allowed Muller to “address all the issues that the skeptics were confused about, what they didn’t understand, what no one would explain to them. So I’m the best person to convince any skeptic, I really am,” he said. “I respect them, I know where they are coming from, I know their arguments, I can address them. It is real, and it’s caused by human emissions of carbon dioxide.”
The challenge in Muller’s mind is that the solution to the problem no longer lies with the West but rather with developing countries where most of the growth in greenhouse gas emissions is occurring.
China, for example, has seen annual growth averaging 10 per cent per year until recently, combined with a near commensurate rise in GHGs, and indications are its growth rate is about to pick up again, though it has pledged to decouple economic growth from the rise in emissions.
“The U.S. and the developed world is no longer in control of global warming,” Muller said. “Global warming comes about because of emissions in the developing world. I’m not blaming them, I’m just pointing out that if the emissions in India and China continue to grow as expected then nothing we do in the U.S. [will matter]. We could drop [emissions] to zero and within four years, emissions will be back where they were.”
In fact “feel good” actions in developed countries, like pledging to dramatically reduce or eliminate emissions in the coming decades, is actually counterproductive, he said.
“I was in British Columbia a couple of years ago, and they wanted to be zero emissions. What are zero emissions? Zero emissions are bragging rights. But in going zero emissions they were going to do that by cutting back on natural gas exports to China where it would have replaced coal, and so they were hurting global warming [reduction efforts] by taking a step that made them think they were helping global warming.
“Anything we do has to set an example that China and India can afford to follow, and that means it has to be affordable. If it isn’t profitable, it is not sustainable. Most of the things being proposed by most groups don’t address this issue at all,” he added.
While years of wind and solar expansion — of which China is a global leader — have granted the country many favourable headlines, renewables still provide only a small fraction of the country’s energy needs and it remains massively dependent on coal, he said.
“I hear all the time that China is leading the world in the development of renewables. If this isn’t fake news, nothing else is,” he said. “What you will hear in the papers is solar power in China is growing rapidly — well when you are 0.06 per cent [solar power] you can grow rapidly and not grow very much.”
Air pollution catalyst
So is there any hope to solve global warming, he asks. “Yes, there is hope. Ironically the hope comes from air pollution.”
Muller’s research team undertook an investigation of the impacts of air pollution in China and elsewhere in the developing world. Particulate matter — specifically PM2.5, particulate matter 2.5 microns or smaller — represents “the dirty secret,” he said. Small enough to penetrate deep into the lungs where they are absorbed into the blood, they lead to cardiorespiratory disease and contribute to some three million premature deaths worldwide annually.
“Beijing air pollution is equivalent to smoking 40 cigarettes every day,” he noted. “This provides high incentive for China to address air pollution, because it is killing so many people — 4,400 people every day.
“Can fracking solve this? The answer is yes, and here is the key fact: air pollution from coal versus air pollution from fracking. The key thing is particulate matter—this is the killer. That was not really widely recognized until the late 1990s. And natural gas reduces that by a factor of 400. If you build natural gas in place of coal, you reduce this worst of all the air pollution.”
Though natural gas — which produces about half the CO2 as coal when combusted — still contributes to climate change, its use will buy time to stave off the worse impacts of rising temperatures.
“I really want to solve global warming. I want to slow it and stop it, and we need natural gas in order to do that. You might call it a bridge fuel, [to use] for the next four or five decades, but we certainly need it because it is so much better than coal, and coal is the alternative. Natural gas slows the warming by a factor of two, in some cases a factor of three. That’s enormous—we need that time.”
Despite his conversion from skeptic to climate change solver, Muller remains a controversial figure among some environmentalists, who suggest he does not give enough credit to the falling costs and feasible widespread use of renewables to reduce emissions, while downplaying the impacts of fracking.
Muller said many of the criticisms are due to misinformation or relate to things that can be addressed with regulation. For example, leakage of methane from fracking and natural gas infrastructure — which has been argued negates the advantage of natural gas over coal because of methane’s vastly greater, though shorter term, impact on a warming atmosphere—is not a major problem, Muller maintains. “It is usually easy to fix — most of the leakage in the U.S. comes about from a few places where there were very sloppy well [completions].”
Methane’s global warming impact has also been exaggerated, he said. For instance, because methane weighs less than CO2, molecule per molecule, claims that it has over 80 times the greenhouse potential as CO2 over a 20-year time frame are overstated.“If you compared kilogram to kilogram, [its impact] goes from a factor of 80 [times the warming potential] down to a factor of something like 20.”
Export fracking expertise
Canada and the U.S. can help by exporting liquefied natural gas to Asia in the short to medium term, but ultimately the countries leading in fracking technology should export the expertise to countries like China so they can produce their own shale gas, he said. China is estimated to possess vast quantities of shale gas but has been slow to develop it.
They can best do this by promoting reforms in China to encourage investment such that foreign companies can operate independently and be allowed to earn a profit on their investment.
“Somehow we need to have some sort of mechanism whereby Canadian experts can go over to China, expect to make a profit, and help the Chinese make a profit. The smaller oil and gas companies are the ones that really know how to exploit, how to explore, how to develop new methods, how to be adaptable, how to be flexible. We need to get the smaller companies involved, not just the big giants, but the smaller companies over to China helping on this,” Muller told the DOB.
“If I were advising your prime minister I would say, go over there and talk to President Xi [Jinping] and devise some method that will honestly allow the Canadian oil and gas producers to go over there with an expectation that they will be treated fairly, that their contracts will be honest, that they can get the information that they need, and let’s develop your resources together.”
Bearish on EVs, bullish on nuclear
Muller said he is “not bullish on electric vehicles,” as a solution to climate change, both because they are not much cleaner than internal combustion vehicles (since the electricity supply is still largely fossil fuel dependent) and they remain too costly for widespread adoption in the developing world. He favours hybrid gas electric vehicles.
(China is also global leader in EV sales with market share hitting 3.3 per cent in December, up from 1.5 per cent through 2016. Several countries have pledged to ban sales of internal combustion engine powered cars by 2040.)
“I basically predict all cars will be hybrids in the future. The pure battery ones have very serious problems. They don’t solve the global warming problem — everybody thinks they do, and they don’t,” Muller maintains.
Which isn’t to say the billions of dollars major auto companies are investing in electric vehicle technology will be for naught, he said. “My guess is that they recognize, long term, they are developing batteries that they will use in their hybrid vehicles. So all the research and work they are doing with development will pay off, but I don’t think the long term will be pure electric, it will be hybrid.”
Muller, who is also chief technology officer of Deep Isolation, a company that offers innovative solutions to secure nuclear waste, is upbeat on nuclear power, particularly the new breed of small modular reactors being developed which can be built more cheaply in a manufacturing facility and transported to site, and remain largely unmanned through their working life.
“The future is in modular reactors. They don’t have any of the accident capabilities that the old generation of reactors had. They are basically immune to meltdown — that’s huge, because meltdown has been at the core of every serious [nuclear] accident that has happened.
“The problem is, China is encouraging their development and right now the United States is opposing it. You cannot get any modular reactor licensed in the U.S. right now. We are stifling the kind of innovation in the United States that would be enormously helpful around the world. There are bills that are pending that would make that happen, so we are working on it, but it has to happen. China is building 32 nuclear reactors as we speak. Nuclear power is coming, the only question is, is it developed solely in China or is it also developed by other countries.”